In this issue we are blessed to include not one, but two highly acclaimed black male writers, both with huge followings, both highly lauded, and both making a decent living from their art.
None of my poor, beleaguered, beloved, Bohemians and Beats here.
Be that as it may, as most of you well know, the mighty Goddess of Literary Success has not nodded her kindly head of late to America’s black male writers.
It seemed that they had a heyday during the 40s, the 50s, and the 60s when Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, were the literary voices of real authority in America.
But, again, as most of you well know, it ended in the 70s, and that was the end of that.
I hope you read both Herb Boyd’s delightful profile of Jamaican writer, Marlon James, and Robert Fleming’s insightful review of MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner, American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, best selling tome, Between The World And Me.
I think that if you read between the lines of both articles you will discover two far different worlds.
Enjoy this exceptional issue.
One evening last September, after getting off the A-Train in Harlem, as I walked toward the exit at 145th Street, I noticed a young man with dreads sitting on a bench, presumably waiting for the next train. What caught my eye was a Strand shopping bag beside him overflowing with books.
A black man with books, particularly a bunch of them from my favorite bookstore in New York City, warranted more than a passing glance. Furthermore, he looked familiar.
The closer I got to him the more familiar he looked. Why it was the author Marlon James!
I was stunned to see him sitting there like any one of the homeless folks who frequent the station. I had met him for the first time a week or two before when we were panelists at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2014.
In fact, he was the moderator, and it didn’t appear to be his métier since the topic was of non-fiction with Greg Grandin, an expert on the works of Herman Melville, and I as the discussants. Even so, he held his own with probing questions about Melville and Malcolm X.
Before that event I had heard of Marlon from a friend, Kurt Thometz, an antiquarian with a bookstore in Upper Manhattan. The bookstore was on the bottom floor of his brownstone and in the back he had a room, a bed and breakfast unit that Marlon often used whenever he was in town.
After the panel we promised to stay in touch, but I knew that was just small talk, so, we bade each other farewell and went our separate ways.
So, you can imagine my amazement to see him in the subway, hunched over a book, waiting for a train.
I greeted him and at first he seemed puzzled, trying to figure out who I was. His recognition of me did not arrive fast enough, so, I reminded him of our shared Brooklyn event. There was a brief smile, a kindly nod, and I realized that I was an intruder who was interrupting his reading.
Kurt had told me that he was a voracious reader and, when he wasn’t reading, he was busy working nonstop on one of his books. I had read none of his books. In fact, but for his praise, I may not have ever paid them attention.
Given his overwhelming raves, I decided I would get his latest book A Brief History of Seven Killings, (Riverhead Books, 2014). I got it on my Nook from Barnes and Noble and, since I was in the process of completing my own book and preparing to teach my....Read More
While in a bookstore in Silver Lake (LA) recently I came across some books by an author of whom I had never heard—Elena Ferrante, a Neapolitan novelist. It was the book’s cover that attracted me—a photograph of newlyweds facing the sea, followed by three small girls in pink satin dresses.
From the praise on the book’s back cover, I felt this was a book I must read: “the truest evocation of a complex and lifelong friend between women I’d ever read,”—Emily Gould, author of Friendship; “Eleana Ferrante will blow you away,”—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones; “compelling, visceral, and immediate…a riveting examination of power…the Neapolitan novels are a tour de force,”—Jennifer Gilmore, The Los Angeles Times; and, so on…
This was not faint praise. Indeed, these reviewers had not exaggerated. Reading My Brilliant Friend was one of the most intensely enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had, and I can add my own list of adjectives to describe it—addictive, engrossing, and compelling.
I hated for the book to end but I need not despair, for My Brilliant Friend is the ....Read More
Shall I once again take another short little break from all of this gloom and doom and Big Bang stuff, and tell you more about how life was for Mother and me once we settled in Brooklyn, Father?
Ok, let’s talk about Mother. You want to know more about what life was like in Brighton Beach for Mother. We found a great place a half-a-block from the beach at 3099 Brighton 6 Street on the fifth floor over looking the street.
You know that by now she was a mature woman in her fifties, with brand new front teeth and all. Her cousin immediately found her a job in a Russian bookstore near where we lived, and she could walk to work. That was the first big blessing: no more cars, with their expensive gas, constant breakdowns and watchful cops always on the prowl. Mother rarely got political about anything, but she always thought the politicians in LA needed to be put in jail for not providing adequate public transportation.
Soon she started to regain her old confidence. This is where I first understood the power of art. It was art, Father! That was your great insight into what made some of us so different. Sergie couldn’t take it away from her. The lost of you, her precious black American Pushkin couldn’t take it away. This strange, artless country couldn’t take it away.
An artist is always an artist, until they die. And yes, she was an artist, you once wrote about her.
And how right you were, Father. She founded a theatre company dedicated to the Russian classics, which were performed only in Russian. The Pushkin Playhouse, she grandly named it, in honor of both her only son, and the great Pushkin of mother Russia.
I remember her taking me to this small storefront at 259 Brighton 2 Street, right off of busy Brighton Beach Avenue. I could still see the old sign of its former business. It was barely readable. It read: Barber Shop.
“See, Alex,” Mother said. “Need work.”
Need work indeed! I worked with Mother for months helping get the theater in shape. The inside looked like it had not been occupied in years, and had a stale, funny smell. In the end, the theater was small potatoes, but it kept her busy and made her happy. She loved being on stage, as you well know, Father. But now, she was not only acting, but she also tried her hand at directing.
And, as you have undoubtedly guessed by now, I grew up fluent in Russian. After you died that was almost all we spoke in our apartment. That’s why I could give the finger to people like David who dared....Read More
There are many voices, genuine and bogus, that speak for African-Americans both to the black community and the white world. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 39-year-old national correspondent for The Atlantic, is now anointed as the preeminent literary spokesman on matters of race and culture in American media. Whether one likes it or not, Mr. Coates holds great influence in certain quarters for his body of work. His new offering, Between the World and Me is a national bestseller, helped, no doubt, by Coates’ being selected this year as one of the 24 “genius” recipients by the John David and Catherine T. Foundation.
Upon learning that he was picked for the prestigious award, Coates was stunned, responding, “When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation I was ecstatic.You know, if anybody even reads what I’m doing, that’s a great day.”
He received a prize of $625,000 over five years to further pursue his writing career.
With the success of his artful 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, Coates has collected several awards, including the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story, “The Case for....Read More
“Elaine’s.” One word. One name. But to this day it signifies a world gone by.
In her new and tightly assembled book of reminiscences about Elaine, the legendary overlord of what used to be New York’s most esteemed watering hole, author Amy Phillips Penn (whose society columnist career began at the New York Post) has created a chronicle that offers evocative echoes of an era.
It’s a small book with big heart, because the persona of Elaine is the main event.
That’s what makes the legend of Elaine’s (the place) loom so large. Pun intended. Elaine herself was a huge woman who made being corpulent a badge of honor. As the proprietor and all-around top....Read More
Of these sounds:
A train, lizards in the bush,
Distant religious music
Loud enough for me
To chant with,
Celebration of voices
Rising up into the sky
Simplicity with sitar
Climbing with the moon,....Read More
I have been teaching memoir writing workshops for the past 15 years. For all those years, I’ve been defending the genre against the elite literati, for whom only fiction and poetry hold any true artistic value
The phrase “good writing is good writing – whether on a tombstone or a love note or an ad for ED pills,” rings hollow to the tone-deaf guardians of invented stories and some
kinds of poetry.
To them I say, “Get over it!”
Memoirs are here to stay and they share the same ratio of exquisite soul-searing inspiration to mundane claptrap as any other genre. And Mary Karr is the go-to person to point out all the nuances that confer to it, legitimacy and, as appropriate, eminence and artistic value.
Simply stated, she avers: ..”It’s from the need to capture the shared connections between us that symphonies were invented. Ditto memoirs.”
Kirkus referred to the “Sassy Texas wit” of the multi published Syracuse University literature professor, who can legitimately rest on the “laurels” received from each of her three memoirs, The Liar’s Club, Cherry and Lit.- and five non memoir books. (the thing about “memoir” is that one can write them in the same prodigious quantity as Joyce Carol Oates can produce her endless fiction --- and still not reveal every aspect of a life ) --- Indeed, one does hear echoes of the late Texas wit, Molly Ivins, in the “voice” of Karr who, though disparaging writers who quote from themselves, succinctly tells us, “If I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have more Nabokov in here.”
She is a stickler for “truthiness,” (thanks for that word, Stephen Colbert) “wholly opposing” making things up, but nonetheless is “wholly” cognizant of the tricks of memory and inadvertent misstatement, covering that issue in all of its possible iterations. Citing some of the more reviled examples of “corrupted” memoirs, James Frey’s a Million Little Pieces and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea among them, she has little tolerance for its base falsifications.
“Carnality … by that I mean, can you apprehend it through the five senses,” is possibly the most salient of her writer-tips. “A great glutton can evoke the salty bite of pastrami on black rye, the sex addict will excel at smooth flesh…Every memoir should brim over with physical experiences ...the smell of garlicy gumbo, your hand in an animal’s fur, …”
Of course, that goes for good writing in any genre.
But it is “interiority” that makes a book rereadable, says Karr, …” translation: Great. Your connections to most authors....Read More
JoJo Moyes is a popular British author of women’s fiction with thirteen notches (novels) to her belt. She’s been a two-time winner of the Romantic Novelist’s Award, and Me Before You garnered a nomination for Book of the Year at the UK Galaxy Book Awards, going on to sell over three million copies worldwide. The decision to resurrect the protagonist of that novel, Louisa Clark, was a no-brainer: Moye’s fans clamored for more. And it’s easy to see why.
After You, the sequel to Me Before You, imagines the life of Louisa several years after the death of her true love, Will Traynor, a quadriplegic who ended his own life with a little help from his friends. Ideally, the reader would read the first book first; however, I am happy to report that After You is strong enough to stand on its own.
Louisa, a working-class woman, seems to be fumbling around with no direction in her life. She hears Will’s voice in her head, tries to heed his advice, but she is paralyzed by inertia. Though only in her mid-twenties, she is apathetic to an extreme degree, willing herself to be satisfied with a truly ridiculous and somewhat demeaning job, a boss from hell, a bare unpainted apartment, no social life and no friends. She is estranged from her once close-knit family. Her only outlets seem to be hitting the booze after a day’s work or infrequently, the pub.
A near fatal accident deposits her back in the arms of her family temporarily, but long enough for her to renew ties, and to begin to appreciate their loving support. Because the circumstances of her accident have created doubts in the minds of her relatives as to her mental health, her dad requests that she enroll in a weekly bereavement group.
The Moving On group becomes the vehicle for incremental change and the key to her recovery. The second factor that pushes her out of her funk is the discovery that Will Traynor has left behind something even he did not know about. New people are introduced into Louisa’s life, shaking up her deadening routine, and forcing her to take on news....Read More
The name Susan Cheever signifies quickly (especially her last name) to anyone in love with postwar American literature.
She is, indeed, the daughter of short-story master, John Cheever. As such, she is also the trailblazing author of the memoir, Home before Dark (first published more than 30 years ago, when memoirs were neither much encouraged nor at all in vogue). In one fell swoop, that deeply textured narrative confronted alcoholism, fathers, and family dynamics, and shocked some readers due to its confessional elements.
She has also written five novels, other memoirs, and notable biographies of Louisa May Alcott, E. E. Cummings, and Bill Wilson (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous).
With her new chronicle, Drinking in America, the author’s lifelong preoccupation with what alcohol does to human beings and how personal histories are affected by one’s drinking habits coalesces once again. Only this time, it’s a national story.
The subtitle of Drinking in America is “Our Secret History.” And that’s no lie. In 14 smoothly written, well-researched, provocative pages, Susan Cheever makes the case that from its inception centuries ago to the recent epoch of fear and anxiety presided over by George W. Bush, alcohol abuse has had a major impact on the course of American history.
She notes that it’s a topic that has been largely taboo. How right she is.
Her narrative benefits from a strict chronological order, creating a dual storyline of America’s unfolding as a nation-building, conquest-oriented quest mixing personal independence with “manifest destiny,” all set against the chronic and sometimes embarrassing fact that along the way we’ve oftentimes been a nation of drunks.
In Chapter 1, Cheever sums up: “There are two strains of American belief about drinking: the one that holds our freedom to eat and drink as an essential liberty, and the other that hopes to limit our drinking through law for the good of the community. The one created a level of drunkenness in the 1830’s that shocked European visitors. The other instituted Prohibition in the 1920’s. The one holds our right to drink the way we choose as sacred. The other....Read More
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