main ad larger image margaret johnson email
main ad two

REVIEWING

Is Marriage for White People?

by Ralph Richard Banks


Dutton | 2011

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


author rick banks

Truths Told and Truths Untold


What is most interesting about reading books about the many problems still facing American blacks, is that the truths told are never quite as interesting as the truths untold. This book is a perfect example.

   First the truths told. Marriage as an institution has virtually collapsed for African Americans. As Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford University, writes in Is Marriage for White People? “The African American {marriage} decline is not limited to the poor. It now encompasses the middle and upper-middle class. Indeed, by some measures the racial gap in marriage is actually wider among the prosperous than among the impoverished.”

    Professor Banks concentrates his book on interviews with middle class black women, who he says are the most likely to be unwed of any group in the country (although I have read, and heard on television, many sources claim that the women in America most likely to never marry, or have children, are Jewish, followed by college educated African American women), contrasting them with their white counterparts, with only a passing nod to Hispanics and Asians.

But before he gets to his interviews, he offers us a brief look at what caused this great decline in marriage, which accelerated in the late 60s and early 70s. Under a section he entitles “Partial Explanation,” Professor Banks lists the destructive effects of slavery  and African culture. ”The idea here,” he explains,” is that the African societies from which the slaves were taken featured extended family structures in which marriage was less pivotal…the African culture explanation became popular during the 1970s.”

   He also cites deindustrialization, which has made so many black men unmarriageable and the criminalization of black males because of the so-called ‘War on Drugs.’

    As his Partial Explanation headline suggests, Professor Banks “partially” dismisses these theories. This is my first major disagreement with him. The attempt to boldly affirm the African influence in America, and especially on African American culture, had a profound impact. This influence was reinforced by the rise of Black Studies Departments and programs at almost every college and university where there were black students, and where Cultural Nationalism held considerable sway.

As a cultural editor during the Black Consciousness Movement, from 1968 to 1974, when black Cultural Nationalism was at its heyday, what I heard over and over from the speakers I covered, and much of what I published in my magazine, Black Creation, was that black people needed to throw off “white middle class values,” and that included the nuclear family.

The black middle class was mocked by poets like Amiri Baraka, then Leroi Jones, and Howard Professor Nathan Hare, and countless others as being nothing but “black Anglo-Saxons.” Sellouts, race traitors, which caused my former colleague, UC Berkeley Professor William Banks, to wonder in his insightful book Black Intellectuals, how anyone could attack this small group of hard working folks who were succeeding not because of what America had to offer, but despite what America offered to its black citizens.   

***

    In retrospect, the Black Consciousness Movement was a conservative backlash to forces unleashed by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement: racist signs were taken down; whites could actually now go to jail for harming a black; more blacks were flocking to major universities; blacks could get a job at former racist institutions like CBS, for example, and live in any neighborhood they could afford.

And a black man in America could, for the first time in 377 years, date whomever he pleased.

***

The late 60s, and early 70s saw a dramatic, highly noted rise in dating between white women and black men. By sharp contrast, the more than noticeable partnering today of white men and Asian woman has hardly produced a yawn, unlike the mass hysteria of the early 70s caused by newly liberated, happy, gallivanting black men and white woman running amok in joyful partnering.

Feminist leader Gloria Steinem knew just how to piss off and intimidate white men in power when she showed up in Newsweek, at the start of the Women’s Liberation Movement, with her “boyfriend,” the very dark, handsome, well-sculpted, black Olympic star Rafer Johnson.

   This sudden freedom is what caused the conservative backlash. Black clerics saw empty churches, and loss of control over their “flock;” politicians and civil rights leaders saw a loss of power and a shrinking base and black women saw their worst nightmare -- black men and white women carrying on in public, right before their eyes.

   The end result was that black cultural nationalists teamed up with Liberals, who also feared assimilation, and demonized and made the word “integration,” a hateful word, and recreated “separate but equal” as best they could, now known as diversity.

***

    Professor Banks spends a great deal of time in his book on the subject of interracial dating, noting that black women are the least likely to date someone of another race than any other group in the country, and, as he points out, given the fact that black women now have more money and more education than black men, is it any wonder that so many will never marry?

Still, those nagging articles about Jewish women not marrying in numbers greater than blacks, and a male Jewish population, among the most highly educated and prosperous in the nation, more than holding their own with Jewish women, made me think that maybe there was something else at play.

***

    As I read Is Marriage for White People? I started to wonder if Professor Banks would ever get to some untold truths. I was just about to give up on him when near the end of his book, on page 165, he delivers: “The anxiety that black women feel about having biracial children may have been exacerbated by social and cultural changes that we rightly regard as progress. For most of American history, the question of whether a black woman’s children would be black was a nonstarter…that was done by the so-called one drop rule…according to this principle, reflected in social practice and law alike, “one drop” of black blood was sufficient to make a person black. In the infamous 1896 case of Plessey vs. Ferguson, for example, the fact that seven out of Homer Plessey’s eight great-grandfathers were white was not sufficient to allow him to sit in the white railroad car in segregated Louisiana.

   “Now the relaxation of that coercive system means that children with one black parent and one white parent will have unprecedented freedom to define their own racial identity. The same freedom that allows people to fashion their own identity compounds the anxiety of African Americans in particular, who worry that if people can exit, perhaps they will.”

***

  The English settlers invented the one drop rule so that they could hold their mixed race offspring in bondage, as Thomas Jefferson did, and enforced that rule at the point of a gun, and later, in the Supreme Court, as Professor Banks so aptly points out.

What the Professor didn’t do, however, was to complete the untold truth, and draw the logical conclusion that African Americans are not a race in the sense that we know Africans and Europeans to be, but are a multi-racial ethnic group, and there have always been racial differences within this group that were long suppressed by the ruthless oppression of the Northern European settlers, that came pouring out at the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

   The biggest mistake the black cultural nationalists made, and continue to make, which greatly contributes to so many educated black men running away from commitment, is that they made marrying a black women, the darker the better, a political obligation, ruining everything.

My first wife, the mother of two of my four children, was dark brown, and had a beautiful face and a nice big round behind. I loved kissing her full lips. She was not my awesome black African queen, or my strong black sister. She was simply a beautiful woman, and I was damn glad that she was my wife.

Perhaps marrying someone because they had a nice ass and big, soft lips was not the smartest thing in the world to do, but it contained more genuine emotional content than marrying someone out of guilt, or just to make a political statement.

And, instead of sitting around night after night, discussing race, my wife and I made babies.



Return to home page

REVIEWING

A Small Hotel

by Robert Olen Butler


Grove Press | 2011 | 241 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


author robert olen butler

Broken Love


You have to be prepared for a book like A Small Hotel.  Slight, intense, elliptical, it’s a book that requires concentration and forbearance.  Brace yourself for the deep renderings of the slightest movement; stay still for the immersion in New Orleans—the water smells, the faint sound of a train whistle, the feel of alcohol sliding down a throat.

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler takes what’s small—the label on a bottle of Scotch, for example, and expands its meaning exponentially, so the label becomes a source for meditation on a housewife’s loneliness: “The Scotch is a deep amber and she looks closely at the Jacobean manor house on the label, a holly tree next to it, nearly as tall as the top of the pitched roof. This house must exist somewhere, she thinks.  Two hundred years ago a woman stood at the third-floor window and looked out on her lawn and thought she could use a drink, could really use a nice old Scotch to burn her tongue.  I could use a drink, Kelly thinks.” 

Longing, desire, and silence are the subjects of A Small Hotel, ephemeral subjects to be sure.  It is not a book that takes you from point A to point B, and the “dramatic arc” so talked about in English classes, is virtually missing in this story that circles continuously, a rippling wave that is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

It’s as if Butler wants to take both magnifying glass and scalpel to his characters.  He wants to at once dissect his subjects to reveal the meat and bone of them, and to enlarge them so we readers feel attached to their very souls.  In his book we recognize ourselves, but not completely.  In spite of a universal feel, the characters remain truly and heartbreakingly specific: Kelly and Michael Hays, a couple whose marriage is unraveling.

And yet in some ways we wouldn’t recognize these characters in a line-up.  We know that Michael is a successful lawyer and Kelly works in politics, but we do not see them at work.  We are too close to their inner workings, their minds and flesh to see them from the “outside.” This book is dreamy; it continuously loops so you begin to feel that the characters’ thoughts are your thoughts; the characters’ movements, your movements.  There is a deep sadness in this book, a dose and a half of sadness, but it is also a love story.

Kelly and Michael meet during Mardi Gras—randomly, within the chaos of the event.  In fact, Michael’s first act is to “save her” from a bullying group of men who are demanding that she lift up her top and reveal her breasts.  Michael pretends to be her boyfriend and cunningly maneuvers her away from the thugs. Whatever feelings they later have for each other, there remains a question of whether the two were “destined” to meet on that day:  “She needs to go back to the way this all began between her and Michael, from the start, from the time when Michael was nearby but they had no idea each other even existed, when the smallest impulse in her—for a drink, for a pee—would have put her in a slightly different place at a slightly different time and her life would have been profoundly changed forever.”

After meeting each other, Michael tells her if she wants, he will just walk away into the crowd, that they never have to see each other again.  Of course this isn’t what happens—they are drawn to each other; they go to a café and find that the silence that falls between them is a silence of knowingness rather than boredom.  For Michael, this silence is what he craves; for Kelly, the silence between them eventually becomes deafening.  He never tells Kelly that he loves her.  Even on their wedding day, he avoids using words he finds sentimental or phony.  Rather than relying on any false note, he would rather say nothing.  The stoicism of Michael is ultimately his undoing and Kelly can’t abide by it.

Flash forward to middle age and the two are on the verge of divorce.  In fact, the book begins at the critical moment when Kelly is supposed to sign the final divorce papers.  Rather than go through with it, Kelly retreats to the small hotel where she and Michael had gone numerous times to celebrate various milestones in their marriage.  At the hotel, Kelly’s emotions waver from sappy to determined.  She lines up the forty-some Percocets that she imagines she’ll use by the end of the night, after her mind has reconciled her present state with her past.  She wonders how her marriage has come to this.  Within the decay of the marriage, however, she still sees the tiniest bit of light, a mere spark.  But she doesn’t trust that spark anymore.

In the meantime, Michael is seen in full regalia at a southern costume ball with his new girlfriend, Laurie.  Laurie is a much younger woman, not much older than Michael’s daughter. Realizing that Michael is out partying the night away while his wife is contemplating suicide, the reader might want to throw the book down and scream, only to realize it’s more complicated than it appears.  Butler skillfully and deliberately paces the novel so the reader doesn’t learn the truth behind the demise of the marriage until much later in the game.  As in most failed marriages, both parties are to blame.

In a beautiful described scene, Kelly leaves the hotel and wanders around New Orleans (a man tries to pick her up, but she refuses his advances).  In a sense, New Orleans is another character in the book and is portrayed with a rich vibrancy—Mardi Gras, the jazz clubs, the plantation where Michael goes—all are arrestingly, even exotically described.  Similarly, the hotel room itself is infused with tactile vividness: “The smell of the place is always the same.  Old wood and old rugs and fresh sheets from the open balcony doors, the sweet but tainted smell of the Quarter, jasmine and roux and shellfish brine, beer and piss and mildew, and something of the river too, and the swamp, and a hard rain that passed by, and ozone and coffee, and sex, Michael’s smells and her smells: can all of this be inside her in this room at this moment?  Probably.  She is weeping.”

Throughout the flow of the book Kelly spies a young couple at the hotel.  She hears them laughing and spies on them as they take off their clothes to swim in the pool.  Presumably, they are duplicates of her and Michael, innocent in their love before the callous wear of the years have hardened them against each other.  Later the couple will look up at her and see an older woman looking down at them from a window.  What they sense is the woman’s sadness, but still apparent is her beauty and heart bursting (even as she plans to end it all) with life.

It’s brave of Robert Olen Butler to write this moody, unique little book, considering his recently failed marriage., which of course makes it all the more fascinating. It’s different from Butler’s other works (though his writing is always sensual) in tone and purpose. He so closely imagines these people.  How strange I felt when I left the world of this book to return to the “real world.”  Somehow the world of this book seemed more authentic than the world I actually exist in.



Return to home page

REVIEWING

Adios, Happy Homeland!

by Ana Menéndez


Black Cat (Grove/Atlantic) | 268 pages | $14.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


author ana menendez

Never have I had so many expectations—of both literature and people—overturned by a book. When I sat down with Ana Menéndez’s Adios, Happy Homeland! I was burdened with a boatload of preconceptions about Cuban literature. The list was embarrassingly long, including (but not limited to): magical realism, black beans, banyan trees, deserted streets drifting into ruin, long glances over the water toward Miami, tight-lipped reflections on Castro and the nature of repression, wild sensuality, rafts on the edge of the horizon, and the soft clapping of boats rocking together in run-down harbors…

It’s probably best to stop there. The only thing duller than a catalogue of personal prejudices is a catalogue of the many tired imitations of Garcia Marquez that have been granted ISBN numbers since One Hundred Years of Solitude was published some fifty-odd years ago. Not only does Menéndez’s book have no place in that uniform line-up, but Adios, Happy Homeland! tears apart the flat picture of Latin America and the Caribbean that has been painted over the past few decades.

In all honesty—and for all its layers of narrative and assumed names and clever wordplay, this is one of the most honest books I have ever encountered—I don’t know what Adios, Happy Homeland! is. According to conventional definitions, it isn’t a novel. Menéndez structures Adios as an anthology of short stories by fictional authors, whose identities run the gamut from a Cubophile Irishman to a senile old woman, and whose names often slyly reference figures in Cuban literature.

The web of allusions that she weaves with the authors, titles, and tone of each story is extremely dense; her first story, for example, is titled “You Are the Heirs of All My Terrors.” The author is identified as “Celestino d’Alba”—d’Alba being the main character in Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ Singing in the Well, and “you are the heirs of all my terrors” is a line from Arenas’ own suicide note, written in New York City in 1990. This is only the beginning of a cycle of cross-references, allusions, and looped stories that continue throughout this strange and wonderful book.

What emerges from the tangle of narratives that makes up Adios, Happy Homeland! is a meditation on the ways that literature and identity intersect, with Menéndez making the rare observation that literature can serve as an instrument of not only liberation, but also entrapment. Literature has offered Cubans a chance to expound upon a vision of the world as they see it, but it is sometimes misconstrued and too narrowly used to define the culture, flattening individuals into symbols and abstractions of what it means to be Cuban.

In Menéndez’s book, characters are trapped not only by Castro but by the many competing ideas of Cuban identity that others—and they themselves—possess.

Near the end of the book, Menéndez issues a warning: “All who create will find one day the need to destroy.” This book is itself a supreme act of literary destruction, holding up a mirror to the dozens of fixed ideas about Cubans and a Cuba that we have accumulated from the canon of literature and news, including several narratives that we have come to believe fully sum up the reality of the culture—and then smashing that mirror.

This may all sound very heavy, but Adios, Happy Homeland! is anything but. More than anything else, the book evades categorization, skipping from nightmare visions to schoolyard jokes in a matter of pages, or even sentences. Consistency is not a concern of this book—and indeed its absence allows such brilliant literature to flourish.

Halfway through, Menéndez gleefully demolishes even the anthology structure of her story, inserting a wonderfully anachronistic email (dated May 23, 1923) from the assorted authors that orders the anthologist to abandon his project on the grounds that “much of our lifework was and continues to be dedicated to the idea of escaping the bonds imposed by others. And now you come, an outsider, to impose on us a doomed structure. It is quite unacceptable.”

Menéndez pulls the carpet out from under us, and we must start seeing the world afresh. This book ever verges on the unexpected. It’s impossible to take in the entirety of Adios, Happy Homeland! in one reading, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since I turned over its final pages. Adios, happy homeland, indeed—and hello to new literary horizons.



Return to home page

REVIEWING

STATE OF WONDER

by Ann Patchett


Harper Collins Publishers | 2011 | 353 pages

Reviewed by Emily Rosen


author ann patchett

You may wonder why a woman in her 60s, 70s or even older would want to get pregnant. Or you may wonder why a scientist would want to risk her life in the pursuit of discovering the cause of death of a colleague or why a pharmaceutical company would want to continue to employ someone whose research is so secret that even the people who pay her are not privy to any information about what she is doing. Or you may wonder about the long term psychological effect on a Doctor after having blinded an infant during delivery. And you may even wonder why a man who loves his wife and three young children would be willing to risk the perils of jungle life, making the conscious choice to stay there beyond the “call of duty.”  The question is, which of the above, or things not yet mentioned, does Ann Patchett expect you to “wonder” about?

What is a sure bet, is that if you are holding a copy of State of Wonder in your hand, or reading it on an e-book, you cannot put it down.

My 1987 trip down the very waters Patchett describes, and my reckless (in retrospect) jungle walks, machete in hand, were so intertwined with Patchett’s that I could feel the sting of the mosquitoes and I could hear the hiss of the snakes.

      Patchett is a master plotter and has the rare writer’s gift of storytelling with the combined eloquence of prose. She opens up all your senses: “…there were layers and layers of scents inside (the Hammock) and the smell of her own sweat which brought up trace amounts of soap and shampoo, the smell of the hammock itself which was both mildewed and sun baked with a slight hint of rope, and the smell of the boat gasoline and oils, and the smell of the world outside the boat, the river water and the great factory of leaves, pumping oxygen into the atmosphere…”    

Dr. Marina Singh is sent to Manaus, the Brazilian shove-off point of the Amazon River and its myriad of tributaries, ostensibly to learn the details of the mysterious death of her colleague, fellow scientist Anders Eckman, whose wife cannot abandon their three young children to make that trip.

Leaving the Minnesota headquarters of pharmaceutical company VOGEL, and her somewhat boring lover-boss, Mr. Fox, Marina is also intrigued by the thought of reuniting with sharp-tongued Dr. Annick Swenson, a former mentor and teacher who is spearheading a secret research project for VOGEL.

And oh! The people we meet in the Amazon, to say nothing of the mosquitoes and sloths and tarantulas and snakes and capybaras.  “At dusk, the insects came down in a storm, the hard shelled and the soft sided, and the stinging and chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one enfolded its wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find…”  

The jungle darkness aligns with the dark story of the Lakashi women who eat tree bark to preserve their fertility, and of their neighboring tribe of cannibals.

Questions of scientific efficacy as well as ethics thread throughout the tale, as does Marina’s professional past and indeed, her own heritage. The cast of indigenous people sharpens the contrast and the diversity of humanity and the pace of the action is electric, in a setting with a scarcity of electricity.

My only gripe is the surprise ending that is too much like a wrapped Christmas present, but by the time you reach the closing, you’ll be happy enough to be in civilization and feel deserving of such largess. 



Return to home page

REVIEWING

The Taste of Salt

by Martha Southgate


Algonquin Books | 2011

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene


author martha southgate

The sea was never strange to me.  It was on land that I had difficulties, my lack of comprehension, my estrangement.

            In The Taste of Salt, Martha Southgate, author of Third Girl on the Left (2006) and The Fall of Rome (2002)examines the presence of “salt” in the life of Josie Henderson, a marine scientist, and a Black woman in a field where there are not only few women, but few Black scientists in general.  Josie, estranged from her past, has built an insular life for herself, and in doing so, has distanced herself from her family, has run away from intimacy and has married outside of her race.  Southgate explores how Josie is forced to face her past and the broken and vulnerable parts of her life.

Salt, bitter, stinging, essential to the human body and a necessary component of life, is used as a preservative, but can be harmful if consumed in excess. One can become addicted to salt and like other addictions, too much salt can destroy one’s life.  Those who engage in addictive behaviors become dysfunctional and dangerous to themselves and those around them.

Josie is the daughter of an alcoholic and sister of a drug user. In trying to escape the salt in her life and hence her family, she finds that the inner loss and emptiness she feels in attempting to shed her past instead permeates her life.  Although she throws herself into work, into marriage and into a relationship with another man, the loneliness does not dissipate; the salt of life engulfs her.

On learning about a tragedy in her family, she states,

“I stared at the ceiling.  There was pressure behind my eyes. But I wasn’t crying. I felt salty. Alone. Despite Daniel lying next to me. . . I felt like the middle of the Sahara, a place I’ve never been. . . I felt like a woman with no brother, no husband, no one to call her own.”

Josie thus comes to realize that she cannot ignore the shattered and fractured pieces of her life.

Southgate’s language is clear, precise and definitive.  Her story is sensitively told from multiple perspectives: Josie, her brother Tick and her mother and father, Sarah and Ray.  This telling adds depth to the novel and provides the reader with a more complex portrait of Josie, who as a child, “. . . liked being out of the house. Whatever house it was.”

The Book of Salt is a reminder that the past is ever present and attempts to escape it seldom succeed.  Southgate’s exploration of the themes of loneliness, relationships, loss, addiction and interracial relationships brings to the surface the fears and secrets that many have difficulty facing and addresses the issues that many deal with in this contemporary society that is America.



Return to home page

REVIEWING

Train Dreams

by Denis Johnson


Read by Will Patton

Macmillan Audio | 2011 | Running time: 2 ½ hours, 2 CDs | $17.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey


author - denis johnson

Denis Johnson is an award-winning author with an impressive and diverse bibliography. His latest endeavor, Train Dreams, a novella, is a tribute to the Northwest woods, from west Montana to Spokane, and its people in the early 1900s. For this audio book, the actor Will Patton delivers Johnson’s words with a slow, gravelly voice that encourages the listener to envision a rough woodsman or rail worker who might be spinning this tale in a saloon or by a campfire in the woods.

Train Dreams is the story of Robert Grainier, a man from nowhere raised by his aunt and uncle in the Idaho panhandle. The story recounts his many experiences with death, love, loss, superstition, and technology as he survives 80 years in the harsh unforgiving woods of Idaho.

Grainer is a calm and agreeable man that we can all relate to in some form or fashion, and the story of his life is told with humor and compelling descriptions that help the listener envision the terrain and setting, placing you beside the man himself. Unfortunately, the disjointed chronology of the story left me struggling to follow the timeline of the story and, ultimately, its point. The listener must weather the episodes of Grainer’s life that contain weird, shocking, endearing, and sometimes heart-wrenching turns of events including the fire that consumed his home and everything he loved, the legend of the wolf-girl, the dying hobo he met by the river as a kid, and the man who was shot by his own dog. But in the end, despite the difficult subject matter, the story resonates with meaning and universality.

The novella is not just a story of Robert Grainier. It is the story of a simple man and the journey of his life; a story of many of his neighbors and their way of life, all of whom endured extraordinary challenges and changes, but were never given much regard or notice. It is a story of the region and the times that were strange and hard and are now nearly forgotten. “And suddenly it all went black and was gone forever.”

I enjoyed the experience of listening to this book. The presentation was fitting for the subject matter, making it easy to slide into the world of Train Dreams. The episodes were compelling on their own, and as I removed myself from the story and the characters, it became clearer to me, at the closing of the story, just what I had experienced. It was a two and a half hour journey I’m glad I took. This audio book would make a perfect companion for a short road trip or a stroll through the woods.



Return to home page