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REVIEWING

Storm of the i: An Artobiography

by Tina Collen


Art Review Press | 2010 | 321 pages | $29.95

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


author tina collen

Eight words emblazon the cover of Tina Collen’s first book, Storm of the i: An Artobiography, and two are plays on words. The first is easy to find, a narrow line and a dot floating in light italics above a woman’s eyeball peering through a cutout. The second is easier to overlook but far more important—not autobiography, or story of the self--but artobiography, a story of art, told through art.

This memoir is unusual. Framed around the ups and downs of her troubled relationship with her father, Collen’s book could easily have been banal in less deft or more conventional hands. But Collen, an artist and graphic designer, understands what so many memoirists do not: that pain, family, and the search for love and acceptance are universal experiences, and that these  struggles are best transmuted through art.

It is an intensely personal story, and Collen has chosen an intensely personal way to mirror and reflect upon her experiences. The collection of vignettes, photographs, art, and even moving pieces that fold out of the page and reach out towards the reader, transform the book into a kind of artful scrapbook—not the scrapbook of a child, who pastes every last ribbon and note haphazardly onto the pages, but the scrapbook of an adult, who has understood that one of the great problems of life is its clutter, and the task of finding meaning in what can seem like empty chaos--is often simply a matter of sorting.

As Collen points out at the beginning of her story, juxtaposing her words with a delicate picture of indigo mold, “Art is essentially serendipity and editing, as is life.”

The balance that Collen is able to produce with this careful collection of words and images is all the more remarkable because of the value that our literature and art today place on disarray, imbalance, chaos, and multiplicity. Most of the works we prize as a country and a people are those that take what we perceive to be an illusion of balance and unseat it.

Collen moves in the other direction, taking a thing that is reasonless and incomprehensible—her father’s apparent lack of love for her—and forging a work in which many seemingly unrelated elements come together in harmony. The artist’s most famous work, the Fleurotica series, encapsulates this approach. To create this series, Collen created botanical drawings of flowers using collage, replacing the flowers’ sexual organs with pictures of human sexual organs clipped from pornographic magazines. From a distance, the pictures are precise, almost scientific—but when the viewer draws close, their complexity leaps suddenly into focus.

Story of the i exemplifies this technique. On the surface, it may be a story of fathers and daughters interspersed with pretty pictures, but the works of art that punctuate the pages add extra layers to the history. A black-and-white drawing of sunflowers placed next to an excerpt entitled “The archetypal need for a loving parent,” conjures up thoughts of growth and what living things need to flourish; the dark tones of the sketch suggest the shadowed side of a sunny scene; the wispy roots beneath the surface of the soil suggest a lack of stability and a vein reaching out for sustenance. In this way, a single picture adds tremendous depth to an episode told in four or five brief paragraphs.

Collen’s book could not exist without these visual elements. In the prologue, Collen makes an intriguing claim: “I’m an artist, a graphic designer, not a writer.” For those accustomed to dealing in words, the separation between artists and writers initially strikes a jarring note, but fascination slowly overtakes that note of discord. The processes of interpreting the world visually and verbally are different, and Collen’s refusal to follow the conventions of autobiography throws the whole enterprise into a fresh light. We can only hope that more writers and visual artists follow in her footsteps to produce such refreshingly honest and innovative work.



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REVIEWING

The Better Angels of Our Nature—Why Violence Has Declined

by Steven Pinker


Viking | 2011

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe


author steven pinker

I was mad at Dr. Steven Pinker for having written such a long book—696 pages of text, 40 pages of 8 point footnotes, 32 pages of 8 point references and an index 29 pages long! Talk about a weighty tome. I couldn’t lie in bed and hold it on my chest.

I can’t deny, however, that Dr. Pinker presents a convincing argument that violence has declined in the modern world. In the past things were much worse—during the Roman Empire and Spanish Inquisition, with their auto-de-fe’s, people enjoyed watching others being tortured and killed as a form of entertainment.

He believes that we live in the most peaceable era ever, that we’ve lost our taste for war and violence, and for all the horrific tortures that marked previous times.

A combination of reasons account for the decline:

To what movements does Dr. Pinker credit for bringing about the decline? Not from pacifist religious doctrines, but from the forces of civilization and the Enlightenment.

More than fifteen million people were killed in the First World War and more than fifty million in the Second—“the 20th Century would seem to be an insult to the very suggestion that violence has declined over the course of history,” he writes.

Pinker doesn’t go by those numbers, but by the “density” or number of those killed compared to the population total, the number deaths per 100,000 people, making the fall of Rome and the exploits of Genghis Khan, more deadly.

Immanuel Kant wrote a remarkable antiwar document, his 1795 essay, “Perpetual Peace.” In it he lays out six steps towards peace followed by three sweeping principles. The preliminary steps were that “peace treaties should not leave open the option of war; the states should not absorb other states; that standing armies should be abolished; that governments should not borrow to finance wars; that a state should not interfere in the internal governance of another state; and that in war, states should avoid tactics that would undermine confidence in a future peace, such as assassinations, poisoning, and incitements to treason.”  

His conditions for perpetual peace are that nations should be democratic, that “the law of nations shall be founded on a Federation of Free States,” and “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.” He thus anticipated the creation of the United Nations by over 150 years.

This is my thinking: The preponderance of wars historically have been predatory, nations seeking to conquer the territory of others to gain their resources. There was nothing to stop this phenomenon. Thus the rule of the world was those who conquer, rule. The only thing that could check this tendency was a consortium of united nations that would condemn and repel predatory nations. This didn’t happen until late in our earthly existence, in 1948, with the formation of the United Nations.

When Iraq attempted to succumb Kuwait in the early 1990’s, claiming it had once been a part of its country she was roundly condemned by the United Nations. Some nations, including the United States, sent troops and armaments to force Iraqi troops out.

People are fond of disparaging the United Nations and saying that it is ineffective, but it’s a much safer, less violent world since it’s been created.

By the early 20th Century, the age of colonization was over and most former colonies were liberated. New problems arose, especially in Africa and the Balkans. Boundaries had been drawn arbitrarily. When countries were under the control of their colonial masters they were at peace, but once the masters left, tribal hatreds flared, hence the holocaust in countries like Rwanda and ethnic cleansings as in the Balkans.

The biggest deterrent to war was the creation of the atom and nuclear bombs. The knowledge that a nuclear war could very well bring about the eradication of the entire planet has given nations pause.

Dr. Pinker writes that there seems to be an increase in empathy, “the ability to put oneself into the position of some other person, animal, or object, and imagine the sensation of being in that situation,” of feeling distress at witnessing the suffering of others.

I sometimes skimmed this book, not wanting to read all he had to say on certain subjects, but a subject that I found of interest and would like to have had explored further is under a section called, “The Moralization Gap and the Myth of Pure Evil.”

Dr. Pinker writes that “people who perpetrate destructive acts, from everyday peccadilloes to serial murders and genocides, never think they are doing anything wrong,” and that most people “get angry at least once a week, and nearly everyone gets angry at least once a month. Something in human psychology distorts our interpretation and memory of harmful events.”

In a study of this phenomenon, it was found that “both victims and perpetrators distorted the stories to the same extent but in opposite directions, each omitting or embellishing details in a way that made the actions of their character look more reasonable and the other’s less reasonable.”

“We lie to ourselves so that we’re more believable when we lie to others.”

“It’s not just that there are two sides to every dispute. It’s that each side sincerely believes its version of the story, namely that it is an innocent and long-suffering victim and the other side a malevolent and treacherous sadist. And each side has assembled an historical narrative and database of facts consistent with its sincere belief.”

How true this is.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Pinker has made a major contribution to the study of war and violence. He is to be credited for that. I was glad that he did not try to extrapolate from his data that people have been improving over the centuries and thus will continue to improve. He ends his lengthy study with the following comments: “Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline in violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”



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REVIEWING

Binocular Vision

by Edith Pearlman


Lookout Books | 373 pages | $18.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


author edith pearlman

Old World and New


Edith Pearlman’s stories are witty, sly, and full of life, not to mention refreshingly free of cliché’s and platitudes.  They also vary in scene, character, and temperament to an astonishing degree.  In her latest collection, Binocular Vision—a beautifully designed book by Lookout Books--these traits are displayed in abundance.  In one story, one might find a child genius navigating the subway system in Boston; in another, the reader is taken to a foreign country and led almost warily by the hand of a jaded ex-patriot. 

Her characters are not timid—they go about their business with a brassy, exuberant vigorousness.  Nancy, an awkward young heroine in “Hanging Fire” is absolutely determined to woo and seduce the older, pudgy gentleman she becomes infatuated with, a man named Leo. 

In languid, summery scenes, Pearlman gently pokes fun of this bespectacled--some would say foolish--girl.  As the girl traipses about in her tennis shoes (and actually plays tennis), Pearlman creates a false tension.  We think we are heading for a passionate display, especially when Nancy follows Leo to his cottage, where she flings herself on his bed. Leo instead advises Nancy to travel in Europe, to “Look at the swans in Zurich... study the healthy life in Amsterdam.  Learn love from Italians, in Rome.”

With a lesser story-teller, the characters would end up in bed.  After all, how could a pudgy man resist such an ingénue?  Pearlman turns things on their head, pushes towards comedy, and startles us with clear-headedness.

       In another story worthy of a cinematic adaptation, “Elder Jinks,” an elderly, bohemian Grace marries the older and stodgier Gustave.  This is how the story begins:

       “Her tilted eyes were indeed a violet blue.  Her skin was only slightly lined.  Her gray hair was clasped by a hinged comb that didn’t completely contain its abundance.  Her figure was not firm, but what could you expect.”

        ‘I’m Grace,’ she said.

        ‘I’m Gustave,’ he said.  He took an impulsive breath.  ‘I’d like to get to know you.’

        She smiled.  ‘And I you.’”

        This sweet, slightly goofy love later implodes when Gustave returns to see Grace stoned with her old comrades, playing charades naked in his living room:  “It was like old times, Grace, too, was thinking.  And how clever they were at the game…Lee and Lee standing naked back to back while she fully clothed, traversed the living room…” 

Gustave becomes enraged, but in the end they make up.  This is particularly touching because of his acceptance of his wife.  The characters in Pearlman’s work are allowed to breathe, to be flawed, petty, silly, and smug.  Pearlman forgives them and so do their lovers.  There’s a reprieve in these stories from the bitterness often displayed in so much of our domestic fiction written today.

       Lurking behind the American lives of these happy and not-so-happy characters in many of the stories, there’s a nod to a richer, more civilized society, namely Europe before WWII.  No story does this more poignantly than “The Coat.”  A couple who have helped relocate Jews in Europe after the war end up moving to an apartment in the United States.  There the woman discovers a coat in the back of the armoire, left behind by the former tenants.  The coat is surely a relic from Europe, the fineness of the coat suggesting an eloquence and sophistication from the “old country.” 

Pearlman writes, “Sonya…knew the Old World only by reputation.  Cafes, galleries, libraries, chamber recitals, salons…polyglots in elegant clothing conducting afternoon dalliances before returning to one of the great banking houses…  She becomes infatuated with the coat and begins to wear it.  When she takes it to a tailor, they confess they can’t mend coats of this quality.  Sonya knows intuitively that what she’s holding onto or what she desires has been obliterated by the Holocaust.”

  Many of the stories deal with this backdrop of terror and alienation and seem to question if people really are where they belong in this world.  On the other hand, her characters always show a remarkable resilience.

      The award winning story, “The Story”—it was in The Best American Short Stories—is about storytelling, and both the power and ownership of stories.  Essentially it is about two couples (their children are married) who are trying out a new restaurant.  Pearlman weaves the plot along through the dinner where pleasantries are exchanged and the couples chitchat about the relative merits of the restaurant.  The superficial world is discussed in stories, but behind that story is the ultimate story, the one Lucienne usually shares with people.  It is the story of her father’s arrest by the Nazis and her brother’s escape.  Although she usually shares this story, for many reasons Lucienne will not share it with this couple.  In essence, the couple are not “worthy” of the story.

      The life force is incredibly powerful in Pearlman’s work.  In one beguiling story—the final one in the collection, which makes sense thematically—a retired doctor knows she will commit suicide that day, yet she buys tomatoes she knows she will never eat.  It is simply because the life force is so strong in her, even as she plans her end.

       Much has been made (by other authors) about how Pearlman is undervalued or “not discovered.”  In fact, the imprint Lookout Books is committed to publishing books by “emerging and historically underrepresented voices, as well as works by established writers overlooked by commercial houses.”  And other authors continue to rave about her works.  Why she hasn’t gained the popularity of other writers remains a mystery.  Her writing may be a bit more difficult to penetrate, but once you’re there, you’re in a world that is radical, swift and funny.  Also, she’s a writer who has set out to remind us of where we’ve come from and what we’ve lost along the way. 

Thank you for reminding us, Edith.



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REVIEWING

The Blind Alley

by Grace Edwards


iUniverse | 212 pages | $14.95

Reviewed by Herb Boyd


author iris johansen

Anticipating the ways Grace Edwards will evoke Harlem is one thing her fans relish from her novels, particularly those denizens of the storied community.  But even for those who don’t reside there, Edwards knows how to seduce her readers and to make Harlem and its various neighborhoods seem almost like other characters.           

Five years ago, in her book The Viaduct, Edwards offered this image of the famous jazz joint, Minton’s.  One of her main characters remembered sitting at the bar when Thelonious Monk strolled in after his gig at the Five Spot in downtown Manhattan.  “She watched him lean over the keys, close his eyes, and run his fingers down the chords,” Edwards wrote. “The other musicians struck up but Monk played as if he were alone in the place, listening to notes that only he seemed to hear.  There were solos and duets and the crowd sat spellbound till dawn.  It was hard getting to work the next morning, but it was the best night out she ever remembered.”

Edwards may have had Minton’s in mind when she envisioned The Blind Alley, an afterhours spot located in a Harlem basement.  Certainly, there are her standard musical references, all of which certify her jazz bona fides, and two of the book’s main characters are musicians, a father and a son.  

Even more important than The Blind Alley, where patrons are asked to check their artillery and attitudes at the door, is a tenement where seven families live in fear and trepidation, on pins and needles when Rhino arrives from prison with revenge on his mind.

Shifting her story from character to character, from apartment to apartment, Edwards weaves her narrative in and around the dangerous Rhino, who has a score to settle with each one of the residents where his grandmother lives, and where he returns to terrify.

The suspense is tightly wrought and you wonder who will be Rhino’s first victim.  

“I know of that young man,” said a woman who reads tea leaves, speaking of Rhino to one of the residents. “He’s lost and angry and looking for something he will never find in his present state.  He is carrying an old injury and he will violate everyone and everything in his path.  In the end, it is this anger that will undo him.  Right now, he is the one running and hiding.  There is no need for you to do so.”

Rose, the girlfriend of the man Rhino killed, is both the main target and Rhino’s obsession. 

Still, there are others on his hit list and we get to know them as they interrelate with each other in the tenement and nervously await Rhino’s next move.   Once they are collectively alarmed, they realize they can’t just sit passively and let Rhino take them off one by one.   To this end, each separately prepares his or her own way of resistance or retaliation.

There is a touch of Hitchcock at play here as the residents are bonded by their fear and ready to take a stand against “the stranger who comes to wreak havoc on a town,” so to speak. 

As is her wont, Edwards uses several devices to indicate the time period in which the story takes place.  Even if she didn’t reveal it was 1954, the reference to Brown v. the Board of Education would have been a dead giveaway.   The McCarthy hearings on Un-American activities were another event that marked the era.

Then, there are her clever turns of phrases, her way of playing with words as she does so delightfully with “heresy” and “hear-say.”  There is a series of great lines as when Rose wishes that her boyfriend could take a picture of her feelings. And when a young person, seeking to define “double pneumonia,” believes it was just an American way of naming things twice like “New York, New York.”

Edwards’ tendency to drop pearls of history is strewn throughout the book, never to the point of distraction, but rather to embellish a moment, to expand a thought or image.

Sometimes this is done not to her best advantage as in her mistakes on Redd Foxx and Sarah Vaughan’s names.   There are a number of typos, and the book could have used a good proof-reader and copy editor, but given the diminishing editorial support in the publishing industry—and there is even more vulnerability in self-publishing—such miscues are not surprising. 

Thankfully, they are minor irritants in this engrossing odyssey. 

     The Blind Alley is a fast-paced, smoothly conveyed story with a rather anticipated ending, not at all unlike her often poetic renderings of her beloved Harlem.



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MEMOIR

Fiction Ruined My Family: A Memoir

by Jeanne Darst


Riverhead Books | 2011 | 330 pages | $29.95

Reviewed by Emily Rosen


jeanne darst

Jeanne Darst’s breezy style is at first somewhat off-putting (“Mom was an awfully swell looking lady,” “I heard Don DeLillo lived in town (Bronxville, N.Y.) but I never saw his ass.”), but she does display some Dave Barry type wit, and as she chronicles her adventures as a high-wired kid with ludicrously bad judgment, she includes dollops of insightful writing hidden in its creases.

   Jeanne is the youngest of four daughters, “a book hater, an accomplished reader, a paperwork junkie, and (Jeanne as a child) an idiot detective.” The family lived in St. Louis until Dad moved them to Bronxville, New York.

   Her mother is a major la dee dah. Nee Doris Grissy. she came from a stock of debutantes and prosperity and was the youngest person, as a child equestrian, to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in 1956. Her father, Stephen Darst, is an eternally hopeful freelance writer. He has yet to sell a book, and is perennially working on one about the life of the F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, which proves to be an underlying core theme that Jeanne struggles to unravel.

   A strong influence on Jeanne, her writer-father was a language purist and cautioned her against many writers’ sins. “As a kid, I was terrified of clichés….I was under the impression they could ruin your life, your hopes and dreams, bring down your whole operation if you didn’t watch it. They were a gateway language leading straight to (God forbid?) a business career, a golf marriage, needlepoint pillows…and a self- inflicted gun shot to the head that your family called a heart attack in your alma mater announcements.”

   Tipsy and outrageous, Mama finally became too much for Dad to handle  When their  struggle with the marriage finally reached its inevitable bottom, Mama was good to go. Finally, “With everyone else at college, Mom and Dad waited for me to graduate from high school so they could sell the house and get divorced. I felt like I was a slow eater and the check had been paid and everyone had coats on still sitting at the table, waiting for me to be finished.”

   “Dad had lots of rejections and no money, and during the period when the couple was waiting to split, Mom would be making family meals, while Dad was eating olives and chicken livers as the rest of the family ate lavishly. Dad was fending for himself probably for the first time in his life. And I would rather not have watched…while Mother seemed like Idi Amin, eating her lamb in front of him.”

   The story weaves in an out of Jeanne’s adventurous, risk-taking life, and her never-ending “career” moves: a gofer at a law firm, a co-owner of a housecleaning business, an acting teacher, a topless appearance on a TV show, a limo driver, a website designer, a window box gardener, and a playwright, all the while owning the soul of a writer. In the meantime, she was speeding on her own road towards alcoholic self-destruction.

    Her mother died of a stroke after years of addictive behaviors. “I had wanted her to die … If she died, then I would have had a mother who loved me but just happened to be dead. If she continued living, then I had a mother who was killing herself slowly while I did nothing.”

   Several events in her life lead to an awakening, many lending themselves to high humor, and Jeanne eventually straightens out and becames a kind of fringe member of the establishment. And also, sober.

   But her core issue remains and she struggles with coming to some symbiosis with her parental relationships. Her father’s obsession with Fitzgerald, and particularly Zelda’s life, is seen as a metaphor of his own relationship with his wife.

The question of how much a writer should indulge in his work, to the exclusion of family, is one that leaves Darst pondering. And in her quest, she manages to combine light heartedness with the truth of her angst.



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REVIEWING

Harlem Renaissance Four Novels of the 1930s
The Library of America Collection

Edited by Rafia Zafar


The Library of America | 850 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell


author rafia zafar

New Beginnings


“Suddenly the aged Negro dropped to one knee, his hands resting on the arm of the planter’s [master’s] chair, and began weeping aloud.”  This is a passage from Black Thunder, by Arna Bontemps, and one of the four novels in this extraordinary volume, a companion to Harlem Renaissance Five Novels of the 1920s, alsoedited by Rafia Zafar(author of We Wear the Masks).

In this section, Ben, a house slave in southeastern Virginia during the 1800s, betrays a slave insurrection, condemning hundreds of his brothers and sisters to horrible deaths.

Bontemps describes Ben as the aged house slave/butler who believed his master’s life and comfort were more valuable than the lives of Ben’s own people. In short, Ben was exactly as his master described him, “a good boy.” 

Unfortunately, the leaders of the insurrection believed that Ben and another slave were trustworthy. Bontemps gives us an intimate portrait of Ben’s mindset and that of the leaders of the aborted insurrection.

“Don’t you want to be free, fool,” Blue said.

“I reckon I does.”

“You reckon?”

Bontemps, one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance, culled thousands of slave narratives before he found this particular slave revolt.

According to the notes in the back of this volume, he used the renowned Fisk University Library for his research. Bontemps combined fact and fiction in this novel. Unlike the more famous slave insurrections, this one terrified the whites in Virginia and across the southeast.  Apparently, it aroused their deepest fears of being outnumbered by angry slaves. In fact, according to Bontemps, slaves were in the majority in that part of Virginia at the time. The leaders of the attempted insurrection organized virtually in full view of the slavers. Their planning was flawless and completely undetected.

During his trial, the designated general, Gabriel, explained to the prosecuting attorney how the slaves were going to take over the territory.

“…and how did you imagine you’d be able to take the city?”

“We was ready to hit fast. We had three lines, and the one in the middle was going to split in two. They was coming in town from both ends at once. They wasn’t going to spare nothing what helt up its hand against us.”

The town contained an arsenal and ammunition. The slaves were poised to take it and liberate their brothers and sisters as far south as they could.

A master of metaphor, Bontemps explains the fate that Ben can expect at the hands of his fellow slaves by the end of the novel.

“But Ben could not forget Gabriel’s shining naked body or the arc inscribed by the executioner’s ax. He could not feel reassured about the knives that waited for him with the sweet brown thrashers in every hedge and clump.”

House slaves of a different sort are the focus of George S. Schuyler’s scathing satire, Black No More. In this book, the black people don’t want to please massa. They want to be massa. As the title suggests, Blackness becomes a thing of the past. A new scientific treatment turns black people into white people, complete with straight blonde hair. In no time, Black people disappear, and the majority of America’s inhabitants are white.

Schuyler pours a kind of sulfuric acid on the characters of the book that are clearly drawn from real-life notables. Their names are suggestive of their personalities. One of the senators is named The Honorable Walter Brybe. The black doctor who administers the treatment is named Dr. Junius Crookman.

Representatives of the NAACP, labor unions, the Black church, the Ku Klux Klan, and senators of dubious ancestry want the treatment outlawed. The leaders of Black America would be out of jobs if there was no racism. The KKK doesn’t want white America sullied by Blacks passing for white. Racists unions don’t want Black laborers competing for their jobs. With the new treatment, there’s no way to parcel out the jobs to a chosen few whites. Some of the senators themselves have been passing for white for years. This new treatment is causing Americans to question the ancestry of even their trusted elected officials.

Schuyler takes his annihilating and irreverent humor to the next level. The protagonist, a hustler named Max (later Matt), has had the treatment. He moves to the South in pursuit of a white woman who snubbed him (when he was Black) in a Harlem night club. While there, he becomes the leader of one of the most racists groups in the country, the Knights of Nordica. He uses their treasury to make himself a multimillionaire. Then he thwarts their efforts to kill any number of black people.

He finds the girl, who falls madly in love with his money, at first. Problems arise when there are no more black people to do the menial, but essential jobs in the country.

Can America exist with only one race? Schuyler’s answer to that

question is hilarious, but troubling.

Humor also features prominently in Rudolph Fisher’s murder mystery, The Conjure-Man Dies.

Fisher’s protagonist is Dr. John Archer, “A tall, slender, light-skinned man of obviously habitual composure…. who practices in Harlem.”

Dr. Archer is called to address an urgent case across the street from his brownstone. Sadly, the would-be patient, one of the doctor’s neighbors, is beyond any help the physician can give.

The gentleman who brings Dr. Archer to the scene of the crime is quite a character.

“And you—if I don’t presume?”

“Me? I’m Bubber Brown—”

“Well, how did this happen, Mr. Brown?”

“ ’Deed I don’t know, doc. What you mean—is somebody killed him?”

Bubber and his sidekick Jinx are a combination of Amos and Andy and King Lear’s fool.

The victim was a psychic named Frimbo, with a gift for fortune telling and a small fortune. He lived in a Harlem that Fisher makes clear is a world unto itself of de facto segregation. Consequently, the New York Police Department sends an all-black police unit to the crime scene. The detective assigned to the case is a man named Perry Dart:

“Of the ten Negro members of Harlem’s police force to be promoted from the rank of patrolman to that of detective, Perry Dart was one of the first.”

However, while describing Perry and indeed all of the novel’s characters, Fisher appears to be color struck.

“As if the city administration had wished to leave no doubt in the public mind as to its intention in the matter, they had chosen in him a man who could not have been under any circumstances mistaken for aught but a Negro; or perhaps, as Dart’s intimates insisted, they had chosen him because his generously pigmented skin rendered him invisible in the dark, a conceivably great advantage to a detective who did most of his work at night.”  Then Fisher explains that Dart’s dark skin doesn’t impair his intelligence.

Dart directs the murder investigation and recruits Dr. Archer to assist him. The pair quickly learns that the victim was very reclusive, but he had powerful enemies. Among them was the numbers runner Spider Webb, who under Dart’s interrogation, outlines his problem with the murdered man:

“This Frimbo was a smart guy—much too smart,” Spider Webb began.

“Yes?”

“Yea. He had a system of playing the game that couldn’t lose. I don’t know how he did it—whether he worked out somethin’ mathematical or was just a good guesser or what. But he could hit regular once a week without fail.”

In short, the crime boss couldn’t afford to pay out so much. Frimbo, according to Webb, could either stop winning or stop living. Frimbo does die--for a time. Then he comes back to life and explains to the police that he can rise from the dead. Now they must decide if they should investigate a murder that no longer has a murder victim. In the meantime, Webb is just one of a growing number of suspects in this maybe murder.

Death comes stalking unequivocally in Langston Hughes’ only novel, Not Without Laughter. Unlike the other three novels in this volume, there is very little humor in this book. Hughes is writing about the death of the soul and the death of soul mates.

In this coming of age, autobiographical novel, Sandy, a young Black boy, is being raised primarily by his grandmother, Aunt Hager. It is pre-WWI Kansas. We meet the two as they barely escape a cyclone. They prepare to go to the home of their white neighbor because she has a cellar in which they can ride out the storm safely.

“It’s a cyclone! It’s gwine be a cyclone! Sandy, let’s get over to Mis’ Carter’s quick,’cause we ain’t got no cellar here. Con on, chile, let’s get! Come on, chile!...Come on, chile!”….

“Aunt Hagar opened the front door, but before she or the child could move, a great roaring sound suddenly shook the world, and, with a deafening division of wood from wood, they saw their front porch rise into the air and go hurtling off into space.”

The two huddled inside their small cabin. The twister is in some ways a metaphor for the boy’s life. An only child, he is the center of his grandmother’s and mother Anjee’s world. Sandy’s two aunts dote on him also, but differently.

Hughes characterizes the youngest Aunt Harriett as a free spirit. There is little opportunity for a black woman in the South who has little education and who doesn’t want to be a maid or a laundress.

“What for?” Harriett retorted angrily. “There’s plenty what for! All that work for five dollars a week with what little tips those pikers give you. And white men insulting you besides, asking you to sleep with ’em. Look at my finger-nails, all broke from scrubbing that dining-room floor.”

His Aunt Tempy is cold and withdrawn. She has married well, and avoids her poverty stricken family.  When Aunt Hager dies, Tempy takes Sandy in. Still, Tempy is a loveless woman and no ally to the boy.

Unlike the other three novels in this volume, Hughes’ work addresses the issue of the poor working class. This is the generation after slavery. These are the descendants of slaves whose parents and grandparents left the South for a better life in the Midwest. What they found was a variation on the same theme: segregation and menial jobs.

For Black men, finding work was excruciatingly hard. Jimboy, Sandy’s father, was seldom at home because he was always looking for work:

“Jimboy was always going, but Aunt Hager was wrong about his never working. It was just that he couldn’t stay in one place all the time. …Besides, what was there in Stanton anyhow for a young colored fellow to do except dig sewer ditches for a few cents an hour or maybe porter around a store for seven dollars a week.”

Not Without Laughter is a meditative work that gently depicts some harsh realities of Black American life. Yet it ends on a hopeful note. Sandy is on his way to an education that will change his life.

Each of the novels in this volume is a legacy. All of the authors are gifted.

They bring craft and insight to record the heroic struggles of black people in combating racism and its antecedents, segregation and slavery.

Editor Rafia Zafar deserves thanks and praise for her decision first to republish these novels, and second, to include “authoritative texts and a chronology, biographies, and notes reflecting the latest scholarship” in these works. She also included passages that had been edited out of several of the novels when they were first published. These volumes are a gift to our community and the literary community as a whole, and so is she.

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REVIEWING

Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

by Stephan V. Beyer


University of New Mexico Press | 544 pages

Reviewed by Barbara Snow


author steven beyer

Ayahuasca is a plant which has the effect that when you drink it, it allows you to see what otherwise is invisible, and it attracts the spirits. It is not that the ayahuasca takes one to another world, otherwise unreachable; it just opens one’s eyes to what is normally hidden. There is only one world, which is shared by all beings, humans, spirits, and animals. ~ Anthropologist Marie Perruchon, married to a Shuar husband and an initiated uwishin. (Pg. 37, Singing to the Plants)

The territory occupied by the shaman is suffering, hope, failure, envy, spite and malice. (Pg. 45, Singing to the Plants)

Human consciousness is no less complex in the Amazon than it is in New York city. In Singing to the Plants, Dr. Stephan Beyers undertakes a thorough and clear-eyed investigation into the nature of the ailments of all humans, and the ways in which we experience healing. Healthy skepticism concedes to sometimes extraordinary results. This book presents a scholarly, balanced view of a potent form of indigenous spirituality and its place within modern times.

“Singing to the plants” refers to the icaros, songs a shaman sings in ceremony that are hymns to the spirits of these plants whose use expands human awareness. Work with the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca, which contains naturally occurring DMT, is an integral aspect of South American shamanism. Present day investigators cannot account for the breadth of knowledge shamans have on the healing properties of plants, knowledge achieved through ceremonial ingestion of ayahuasca and a carefully cultivated relationship with the spirits of plants.

This is not unique to the Amazon. Indigenous people on every continent employ hallucinogens to expand consciousness. Beyer speaks to the use of peyote in Native (North) American churches and the many extensive efforts to legitimize these substances that the U.S. government has declared dangerous, Schedule 1 drugs.

Beyer writes with the humble respect of an apprentice as he chronicles his intimate relationship with two respected shamans. His is neither a romanticized journey into inexplicable magic nor an expose of pretenders preying upon the ignorant. Nor does Beyer try to downplay the wide-spread use of sorcery as a political equalizer. His rigor as an academic validates his commitment as he submits to the initiations essential to acquire shamanic power. Beyer also presents the ubiquitous struggle within people and communities for position, power and comfort, and the layers of acculturation from various forms of colonization that continue even now.

Over the past two decades, indigenous young people have tended to discount what is familiar, embrace the glamour of encroaching cultures, and seek comfort and pleasure rather than discipline. At the same time, affluent foreign seekers, disillusioned with standard forms of spirituality, or drawn by curiosity or a hope for authenticity, have sought indigenous shamanic work. Some seek a magic pill to heal their wounds and make them happy without their needing to reflect or change. Although ayahuasco purging doesn’t feel magical and its visions generally initiate a longer process of transformation, this spiritual technology has generated an ever-increasing flood of spiritual tourists traveling south to feel the energy of sacred sites and sit in ceremony with shamans.

    

The widely touted prophecy of the eagle and the condor seems to support the phenomenon. The prophecy holds that when the eagle (representing either the human mind or the technological mindset of North Americans) and the condor (representing the heart or the nature-based awareness of indigenous peoples) fly together in the skies, the earth will begin to heal. Admittedly, shamanic tradition changes as it adapts to the people it serves, but the effectiveness of the work endears it to those outside its normal confines. Dr. Beyer, the researcher, presents his explorations of the shamanic world in concrete, grounded terms, avoiding mystical, magical language, but insisting that all spiritual “work” must engage human consciousness. Whatever your means of spiritual expression, Singing to the Plants can help you evaluate the relationship between mystery and rationalism. After that, it’s up to you.



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REVIEWING

Always Plenty To Do: Growing up on a Farm in the Long Ago

by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg


Texas Tech University Press | 144 pages | 2011

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


author pamela riney-kehrberg

Although this slim volume is for young readers, I was drawn to it for many reasons, one of which was because I had personally lived some of what Professor Pamela Riney-Kehrberg describes in her book (You can find my account at Neworld Review, No. 5, Chapter One of my memoir, And Mistakes Made Along the Way “The Morton’s of Virginia”).

I was familiar first hand with slopping the hogs, outhouses, pulling weeds, milking cows, drawing water from the well, wringing the head off a chicken, chopping wood, and gathering whatever food we could through fishing, hunting and poaching, if the case called for it. We had great food, took baths in a big round tin tub in the kitchen next to the large, wood burning stove on Saturdays nights, and were surrounded day and night by a small army of brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts, as well as closeted white relatives we only whispered about.  

       

Her book had me pondering about our brave new world of machines that now do the chores that we once did, and I recalled a quote from a historian that said, “The Agrarian Age was the most grim, brutish, barbaric period in human history.” and wondered how in the future, a similar historian will characterize our plugged in world of the early 21st Century.

In Always Plenty to Do, there is little wonder there was plenty to do, because this was a world of ceaseless labor, with only a 50/50 chance that locusts, drought, or more rain that one needed, would render ones efforts meaningless. This is what most humans experienced before the age of machines, and profound, life changing innovations like electricity.

In this world, young people, as Professor Riney-Kehrberg points out, almost as soon as they were able to walk, played just as important a role in the survival of the family as anyone.

“If you stepped back in time and visited a farm in 1900,” she writes, “you would see a very different world from the one you live in. The food didn’t come from a box or a can but from the garden or the henhouse. Most of the clothes people wore were home made too, and the houses were small and cramped. All around you, boys, girls, mothers, and fathers worked, doing the day’s chores and making their home a good place to live.”

Schooling for young people often meant a one room schoolhouse, which just as often, “require a two-mile hike across fields, through the woods, and over a stream…farm children worked outside in every kind of weather, from the blazing hot summer sun to the freezing cold winter wind. The children worked more than they played or studied, and they often sacrificed time from school and play to tend to the needs of their parents’ farms” she writes.

Professor Riney-Kehrberg indicated that this time lasted to the end of World War. By this time, we started seeing the slow impact of the world of machines coming into play: tractors, combines, school buses, electricity, indoor plumping and central heating, etc. However, this march of progress took considerable time to spread to the world that we know of today.

For example, my Grandfather’s large farm in Northern Virginia, at the time I lived there in the late 40’s, was still a place of horse-drawn transportation, outhouses, large cast iron stoves that relied on wood; and all of us on the farm were very aware of the fact that we created most of what we consumed by our efforts, including a small tot like me.

But we did have electricity!

One final personal note about life on the farm for a young person, not even in the second grade: I often chuckle to myself when I hear people talking about how we must shelter young minds from being exposed to sex at too early an age. What a laugh! On the farm, the whole damn thing was about sex. Without sex, the more the better, there wouldn’t be a farm, or food to eat, or clothes to wear.

Chickens were screwing chickens, pigs were screwing pigs, cows were screwing cows, goats were screwing goats and Grandpa and Grandma were busy producing 14 children!

Just walking out of our big white house in the morning was like walking into one big porno movie.

If you didn’t know about the birds and bees, and where babies came from by the time you were five, you were a dullard indeed, and hadn’t yet opened your eyes.

     Professor Riney-Kehrberg has produced an insightful book for young people to give them some idea of what life on the farm was really like, and help ground them in early Americana; and, in the unintended consequence, for the more thoughtful of young readers of her book, a deep insight into why slavery existed for so long, and why so many young farm boys everywhere in the world eagerly volunteered to join whatever army offered them escape, despite the many dangers, and why so many fled that harsh life as soon as they could, and why cities held such allure.



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REVIEWING

The Leftovers

by Tom Perrotta


Macmillan Audio | 2011 |Running time: 10 hours | 8 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey


author tom perrotta

Imagine the rapture has just occurred. You left your family in one room or looked away from your friend to watch a video (or read a review) on the computer screen only to find that when you look back they are gone. You are now one of the Leftovers. What do you do? How do you go forward?

Tom Perrotta’s novel, The Leftovers, explores a world where this happens. With no rhyme or reason to explain how or why it happened or who was chosen and why, the city of Mapleton tries to deal with the tragedy. The Garvey family, Kevin, Laurie, Jill, and Tom, although all left behind, struggle independently to find their path and make sense of the world. The paths taken by the family members and other town citizens are unique to the characters and quite diverse, ranging from cults to becoming the mayor as a member of the “Hopeful Party”.

The Leftovers poses a serious question in an age with increasing amounts of rapture paranoia. Through the story, he seems to subtly ask, “How would you handle being left behind?” And you might ask yourself, would I be the angry reverend who cries, “I gave everything to Him?” Or would I take a vow to silently and dutifully remind the world that it has changed and a return to normalcy is unacceptable? Would I try to find hope in exercise, connecting with others, or even in the possibility of making the softball league coed?

Perrotta displays the strength and weakness of family bonds and friendship, and the significance of personal choice, as the characters all try to find happiness, or simply hide from the pain of being left behind. The journeys each character takes includes hope, some level of despair, confusion, and choice, taking them to a new (although not necessarily ideal) place they all seem to ultimately accept for themselves.

Even though there is scattered humor and moments of suspense, I found the real merit of The Leftovers in the emotions and struggles the characters face. The image created of the post-apocalyptic world is realistic and creative, allowing the reader to dive in for the emotional, and often heartbreaking, ride.

And the great character actor, Dennis Boutsikaris, shows his skill once again in reading this novel, complementing the narrative in all but his high female voice (it’s a tough one for most readers). I enjoyed The Leftovers in the overall experience it delivers, but I especially appreciated the unique, imaginative, and human perspectives that Perrotta created for our listening/reading pleasure.



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