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.
“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.
Regardless of what book I am reading, I always find the perfect place to pause, an invisible intermission, that has nothing to do with page numbers or chapters. I sense a pending shift in the book, so I pause to reflect, to prime my mind for what comes next. To refresh my memory, I flip back to random pages and re-read from wherever my eyes land, a few paragraphs, maybe a few pages, and will do this several times.
Janis Cooke Newman’s A Master Plan for Rescue (Riverhead, 2015) is unique in that I did not reach that pause for a very long time. In fact, I’m almost finished with the book. It is divided into two parts that ultimately intertwine, and though the story unfolds slowly, it is good enough to want to push forward, to feel eager for more information. The first part follows Jack, a twelve-year-old boy in Manhattan who loses his beloved father to a freak accident as WWII ramps up. The second follows Jakob, a Jewish mechanic in Berlin who falls in love as his life descends into the hell that is Nazi Germany.
A Master Plan for Rescue suggests that when faced with untold difficulty, people resort to magical thinking, as if our minds try to shield us from pain that we cannot handle. Jack, faced with the death of his father, continues to communicate with him via code-o-graph and tells himself that he left to hunt down Nazi spies. Jack’s mother, faced with the death of her husband, joins the “Desperate Catholics” who rush to the front row of church and look to the ceiling as they loudly repeat scripture. Jakob’s love, Rebecca, has a weak heart and knows that if the Nazis do not kill her, her heart will. She becomes fixated with escaping to Paris and desperately begins every conversation with, “When I go to Paris…” The pace quickens when the two stories merge in New York City, and I’m eager to discover whether the magical thinking can sustain itself. I always enjoy historical fiction more than I think I do, and A Master Plan for Rescue is making me consider that all over again.
In the Unlikely Event takes place in Judy Blume’s hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where in the early 1950s three planes crashed into the city within two months, killing scores of people. I have read far enough to take in two of those deadly crashes, and I cringe to think that there is another one remaining. Heartbreak and fear take over the city, but Blume beautifully intertwines the lives of those affected, and tells a sweeping, detailed story of middle America in the 1950s.
The sheer number of characters is breathtaking. Tucked into the pages of my book is a piece of paper on which I continuously scribble down newly introduced characters, drawing lines to indicate relationships and writing things like “cousins,” “housekeeper,” and “dating” in parentheses. One may begin to suspect an almost insistence on squeezing as many names into as few pages as possible. Though bewildering, it reflects the blur of people in the everyday of our own lives, and also demonstrates the far-reaching impact of tragedy; countless people in countless ways.
I am moving through the book quickly, a reflection of its narrative ease, and also of how much I am thoroughly enjoying myself. And that makes me pause. Books like this force my prejudice to surface – for which I blame the lingering effects of AP English – that reading is supposed to be challenging and intensive. It is a wonderful reminder that a good book does not necessarily mean a difficult book, and that there is value in taking pleasure in stellar storytelling. I will be attending A Very Special Evening with the Remarkable Judy Blume on Saturday as part of the Bay Area Book Festival, and with the drama of 1950s Elizabeth swirling in my mind, I am eager to hear from its famous raconteuse.
Having been on a classics streak for quite some time, I knew that I wanted to return to the 21st century for my next read, though I had no idea who, what, or where. I spent the first Saturday of May in Golden Gate Park, and within the first hour I had ventured outside its perimeter on the hunt for coffee. After successful completion, I breezed past and then turned back around into Green Apple Books, encountered the “Staff Picks” shelf, and was startled by this note:
In case you have trouble catching every word, this is the promise: “On average, I recommend this book to someone at least once a day. It is hands-down one of my favorite books of 2014 (and maybe in my life). I am offering as close to a money-back guarantee as you can get without actually using currency…Please, do yourself a favor and read All My Puny Sorrows.”
I do not remember the last time I read such an effusive book review, and I was quickly made vulnerable to its influence, as anything that anyone considers their favorite intrigues me (especially books and songs). I think of it as a shortcut education, or at least enrichment, to expose myself to something that someone else has already studied and determined to be exceptional. You learn a lot about someone by learning their favorites, and if you accumulate enough of that information from enough individuals, you start to learn a lot about people in general.
In Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, Elfreida and Yolandi Von Reisen are sisters who mean the world to each other but also suffer the ultimate conflicting interest: Elfreida wants to kill herself and Yolandi wants her to live. I am only 50 pages into the book, but those pages have jumped back and forth between their childhood growing up in a Mennonite household and their adulthood, Elfreida as a world renowned pianist and Yolandi as a divorced mother of two. Elfrida, especially in childhood, is mesmerizing. She is the kind of talented, independent, brilliant, and miserable character that I love.
There is a scene early in the book when the elders of the Mennonite community visit the Von Reisen home to reprimand them for one thing or another. Elfreida goes into the spare bedroom next to the front door and begins to play the piano, which is not allowed in the community. She plays her obsession, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, Opus 23, a piece she praises for “its total respect for the importance of the chaotic ramblings of an interior monologue” (p. 18). I immediately searched for the piece online and listened to it as I continued to read. I am very eager to dive further into this book, and to discover whether someone else’s favorite will also become mine.