Currently Reading: Between the World and Me

I encountered Ta-Nehisi Coates on two separate occasions before picking up his book. The first encounter was in San Francisco; I was in my friend’s bedroom with nothing to do but run my eyes over her bookshelf, up and down, left and right, and I noticed a copy of The Atlantic with its infamous cover story, “The Case for Reparations.” The second encounter was in the August issue of Rolling Stone (what do our magazine subscriptions say about us?) that features a Q&A with Coates, and this recollection stuck with me:

“I remember sitting in a library at Howard University and reading The Fire Next Time in one session. It was such a pleasurable experience, to be lost in a work of art. And in this age, where the Internet is ubiquitous, it’s very hard to have that experience. I had this vision of some 19-year-old kid in a library somewhere, picking this book up and disappearing for a while. That was all I wanted.”

Coates’ Between the World and Me is divided into three parts, each styled as a letter to his son. The book is a historical and personal study of race in America: “Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world,” and the outgrowth of this belief is racism (p. 7). He continuously contrasts his upbringing to “the Dream,” which involves “perfect houses with nice lawns,” “treehouses and Cub Scouts,” and in general a profound detachment from racial injustice. When describing a friend he meets at Howard University, Coates seems to also describe the mission of his book:

“He was, like me, from one of those cities where everyday life was so different than the Dream that it demanded an explanation. He came, like me, to [Howard University] in search of the nature and origin of the breach” (p. 49).

I read to expand my experiences, to learn and to feel. Between the World and Me offers all of those things and also reads beautifully, each word carefully chosen, each sentence carefully woven. I’ve just finished the first part, and I have a feeling there is far to go.

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Note: Mid-August

I peruse my photos and see dense clusters of flowers interspersed with very few other things, which I translate to mean a summer going well. June/July/August blur together in what feels like a vast, single swath of summer, so a glimpse of the finish line has inspired a newfound excitement. The sunflower above was seen on a Saturday visit to UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden, a neighborhood enclave that magically feels far, far away.

I finished Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God as soon as I could, admittedly motivated by two new books on my shelf. The book brims with dialogue, so the pages fly in a way that reminds me of reading a play. There are several well-developed characters of various walks of life, but we don’t dive deep into their lives, and instead each character serves to further the story of the Quanbeck family, especially that of Grace and Jory, sisters who have been exiled due to Grace’s unexpected pregnancy.

The tension between Grace and her parents is wonderfully portrayed. They are angry and ashamed, yet confront a daughter who finds meaning in her pregnancy due to faith, due to God’s supposed will. Grace’s faith is flawless; she effortlessly spouts scripture and indulges every compulsion to evangelize. But the feverish faith that her parents have instilled in her turns on them, as she uses this very faith to defend what they believe is indefensible. The story’s ending is horribly sad, far more so than I imagined, and the strangest thing is that despite tragedy, several of the characters whom I consider largely to blame fail to learn any lesson whatsoever. People prove to be stubborn, and beliefs often remain intact regardless of evidence and events to the contrary. This idea surfaces at the perfect moment, as I think it may play a crucial role in the next book on my list.

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Currently Reading: The Girl Who Slept with God

“I’m surrounded by people whose minds are too small to accept anything other than what the newspaper or the television or, excuse me, the science books tell them” (p. 67).

There are keywords that readily sway me when selecting a book to read, including coming-of-age and family saga. The Girl Who Slept with God offers both, as well as a casual study of religious fundamentalism, another favorite subject of mine (see The Poisonwood Bible and A Complicated Kindness). The all-knowing, impenetrable quality of religion forever intrigues me, and I love stories that capture this within the context of growing up, asking questions, and shaping one’s own life.

The Quanbecks are a devoutly religious family living in small town Idaho. There is the kind husband, the depressed wife, and three sisters, Grace, Jory, and Frances. Early in the book, Grace’s faith proves feverish, and she travels to Mexico as part of her “freakish obsession with becoming the world’s youngest evangelist.” She returns home not only pregnant, but also believing that it is the result of providence, hence the title of the book. Though a seemingly sensational set-up, it is not treated as such, and in fact the book largely follows Jory, the middle child who daydreams of things “modern and current and popular and fun.” Jory and Grace are sent to live alone on the outskirts of town to preserve the family’s sanity and reputation, and what ensues is what I am in the midst of. I find myself continously turning the page, a highlighter poised to capture all that is noteworthy and beautiful, and I cannot wait to resume.

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