Tag Archives: fiction

What I’m Reading for #BlackHistoryMonth

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Here’s the deal, folks. It’s hard to be excited about being an American right now. Our country is in turmoil. Step into the world of Facebook for a minute and you’ll feel it. Our people are torn. We’re hungry for change, but it’s clear that these changes aren’t in the best interest of us all. Instead of breaking barriers, we’re building walls, literally and figuratively.

It’s heartbreaking.

But you know what does make me feel good about being an American? (Besides our freedom of speech, right to protest, freedom of press, local and national chapters of SURJ, the ACLU, and feminists everywhere…)

Reading.

I’m serious. It is a gift to live in a country where access to books from places like libraries, schools, independent book stores, chain bookstores with coffeeshops inside them, second hand stores, little free libraries, and websites with 2 day shipping are all willing to put BOOKS in your HANDS!

Have I mentioned I love reading? Because I DO.

It is a gift to have a book in your hand. Books make us think. Books make us learn. Books teach us empathy. Books allow us to walk in the shoes of a character who is different than us. Stories – whether told in person, on paper, with numbers, on TV, over the radio, by a child, or by an adult – help us make sense of our world. It is how we learn to care about one another. How we relate to the people around us.

Here is something I learned and can’t remember where. I probably read it somewhere. 😉

It takes several generations of a family to unlearn a prejudice.

Think about that. That’s multiple LIFETIMES to actively unlearn bias.

So if we don’t have a lot of interaction with folks who are different than us, we maintain the same biased views about them – their race, their culture, their religion, their way of dress, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, etc.

If we want to, we can change that. And one easy way is to pick up a book.

READ about characters who are different than you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and had it CHANGE MY MIND about a topic.

The Cider House Rules changed my mind about abortion.

Bamboo Among the Oaks made me cry learning about Hmoob history.

The Mayflower taught me about my own ancestors’ struggles and prejudices coming to a new world while trying to pave THEIR OWN WAY.

Perhaps I’m rambling. My point is, books have power. Books teach us. And February is Black History Month, so it’s a great time to read books about Black people and by Black people. And you know, learn a thing or two.

Here’s What I’ve Been Reading: 

51avppq060lCurrently, I’m working on this audiobook I picked up from my local library. It’s called The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott. It’s a new in-depth look at the relationship between writer, activist, and priest, Pauli Murray, and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. The author, Bell-Scott, diligently researched archives of Murray’s and Roosevelt’s, including letters they sent back and forth for years. She studies how this unique friendship shaped many of the political projects the First Lady advocated for.

You might recall the name Pauli Murray on this blog before when I featured her in 9 Women Who Made History You Probably Didn’t Know About.

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a_lesson_before_dying_novelI recently finished reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines as part of a Big City Read initiative my town hosted (and still is) after a City Hall presentation regarding La Crosse, WI’s history as a “Sundown Town.”

A Lesson Before Dying is the fictional story of a 1940s court case where a Black man is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to death by an all white jury. While on death row, he is visited by a Black school teacher who has been asked by the man’s family to educate him so he can “die like a man.”

There are still several community book discussions on this title for my local friends, as well as several guest speakers talking about racism, the justice system, and inequality. View all the events at La Crosse Reads.

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luvvie-ajayi-book-1-copy-768x975A book I read in 2 days time last year was I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi. A “Do Better Manual” for the masses, phenomenal blogger, Awesomely Luvvie, shared stories on everything from feminism, racism, social media etiquette, dating, and more. It’s your all in one, be a better person guide, as told to you by a sassy, pop culture loving, side-eye queen.

This book is a compilation of essays, making it easy for anyone to pick it up and read a few pages at a time. You don’t have to read it chronologically if you don’t want to. Every chapter has a healthy dose of love and petty judgment.

If you want a teaser, I shared an excerpt from a hilarious chapter called When Baehood Goes Bad in a challenge Luvvie gave to bloggers to share their favorite parts.

just_mercy_stevenson_bryan_002What’s next on my to read list? Part of my 2017 Reading Challenge is one book per month from A Year of Reading and March’s pick (the theme is justice) is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. “Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.”

I’m a fan of nonfiction books, so my recommendations tend to lean that way. But there are plenty of other great book lists for Black History Month. Just google suggestions. Or see what’s shelved on Goodreads.

I hope you pick up one of these titles. Or find another interesting book about Black America that catches your eye. Maybe you already have a few you love. Tell me what they are in the comments! I’m always looking for new books to read.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

A Review of Anna Quindlen’s Blessings

(goodreads.com)

I just finished reading Blessings by Anna Quindlen.  My mom bought me this book for Christmas, and I admit, I wasn’t so sure I’d like it.  I had recently read The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, and I was afraid the stories sounded too similar.  But I was way wrong.

I picked up the title again as part of this year’s To Be Read Pile Challenge, and I ended up loving Blessings.  If I had to describe the book as a food, I’d call it a soup book.  It’s a feel good kind of story.  It’s a tale of friendships, unlikely ones, and the bizarre and unplanned events that take place in our lives.

The Goodreads synopsis:

Late one night, a teenage couple drives up to the big white clapboard home on the Blessing estate and leaves a box. In that instant, the lives of those who live and work there are changed forever. Skip Cuddy, the caretaker, finds a baby girl asleep in that box and decides he wants to keep the child . . . while Lydia Blessing, the matriarch of the estate, for her own reasons, agrees to help him. “Blessings” explores how the secrets of the past affect decisions and lives in the present; what makes a person or a life legitimate or illegitimate and who decides; and the unique resources people find in themselves and in a community. This is a powerful novel of love, redemption, and personal change by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer about whom “The Washington Post Book World” said, “Quindlen knows that all the things we ever will be can be found in some forgotten fragment of family.”

Anna Quindlen (goodreads.com)

Author Anna Quindlen is no slouch to the publication world.  With five bestselling novels, seven nonfiction books, and a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column, “Public and Private,” she’s achieved every writer’s dream.

If there was a stand out thing about this book, it’s Quindlen’s voice.  She writes characters the way someone you just met shares an intimate secret with you.  You immediately feel a bond to them.  You know they’re flawed, you may not agree with their actions, but you’ll defend them anyway.

The unlikely partnership of Skip Cuddy, a hired hand, with Southern Estate owner and matriarch, Lydia Blessing, is at the core of this book.  What could a man with calloused hands and no family have in common with an 80-something year old woman who never leaves the house?  If there’s a child involved, it turns out quite a bit.

I’m not a fan of spoilers, so I can’t give anything away, but there are some incredibly honest and moving scenes in this story regarding the raising of that baby.  Quindlen will make you redefine family and look at alternatives in a whole new light.

Plus the ending will surprise you!  I was sensing something was up, but didn’t know when we’d get any answers.

Overall, I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for a hearty, comforting read.

What about you?  Did you read Blessings and enjoy it?  What else from your TBR Pile have you been reading now?  Or if you’re like me, what did you buy that you’ll be getting around to for 2013’s TBR Pile Challenge?  

Book Review: The Help

Have any of you read The Help by Kathryn Stockett?  I recently finished it and though I really liked the book on its own, I started liking it even more after reading the author’s note and reviews.  I’m fascinated by the ongoing debate this book has started about racial etiquette in writing.

Stockett, was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting of her fiction novel.  She and her siblings were raised by black help, and she felt the closest to her nanny, Demetrie.  Stockett’s nanny never had any children of her own, but referred to the Stockett family children as hers.  It was the nagging wonder of what happened to Demetrie and how did she feel working for a white family that pushed Stockett to write this book.

I love dipping into author’s research behind their books (need I remind you just how far I go, see here and here).  Other than her personal account, Stockett says she did interview one white woman and her maid who were together during the civil rights movement.  Their perspectives, she said, were interesting because the white woman’s fondest memory of her maid involved the pralines she would make, while her maid remembers working for her at the time of Medgar Evers‘ assassination and being worried she would lose her job if her employer turned the TV on to see her children at the protests.

Author Kathryn Stockett

Stockett’s author website only provides the basic info, but her interview with TIME magazine is fascinating.  She began writing The Help the day after September 11th.  She was living in New York City and the phones were all down, she couldn’t call anyone to tell them she was ok.  She started writing in a voice that felt like home.  That voice based on Demetrie, according to Stockett, became the leading character Aibileen in her novel.  When the need for Aibileen to speak up in a way that wasn’t true to her nature arose, she created the second key maid character, Minny.

Now, Stockett has appeared rather passive in her later interviews on the book’s success and how it depicts racial segregation in the 1960’s south.  I thought it was very honest of her to admit her feelings about the criticism of her novel that is happening since the novel has gone widespread through book clubs and reviews.

I wonder, Was this really my story to tell? On the other hand, I just wanted the story to be told. But the truth is that I didn’t think anybody was going to read it. Had I known it was going to be so widely disseminated I probably wouldn’t have written it in the type of language that I did.

But the story goes deeper.  Stockett is now in the middle of a lawsuit with her brother’s maid, a woman named Ablene Cooper.  She says the character Aibileen Clark is based on her, and she was specifically told by Stockett that her likeness and self would not appear in the book.  ABC news was unable to get the author’s comments on this matter.  Her father was interviewed and though he claims neutrality between his children, he doesn’t think Ablene Cooper will win and that this media stir-fry will only up book sales for Stockett.  Whether the claim is true or not, some critics have brandished Stockett for trying to write from the voice of a black woman in the 1960’s.
Who’s right?  Stockett is now in the process of writing her second novel, and she says she is looking at it through entirely different eyes.
It’s a scary process. I sit in my little office and I feel like I’ve got all my readers staring at me. The first book you write because of the way it makes you feel. The second one you can’t help but wonder how it’s going to make the reader feel. That’s something I’d never thought about before.

The book is soon to be released as a movie starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer.  Set to come out this month, I’m sure people will flock to the theaters to see what all the buzz is about.  I myself am planning to see it.  The trailer seems to depict a very comical side of the book, and I’m interested to see how they do include the more saddening aspects, such as what was happening in history with Jim Crow laws and civil rights protests.
Having read the book and delved into the arguments that surround these characters and their author, I say it’s a great piece of fiction.  By writing from the perspective of three characters, Stockett gave depth to the story.  And had she attempted to tell this story from only the perspective of the one white girl in Jackson who thought something needed to be done, it would’ve been just that, the story of one white girl who thought something needed to be done.  It was Aibileen’s story that drew me in, but I’m smart enough as a reader to know it’s a piece of fiction.  I wouldn’t presume to say this is how all black maids felt. I think it’s inevitable that this argument happened, but are we nitpicking the dialogue to overshadow the true message?  I don’t know.
Have you read The Help?  Have you read other works where the author writes in a voice or race different than their own?  How important is it to have researched your characters when you’re writing about a historical time?  Did Stockett do that well enough?  What do you think?

Mastering the Art of the Semi-Plot: A Tale of Plotting Gone Graveyard

Today my goal was to outline my entire story.  From beginning to end.  A bold task that required getting up early and focusing by planting my butt in a chair for the time it takes to drink a venti passion tea.  Three hours later (I savor my drink, ok?…I got lost in social media, ok?), I had at least figured out the “want, motivation, but” for my protagonist, that wasn’t difficult.  But I got stuck on my antagonist!  I know what he wants, but I have no motive, and without that motive I can’t outline major turning points!  Damn it all to hell!  Excuse me, I needed to get that off my chest.

If I lost some of you at “want, motivation, but” it’s a plotting tool I learned at the Writers Institute by the wonderful Lori Devoti.  Lori is a paranormal romance author and if you want a great deal on e-books, she’s running one on her blog right now.  What Lori showed us at the conference is a chart where you list what your character wants, which needs to be the goal of the story so it has to allow growth in your character.  For example, someone’s goal might be to save her marriage.  After you’ve named the goal, you have to know the motivation behind it.  What is it that drives the goal for the character?  What is the best thing that could be if they get their want?  And finally, you put the BUT in there.  The obstacle that prevents them from achieving their goal.  For example, if the goal was for the character to save her marriage, but her husband dies, her motivation and goal become something different, possibly about creating a better life for her child.  Lori’s advice was to draw up this chart with the protagonist and the antagonist side by side because as much as you can pit them against each other with conflicting wants, motives, buts, then the easier it will be to plot them against each other.

Today my problem is that I haven’t figured out my antagonist’s motive yet.  So I decided to stop staring at a blank piece of paper and definitely STOP getting lost in social media world, and do some research for the book to get my brain spinning again.  So, I spent the better part of an hour walking through a graveyard.

Part of my walk in the Oak Grove Cemetery

No, no, this wasn’t a suicide mission.  Not in the slightest.  It’s the main setting of my story, and I thought a stroll through my character’s world would help clear up the muddy bits.  Despite the fact I had to hide my camera from the protective groundskeeper who kept driving past me while I sauntered around, it was a productive visit.  I got several great shots that will help me create scenes in the graveyard.  And best of all were the names!  Many of the graves in this cemetery are from the 1800’s and the names and variety in the tombstones was something spectacular to see.  I also found the FREAKIEST tree that may or may not make its way into the story (I’m almost too creeped out to write about it).

I still haven’t quite nailed down a motive that doesn’t leap beyond the borders of “yaah, right, Witkins!” so I’ll keep working on that.  But I still consider this a productive day that will help me when I am scene building.  I mean, look where I was!

I like the way the different kinds of trees overlap here. Each a different color and texture.

What do you think?  Any advice for this stuck writer?  What helps you sculpt your characters and outline better?

Also, don’t miss out on a chance to win a free book!  Read my review of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, leave a comment, and you’re automatically entered to be a part of the World Book Night Giveaway!     

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