Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mini Reviews: The Long Song, White is for Witching, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

The Long Song by Andrea Levy 2010
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

IQ "My beloved son Thomas did caution, when first I set out to flow this tale upon the world, that although they may not be felt like a fist or a whip, words have a power that can nevertheless cower even the largest man to gibbering tears." pg. 23

Miss July (at the urging of her son Thomas) is putting pen to paper and describing her life as a slave in Jamaica. July is a mulatto child who at first grows up with her mother on the sugar plantation they work at, but later on, the sister of her 'owner' decides to make July her personal servant and rename her Marguerite. July is mischievous, ingenious and soon she becomes indispensable to her mistress. July learns to read from her mistress Caroline in order to better help Caroline
keep the books and run the plantation. After the Baptist War the slaves are free, but July doesn't feel any different and she still lives with Caroline. The arrival of a new (young) English overseer, Robert Goodwin, brings dramatic and subtle changes to July's world.

I'm not sure if it's just me, but I've never liked reading about slavery. Even if it's a great literary masterpiece, I have to work my way up to it. This one intrigued me because I had read reviews that described it as 'humorous.' A book with slavery that was humorous? Hmm. I'm glad I took a chance and read it. It's not laugh-out-loud funny but there is a dark sense of humor that runs throughout the book. Readers will smile or smirk at the quiet acts of rebellion slaves engaged in. Ranging from spitting in the dinner to using a bedsheet as a tablecloth, etc. At first I was appalled at how crude the actions could be, but then I realized that I can't even fully comprehend what slaves had to go through, so who am I to judge? I almost wish I read more about slavery so that I could compare American slavery to Jamaican slavery. I would wager a guess that Jamaican slavery was much harsher, although it did end earlier (I believe 1838). July does not like to dwell on all the horrors of slavery so it's not as graphic as it could be. I'm just really sensitive to suffering in literature so I was constantly wincing or balling my fists up. There was an excellent quote about the demise of slavery and the celebrations that ensued "As the coffin with the words, 'colonial slavery died July 31, 1838, aged 276 years' was lowered into the ground, a joyous breeze blew. It was whipped up from the gasps of cheering that erupted unbounded. When the handcuffs, chains and iron collars were thrown into that long-awaited grave to clatter on top of slavery's ruin, the earth did tremor. For at that moment every slave upon this island did shake off the burden of their bondage as one." (pg. 141)

The Long Song is a more gentle look at slavery as well as eye-opening. I'm willing to bet that not many Americans know of the Baptist War, which was a slavery uprising that lasted ten days in 1832. July lives through that and it's interesting to read her observations on it as well as to see how Caroline felt about it all. There's nothing suspenseful to this plot, but there are some surprises (especially concerning the white master). I was also shocked by the madness of some of the characters, ones who started out quite reasonable and then became someone else entirely. Also for readers who don't know much about the history of color prejudice in the Black community, this book provides a good foundation in seeing why everyone thought you were alright if you were white (or just light). July is a fun narrator to have because she is quick-witted and you can just tell that while she's sharing some of her more mischief-filled tales, she's winking at the reader and smirking to herself. Her son has to cajole her into providing more details and we're grateful he does (she records the gist of their conversations) because it offers a less than rosy picture that July was trying to present. This makes July somewhat unreliable but her son always holds her to task (and she complains about that quite a bit). July acknowledges that slavery sucked but she doesn't want to dwell on it anymore. The writing was such that I could sense July sitting next to me and hear the cadence of Jamaica in her voice and the voices of other slaves and even the poor white folks. Historical fiction at its finest, provides a firm sense of setting and characters.

Disclosure: Received from Trish. Mil gracias Trish!

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi 2009
Picador Press

IQ "What I mean is, each act of speech stands on the belief that someone will hear. My note to Miri says more than just I'm lonely. Invisibly it says that I know she will see this, and that when she sees this it will turn her, turn her back, return her." Eliot pg. 4

The home of the Silver women is haunted. Not just haunted, but it has a mind of its own. The house does not like to be lonely and so the Silver women can never leave. Miranda Silver's mother, Lily, died suddenly, leaving Miranda and her twin brother, Eliot, hurt and lonely. Their father, Luc, cares deeply for them but he's powerless to help them against the forces of the house. When Miranda develops pica (which causes her to eat things like chalk, mud and plastic), none of the therapy or most appetizing meals cooked up by Luc, can help her. Miranda gets thinner and thinner and slowly starts to disappear, leaving Eliot and her best friend, Ore confused and scared.

This is a weird book. The writing style is both spectacular and frustrating. The author picks seemingly random words to both end the first sentence and start the first sentence but they aren't connected. Like so: "she heard the clatter of cutlery, she heard the whir of
the lift
broke down in the night." (pg. 35) It's a very cool writing style and new-to-me. Not sure if other authors do it. The writing can be frustrating though because it can be confusing. It's not always clear whose talking (the house, Miranda, Eliot, Ore?). Also a large chunk of the book has nothing to do with Ore so I'm not even sure why she's mentioned. Although she does become quite important in the end. The writing/plot can become frustrating because it's full of hidden meanings and half truths. Nothing is ever fully revealed so you have to draw your own conclusions on nearly everything. Due to this, I never felt that I truly got to know any of the characters either. They simply remained names on the page who were described quite a bit, but I just didn't have a distinct grasp of their personality (aside from everyone worrying about how odd Miranda was getting). Furthermore, I could not understand why people were attracted to Miranda. In part because I couldn't figure out her personality but also because she ate chalk and other inedible objects and she was extremely thin and could be off-putting. Mystifying, especially when she says things like this "[s]he peered up and down the broad passageways and tiptoed past the bedroom doors, feeling like dust, as if she were everywhere at once. She could pull herself tight and then explode and choke everyone in the house." (pg. 77). Elegant statement, and yet it's also chillingly mental.

White Is For Witching isn't completely dark. It has a light, almost playful quality to it because the author never flat out describes the horrors that occur in the house, they are merely hinted at. I was also intrigued by how the novel touches on the topic of immigration. I don't know much about England and immigration, but I do know it's a touchy subject and more and more people seem to be anti-immigrant. This book looks at that because the house hates foreigners and sooner or later, the house drives them away (Luc turned the house into an inn). There is a lot of talk of the Kosovans but I know nothing about this particular group of people so I was more than a little lost.I think I understood why the house was so xenophobic though and the reason was fascinating and while I thought it was completely daft, I was able to see the twisted logic. Another popular theme in this book is madness, Eliot states "I've read that madness is present when everything you see and hear takes on an equal significance. A dead bird makes you cry, and so does a doorknob. This morning I was not mad. The only thing significant to me in all the world was the creaking upstairs." (pg. 244). Everyone in this book is slowly going mad in some way and it all seems to come back to Miranda. Perhaps I will revisit this book in the future and better understand it. For now I can appreciate the complexity of the plot, the stunning writing and the questions concerning madness and immigration (even if I don't understand what exactly is being asked or what the answer is). To me the most horrifying thing about this book is how vague and unexpected everything is, the situations described are truly bone-chilling but they are never completely described. It's up to your overactive imagination XD

Disclosure: Thank you Tricia!

PS It's an off-color review because the author is Black but the main character, Miranda is white. Her best friend Ore is Black.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
by Danielle Evans 2010
Riverhead Books/Penguin Group

IQ "We were not so much tempting fate as barganing with it. With the sincere fatalism only teenagers can manage, we assumed that what happened before the year was out would determine what our lives would be forever after, and no one seemed thrilled about their prospects. Life became an insistent preoccupation with what happened next." Crystal pg. 218

A short-story collection about young Black people living life. Honestly that's all there is to it. There are eight short stories and while most of them focus on race and coming-of age, there are also questions of love, class, and friendships.

I really like the above quote because I feel as though I'm going through it right now. Even though it's not my junior year, it seems as though now I spend at least five minutes a day trying to plot out my future or imagine what it will be like. I want to go back to living in the moment, like most of us do as kids. We are told that are scores on the SAT, ACT, PSAT and our GPAS will determine our futures because if we show that we are 'smart' enough we will get into a great college, from there we will find love, money and happiness. Yeah ok. Anyway, this quote really resonated with me and it's from my favorite story of the collection, "Robert E. Lee is Dead". I'm not going to talk about every single story in this collection. My least favorite story was Virgins. It's my least favorite because it had the least satisfactory ending for me. My fear with short story collections is that I will want MORE and I do want more, but more from this author. Most of the stories ended in a messy/open ended way but it wasn't too cliffhangerish, except for some odd reason, "Virgins" left me feeling cheated. "Virgins" is about two fifteen year old girls who hang out and decide to go to a club. With fake IDs anything is possible and both girls are going to learn some hard-earned lessons about sex and friendship. I love a quote from this story when the narrator, Erica says quote matter-of-factly "We weren't bad-looking, neither one of us, but we weren't ever going to be beautiful, either, I knew that already. We were the kind of girls who would always be very pretty if but if never seemed to happen." (pg. 10) I can totally and completely relate to that, feeling as though I would be truly pretty IF I could (hair, nose, etc.). The story that provided the most food-for-thought regarding the complexities of class was "Harvest". It centers around abortion, "white trash", and making money by selling your eggs to fertility clinics. All of this while in college. In "Robert E. Lee is Dead", Crystal has everything going for her and she seemingly throws it all way. Definitely the story I was the most emotionally invested in.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self manages to sound both matter-of-fact and unsure. One minute the young narrators and the other characters are confidently expressing what they plan to do (even if they know it's going to land them in trouble) and the next they are filled with self-doubt, waiting for someone to talk them down from what they're about to (before they suffocate themselves). Yet they are also telling the readers to hold back all judgement until you've finished their story and THOUGHT about it for a few minutes. To me, the main characters asked the readers to hold off on all rash judgements. None of the people in this collection know exactly what it means to be an adult and it's not like they can ask their parents for help. Parents are rarely mentioned but it is noted that family is more than a little complicated and full of secrets. It will be interesting to re-read these stories when I'm actually in my 20s and then when I'm older and am able to actually look back. For now, most of these stories felt as though they could be happening to certain people I know and detailed experiences that I'm sure I'll come up against at some point. Most importantly of all, I appreciate an author who writes for adults treating teenagers with respect and compassion. She shows that we know more than we get credit for and that we go through a lot, internally and externally. As I'm sure you can imagine, I tend to avoid short story collections because I'm afraid of info dumps/lots of backstory and being left in too much suspense (I HATE suspense). Fortunately for me, Danielle Evans doesn't have much of any of that. Her next book is a novel, The Empire Has No Clothes and it involves politics. Best believe I will be reviewing it here. Read the poem the title comes from (LOVE the poem. Can't believe I just learned of it now).

Disclosure: My mom bought it because she liked the title. I was going to buy it anyway but I'm glad she beat me to it :)

PS Another favorite quote from my second-favorite story ("Wherever You Go, There You Are"), "It makes me happy when I recognize myself in a lyric, even if the lyric is I lied, you lied, I lied, to really love something is sucidie, because how I feel about Brian hasn't been about love in a long time, it's been about mattering the most, and as I count the songs, I'm confident I'm still winning on that scorecard." Carla pg. 188


  1. I loved all your reviews but if I had to choose one book, I would choose the first one. "The Long Song" really intrigued me.

  2. I love White is for Witching -- glad you (more or less) enjoyed it! :) Even when I don't understand everything in Helen Oyeyemi's books, her writing's so gorgeous I don't mind. I can't wait for whatever she's going to do next.

  3. Loved reading your reviews! Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self sounds the most interesting to me - loved the quote you chose. Feels like my life right now, too! =/ I'll have to check all of these out, I love the titles and covers.

  4. Thank you for your comments to my livejournal entry. I wasn't sure if my response there would get back to you.

    However, yes I do think the contrast between how slavery ended in the British colonies and the US is fascinating, especially having spent my teenage years in the Southern part of the USA and learning that part at High School (during the late 1960s so civil rights a big issue).

    I have joined the 2011 POC Reading Challenge.


  5. Pssst! I heard via Constance Ash that THE LONG SONG won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction

    Reminds me that I really need to read this...


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