Book Review: The Black Rose

black roseThe Black Rose
by Tananarive Due
Biography/Fiction
373 pages
Published 2001

The Black Rose is the lightly fictionalized story of the life of Madame C. J. Walker, America’s first black female millionaire. Tananarive Due seems to have taken over the project from Alex Haley, the acclaimed late co-author of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Due is a wonderful storyteller; many biographies I’ve read have been dry and uninteresting, but The Black Rose is technically a novel, and kept my attention through the entire book. Madame Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is an incredibly charismatic figure. She was born to former slaves just after the Civil War – the only member of her family born free – and the book chronicles her entire life. From her parents’ deaths, to her early years working in a cotton field, to being a washerwoman, cook, then finally an entrepreneur. According to Wiki she had four brothers; the book only mentions one. Wiki also mentions a marriage in between her daughter’s father and CJ Walker; that one wasn’t mentioned in the book at all. So there are some differences.

The Black Rose is an engrossing look at an influential woman whose name seems to be largely forgotten. Or perhaps it’s only forgotten because we’re not taught nearly as much African-American history as we should be in this country. Madame Walker’s company was a path to economic freedom for thousands of black women in the early 20th century. Besides the jobs she created, she also made many charitable donations and was active in politics and civil rights, participating in marches and, once, visiting the White House to speak with the president. (According to the book, the president declined to speak with her group, though.)

This is a good example of why I’m trying to diversify my reading. I didn’t know the name C. J. Walker. I had no idea where she came from, or the scope of the company she built and the people she helped.

Excellent, educational book.

I actually really don’t like the cover, though, so this is my pick for “ugly cover” for the 2018 PopSugar Reading Challenge!

From the cover of The Black Rose:

Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America’s first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty company, and a leading philanthropist in African American causes. Renowned author Alex Haley became fascinated by the story of this extraordinary heroine, and before his death in 1992, he embarked on the research and outline of a major novel based on her life. Now with The Black Rose, critically acclaimed writer Tananarive Due brings Haley’s work to an inspiring completion. 

Blending documented history, vivid dialogue, and a sweeping fictionalized narrative, Tananarive Due paints a vivid portrait of this passionate and tenacious pioneer and the unforgettable era in which she lived.

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Happy World Poetry Day!

Today, March 21, is World Poetry Day. Started in 1999 by UNESCO, World Poetry Day is meant to celebrate linguistic diversity. I actually didn’t realize this was a thing until yesterday, so I don’t have any recent poets to talk about. I do, however, have a copy of T. S. Eliot‘s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats on loan from the library at the moment! I actually did not know until very recently that Cats, one of my husband’s absolute favorite musicals, was based off a book of poetry! It seems that many, if not most, of the songs from Cats are almost direct lyrical pulls from the poems. If you haven’t seen Cats or read the book, well, first, FIX THAT! (I can’t seem to get the entire thing to embed, but you can follow this link to the playlist of the entire musical.)

The book is tiny, only about 50 pages long. It’s a fun little read about different cats, from the obstinate Rum Tum Tugger who only wants the opposite of what you’ve offered him, to the lazy Gumbie Cat who sits around all day but teaches the mice manners at night. There’s our badass alley cat Growltiger, and the magical, mysterious Mr. Mistoffelees. If you’re a cat lover, you’ll enjoy the poems. They’re cute.

And then there’s this twitter thread I ran across today that I was amused by – and it eventually mentions my T. S. Eliot book!

Are you reading anything for World Poetry Day?

Book Review: The Clothesline Swing

clothesline swingThe Clothesline Swing
Ahmad Danny Ramadan
Fictional Memoir?
288 pages
Published April 2017

I had to force myself to finish this book. It was okay at the beginning – I was hoping it would get better, and it did not. The Clothesline Swing is the the story of two gay Syrian refugees. It’s an interesting framework; the narrator, one of the two, is telling stories to his husband to keep him in the world of the living. (The husband is dying from an unnamed illness.) There’s a catch, though – Death is also with them, as an actual presence that can be talked to and interacted with. He smokes a joint with the narrator at one point, and tells stories of his own – even plans a party – at another point. The story flicks back and forth between their past and their present with some unpredictability as the narrator tells his stories.

Because of the presence of Death, and the kind of hazy, in-between space that the stories reside in (between life and death, between awake and asleep, between fantasy and reality), the entire book is a little dream-like. I don’t particularly enjoy ever-shifting books that don’t have some kind of solid foundation for me to start on.

The book did a good job of showing the dangers of being gay in middle-eastern society, and also showed how hard it is to be a citizen of a country at war with itself. The list of friends who have died in violent ways is threaded through the entire book of stories. She was caught in a crossfire in an alley – he killed himself after being forced to marry a woman – he died when his office was shelled – she died from a car bomb.

I don’t know. It’s a strange book. I’m hesitant to say don’t waste your time, because it covers important topics, but the dreamy quality just ruined it for me.

Ramadan is a Syrian refugee living in British Columbia, making this book part of my Read Canadian Challenge. It’s also my pick for “book about death or mourning” for the Popsugar 2018 challenge, and “unconventional romance” for the Litsy Booked Challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. this book!
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of The Clothesline Swing:

The Clothesline Swing is a journey through the troublesome aftermath of the Arab Spring. A former Syrian refugee himself, Ramadan unveils an enthralling tale of courage that weaves through the mountains of Syria, the valleys of Lebanon, the encircling seas of Turkey, the heat of Egypt and finally, the hope of a new home in Canada.

Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, The Clothesline Swing tells the epic story of two lovers anchored to the memory of a dying Syria. One is a Hakawati, a storyteller, keeping life in forward motion by relaying remembered fables to his dying partner. Each night he weaves stories of his childhood in Damascus, of the cruelty he has endured for his sexuality, of leaving home, of war, of his fated meeting with his lover. Meanwhile Death himself, in his dark cloak, shares the house with the two men, eavesdropping on their secrets as he awaits their final undoing.

Book Review: The Last Black Unicorn

blackunicornThe Last Black Unicorn
by Tiffany Haddish
Comedy/Memoir
276 pages
Published December 2017

I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I saw Haddish’s interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. This woman is HILARIOUS. Somehow I didn’t realize she was in the movie Girls Night until I read about it in her book – I really do need to see that movie. That aside, this book was pretty great. It’s written in her speaking style, so it’s not technically correct grammar, but it SOUNDS right, which is more important in a memoir, in my opinion. It’s supposed to show the author’s personality, and this does.

I don’t know that I’d put this on quite the same level as Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, or Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy, but it’s not far behind them. Haddish talks about her childhood in the foster system and then raised by her grandmother, her string of no-good boyfriends, and her abusive marriage. She’s had a rough life, but somehow she’s come out of it with a gift for comedy and a grounded personality.

Her swamp tour with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith is one of the most hilarious stories in the book, and one of the few that is purely funny. Most of them are underscored with a serious issue that make me feel a little bad for laughing at them, but Haddish laughs at them, so how can you not? It’s an interesting conflict that leaves me with slightly mixed feelings about the book.

It’s a pretty quick, easy, fun read, and if you like Tiffany Haddish, it definitely shows what she’s gone through to get where she is now.

From the cover of The Last Black Unicorn:

From stand-up comedian, actress, and breakout star of Girls Trip, Tiffany Haddish, comes The Last Black Unicorn, a sidesplitting, hysterical, edgy, and unflinching collection of (extremely) personal essays, as fearless as the author herself.

Growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, Tiffany learned to survive by making people laugh. If she could do that, then her classmates would let her copy their homework, the other foster kids she lived with wouldn’t beat her up, and she might even get a boyfriend. Or at least she could make enough money—as the paid school mascot and in-demand Bar Mitzvah hype woman—to get her hair and nails done, so then she might get a boyfriend.

None of that worked (and she’s still single), but it allowed Tiffany to imagine a place for herself where she could do something she loved for a living: comedy.

Tiffany can’t avoid being funny—it’s just who she is, whether she’s plotting shocking, jaw-dropping revenge on an ex-boyfriend or learning how to handle her newfound fame despite still having a broke person’s mind-set. Finally poised to become a household name, she recounts with heart and humor how she came from nothing and nowhere to achieve her dreams by owning, sharing, and using her pain to heal others.

By turns hilarious, filthy, and brutally honest, The Last Black Unicorn shows the world who Tiffany Haddish really is—humble, grateful, down-to-earth, and funny as hell. And now, she’s ready to inspire others through the power of laughter.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

mausMaus
Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel
295 pages
Published 1996

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day set aside to remember the six million Jews that died in the genocide of World War 2. This is an especially important day given the things that have been taking place in America over the past year. I partially read Hitlerland a few months ago, about Americans living in Germany when the war broke out, and how they reacted to the events happening around them, and was horrified at how closely the early events mirrored what is happening now with Trump. I also read the Diary of Anne Frank in high school, as so many other students did.

What I read this year was the Complete Maus. Maus is a graphic novel about the author’s father’s experience in the concentration camps. In the novel Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, and Germans are cats. (Humans are dogs and French are frogs.) The art is stark, but it fits the subject matter. It’s almost entirely black and white, with the exception of a few cover pages. The time period jumps back and forth a little. Most of it is set during the war, with the father, Vladek, narrating what’s going on. The rest of it is in modern time, sometimes with the author interviewing his father, sometimes just the author dealing with his elderly father’s eccentricities. maus-swastika

While the graphic novel doesn’t shy away from the violence and sheer number of people dying, it’s not graphic about it. There’s no gore. I feel like this would be a good first book for learning about the Holocaust, though depending on age, kids might need help with the vocabulary.

It’s a fairly fast read for an adult. I think the animals were a really well done metaphor – Vladek, a mouse, often has a pig mask on as he masquerades as a Polish non-Jew. I get most of the animal metaphors – Germans as cats while the Jews are mice, French are frogs, and Americans are friendly dogs. I had to ask Google why Poles were pigs – apparently they were represented as pigs in Nazi propaganda. There’s also an element of Poles being non-kosher, and, also, a certain amount of racism. Whether that racism is Art’s or Vladek’s is unclear, but ultimately Art chose to represent them with pigs, so. That problematic factor aside, this was a really good piece of art.

From the cover of Maus:

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Book Review: The Goddess Companion

goddesscompThe Goddess Companion: Daily Meditations on the Feminine Spirit
by Patricia Monaghan
400 pages
Published 1999
Pagan/Spirituality

This is one of the first pagan books I bought myself, and I absolutely love it. It has an entry for every day of the year, so you can read it daily as a meditation, or open it when you feel you need guidance.

An example of a day:

February 16

The flood receded, leaving swamps
where life emerged anew like seeds
sprouting in a mother’s womb.
It was just like spring, when peasants
overturn the soil to find a world
of creatures there, as though the earth
itself crept and wriggled and was alive.
Life begins in heat and water,
those apparent opposites that stir
creation. Thus the sun, rising on
the flooded earth, brought forth new life.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses
In the myths of many cultures, the earth is destroyed – often by a flood – and then reborn, re-made. So it was in Greek and Roman mythology, which told of a great flood that only the woman Pyrrha and her mate Deucalion survived. Told by an oracle that she would bear children from “the bones of her mother,” Pyrrha figured out that her mother being the earth, the bones would mean the rock skeleton of the planet. Throwing stones behind herself, Pyrrha produced an entire new race of humans to repopulate the earth.

After the destructive flood, the earth replenished itself anew. Such myths capture the special freshness of spring, when all seems reborn. In our own lives, too, we will find times when an order is overturned – a job or love lost, a home transformed – but new order emerges from the ruin. Trusting in such rebirth is difficult, but every spring reminds us that renewal is an inevitable part of life.

Each day in the book brings a quote from ancient poetry or song or religious text about some aspect of the goddess. Some days it’s Horace or Homer, some days it’s a Lithuanian Folk song, or an Indian prayer to Kali. I love how it draws from such widely different traditions to show different faces of the goddess.

It’s quite seasonal; it doesn’t have days of the week, but it does go by dates, so you’ll find things about spring in February, March, and April; entries about depression and the dark of winter in December and January; entries about death and ancestors in October.

I highly recommend this book; it is well-written, insightful, and well-researched. This is a book I crack open not-quite-daily, but at least once a week, and whenever I need a goddess fix. I used to have quotes from this book written out on paper and posted all over my house. I did not realize the author had written so many other books – she has about 20 listed on her Wikipedia page! I only own The Goddess Companion and The Goddess Path, but I think I’ll be looking up more of her work. Sadly, she died about a year ago, but she left behind a wonderful body of work. If you’re interested in reading about the divine feminine, this book is a great place to start.