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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Vintage; 320 pages; $15.95).

One of my favorite novels from 2012 is now available in paperback.  Trust me–you’ll love it.

Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

hattie paperbackHattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

ayana-mathis-AUTHORMathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; $24).

Professor Don Tillman was once told by his friend, Daphne, that he would make someone a wonderful husband.  Daphne’s rosie projectdeclaration flabbergasted Don, as it was “so contrary” to his “experiences of being rejected by women.” Determined to find the right woman, the geneticist uses the same methodical approach to selecting a mate as he employs in science.  The Wife Project thus commences.  When Rosie Jarman enters Don’s life, his formerly careful, orderly, and unyielding world spins on its axis in Graeme Simsion’s unpredictable and unusual debut The Rosie Project.

Don solely narrates this clever and enjoyable romance, bicycling his way into our hearts just as he rides into Rosie’s.  Don suffers from debilitating social incompetence, keeping societal interactions to a minimum and following a rigid schedule.  To put it simply, Don is “wired differently” and has difficulty empathizing with others.  Simsion infuses his narrative with Don’s eccentricities (such as eating lobster only on Tuesdays and arriving on time, not early, to everything) with tenderness, humor, and poignancy.

 

Don, at 39, has never had a second date.  He hopes a compatible woman will surface from the questionnaires he creates.  Enter Rosie.

 

Rosie, a psychology student and bartender, hopes to identify her biological father and enlists Don’s aid.  Don finds everything about Rosie unsuitable, but he has never been happier than he is when he is by her side.  She is like a whirlwind: “In the last eight weeks I had experienced two of the three best times of my adult life…with Rosie.  Was there a correlation?”

Before long, Don abandons the Wife Project in favor of the Father Project.  Simsion makes it abundantly clear to readers that we are all on board for the most significant task at hand: the Rosie Project.

Simsion shines as he chronicles both Don’s courageous journey and character development .  The seemingly unalterable Don undergoes big changes throughout the novel.  His progression astounds but is always convincing and realistic.  Don’s idiosyncrasies make him stand out and make him unforgettable.  I daresay he is not a personality one would forget.

Equally vital to the novel is Rosie, yet she does not help narrate the tale. Although I do not feel the omission hurts or diminishes the story in any way, I cannot help but wonder how different The Rosie Project would have been if Simsion had offered her perspective.

The Rosie Project features two people on a quest, intent on their separate, individual goals.  Both, however, are on a collision course with the other.  Not since Will and Lou in Jojo Moyes’ 2012 international bestseller Me Before You have I seen such chemistry between main characters.  Equal parts hilarious and heartfelt, The Rosie Project is a quirky, wholly modern story about identity, love, and acceptance.  When I closed the book, I was saddened to leave Rosie and Don behind, but these well-crafted characters and their incredible journey to love will stay with me always. Book clubs will go crazy for these two, lit’s new “It” couple.  Dosie, anyone?  In any case, Simsion’s message is clear: “If you really love someone…you have to be prepared to accept them as they are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In His Own Words: Chad Gayle, Author of Let It Be

let it be

Let It Be by Chad Gayle (Bracket Books; 220 pages; $12.95).

Today, I am very pleased and proud to feature an exciting new voice

in literature on my blog–Chad Gayle, author of Let It Be.

LET IT BE is a touching tale of loss, longing, and forgiveness that chronicles the breakup of a marriage, the destruction of a family, and the struggle to come together in the aftermath of what remains.  Searching for the love and happiness she feels she deserves, Michelle Jansen leaves her abusive, overbearing husband behind and takes her two kids to Amarillo, Texas, where she begins to learn how to stand on her own two feet, supporting herself and her children with the money she earns from a low-paying job as she becomes increasingly involved with a coworker who is an even bigger fan of the Beatles than she is.  But Michelle doesn’t realize that her ex-husband is willing to do whatever he can to destroy her new life. When Michelle is betrayed by her very own son, this already fractured family will be damaged in an almost unimaginable way. Can they find forgiveness in the midst of so much sorrow and guilt, or will love give them the strength that they need to let it be?  Part family saga, part coming of age tale, LET IT BE is a story intimately linked to the music of the Beatles, a debut novel filled with true-to-life characters who want nothing more than a second chance.

Chad Gayle is a photographer and writer who has written for literary journals, trade publications, and newspapers. Previously, Chad worked for Poetry Magazine in Chicago and taught English at several colleges including Texas A&M University. Born in Texas, Chad lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two children; Let It Be is his debut novel.

Here’s Chad, in his own words.

Sgt. Pepper’s, the Bee Gees, and the Making of an Unlikely Fan

let it be gayle    “There was magic packed into that twelve-inch disc, an uncanny, otherworldly kind of joy that revealed itself at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. I was ten years old when I heard it for the first time, and there was something miraculous in the fact that I could sit down and listen to it at all, this album that had been recorded by The Beatles, the rock and roll band that had disbanded the year I was born, because I was the child of tone-deaf parents who were only interested in the kind of vinyl that covered couch cushions and dining room chairs.

We lived on fallow farmland that was miles away from the nearest town, in a part of Texas that was sandy and saturated with country and western songs and accents weighed down by a heavy Southern twang, at a time when movies, magazines, and TV shows were our only links to the world that lay beyond the dirt road that ran in front of our house. In that place, and at that age, I was cut off not only from parts of the present but from large swaths of the past as well, so that anything that had happened even a decade before seemed like ancient history, a black and white version of what was real that had the dense grain of a photo preserved in a faded newspaper.

My parents didn’t care about the Top 40, but I craved music, and I swore allegiance early on to both Soul Train and American Bandstand. With a transistor radio that I’d inherited from my grandfather clipped to my belt, I sang along with the pop idols I’d already become attached to (Elton John; David Bowie), waited anxiously for one of my one-hit-wonders to get some airplay, and grooved along to R&B and rock and roll tunes whose lyrics were obscured by the tinny eight-ohm speaker they had to squeeze through. I listened to anything and everything, and there was only one kind of music I didn’t dig—Disco, that vapid, empty collection of cloned beats that seemed pointless to a kid like me—but it was Disco, tangentially, that would determine my lifelong musical affiliation, because it was Disco that drove that hirsute trio, the Bee Gees, to the top of the charts in the late Seventies and almost made them movie stars.

In 1978, fresh from their success with Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees co-starred with Peter Frampton in the world’s worst jukebox musical, MGM’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which borrowed songs from The Beatles’ albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road to tell the absurd story of a not-so-fabulous band’s rise to fame. Filled with cheesy, cheap special effects, amateurish acting, and renditions of classic songs that were either startlingly good (Aerosmith’s version of “Come Together,” for example) and gut-wrenchingly awful (Steve Martin’s interpretation of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), it was a film which appeared, even to a child, to be a joke that had gone all wrong. To say that it was just another one of Hollywood’s box office bombs was to give it credit it didn’t deserve: it was a gross error in judgment that should have stained the conscience of the movie mogul who had cobbled its crooked script together from song titles and lyrics that were never meant to be connected in any way.

My parents wouldn’t have paid to see it in a theater even if it had won a bevy of Oscars, but I happened to see it on television at my grandparents’ house the year after it was released. At that point in my life, I didn’t know anything about The Beatles; I barely knew who The Beatles were, and the songs in the movie seemed to come at me from out of nowhere, like comets that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. In spite of the fact that I rolled my eyes with everyone else at the scenes that made no sense, I realized, almost immediately, how inexplicably special the soundtrack was, and I wanted to watch the movie again when it was over, although I was almost too embarrassed by the pull the music had had on me to admit this out loud.

Luckily, I had an aunt who had lived briefly in Ohio and who had willingly—some people in our family would say defiantly—identified herself as a hippie in the Sixties. My aunt explained where the songs in the movie had come from, and she also tried to help me understand why The Beatles had been such a big deal before they broke up; when we began to talk about the songs in the movie that we liked (“Here Comes the Sun” was one of her favorites;  “With a Little Help from My Friends” was one of mine), she asked me whether I would like to hear these songs as they were meant to be heard, and she told me that she had a few of her original Beatles’ albums that I could borrow, if I wanted to.

This was the beginning of my musical education, and it started with Revolver, the bridge between softhearted ditties like “Love Me Do” and those psychedelic masterpieces, like “Strawberry Fields,” that would come later. For me, it was love at first listen, and I consumed that album, devouring it the same way that I’d devoured the sci-fi paperbacks by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov that I’d discovered at age nine. Although the context that had helped to build the record had been stripped away by the intervening years, I felt as if the melodies inscribed on it were meant for me, even if some of the lyrics were puzzling, occasionally so cryptic that they seemed to be written in a different language. This might explain why a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my short life, was a little less appealing to me than “Got to Get You Into My Life,” as I tended to bond more easily with the McCartney-leaning lyrics (I’d already been exposed to the major hits of Wings, after all). Nonetheless, I was hooked, and I needed to hear more; my aunt was kind enough to oblige me by letting me borrow a compilation that covered the early part of The Beatles career, and after I made a copy of that record on cassette tape, I listened to it until I was singing those tunes in my sleep.

I’d started this journey at the end of the summer, but there was a pause of several months when I had to be content with scanning what is now known as an Oldies station for the opportunity to pluck “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” or another Beatles-era ballad from the ether. Then, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I took the great leap that would make me a Beatles fan for life. We were visiting my grandparents when my aunt arrived with her own precious cargo: a copy of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“It’s my favorite,” she said. “Don’t scratch it.”Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_Band

I wasn’t allowed to take it home with me, so I listened to it for the first time by myself, while the rest of my family was watching a raucous game of football on the living room TV. I slipped the disc onto the turntable that was in the den and lowered the needle, letting it rest in the record’s outermost groove.

When Sgt. Pepper’s was finished playing, I had the feeling that it was like nothing I’d ever heard and everything I’d ever heard. It was an album that stood on its own, apart from all others, even though it was connected, in some significant way, to every rock and roll song that had come after it, as if it was a kind of blueprint for what great rock and roll should be. It was stunning, the whole of it, because its thirteen songs fit together perfectly, forming something greater than the sum of its parts.

I listened to it several times that day, and I knew, by the time I took it off the turntable and slipped it into its sleeve, that it was an album I would always be in love with, even though I realized, with a certain amount of confusion, that I couldn’t explain why this was so. Was I drawn to the sweeping arc of its production, the way its pieces fit together like bits of a jigsaw puzzle? Or had I fallen in love with its incredible melodies, those harmonies that complemented and mirrored each other like the movements of an intricate symphony? Maybe the characters who lived in Sgt. Pepper’s lyrics—the lonely singer Billy Shears; Rita, the unattainable meter maid; or Lucy, the album’s psychedelic muse—were exerting an inexorable hold over me, or perhaps I’d been exposed to it at the ideal time, having been primed, already, with the songs from that terrible film that shared its name. I wasn’t sure whether it was one of these things or all of them that made it seem so important, so special; I only knew that I had to get a copy of my own, as soon as possible, because I wanted to be able to listen to it over and over again.

Three more years would pass before I would get my wish. While I waited, I did listen to other kinds of music and was briefly infatuated with other rock and roll bands, but I was also scouring the airwaves on the weekends, ready to slap any Beatles song I could find onto a reel of used cassette tape, and I did get introduced to The Beatles’ White album and Abbey Road after a musical dry spell that spanned an entire school semester. By the time I was a teenager, I’d sampled most of the records The Beatles had released, and when I was finally able to listen to a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s that was mine and mine alone, I decided that their music was the only music I wanted to listen to, and I tortured my parents and the rest of my family by playing those thirteen songs on an endless loop spanning morning, noon, and night.

Why was I so obsessed with these sounds that had been produced decades before? It wasn’t that I identified with what The Beatles had stood for in the Sixties, although I occasionally pretended to be a “peace and love” acolyte in order to frighten my father, who was deeply conservative; part of it may have been a need that I had to be different, to set myself apart from the teens I knew who so desperately wanted to look like each other, and part of it was the simple pleasure that I took from listening to The Beatles, who seemed to represent the best of what music could be. But I think I was also fascinated, at a certain level, with what made their songs special, in the same way that I was fascinated with understanding how particular novels and short stories were put together—why one was successful when another one wasn’t—and I believed that I could figure out, intuitively, what made the Fab Four so fabulous by listening to their music and nothing else.

I did temper my fanaticism as I got older. It helped that the music that was being made in the present was improving; the age of the “hair bands” was coming to its inevitable end, and rock and roll wonders like U2 were now at the top of the charts, so there were some meaningful musical alternatives getting airplay on the radio and MTV. When I got to college, I was suddenly surrounded by people whose tastes in music were wildly different than mine, which helped to broaden my interests, but I also experienced a kind of letdown after I saw The Who and the Rolling Stones in concert, because I realized, viscerally, that The Beatles’ canon was as static as it could be—there was nothing new to add; there were no new discoveries to be made; and even the release of something like The Beatles Anthology would turn out to be a profound disappointment to someone like me, since I’d already been exposed to so many bootlegs and alternate versions of tracks like “Strawberry Fields.” I even went through a post-graduate period when I deliberately avoided listening to The Beatles because I was worried that I was wearing out their music, that I was turning their albums into background music, a kind of Muzak for my daily routine, and I wondered, during this time, whether I might have outgrown The Beatles, since most of my music budget was devoted by then to Indie Rock bands that I was finding through Pitchfork, NME, and alternative stations on the radio.

When I dug my Sgt. Pepper’s CD out of the stack of discs that had held it down during this long hiatus, I was afraid of what I might find—that my love for it might have been lost; that the album might have seemed so overarchingly important because I’d burned its thirteen tracks into my brain by listening to it a thousand times or more—but then the opening notes, those discordant sounds of an orchestra tuning up and getting ready to play, began to reverberate in my ears, and I felt that unbridled joy that I’d felt when I was ten. There was a difference, of course, because I was different, because there were so many seasons of my life that were linked to this record, so that when that final chord faded, leaving behind a silence that was vacuous, a sonic hole, my eyes suddenly filled with tears. I felt as if I’d just had a marvelous, unexpected reunion with a long lost friend, a reunion which demonstrated that the bond of friendship was more powerful than the distance that had come between us.

Today I can say, unabashedly, that I am still in love with the music The Beatles made. As strange as it is that a boy who was let_it_be_book_spine_tilt_3born to musically indifferent parents, who grew up in the scruffy backwoods of east Texas, who was cut off, in many respects, from the pop culture of the present and the past should become a lifelong fan of The Beatles because of the Bee Gees, the man that the boy became is thankful for that absurd twist in his life. His days have been brighter because of it, and he was lucky enough, twenty-five years after he’d discovered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to sow the songs he’d grown up with into something new, completing a novel that follows a family of four that’s fallen apart, a book that was inspired by the breakup of The Beatles and the final record they released. That novel, Let It Be, was finally published in 2013.

Sgt. Pepper’s remains my favorite album, in spite of the fact that I am constantly discovering new music that knocks me off my feet.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And neither would we.  Thanks, Chad, and good luck with the book!

Author Website

Photography by Chad Gayle

Excerpt from Let It Be

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The Rathbones by Janice Clark

Book Review: The Rathbones by Janice Clark (Doubleday; 384 pages; $26.95)

As summer slowly fades into fall, we sometimes yearn for something more in a novel, a story that invades our hearts and our souls, a rathbones1.jpgtale that leaves us astounded. I always find myself turning to the sea this time of year.  September is also the month in which I first read favorites like Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund and Galore by Michael Crummey, books with premises devoted wholly to the briny depths.  Longing for cooler weather after a long, hot Southern summer may play a huge role in this inclination of mine, but I think it has more to do with the storyteller.

In her riveting and magical debut The Rathbones, Janice Clark stunningly intertwines Greek myth, Gothic elements, Moby Dick, coming of age, and maritime adventure to tell the epic saga of a once proud Connecticut whaling dynasty.  The Rathbones is populated by unforgettable and powerful characters, none of whom dazzle more than Mercy, who, at fifteen years of age, sets off on a quest to find her missing father.  Verity, Mercy’s mother, has spent seven years waiting for her husband, Benadam Gale, lost at sea.  Clark draws parallels to Homer’s Odyssey in which Penelope faithfully awaited the return of her husband Odysseus; however, Mercy knows her mother’s true amorous, treacherous nature.  This unwelcome knowledge spurs Mercy to seek out her father, if she can find him.  Mercy’s quest soon evolves into a voyage of discovery and identity.

Accompanied by her strange and frail uncle Mordecai, Mercy uncovers a dark and murky family history.  Moses, the patriarch of the Rathbones, enjoyed the gift of second sight.  As Clark writes, Moses “knew the beat of the sea, its quick pulse along the shore and the slow swing of the tides.”  If he hunted in the woods or “walked too far away” from the water, “his breath went short and his limbs stiffened, and the sea pulled him back.”  Moses was one with the water and with the whales he could sense swimming beneath the surface.  He lacked only one thing, but it was crucial: a crew.

Moses developed a rather novel way to procure men: he would sire them.  Like Greek gods who captured mortal women, the Rathbone men stole females of child-bearing age to produce sons to man the whale boats.  Instead of “normal” names such as Benjamin, George, or Robert, Moses bestowed upon his sons appellations denoting their future duties like Harpooner, Bow-Oar, and First-Oar.  Moses’s peculiar methods worked, and the family thrived; Moses “reigned for three decades, the undisputed monarch of his maritime realm.”  His senses served Moses well, as he “knew before anyone else when the whales were coming, long before spouts showed on the horizon.”  Clark writes the Rathbone men “lived on land as they did at sea, their native skills honed by ceaseless practice, working as one organism.”  No other whaling family came close.

But it did not last.  Later generations lost the link they shared with both the sea and the whale.  The Rathbones became like stilt birds who lost their ability to fly once their basic needs were met on land.  In chronicling the ups and downs of this mesmerizing family, Clark highlights the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century whaling era.

janice clarkIn The Rathbones, Clark may channel Edgar Allen Poe, Homer, and Herman Melville, but she puts her own unique and indelible spin on this truly remarkable novel.  Clark offsets the Rathbone men and their whales with the Rathbone women, who are equally as formidable—women like the “Golden Wives,” sisters who were sold by their father, and Limpet, who Mercy and Mordecai find living in a cave.  And then there is Verity, deeply flawed, seemingly mad, and keeper of secrets—easily one of Clark’s most complex characters.

The Rathbones is like one of those sea sirens of yore.  Once you begin reading this enchanting story, you’re a goner.  You won’t be able to resist the pull of Clark’s enticingly rich characters or her magnificent setting.  With a novel like this, who’d even want to resist?  Go ahead and jump in.

 

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The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

the-violet-hour.jpgKatherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.  What we assume will be a  fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage.  Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear.  It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.

Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father.  When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.

Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family.  Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home.  For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life.  Especially in late August of 2005.

Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole.  As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina.  It would be irresponsible otherwise.  Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities.  As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered.  Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.

Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle.  Abe had relished the time he spent on hillthe San Francisco Bay in his boat.  Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him.  Water nourishes us; we need it to survive.  The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city.  Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety.  As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats.  This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.

Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go.   Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present.  She knows how to keep readers turning pages.  I am particularly  pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book.  Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact

 

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The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.

 

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The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; 368 pages; $25.95).

other typist“They said the typewriter would unsex us,” Suzanne Rindell writes in her dark and arresting debut The Other Typist.  A typewriter “is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy,” completely masculine. Although there is nothing feminine about a typewriter, the device has typically been used by women.

The typist in danger of being unsexed is Rose Baker, Rindell’s main character who is accused of a crime she claims not to have committed and deemed mad.  Her narrative consists of a journal she is keeping for her doctor, slowly clueing us in on the reason for her institutionalization.

A typewriter excuses nothing.  With the “sheer violence of its iron arms,” it strikes “at the page with unforgiving force.”  Women tend to be more forgiving than men, but “forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty,” yet another example of its innate maleness.

In the 1920s, the setting for Rindell’s tale, women were not supposed to be violent criminals.  Men committed crimes; women, with their “delicate” sensibilities, cared for their husbands, bore and nurtured their children, and maintained the home.  But Rose is not the typical 1920s woman.

There is one crucial element about Rose that you need to know: she is an unreliable narrator.  Come on, no human can possibly type 300 words per minute.  You cannot trust anything she says, making her a thrilling and unforgettable character.  Rose, a consummate liar, will surely remind readers of Amy from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster bestseller Gone Girl.  Rindell’s narrator also shares many of the same qualities as Grace from Charlotte Rogan’s absorbing novel The Lifeboat.  Like Amy and Grace, Rose is an unknown, unknowable, and enigmatic character; you learn to expect the unexpected from her rather early on in Rindell’s novel.

The anticipation builds as Rose grows increasingly obsessed with Odalie, her fellow typist at a police precinct in New York City’s Lower East Side.  For Rose, Odalie is “sweet nectar” she cannot help but succumb to.  She is drawn to Odalie, like an “insect drawn to his peril.”  Rose’s fixation on Odalie reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s cunning novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

“A lying criminal always trips himself up (or herself, I suppose, rare though that alternate scenario may be) either giving too many details or else revealing the wrong ones,” Rindell writes.  In this way, the author slowly and shrewdly reveals the truth, and it is both surprising and extraordinary.

In Rindell’s expert hands, the budding science of criminology and history merge to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the period.

Suzanne Rindell

Suzanne Rindell

New York City in the 1920s comes to vivid life as Rindell recreates the jazz-age period of flappers and Prohibition and throws in decadent parties (think The Great Gatsby), moonshine, and speakeasies.  The experience is a grand and heady one that always keeps you engaged and guessing.

You are powerless to fight the pull of The Other Typist.  It is just impossible.  The Other Typist ensnared me from the first page and never let me take a breath until I closed the book.  Rindell may be a rookie, but she possesses an inherent knowledge of storytelling.  Easily my favorite mystery novel of the year, The Other Typist held me in its suspenseful grip, and I was content to abide in its clutches.  This novel is so shocking you’ll have to force yourself to close your mouth when you read the last page.

The Other Typist is a book and not a steak, but it’s juicy and appealing.  One taste and you are want more and more and more.  Rindell successfully creates two remarkable women who seize our attention, stun us, and make us fans for life.

Keira Knightley to star in and take a producer’s role on the jazz-age period piece, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

It is unknown which of the two main characters she will play.

Keira Knightley

Who do you see Knightley as: Rose or Odalie?  And why?

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