An American Marriage: A Review




Title: An American Marriage

Author: Tayari Jones

Series: Oprah’s Book Club 2018 Selection

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Algonquin Books; Oprah Book Club ed. edition (February 6, 2018)

Tayari Jones’s has written four novels. I have read three: Leaving Atlanta, Silver Sparrow, and most recently, An American Marriage. Before An American Marriage was selected for the Oprah Book Club (the gold star of book clubs) I knew that Jones was exceptional; a writer’s writer, with clear, fluid thought and relatable, often internally flawed (thus familiar), characters. But she writes about real people, with honest conflicts and a jig-sawed existence, lost within a terrific maze of their own creation. She writes about relationships that are complicated, impervious, surreal, and painfully sincere. She, like novelist Bernice McFadden, forces the reader to gasp, not in horror, but in wonder, as the characters make conscientious decisions and engage in emotional actions, often leading to long-term repercussions. Indeed, they are flawed, but understandably so, and in many ways, they are us. They are resilient. They are believable.  They are beautiful.

An American Marriage draws the audience in, sitting them comfortably on the living room sofa where they become not just a reader but one with the action. Tayari does this transitional integration effortlessly, extracting from overlooked human events shared in kitchen conversations and amplifying them, with the slightest of action, to rock band crescendo. Addressed are the sacred covenants of marriage (between Celestial and Roy), the old school “stay-together-no-matter-what” marriage (of Roy’s parents, Big Roy and Olive and Celestial’s parents, Gloria and Franklin Delano), and the relatively predictable “man in waiting,” (Andre). It is through each of these characters that the audience begins to understand the meaning of the title: An American Marriage. Jones paints the three marriages differently and each is infused with their own abstract story of turbulence. Thankfully, she doesn’t sugar-coat their issues, nor does she overly embellish them for the sake of giving the story depth.  But depth is something past readers expect from Jones, and she does provide it plenteously, from chapter to chapter.

The story opens with Roy providing a narrative about him and Celestial as husband and wife. This option to use individual narrative as a point of projecting the story is most effective as it enhances the point of view, personalizing while familiarizing. Roy, whose adult life, the audience will learn, is subtly complicated (especially in relationships) despite involvement in success building organizations in his earlier years. But he minces no words when he was able to leave Eloe, Louisiana. He states:

Celestial thinks of herself as this cosmopolitan person, and she’s not wrong. However, she sleeps each night in the very house she grew up in. I, on the other hand, departed on the first thing smoking, exactly seventy-one hours after high school graduation. I would have left sooner, but the Trailways didn’t stop through Eloe every day. By the time the mailman brought my mama the cardboard tube containing my diploma, I was all moved into my dorm room at Morehouse College attending a special program for first-generation scholarship types.

Roy is something of a ‘good-bad’ boy. The type of guy who was a big fish in his high school and was determined to be even bigger in college. Without emphasizing the components that made Roy who he is, Jones introduces a plethora of quick, but vital, personal stories that produce aha moments. It is revealed that Big Roy, Roy Jr.’s father, is not his biological father, and perhaps (as I put on the reviewer’s deep-dive hat) this is a part of his multidimensional personality. And it is when Roy is arrested, for a crime he did not commit, that the story goes into another casual phase.

Although there isn’t much said about Roy’s experience as a prisoner allusions are clear. Jones, thankfully,  spares readers the overwrought details of the perilous life Roy faced there. Instead, she takes the story in a direction that is far more engaging and wholly unexpected by presenting a character with whom Roy quickly bonds: his long absent, never before met, biological father, Walter, who brings yet another dimension (there were many).

The novel, for a few dozen pages, is epistolary in form, told as letters between Roy (in prison) and Celestial (building a business), and this technique effectively expresses distance and individual change. It is through these letters that the audience learns the most about Roy and Celestial’s relationship; the volatility, the passion, the always-there-but-never-revealed uncertainty. It is here that Jones quietly makes a point that is perhaps the truest and most overlooked event of the story: Growth. For Roy, time stood still, locked at the moment of his arrest and suspended as an undying memory. For Celestial, time was the factor that decided her destiny; her truth. For Andre, time was the only thing separating him from true but elusive love. And time is everywhere (even in the Roy resembling dolls whose innocence is unchanging) but particularly in the form of an old oak tree that Jones presents (in my opinion) as Celestial’s symbol of time. The tree, although sparingly mentioned, is so powerful and such an assertion of time that toward the end of the book  Roy, in a fit of mania, is determined to stop time. It is masterful!!!

This short review exposes many elements of “An American Marriage,”  but Tayari Jones, in the now classic Tayari Jones way, provides so much in so few pages that the story, by way of this review, remains relatively untouched. This is a novel from which everyone can glean something different — something personal. It is a novel that may have readers questioning or applauding the concept of love as they understand it or the nature of commitment to another human being. I give a much-deserved ovation to this work, as did Oprah, for its depth, its complex simplicity and its detail to the familiar. A brilliant work worth a few hours of your time.

My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir A Review


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Title:  My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir

Author: Jessica B. Harris

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Scribner (May 9, 2017)


Like several books previously reviewed, My Soul Looks Back, was an accidental find. I hadn’t read any prior reviews, knew little of the author (except she did something in the culinary world), and, based on the cover of the book, couldn’t begin to imagine what I was embarking upon. But, as the book began, I was instantly awestruck and inspired.
Harris is a writer, chef, thespian, critic, and academic who, aiming for this outcome or not, struck my core with vivid memories of European travel, the exciting journey into the tastes of the unfamiliar, and the beautiful faces and physiques of an alien world seemingly etched by the gentle touch of Bernini or Rodin. If was her meeting and admiration for James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and a dozen other writers that solidified my desire to read further, to delve into the deepest parts of the book, not realizing that there no shallow areas.
Jessica Harris is an academic who writes, speaks, and lives academia. She elaborates on the people, places, and objects with the tongue of privilege, but admits, directly and indirectly, that she was fortunate in meeting the people who knew the people, places, and things and that without them she wouldn’t have had a story, of this sort, to tell. My Soul Looks Back is not a conventional autobiography, it explores friendships and acquaintances and time in space. It is a diary of events throughout history (without being historic), of life, love, passion, peril, birth, and death. Through Harris, the reader is offered the highly revered Greenwich Village and the mystical magnificence across the Atlantic (including Africa), enhancing our desires with both broad and absolute longing to taste, hear, and smell and an emotional core that we would never be able to adequately or accurately describe.
My Soul Looks Back, as wonderful and billowy as it often is, can sometimes feel heavy. Harris’ experiences are not everyone’s experience (which is okay), but her approach and consistent infusion of French phrasing, name-dropping, and self-inflation can and occasionally does feel a bit… well… heavy, especially if you do not speak/read French or have not had the opportunity to travel extensively or eat Choucroute Garni. This does not take away from the overall beauty of the book’s language, nor does it lessen the sincerity that Harris effectively projects, but it can potentially be problematic to those who are not versed in the art of braggadocio.
Fortunately, many of Harris’ experiences mirror my own, and as a result, I devoured her every word. She mentions the names people I have befriended and praises the many places I have grown to love. This made the book, for me, personally; a time capsule, a portrait of people, places, and objects, I was sure to forget as time progressed. My Soul Looks Back is a breezy walk through artistry and aesthetics, friendships and heartbreak (she writes about the start of the AIDS epidemic and its direct effect on her circle of friends). It will inspire some to throw caution to the wind and others to wonder if they had spent time wasting time. Regardless, you will not be able to help being moved, or at least stirred.




This May Be My Undoing: A Review

this may be my undoingmorgan jerkins

You should’ve known I was coming. — Morgan Jerkins

In late 2016 the writing of Morgan Jerkins, a phenom who orchestrated phrases with amazing fervor and openness, slammed upon my literary landscape like a Sikhote-Alin meteorite. She’d been around for a minute, I’d later learn, as I Googled her name and scrolled through a canon of her articles and blogs as far back as 2014, but, as I had just become familiar, she was [for me] a welcomed fresh face and a new beautiful mind.
It was Jerkins’ lyrical sensibilities, word-aerobics, approach to common themes and colorful social nuances with artistic insight that separated her from the massive ensemble of similar writers. I was encapsulated within her comfortable literary cocoon. In articles from Buzzfeed, Catapult, and Fusion (just to name a few), Jerkins (not Jenkins) gives a head-first dive into her transparent world and in doing so made us better, even if we didn’t know we needed to be.

In her debut and eagerly anticipated book, “This Will Be My Undoing,” Morgan opens a glass door into a place you’d want to linger past closing hours, just to ensure that nothing is missed. She begins with confessions that in this age of Black Girls Rock and Black Girl Magic would certainly raise a few eyebrows. She writes:

“When I was ten, the only thing I wanted was to be a white cheerleader. Bone straight hair. Thin nose. Saccharine voice. Slender body. ”

She continues:

“When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.

The detail of this opening is vital to the content of the book. Although racial issues (Jerkins says she was accepted more by the white girls than by the black and brown girls but in time that changed) are not the basis of every essay, it does linger in the wings, entering like an apparition, to prepare Jerkins for the real world, her world, and a series of ‘uncheery’ cheerleading (read social) try-outs. But Jerkins doesn’t allow the past to completely color her present. Instead, she uses the experience to rain observations and truths upon the pages of “This Will Be My Undoing” with enough force and fervor to make the reader quiver. Indeed there were many moments when my progressive mind was shaken. Morgan, although small in stature, is mammoth. She is a force shouting from a Harlem brownstone, Princeton classroom, Russian square, and New Jersey high school; shouting phrases that are usually whispered behind glass doors.

Morgan Jerkins writes of being different, sometimes in a manner that is self-depreciating, searching, longing, and uplifting. She is different. She is mesmerizing. She is a welcoming warm gust and a needed cool breeze. Never quite fitting the pre-requisites of social popularity, she, throughout her entries, was always searching for her place. As one of few African-Americans on the campus of Princeton, for example, she found an odd alienation, of sorts, from the Black men. Perhaps it was a matter of association, climbing the proverbial ladder of success, or being accepted by a culture that could uplift them to higher heights, that kept these men distant. Her relationships with men materialized from daisy fields and butterflies to post-date rides on the last train home; lovely and initially tranquil, but lonely. It could have been because of her, or them, or both. It may simply have been… Too bad for those guys.

But Jerkins brilliantly and beautifully finds that place, in the printed word and through passionate thought, where she is whole and becomes, in essence, a veritable juggernaut. She writes of relatable issues, human matters that beat upon the brow of the common and uncommon. Jerkins treads with a heavy foot along paths that many fear to tread, detailing events that keep the pages turning and the readers hungry. Her essays cover a spectrum of subjects and styles that are academic, real-world, and foreboding, changing her tone from chapter to chapter (often at the end), showing that, like a jazz musician, she’s got chops. There are moments when she sounds like (forgive this comparison) Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City), cosmopolitan, hip, contemplative and impassioned, then there are the other moments when she delves into the arena of the bards, thunderous and commanding; professorial.

“This Will Be My Undoing,” is a huge undertaking, much more profound and prolific than a review could possibly relay. In it, Jerkins gives an amazing ride on a Ferris Wheel full of ups and downs, highs and lows (from childhood to adulthood). She pulls at the reader’s heartstrings in one piece then has them longing to reevaluate themselves. From her very beginning — from those articles and blogs that captured the attention of multitudes– Jerkins was on a journey to the fantastic creation of this book. She hinted and warned us, and in the end, she climatically states: “Surprise. You should’ve known I was coming.” Surprise, Morgan. We are glad you came.






The Autobiography of Gucci Mane


Confession first:

Before reading this book, I had only listened to three or four Gucci Mane songs… maybe.

I am a child of the seventies and eighties, a New Yorker, jazz head, bibliophile, art-nerd, musician, whose taste in Rap is more “puritanical” than what began to emerge from the genre in the mid-nineties and the new millennium. The repetitive bass line, synthetic-hypnotic rhythm, and heavily slang-filled accented lyrics kind of lost me, but that is not to say that I was not open to rappers from the south. Actually, I was digging them. Their raps covered life as they knew it and educated those of us who didn’t understand. Through them, we grew eager to see the alien contours and crevices of the planet they occupied, and rushed in droves to Atlanta, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Memphis, and New Orleans to be enveloped by their often harsh-told realities and to tread upon their planet.

I first learned of Gucci Mane while a Dean in a Memphis performing arts high school. From the middle of a relatively quiet room came a screeching howl, “GUCCI!” and the room exploded in laughter and echoes of “GUCCI” raced across the room for what seemed like an hour, quieting only when it lost its comedic appeal. Still I hadn’t heard anything by this Gucci dude until a student pulled a CD from his backpack and put it into a player behind the classrooms. The CD was “Murder was the Case,” and it was both familiar and extraordinarily foreign. It was the sound of the south, the story of forbidden zones and hidden realities, of ‘life in the game.’ It was raw and vivid, sad, tragic and poetically profound. It was catchy and definitely not my jam, but I could see why it was theirs.

Then I heard about the book.

I feverishly read “The Autobiography of Gucci Mane,” because of Morgan Jerkins. She interviewed him for Vulture magazine in 2017, and from that interview penned an article entitled ‘Gucci Mane Got Out of Prison and Wrote a Book. Here’s How It All Happened.’ I figured that if Morgan Jerkins found him worthy of writing about, and millions of people love him and his music then I had spent an unrecoverable decade missing out. By the time I finished reading his autobiography, I realized that indeed I had.

Gucci Mane’s story is the story of America. Not the pigeon-holed, stereotypical images perpetuated throughout the media, but the real day-to-day. It is an uplifting tale of rags to riches and dirt paths to gold paved streets. This autobiography was a graphic music video based on its own sound-track. And it brought to the forefront that, tattoos, accents, drugs and all, Gucci is a bad MANE!

At the opening of his story he writes about his ability to read earlier than his peers, thanks to his school teacher mother and his inexplicable interest in the written word. It was the word, ultimately, that would save his life a dozen times, and would equally make his world an orb of fire. Words produced poetry, poetry produced rap, and rap, at least for Gucci, produced money, power and chaos. But the other part of his DNA was provided by a father who knew the importance of hustle and respect, and Gucci, whose real name is Radric Davis, followed that often sordid path. He was thought to have a speech impediment (at age nine Gucci and his mother moved to Atlanta where verbal inflections may be different from its neighboring states) but it seems that his Alabama accent was so thick his words didn’t sound quite right. As the years progressed, Atlanta introduce and influenced young Gucci, exposing him, almost illuminating him, to a life of trapping, profiling, and grandiosity; certainly not a life he would have found in Alabama. He became disenchanted with formal education and, after high school, never fulfilled any academic commitments, dropping out of college and trade schools. But words remained his strength.

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane rockets through Gucci’s existential life so quickly the reader feels as if something was missed. This sonic movement from period to period is, perhaps, the principal misfortune. Admittedly, I may have missed some of the fillers or statements that closed those holes, but I doubt it. From the point when he becomes a drug dealer to when the heavens opened and he begins to realize his talent as a rap artist, it seemed to be a blur, particularly the bump from buying beats to bagging gigs. Suddenly his music takes off, soaring well beyond the skills of his peers and he is crowned and quickly revered.  But, in all fairness, it is obvious that Gucci was a pursuer of his personal passions and thrusts himself into the spoils of those passions. He followed the credo of the very successful: Never Apologize — and throughout the narrative abides by that credo. Regardless of the outcome, he never made excuses and he never apologized. Then another phase emerged: Prison.

Being imprisoned for possession of firearms in 2013 (this was not this first rodeo and it wouldn’t be his last) was his metamorphosis and, in many ways, the beginning of his rebirth. When admitted, his body was wrecked from an addiction to a codeine laced cough syrup concoction that affected him so profoundly he gained a mass of weight and suffered chaotic side-effects. Eventually a doctor urged him to discontinue its use, but that was not a part of his immediate plan and he continue to sip syrup until his environment prohibited access. Prison, as implied by the book, detoxed him. He was gradually getting clean of the damaging poisons and in doing so, clearing his head. The decision to engage in a self-developed exercise program (if you want to call it that) led to an eighty pound weight loss by the time of his release. When his term ended (of course there are stories about his time behind bars) the beats of his life and the rumble of the streets welcomed him back.

Ultimately, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane was surprisingly well developed and absent of chapters of indecipherable rhetoric often common in autobiographies about musicians, especially rappers. I was shocked by his candor and his willingness to speak about a multitude of [personal] issues that other artists would avoid intensely. His transparency in this book was golden and elevated him, I believe, to a status that he would not have gained through music alone. Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! Not because it speaks to the life and success (or failure) of a known personality, but because it was everything one would never expect a book about a known personality to be. It seems that Morgan Jerkins also found this to be true. So, now, after a decade free of “trap” music I am trapped, bumping several Gucci Mane tracks locked securely in my musical repertoire. The magic is that these tracks clarify many parts of the book I only subtly understood and left me, randomly, if not hypnotically, yelling… “GUCCI!”


The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian

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I am a fan of W. Kamau Bell. The sort of fan who would watch or listen to him if the media he was on was available or I happened upon them while channel surfing. How could I not be a fan? He represents a part of all people. That part that is, more often than not, afraid to face the discomforts of race, sex, politics, religion, friendships, tolerance (thank you 45) and acceptance.

I heard of Bell several years ago, but only in passing. He was described as the really tall Black guy with the equally impressive “free-style” Afro. That description did very little to pique my interest. I wanted to know what he was thinking, not what his physical characteristics were, but when I was told that he was ‘on point’ and spoke in an uncommon manner about common (if controversial) matters I sought him out.

Bell is principally a West Coast comic who was primarily doing a west coast circuit, or so it seemed. I remember seeing him for the first time on some forgotten television program (maybe Totally Biased). I was laughing aloud at his routine, Googling his name, and trying to understand exactly where he came from. Then, oddly, I lost track of him. But he left an impression, and I waited for the next time he would emerge with his commentary on social issues. A couple years later Bell reemerged as the host of the CNN’s REAL reality/ docu-like show, United Shades of America, and I, as if his apparition publicist, tooted the title from the bell tower (no pun intended) to all who’d listen. His work was genius, in a dry, academic, conscientious sort of way. The odd, edgy, thought-provoking show was at times unnerving (see the KKK episode and look at Bell’s nervous expression) and at other times addictive and hopeful.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian, confirmed my appreciation for Bell as an Everyman. The book exposes Bell true character beyond the television personality, and perhaps, the on-stage comic. The reader is taken on a fantastic journey through his life. He writes about his never married parents (there are no stereotypes here, his parents were both professional people), the woes of childhood, his attraction to all things nerdy, his initial awareness of being “different” (must read the ‘no kiss for you’ part) and the importance of remaining steadfast even when against all odds. The book exposed him as the skater guy who couldn’t skate but cheered for his skate-able comrades because that’s what friends do. If Bell had never mentioned where he planted his roots, it would still have been obvious that he has a California heart.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian, is part biography, part history lesson. Bell gives real thought throughout the pages of The Awkward Thoughts. His position and thoughts on racism, although he is in an interracial marriage, are both profound and powerful. His straight line position is that racism is an indicator of something other than the color of one’s skin. He projects that the racist is as he is because he feels that something of personal value (opportunity, usually) has been taken. But, Bell surmises, that is not the crux of the problem. The issue, on a deep dive, is not color but promises not kept and one’s inability to venture beyond their disparaging place for better opportunity. This trap keeps families frustrated, downtrodden and angry. Someone has to be blamed. And the flame of their despair is being fed by the ignorant rhetoric of the man behind the white curtain, further searing their souls with speak of immigrants (illegal) and others stealing their hope. Even a first-week psychology student knows that seething words of the blame on depressed ears feasters unreasonable thought.

Bell urges people to read. To venture beyond the rhetoric and develop one’s own opinion. He sites Ta’Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander as must-read authors. He speaks of his ‘not such a good student’ high school days, but how he was accepted into Penn State (although it was very short-lived). He shows that even the wayward can and often will eventually find their way, if only they listen to their inner voice, and venture along those paths that others may fear to tread. This, Bell states, is the story he’d tell his daughters, who seemingly settled him, but keep him hungry for the next level.

The book concludes with Bell writing about an incident that occurred during his birthday. He and his wife sat (outdoor seating) in a favorite brunch cafe in Cali. When the meal was over he left, temporarily, but his wife remained, engaged in conversation with friends. When Bell, all 6’4″, Black, and militantly coiffed, returned to the cafe, he stood over the table where his wife and others sat. Then, he writes, an overzealous waitress knocked on the window from within the cafe to get his attention. Not knowing who he was or why he was there, the waitress tried to ‘shoo’ him away, assuming that he was harassing the white women. Rightfully, Bell and his wife were infuriated. Shortly after verbalizing his embarrassment and humiliation he organized a meeting based on racial tolerance in the gym of a local middle school. The owner of the cafe attended and tried, passionately, to sympathize his way out of the issue, acknowledging the depth and seriousness of the misunderstanding, stating that the essence of the cafe was and always will be tolerance, but the more he spoke the more Bell and others realized that he didn’t understand. If tolerance was true, and not just a statement of liberal comfort, the waitress would not have approached or mistaken him [Bell] as a street person. After all, Bell writes — building upon the insult– she did not approach the white man with matted hair panhandling outside the door of the cafe for well over an hour, at all.

Indeed Bell has experienced these situations, directly and subtly for a majority of his life. Indeed, and sadly, all Black people have, whether they see it directly or choose to ignore it. In The Awkward Thoughts… Bell not only found and projected his comedic voice, his talent, his story, he, without trying, found and projected ours.

Dig If You Will: A Review

Dig if you will

Author: Ben Greenman

304 Pages

Books that are written about an icon harbors expectations that often exceed reality; infusing an image of a giant with the curiosity and mystery of their journey to stardom. Readers want to get the details that would otherwise remain unknown.  Several months ago I wrote a blog about one such icon, and upon completion, which is the case for many writers, I hated every word, punctuation, and idle attempt to be savvy and captivating. I didn’t further edit that blog, opting instead to let it stand as a reminder of where  I was, mentally, at that time. In the late 1970’s I was a supersized ( in today’s measurement of girth, that youthful me would be considered ‘average-athletic’)  version of most newly minted teenagers. We were a deeply impressionable bunch, wanting to emulate, even ape, our heroes, including, perhaps especially, those in music. So, after a long and sometimes painful journey through the catacombs of disco, elevator rock, and experimental fusion, an unknown enigma emerged and soared upon the airwaves and into our lives, nesting there, incomprehensible, for several decades. And it would be his precocious music that leveled rocky paths– uniting cultures– like disco. The world came to know him as one ironic and terrifically appropriate name: Prince.

Tiny, androgynous, mysterious, and enigmatic, Prince quickly elevated to superhero, and then suddenly he passed. His unexpected death led millions of people to the streets paying homage in song, dance, costumes, and chants. Purple covered the skies.  Dig If You Will the Picture, by Ben Greenman, a biography, of sorts, about Prince categorizes in a way that often feels sanitized, the work and life of the artist. It was evident that Greenman had not interviewed  Prince and more evident that through independently developed accounts and personal opinions this book was created.  It cannot be questions that Greenman is a gifted scribe with tremendous interest in pop culture and icons, but this could be problematic as the book became, in parts, too academic which, although informative, lulled along. Greenman’s comparison of Prince songs to other works, from the literary to the philosophical, shows that he is encyclopedic perhaps beyond necessity. If Dig If You Will the Picture was placed alongside the many books existing and forthcoming (Prince: A Private View; Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions:1983-1984; The Most Beautiful, and several others), it would glow and equally fall short based on its lack of personalization. There were no, or very few, points of passion, humanizing of Price as a person, or surreal effect on his fan base.

Fortunately, there is one thing the Greenman provided in the writing of this book. He allowed those who may not be familiar with Prince (imagine that) an opportunity to know the depth of his genius. His emphasis on Prince as an instrumentalist and determined lyricist, or Prince’s refusal to compromise his sound, look, or passion, illuminates the artist. Fans of Prince should definitely read Dig If You Will the Picture. Many will enjoy its details (I actually did) but expect the unexpected. I wasn’t wowed; I wasn’t disappointed, but I was not prepared for some of the content or the almost scrivener’s style.

Greenman had me reminiscing about nearly forgotten songs, flipping through old disks, and listening to unfamiliar Prince tunes. Pleasantly, I was transported back to Prince’s earlier works and developed a new appreciation for his newer music. I was a college student at the height of many of Prince’s greatest hits, sitting in a friend’s dorm room with a half dozen other guys sipping on the cheapest truth serum we could find and vigorously debating about the symbolic meanings of and hidden messages behind When Dove’s Cry,  I Would Die For You, or Darling Nikki, and the yet proven fact that his name, Prince Rogers Nelson, had 6 letters each (666). We’d watch his videos in silence, allowing the serum to work its magic and Prince to work wonders.  The book awakened that. In many ways, I am still in that dorm room saying with conviction, Dig If You Will….


HUNGER: A Review


Author: Roxane Gay

Hardcover: 320 pages

Publisher: Harper (June 13, 2017)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0062362593

ISBN-13: 978-0062362599

Embarrassingly, it was a couple-three years ago when I first learned about Roxane Gay. My initial impression was, “I’d love to meet her. We’d definitely be friends!” I hadn’t read any of her work, but based on her pictures, the stoic presence, and eyes that looked as if they knew something I didn’t,  I was enamored by the thought of hour long debates over endless cups of strongly brewed coffee. Then, in a magazine I have since forgotten,  I read her thoughts and the world opened. She had written on subjects that made the main stream quiver: rape, weight, and feminism, politics, life, death, and love. I liked that. But I must admit, besides those few articles, a couple of short stories,  and a half dozen YouTube interviews, I had never read her books, even as Bad Feminist became the must read among friends and critics. It didn’t take long before I knew I was missing something magical. I started from the end to prepare my beginning. I started with Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I wasn’t ready!

Gay’s Hunger reads like a diary, journaling beyond the mechanical lyrics often found in innumerable memoirs which simply seek an audience or make a personal point to confess how deleterious one’s life had been. Yes, Hunger does this, too, but I was not absorbed into or by the sorrow, just the many paths along Gay’s trek. It exposes, a few pages within, the bottomless cavity of the heart and confessions of the soul. Gay lets the reader in; allows them to absorb the emotions (read “secrets”) that she had kept at bay for years. She forces her audience to rest the book on their lap, look at their reflection and say, “someone really understands.”

“Writing this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me. This is my truth. This is a memoir of (my) body because, more often than not, stories of bodies like mine are ignored or dismissed or derided,” she writes.

She opens to the world her personal Pandora’s box, releasing the demons she had grappled with since she became the teenaged victim of a heinous and irreversible violation,  revealing that Hunger is a double entendre, revealing that the violation eventually becomes self-imposed. To find solace, security and, perhaps, meaning in that horrendous crimes perpetrated against her — she turned to food. This form of comfort or discomfort is real; a place where temporary pleasure eventually and inevitably becomes a far greater and more painful boulder lodged in one’s soul. The other thing Gay does is explain why– why food became her shield.  She states:

“Losing control of my body was a matter of accretion. I begin eating to change my body. I was willful in this. Some boys had destroyed me, and I barely survived it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to endure another such violation, and so I ate because I thought that if my body became repulsive, I could keep men away.” 

This reveals a sad reality enveloping and consuming Gay. To be dehumanized so deeply that she wanted to morph into something she felt would be viewed as vile and grotesque is the essence of that sad, honest reality. Gay has the reader realize how little society knows of (or willfully acknowledges) the tribulations and horrific endeavors that led (or lead) to people, deemed obese, feeling that hiding within themselves is their only form of solace;  how that thick unattractive ‘cover’ is the only sure answer. For years she wandered as if searching for something, falling into empty arms, ulterior motives, and unkept promises. She lost herself in southwest towns and a literal northern wilderness where she eventually (it is casually implied) finds her stronger self. I soon understood, that sympathetic thoughts or words, or the benefit of a brief but comforting exchange, empathizing with what envelops these men and women whose bodies are morphed into unfair but equally awe-inspiring monuments was not forthcoming. But with each page, I was hoping, perhaps against hope,  for a complete resolution. There was none. She hadn’t lost the battle, but resolution remains a work in progress.   Gay writes:

I am as healed as I am ever going to be. I have accepted that I will never be the girl I could have been if, if, if. I am still haunted. I still have flashbacks that are triggered by the most unexpected things. I don’t like being touched by people with whom I do not share specific kinds of intimacy.

So, Roxane Gay, in a few thousand masterfully manipulated words takes us on this magnificent journey into and through a world that we may otherwise opt not to acknowledge. We eagerly and willingly ride shotgun with her as she locates (but does not confront) her violator, sitting outside his office like a maniacal stalker. We completely understand. Still, she puts it all on the table, unapologetically and unexpectedly. For this reason (and a dozen or so more) it is easy to get lost in Hunger; easy to change her crutch of food into the personal crutch that secretly holds you together; easy to become Roxane Gay. Hunger is a thinker’s memoir that, at some point, becomes extraordinarily relatable to every reader. Yes, a few years ago, when I first learned of Roxane Gay, I thought we’d be great friends. After reading Hunger I think she’s already family.

DuEwa Frazier’s Quincy Rules

Quincy Rules with DuEwa pic

Title: Quincy Rules

Author: DuEwa Frazier

Pages: 192 (on Kindle)

I wasn’t certain what I’d find as I flipped (more like tapped) through the 192 pages of DuEwa Frazier’s novel, Quincy Rules. One thing was certain, I had no concerns that the book wouldn’t be a pleasant reading experience, and after completing the first chapter I found myself, like Biff Tannen,  pushing my way through the line of teen bibliophiles to take my rightful position as DuEwa’s ‘greatest fan.’ I was addicted.

Quincy Rules isn’t necessarily a complicated story, yet through each page, it effortlessly becomes something more than expected; a  heavily infused story filled with complex elements of real life. It becomes a story of one’s internal drive, the need to tirelessly seek the unknown, remaining steadfast to one’s convictions, and persevering by any means necessary. The story is essentially about an admirably smart and equally mature 15-year-old, Quincy, who lives in Maryland with her mother, stepfather, and brother. Although her life is free of common teen controversies, Quincy is consumed with thoughts of the missing piece to her personal puzzle; her father, who sends her cards and letters with no return address but steadfastly opts to be a mystery, or does he? She has never met him, despite endless inquiries to her mother,  but his contact, although mysterious, is constant. And this is where DuEwa Frazier’s skills begin to shine.

Determined to put an end to this mystery and finally meet the man who seemingly knows her but is unknown, Quincy, with the help of her best friend Delaney, develops a plan, of sorts. From combing feverishly through the phonebook and the hiring of a private investigator, to raising money to put an ad in the daily newspaper, Quincy surges forth, driven, determined and relentless.  In her search, she comes across her father’s possible childhood address. There she meets Jaclyn Stackhouse, a  colorful old lady, sweeping outside the house.  They engage in conversation and Quincy presents a picture of her father, Paul. Jaclyn, unmoved by Quincy’s presence or the photo, proclaims the picture to indeed be of her son…Richard. To further confuse matters the kindly lady refers to Quincy by the name of Richard’s daughter, Samantha,  and stubbornly refuses to believe Quincy’s assurance that she nor her father are who Jaclyn thinks they are. From this moment forward, Jaclyn becomes a character of many facets, and the reader is propelled into a game of illogical logic. To preserve the importance of this grandmotherly character, I will refrain from saying anything more about her. Her character can be a definite spoiler.

Frazier uniquely leaves open ends throughout the story, and encourages predictions and possibilities, making the reader think, or at the very least, wonder about the meaning of this developing maze.  She keeps the mysteries flowing, as the story becomes more revealing. Additional characters are introduced, (one is a substitute teacher who still has me wondering),  thus beginning a steady motion in unexpected directions and the aforementioned open ends. The reader can only imagine what amazing angles will be established. The possibilities for story prediction are indeed at full throttle and in doing so, has us begging for a sequel.

At the end of Quincy Rules, DuEwa Frazier does something enlightening, masterfully uncommon and brilliantly engaging; she poses ten questions about the novel and immediately changes the dynamic from a casual to an inclusive read.  Brilliant!!! This technique had me (many years removed from being considered YA) answering the inquiries with the enthusiasm of a teenager, and delving as if lured, into literary, social, and emotional elements that I would have otherwise dismissed. That is DuEwa’s genius. She writes in a style that encourages (I’d even say ‘forces’) the reader to think, anticipate and predict, only to do it all again upon completion of the reading. Quincy Rules is a wonderful, well paced, and highly recommended novel. As an educator, I believe it should be an investment for every elementary, middle, and high school English / reading department. I can only imagine the world of discussions it would create.

Thank you, DuEwa Frazier!! Waiting for the sequel!



The Cook Up: A Review

the-cook-up-cover d-watkins

Title: The Cook Up

Author: D. Watkins

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (May 3, 2016)

I am selfishly at a crossroads, perhaps a little flummoxed, maybe just enough of an editor to notice the small stuff. For just over a year, I have been reading the work of D. Watkins voraciously; from his articles in Salon to the two books he released. He is, in many respects, an urban (metropolitan) Charles Dickens, telling and retelling stories that are completely American, based on an America that is well known yet so foreign to most of America. It is for this reason that when reading his 2016 release, The Cook Up, the story of crack dealing and use in Baltimore, on my Kindle, that I was disappointed by the number of editing errors that appeared throughout the book. Still, The Cook Up was a tremendous literary voyage.

His colorfully entertaining but wholly true tales of drugs and life in Baltimore was an exploration in ‘A’ plus ‘B’ equals ‘C’ sociology. Its characters, customs, and profound and unexpurgated vibe are, for me, some of the best emotional story-telling about real world issues in the little-big town of Charm City. Watkins pulls no punches; he instead battle-rams his points directly into your chest, with no apology. He writes about his world– the world he knows best– and his books, articles, and interviews leave no doubt about who he is and where he’s from.

The Cook Up is drugs, sex, and cars, music, relationships, murder, blood, tears, and losing one’s soul to the unknown; a memoir dotted with sandman bluesy sorrow and ‘thug life’ elation. It exposes the pain of being African-American in a city (country) that recognizes orange jumpsuit numbers before learning [and aknowleging] government or neighborhood names. It exposes the pain of being African-American in a city that remains divided by color, class, and education.

Watkins is keen on relationships, forthright in the complicated  variables that produce those relationships, and if you are confused, read the following exchange for clarity:

Guy (Baltimore City police officer) and Tatter Man (Watkins’ cousin)

My younger cousin Tatter Man, who never broke the law in his life, came through the block to get some money from me for his prom one night. I hit him with the cash and we walked down to the Chinese spot to get some shrimp fried rice and gravy, Tatter walked out the door in time for one of Guy’s sweeps.

“What the — is that your dinner? yelled Guy to a confused Tatter.

“Yeah, I got some rice, what?”

“Boy, you being smart!” Guy responded as he knocked Tatter’s food to the ground. I watched from the window as Guy used his boot to smash the rice into the concrete.

The Cook Up is another wake-up call in the age of  Trumpian political philosophy. It has exposed and, perhaps, reawakened the sleeping giant that lingered in waiting. Watkins speaks the language of his community, his friends, and those who want to be heard but have been silenced by irreversible circumstance. It is a story well known, with a history that still longs for a comprehensive audience. Thanks to Watkins, that audience is discovering the history.


The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace


Author: Jeff Hobbs

Publisher: Thorndike Press

Hardback · 639 pages

The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace rested in my Kindle, behind several other books I intend to get to for several months. But, it was the picture of a young Robert Peace, standing on the porch of what I assume was his mother’s home, that peaked my interest. I saw a young man who could be my cousin, brother, even son and I decided to open the book and read the first few pages. It opened to dialogue, common, honest, and familiar: Hot car, hot day, with the air-conditioning off because of what it does to the power, fuel consumption, and / or mechanics of the vehicle. This was the primary indicator that the story would not only be about social development but the economic deficiencies that directly affects the unacknowledged caste system that permeates throughout this country.

The resonating question, not only from my reading but the readings of others, was: Did Hobbs really know Peace, or was this an opportunity for him (Hobbs) to write a book that would put him on the literary map? Here, from my perspective, is the reason: The Short… presented scenarios that were predictable; pulled directly from the headlines of any metropolitan newspaper, internet feed, or the evening news.  The full title, for example (The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man who Left Newark for the Ivy League), reveals the story’s premise and total outcome before the first word is read. Although this was a peeve, it was not enough to halt my desire to read Robert Peace’s epic tale.

Hobbs addresses the socio-economic issues with as much patience and care as his literary imagination and talents would allow, but here is where [I felt] the disconnect began. Hobbs, perhaps without full acknowledgment, or maybe without full knowledge, emphasizes the economic struggles of the people of Newark, relaying to the reader that this place, nicknamed “Brick City,” was a certain Brick Wall. With a host of characters and personalities,  he provides a semblance of proof through images of drug abusers, baby makers, miscreants and a healthy sprinkling of fence-sitters.

Peace was “Brick City.” He was the embodiment of this sometimes chaotic but highly loved town. His life was metaphorical, pathological and sardonic. The stereotypic elements were glaring, and for the greater percentage of the book, a darkness loomed, even when Hobbs tells of Peace’s escape through extensive travel. The sometimes overly academic passages seemed to be laced with apologetic innuendos, beginning from the first chapter, continuing through Hobbs’ admission of his prosperous life and ending with a tragic, lump-in-the-throat finale.

Perhaps Robert Peace’s downfall was that his father was imprisoned for a heinous crime, his mother struggled financially, and that he was cursed with an academic gift in a place unable to adequately appreciate or fully understand those gifts. He was caught between two worlds and the balancing act proved deleterious. But his mother and father (even from prison), (Hobbs tells of their not being married, but indirectly together), kept him on a relatively straight path. Despite family, intellect, honest friendships, the ability to reach beyond his grasp and acceptance to the Ivy facades and secret societies of Yale, Peace found his greatest solace in an endless consumption of marijuana. And the story, at this point, became one of inexplicable addiction by a man-child who had the world on a string.

But something greater than the environment and experience drove Peace to become who he was. He, with his multidimensional genius mind, became, from my perspective, a madman; an obsessed scientifically talented phenom who chose to live in a life undefined rather than apply his skills to the mission that would ultimately give meaning to his existence. Taking odd, low-end employment, using and selling cannabis (he created a more potent strain of marijuana by extracting and adding THC “oil”), and wasting time trying to figure out next steps. Regardless of how long he lived, his life because of his lifestyle would still be considered short.

When Peace’s end came, Hobbs drew on drama, but the actions and movement of the story were so sudden, so climactically awkward, that the effects, in some parts, were lost. Hobbs still had the ability to draw us in; to keep us wanting to turn the pages and find out the already known. Rich or poor, we are, in many ways, Robert Peace.