I stumbled upon a great book while browsing at the library: The Power of Pride – Stylemakers and Rulebreakers of the Harlem Renaissance by Carole Marks and Diana Edkins. The book outlines the lives of seventeen men and women who characterize what came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance in the very early years of the 1920’s. I must admit, I was drawn to the book initially because of its eye-popping cover featuring Josephine Baker in a stunning pose. Inside, the book outlines the lives of other Renaissance icons, to include: Walter White, Zora Neale Hurston, A’Lelia Walker, James Weldon Johnson, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Florence Mills, Duke Ellingnton, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, and Dorothy West. In the Introduction, the authors write about why they chose these individuals specifically: not only for the fact that they were some of the most prominent men and women of this Renaissance–irreverent, racy, painfully honest, and risk-takers in dangerous times–but also for another curious (to me) reason. According to the author, they were all united by three traits or “obsessions”: a life-long passion for learning, a fascination with the theme of “passing,” and a fixation with degrees of color. Their obsession and sometimes personal battles with their color threatened their authenticity and self image, but in the end, they were victorious, and emerged with a sense of pride. The backgrounds and stories of each are quite varied, but also united, I observed, by movement and leaving home at an early age. The book is divided into chapters which reflect this movement: the waves that emigrated from the south into Halem, Chicago, and Washington DC. The great migration which spawned this Renaissance is captured in a recent book, which has enjoyed great acclaim: The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. I intend to put that one on my reading list. In the meantime, I can’t think of a better way to honor Black History Month than to pick up a copy of either of these works.
Update: The Howard County Public Library in Maryland is hosting Isabel Wilkerson to talk about her work on 2 May 2013. See information below:
EDWARD P. JONES
In conversation with Ron Charles
Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author Edward P. Jones discusses his body of work with Ron Charles, fiction editor of The Washington Post.
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Jones was awarded the National Book Critics Circle award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and the Lannan Literary Award for The Known World. His first collection of stories, Lost in the City, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was short listed for the National Book Award. His second collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children , was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. He also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. Books available for purchase and signing.
HCLS EAST COLUMBIA BRANCH, 50+ CENTER (410.313.7700)
Tuesday, Mar 19
7 – 8:30 pm
Presented in partnership with HoCoPoLitSo. Sponsored by Friends of Howard County Library.
Save the date:
In conversation with Korva Coleman
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson presents the award-winning The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration . The story tells of the decades-long migration of six million black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970 in search of a better life. NPR’s Korva Coleman joins Isabel Wilkerson for Q&A, followed by a reception.
HCLS MILLER BRANCH (410.313.1950)
Thursday, May 2
7 – 9 pm
Presented in partnership with HoCoPoLitSo. Sponsored by Friends of Howard County Library and Phyllis and James Madachy.
The novel “Sarah’s Key” by Tatiana DeRosnay holds great promise initially, but then fizzles. At the start of the novel, we are introduced to Sarah, a young girl in occupied France in the summer of 1942. One horrible night, the police come to her home to transport her, her family, and tens of thousands of other Jews to the Velodrome d’Hiver in a notorious round-up ordered by the Nazis, but executed by the French. The little girl, Sarah, locks her baby brother in a secret cupboard in the apartment, where she thinks he will be safe, promising to come back later for him. Instead, the family is held in the stadium under nightmarish conditions, then transported out of the city on buses and trains to French interment camps. There, the adults were torn from their children and shipped to death camps in Poland; the children disposed of later. Sarah manages to escape, and the novel chronicles her heroic trek back to Paris in order to free her little brother. This early part of the novel is told from two alternating points of view–Sarah, and an american journalist in Paris, Julia Jarmand, who is writing a story on the Val d’Hiv Round-up. This technique is effective in that we follow Sarah’s story moving forward chronologically as we also see Julia working backward in time, uncovering the past and making startling discoveries. The history become personal when Julia uncovers the fact that her husband’s family owns the very apartment from which Sarah’s family was taken that fateful night. There are a lot of incredible coincidences in the story, but we forgive the author as long as the story is compelling and draws us along. Unfortunately, the story reaches a climax when Sarah manages to return to Paris–then she drops out of the novel. We are left with only Julia’s story–her search for the truth, her relationship with her vain and self-absorbed French husband, and her struggles with her in-laws who do not seem to care about the Round-up and want to forget the past. The story lost my interest and sadly wandered on for several more chapters, wherein Julia searches for and finds Sarah’s son, William. The son’s reaction to the story he never knew seems to me over-blown and bizarre. This whole portion of the book would have been better left of the cutting room floor. Plot and character problems aside, it is a worthwhile read for no other reason than to educate people about that terrible round-up and extermination of French Jews (something I did not know about at all, I am ashamed to say). The story does point a damning finger at Vichy France as well as the citizens today, who are portrayed as uninformed or uncaring. Overall, it is a worthwhile story because it fulfills its central theme: Never Forget!
“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout is best described as a novel told in stories. Each chapter is a beautifully crafted short story in and of itself, but when taken as a whole, the work provides not only a portrait of life in the small town of Crosby, Maine, as seen through the eyes of its various inhabitants, it also paints a microcosm of the human condition at large. We are introduced to Olive — a retired math teacher, a no-nonsense and sometimes gruff individual–through the many stories told by her long-suffering and good natured husband, Henry, from a despondent former student, neighbors, extended family, and from Olive herself. Each story gives the reader a slightly different view of Olive–sometimes amazingly insightful and kind, other times refusing to see the truth around her. Each peels back another layer on this multi-dimensional character, and gives the reader a real sense that we know all these people: her husband, her son, her best friend, Bunny. But, we are still in for a surprise in the end, when Olive herself discovers facets of her character and a view of life as yet unexplored. I liked the technique of this novel told in stories, each one unique, yet I understand the criticism from other readers. It felt a lot like the ghost of Christmas present in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge is allowed a glimpse into the lives of his various acquaintances, then forced to move on as the night progresses. I, too, wanted to linger over certain stories and learn more about the characters, to find out what happened. Sometimes a later story would pick up a thread, but often not. It could leave a reader with an unsatisfied feeling. Overall, I would rate this one of the best books I have read (but did not really read, as I listened to it on tape) in recent years. The author, Strout, deserves her prize. One final word, if you do listen to the recorded version by Sandra Burr (I find some books are successfully read aloud, others not), I found her attempt to voice the “down Maine” accent distracting an in some measure annoying, especially for the character of Henry. But audio book readers, don’t be put off by this…the work is so well done as to overcome such a small thing as this.
Alexander McCall Smith’s story “La’s Orchestra Saves the World” is a departure from his usual much-enjoyed series, but still maintains elements of his quiet observations of life in the mouths of his unique and lovable characters. This story, told from the viewpoint of a young widow during World War II, examines the human condition in the English countryside, as young men go off to war and don’t return, rationing and food scarcities bring out the best or the worse in neighbors, and everyone is just struggling to find their balance in a country which has suddenly been threatened with extinction. La, the main character, is an educated woman who has always felt marginalized in life, first by a husband who refused to let her hold a job and then by the War Department, being given only small tasks to help with the war effort. Her sense of being a “handmaiden” in life, of always watching from the sidelines and not being truly involved, is also played out in her relationship with a handsome Polish flyer, who is taken in by his English counterparts and given sanctuary during the war. Despite La’s intense feelings for the man, she does nothing to act upon them and turns away from opportunities when presented. La’s world in the Suffolk countryside tending the chickens and forever doing battle against the marauding fox is a small mirror of the greater world outside, fighting for its life against the threat from Germany. The descriptions of the small town, the people becoming suspicious of one another in one instance, and going to great lengths to help in others, is a microcosm of the human condition at large. A.M. Smith as always does a beautiful job in portraying the day-to-day minutia of life, capturing the divine in the smallest task. The story’s strength is in the first two parts; in the third, at the very end, the author tends to get very preachy and it feels as if we have left La’s thoughts and are reading his directly. His message in the end–a condemnation of the horror that would result from a nuclear war–is well taken, but feels ham-fisted, rushed, and forced in comparison with the the gentle, subtle prose of the fist part of the story.
I finished reading “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski last week, and that alone is worth crowing about. The tome comes in at over 560 pages, and afterwards I found myself still scratching my head over the point of certain scenes. Yes, yes, I get it–it is the re-imagined story of Hamlet set in a rural Wisconsin farm, featuring a mute boy, Edgar, who is the only son of a family who has for generations bred an outstanding breed of dog, epitomized by the faithful Almondine (Ophelia). Events unfold, resulting in the death of the boy’s father by his evil uncle Claude (Claudius), who then takes up with his mother, Trudy (Gertrude). After a dangerous turn of events, the boy, unable to face his father’s murderer, runs off with a pack of young dogs into the wilderness. The climax of the story comes only in the last fifty pages, when the Edgar, unable to resist the pull of home and his devotion to the family’s dogs, returns at last to confront his uncle. The length and pacing of the novel is trying at times, and I am someone who cut her literary teeth on the tomes of Russian literature, slogging through and enjoying such works as the back-to-back reading of “Quiet Flows the Dawn” and “The Dawn Flows to the Sea,” followed by “Anna Karenina.” I am used to a story that unfolds gradually, quietly, but despite that, I did find myself sometimes speed-reading through some of the more lengthy descriptions of the dog training, or other scenes which neither moved the plot nor advanced the characters. It was over one hundred pages before Edgar’s father dies, at which time I thought to myself, “Finally, we’re getting somewhere!” It was another hundred or so before Edgar flees the farm… The whole work is like reading a lush poem–you have to let the beauty of the scenes just wash over you and not worry too terribly much what the heck it all has to do with the story. And the author is a masterful wordsmith, weaving a colorful quilt of life through the seasons on a rural farm, the beauty of living closely with nature, the iconic image of the red barn, the unique companionship which comes from being truly close to an animal. I enjoyed all of it, but still wondered if so much was necessary. It seemed to me that the author perhaps fell in love with his own words so much he couldn’t bear to leave a single one on the cutting room floor. And I also loved the examination of the outer reaches of communication–how a mute boy could “talk” to his dogs. The book has been criticized by some for being to anthropomorphic, but I believe those critic are wrong on that account; when the author tells a scene from the dog Almondine’s view, it is clear that he is speaking through the dog only to give us a different view on human behavior, and I found the observations held a remarkable amount of truth. Although the work is long, the pivotal scenes are so well done–especially the appearance the Edgar’s father as a ghost–that it is worth the read overall. The long-awaited ending, however, is bizarre and so unsatisfying as to make this reader feel as if she were somehow cheated having persevered all the way to the end. The book has been hailed as a new American Classic. I wonder, does the new American reader have the patience for this type of story any more? Comments welcome.