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

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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

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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.

 

Erica Buddington Does it Again: Boroughs Apart — REVISED REVIEW

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Author: Erica Buddington

Length: 143 pages

Publication Date: December 30, 2015

There is an absolute possibility that any fan of Erica Buddington will find Boroughs Apart a slight but welcomed departure from her many earlier works despite the similar ‘signature’ DNA. Buddington writes about love, and she does it “lovely.”

Expressed with immeasurable depth, Buddington captures in Boroughs Apart the emotion of this present era noted for social messiness and peppered with the social media anonymity.  But don’t be mistaken, Buddington’s stories are not solely engorged with relationship fluff, nor are they entangled in the idea that love always ends happily, although, regardless of the outcomes of her many stories, there is always a ‘happy ending,’ even in the face of emotional adversity. This is her beauty.

Buddington’s literary voice is further strengthened in this ambitious 2015 novella. She has written a plethora of enticing stories, but this novella is special. There is an accuracy in her descriptions and a measurable honesty in her feelings and voice. It’s visual. It’s heartfelt. It’s familiar. Boroughs Apart is more experimental than her previous works, vibing on being a virtual time-driven maze of sorts; the well-known unknown. She has presented the theme of unrequited love reincarnated as a present day passion mirroring unrelenting love from a generation past. Yes, it is a complicated story but comfortably and simply well crafted.

For clarity, this is not Of Micah and Men (the last Buddington book I reviewed), but it continues the theme of cool, sweet breezes and summertime passion in the metropolis. It is a departure from many of her creative endeavors, thematically, standing forthrightly and independently. It’s daring and cunning, puzzling and measured. It’s sensual without being blinded by sexuality and comfortable like still photos of a Caribbean sunset.

As stated in a previous commentary, Erica Buddington, as a writer, is relatively transparent which is brilliant. We know where she is going yet we still look forward to sitting ‘shotgun’ during the ride anyway. She points out the subtle beauty of things we may otherwise overlook and makes us pay attention closely enough to commonly unseen objects, which penetrates, and remains, a permanent part of our memory. Knowing where she gets her inspiration isn’t too challenging if you follow her revelations, but what sparks that inspiration is like a pinata; a box of chocolates; a warm bed on a cold night — simply something unexpected and pleasantly welcoming.

The story is principally about Evan, the 30-year-old ‘son of money’ with: “…Sahara sand brown, eyes the color of the sky when everything felt wrong,”  and Ella: brown complexion (I believe), “…shoulder length dreads, bright yellow summer dress, and huge Sankofa earrings,”  and their one degree of separation.   They meet the way Borough strangers do; with an abruptness that is potentially sour but tastes as sweet as New York candy and they ultimately become the unlikely victims of Cupid’s arrow. The story, from this point, moves along quickly.

Ella, a junior curator,  arrives unknowingly at Evan’s home to assess a painting. This meeting segues into the essentials of the story. An earlier meeting between them, although brief, is now in ‘confirmation’. Fate, one can assume, must have brought them together, as the past lords of missed opportunity assured that their moment wouldn’t be lost. Thematically, this is crucial, and Buddington nails it from the start. Oddly, their chance meeting is more revealing than either assumes but eventually Evan and Ella will realize that they are living an unlikely parallel to the lives of people close to home; both homes.

Boroughs Apart is a keenly ambitious work and, ideally unpredictable. Does it spark the imagination of anyone who has ever asked the question: What can happen if a stranger walks into your life who isn’t a stranger at all? Yes, it does in a way that isn’t foreign, forced or ubiquitous. But, as I have come to note in Buddington’s writing,  this interrogative summation proved too simple a prompt for her, and she ventures into the hollows of complicated webs and surreal themes. In Boroughs Apart, she guides us into the worlds of people we’ve seen but never got a chance to know; the people whose social status allowed them to float where others could barely walk. She took us into those homes we’d only admired through shade-less windows, standing and gawking, hypnotically,  at the Renaissance brilliance and tasteful wealth while we’re speechlessly consumed. Buddington shows Harlem’s beauty and the virtues and vulnerabilities of even its wealthier children.

Because any additional commentary will be a spoiler, I will say, as casually and nonchalantly as I possibly can, that the meeting of Ella and Evan has historical significance and unexpected ramifications; the kind of mysterious close encounter between strangers that cannot be calculated but is wholly welcomed.

Boroughs Apart speaks ominously of unrequited destiny, dysfunctional family privilege, chance love, and hope at the possibility to re-love what seemed eternally lost. It is the stories of two families, brought together by fate and coincidence. It is a most vivid example of her beautiful mind and imagination. One thing is for certain, it is ambitious and doesn’t take away from the magic that she has cornered and the talent that she truly possesses. In Buddington, who is also a visual artist,  there is joy in the story and bright colors on the canvas, reflecting the realities that we all know or will one day discover; the unquestionable evidence of a soul’s memorial, and a belief in the worthiness of holding on to hope and embracing faith.

Every Little Step: My Story — A Review

Author: Bobby Brown with Nick Chiles

Length: 341 pages

Released: June 13, 2016

Every little step

I’ll admit, I am an incorrigible fan of biographies, but I’ve discovered that biographies are usually one of two things: profound hits or astronomical misses; often filled with so much fluff the story gets lost in loads of overzealous and gregarious bull.  So when a copy of Every Little Step was made available to me, I was excitedly hesitant. I questioned whether I’d even read this book, after all, I knew this story. In fact, the entire world knew this often sordid, perhaps morbid, story. For over a decade Bobby Brown, and ultimately Whitney Houston (as a couple), were headline fodder. Their lives were broadcast as a national or romantic tragedy on the evening news, supermarket tabloids, and sadly, their short-lived reality television show, Being Bobby Brown.

Already steeped in a methodically, if not intentionally, developed controversy, Bobby Brown became infamously iconic through the dismally painted images he willfully projected:  Pop singer, reality star, Whitney Houston’s husband, and father. His nauseating story  played out in the media but never gave us a full image or explanation of the man. We often wondered if he knew himself or if he was simply a chameleon who changed his colorful façade to meet the moment. The jury is still out, even after reading Every Little Step.

Bobby built a reputation as a ‘bad-boy,’ but it limits the shallow depth of a much more complex character. He carried it — that bad boy image — and indeed, after thirty public years of wearing that proverbial and penetrating mask, it became his honest demeanor, bolted in a safe and protected by demons resembling padlocks.  His world revolved around extremism, over indulgence, and the therapeutic attempt to conceal pains that clawed at his being. He states:

To some degree, I understand. That’s how public images work. They slap a label on you, and that’s who you are– the facts be damned. Early on, I cemented my reputation as the “bad boy of R & B.” And it stuck. For the most part, I embraced it–for thirty years. It was fun — when I was young and foolish. But now that label; feels too one-dimensional.

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It was easy to lose himself in sex, drugs, and music, to falter as a father, husband, and musician, to flounder in the land of Oz, just long enough for the world (and himself) to believe it. Being Bobby Brown (both the show and the person) was a platform; a diving board on the deep end of the shark infested pool. He jumped, after Whitney, according to legend, jumped first. Unfortunately, they hadn’t realized, until the currents pulled them further from safety and sanity, that they couldn’t swim.  There wasn’t too much more we wanted or, perhaps, needed to hear. Yes, another biography, I decided, that would become a ‘half read.’

But then the surprise. With Nick Chiles’ word wonderment, Brown’s biography sizzled then unexpectedly exploded. Despite a plethora of predictable and almost surreal events, Every Little Step astonishingly delivered. Readers are taken through the maze of “life according to Bobby Brown” and are presented the opportunity to amble through the jigsaw pieces of his madness.  Revealed during this trek is what had long been hidden and many essential curiosities are answered, yet some of the revelations seem too convenient and occasionally it is questioned whether the book represents a real person or the person he really wanted to be. Indeed there is proof of his antics and some clues that point to real occurrences, but some of the events are forced and seem to be included more for dramatic effect than comprehensive information.

Every Little Step can essentially be summed up as the story of two luxurious ships. One is fantastically pristine with a wooden deck that glistened like polished gold under the Pacific coast sun and the other, of equal magnificence, but moving in circles under a dismal and constant shade of gray, attempting to share a small Roxbury-Newark pond. Which ship represented who is up for individual interpretation. But little can be gleaned from the book which merely highlights the highlights.

Every Little Step was mammoth, larger than the superstar players that controlled their kingdom with mythological fervor. Bobby and Whitney’s roles were almost, perhaps mostly, make-believe; bitter, blind, ignorant, faithful, prophetic, and destructive. The dissolving of the family and the under-appreciation of their height of fame was certain to disappear. It was only on loan; only temporary, and they had no idea. So much, according to the book, was squandered, and the chaos from years of their animated immaturity and abuses cover each page like locusts in a wheat field. There were moments when we didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, cheer, or turn our backs. We did all the above because we had no choice.

We know this story, maybe better than we should. But like most fairytales happier endings exist, and Bobby, seeing the possible end of an unforgiving road, attires himself in battered armor, relinquished his worldly possessions, and sets out to start again. Sadly, and almost as if by a sinister curse, the whole of his former life is inexplicably extinguished, and once again with all the glitter gone, he is back where he started with nothing but material proof of where he’d been.

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The Book of Harlan: A Review

Author: Bernice McFadden

Print Length: 354 pages (Kindle); 400 pages (hardcover)

Publisher: Akashic Books; Reprint edition (April 11, 2016)

Publication Date: April 11, 2016

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“The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” –Frederick Douglass (printed in The Book of Harlan, page 281, Kindle)

There are rare literary moments when a reader is given a gift so magnificent that it defies adequate definition; when Seshat embraces and guides the writer’s pen and thoughts,  leading them through overgrown,  encumbered historical paths toward a promised land — a place that is quietly pure, emotionally significant, and afforded to few. Fortunate for us, Bernice McFadden has ambled along that path, bathed in the elusive light of wisdom and promise and has stamped down the thorny and entangled frondescence so that the beauty at the end of that path may be embraced. Her hands and mind have indeed been kissed by Seshat.

In The Book of Harlan, Ms. McFadden reveals the holy grail of conflict: a plethora of social, emotional, political, racial, and religious issues, marching into the controversial realm of each without apology. Readers are afforded the fortunate opportunity to commune with a literary presence (Ms. McFadden) endowed with an indescribably beautiful vision.

The myriad of images in The Book of Harlan are vivid, and Ms. McFadden’s love of subtle details burst like a floral symphony after a warm spring rain. The colors of each line, page, and chapter are explosively bright, and in her essential and historical brilliance, Ms. McFadden (previously I stated that she is in the class of Walker, Morrison,  Angelou, and I must add Kincaid), presents the novel with the eye of a gifted cinematographer. The reader is, as a result, graciously endowed with an indescribable, and lasting emotional connection.

At the start of the book, the reader meets Emma Robinson and the Robinson family. Quickly it becomes obvious that the family has some capital means and their confident, almost arrogant, air belies their acknowledgment of their good fortune:

“The Robinson family traveled the city in a shiny black buggy, pulled by not one horse but two horses.” (page 3- Kindle)

Their residence is a house reminiscent of the surreal, quaint country dwellings often planted on several country acres where the loudest sound one hears is the evening’s wind. McFadden states that they [the Robinsons] lived among the Black elite of Macon; “the doctors, lawyers, teachers, and ministers, and not a maid or ditch digger among them.” (pg. 3)

Emma is the youngest and the only girl.  Stereotypic as a teenaged character, she seems to hunger for an existence of greater adventure. This ‘hunger’ she expresses in silent vividness by her admiration of  Lucille, her friend and a jazz / blues singer who is offered a “glamorous” life on the road. Emma’s strict upbringing and denial of these raucous endeavors, causes her to long for it more. Emma meets and confirms a mutual attraction with Sam Elliot, a good-looking, quiet and easy-going carpenter from Kentucky, and her life heads in a different and completely unpredictable direction. Sam is smitten and spends every possible moment in pursuit of Emma. His intentions are honest. His love for Emma is real. But, as would be expected, her family is distrusting.

McFadden takes the story along the path of secretive affection and through the chambers of lost virginity. The Robinson family’s resolve is tested by Emma’s unplanned pregnancy, quick marriage, and decision to move (the first of many) from Macon to DC  after the birth of she and Sam’s child. It is after the birth of Harlan that the novel truly becomes The Book of Harlan.

The short chapters are like staccato movements; breath, awakening, flow, ebb, pure, constant, short and intentional.  Ms. McFadden provides intensity, conflict, resolution, and intrigue; most evidently beginning with the horrific, fiery suicide of Darlene, the sister of Harlan’s best friend. Beautifully, Ms. McFadden uses Darlene (who is characteristically flat) as a powerfully appropriate apparition for the events in Harlan’s life (my thoughts). In my opinion, she played a vital role in the tribulations of Harlan’s life, including throughout his adulthood.

Harlan opts to pursue music and drops out of high school. He joins and performs (poorly) with Lucille’s band and is introduced to marijuana, under the promise from fellow musicians that it will make him play better. And it does…. tremendously. This sort of internal conflict from external influences is Ms. McFadden’s sweet spot; the place where her glow begins to shine even brighter.

Midway through the novel, Harlan befriends Lizard, a Jewish musician whose Blackish demeanor and period-influenced style grants him the ability to evade inquiries about his ethnicity. Their bond is quick, affectionate, and brotherly, and together they form a band.  After finding and flexing their chops in the US, they are offered an opportunity to perform in Paris. War was declared at the time of their travel, and the climate of the book changes, becoming, at that very moment, far greater than the sum of its parts;  reflecting tension and chaos, joy and pain, and a level of sorrow so massive that it remains, even in present reality, immeasurable. We feel, deeply, the details of this tension.  Ms. McFadden ensures that we do; pummels us with a constant barrage of elation and fear; extracting the elements of each until there is nothing recognizable left, like a conductor building a crescendo from the quiet of piano. In the hush of night, after otherwise tense but ordinary affairs, Harlan and Lizard are accosted, bludgeoned,  and abducted by Nazi soldiers. The novel, already very alive, transforms further, raising the reader’s blood pressure and leaving them desperately gasping for air and clutching at the rocketing pain in their chest.

Harlan’s return to America after several years of unnerving events in Europe presents its own symphony of challenges. The many events experienced by Lizard and Harlan after their abduction, introducing to some and confirming for others the historically excluded conflict that occurred between Nazi soldiers and people of African descent, exceeds my ability to give it the justice it greatly deserves. Ms. McFadden packs the novel with so much of her magic that no review or critique could ever effectively capture its depth. With each word and turn of the page the intensity builds, and the transition and tone of the story, from this point to the very end, epitomizes literary exactness. And it is here that I feel more than compelled to discontinue my summary.There are no short cuts. Yes, this is a must read type of novel.

This review/commentary has, for reasons I cannot explain, been the most challenging I have attempted. Perhaps it was the details within the book or my personal admiration for Ms. McFadden’s work that made commenting difficult. Perhaps I made the greatest faux pas, by reading the reviews of others and commenting on their comments.

Maybe it was because of this….

I have never written a review by summarization or through extracting too many details from the story, but for reasons unknown I was entranced by a deep need to do so with this book. Perhaps, to me, Harlan is an exceptionally familiar character,  reminding me subtly of my grandfather, or uncle, or a distant cousin, or the man down the street. Perhaps I see Harlan within myself; searching, finding, losing, and reborn. Maybe Harlan is many, or perhaps he embodies such layers of complexity that he is no one at all.Whoever he is to you is correct. His facets are many. Bernice McFadden and Seshat made him that way. After reading The (AMAZING) Book of Harlan, I am certain, with absolutely no doubt, that you will agree.