Friday, October 21, 2011

Mini Reviews: Half of a Yellow Sun, Substitue Me, Till You Hear From Me

Till You Hear From Me by Pearl Cleage 2010
One World Books/Random House

"That was another thing he liked about Toni. She shared his ability to dismiss any claims of racial solidarity that conflicted with the interests of their clients. He thought of the two of them as part of the vanguard of post-racial African American professionals who were free at last to pimp the race without pretending they were trying to save it." Wes pg. 27

Ida B. Dunbar is a 30-something who loves politics. She poured her heart into President Obama's campaign and she's hoping that will pay off with a White House job. She never receives that phone call however and it doesn't help that her father, Rev. Horace Dunbar, a civil rights icon has a fiery, politically incorrect video up on YouTube that is not particularly flattening to say the least (think Jeremiah Wright). Ida's father's friends are concerned and they call her to ask her to come home to Atlanta's West End neighborhood to try and talk some sense into The Rev. Ida knows that it's a hopeless task but she decides that she might as well try while she hopes for a job in D.C., the city she loves. To her surprise, her old neighbor and son of her father's best friend, Wes Harper is also back in town. Ida had a crush on him as a kid but she hasn't seen him in years and he's shifty and it's well known that he isn't an Obama (or much of a Black-people) supporter. Ida needs to resist Wes, reconnect with her father and position herself to get the job she wants, but she needs to remember 'nothing changes but the changes.'

This book is advertised as an "Obama-era romance featuring a cast of unforgettable characters." The characters are good but they are forgettable except for Wes and that's merely because he's so ridiculously unlikable. The Incredible Quote resonated with me because there are many people who do think like that and to a certain extent I can understand why people do think that way. I do not believe we are in a post-racial society (well I don't agree with the statement at all but I'm not going to explain that here) but I had hoped that the author would have a less-biased approach towards Wes, Toni and any other characters like them. Instead the author makes them caricatures without really exploring what circumstances in their personal history makes them feel that they can/should 'pimp the race' so-to-speak. Also there is no romance. I don't even know where that came from but it's such a false advertisement. I didn't care, I picked up the book because it used the words "Obama-era" (I kid you not) and I had heard good things about Pearl Cleage. The most frustrating part of the boo however is that one of the most exciting confrontations occurs off the pages. To say I was annoyed is putting it mildly, this book crawls along but I had been anxiously awaiting the confrontation. And then it was basically ignored!

Till You Hear From Me has frustrating ending and a far-from neutral tone combined with slow pace which makes it hard to really like the book. I did enjoy reading about what it might be like to be the child of a civil rights legend and how that affects Ida's view of life. The Rev can be suffocating and very proud but he's also very loving and Ida is constantly inspired by him so it's interesting to read about her struggle to find a balance in their relationship so that The Rev no longer dominates her life. Also the author touches on discontent amongst some in the Black community who originally supported Pres. Obama but now want him to do more for Black people and her approach is more even concerning those characters. Fun fact: as much as The Poisonwood Bible annoyed me I was pleased that because of that book I knew who Fannie Lu Lumumba was named after (freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba of Congo). The storyline was original, the writing good but it did not wow me. The characters all resembled people I know so it felt like reading a book about the people I know all grown-up.

Disclosure: Bought

PS I did love this conversation between Flora and Ida

"'And I want to be part of that [changes in America] more than I ever wanted to be part of anything so that when I get old, I can look around and see the changes and say, Yeah I helped make that happen.'
We just sat there for a minute. I think I was talking to myself as much as I was talking to Flora.
'Well,' she said finally. 'I think you can stop worrying about looking for that real good man.'
'Why is that?'
'You just fell in love with your country, girlfriend, and nobody can compete with that." pg. 222 I LOVE that quote because I felt the same way right after then-Sen. Obama won the presidential campaign. It was definitely the moment I fell in love with my country (obviously I'd always loved America but this was the first conscious moment I remember really feeling proud).

Substitute Me by Lori Tharps 2010
Atria Paperback/Simon & Schuster

IQ "You make it sound like every White woman should be afraid that some Black hussy is going to seduce her husband. That's not what happened with Brad and me." Zora pg. 296

Zora Anderson is 30 years old and she has been an au pair in France for eight years. When she moves back to America she doesn't know what career she wants having not finished college because she wasn't interested in anything she studied. Fortunately for Zora she spots an ad for Brad and Kate Carter who are looking for a nanny, the exact wording that Mrs. Carter put in was "substitute me". As cliche as it sounds, Mrs. Carter will soon learn the very painful adage firsthand of being careful what you wish for especially when there are secrets in your household contained by every member of the family (except Ollie, the baby).

At first Zora sounded a little like me (or at least she had similar opportunities I have had and want to have, such as living in Europe or at least another country for awhile. We lost our connection whenever cooking was mentioned, haha) "she loved cooking, she loved traveling, and she liked kids. She liked feeling useful, and she liked being in beautiful spaces. She loved music and dancing and the taste of a foreign language rolling off her tongue. She loved reading literary fiction with multicultural characters and watching spoken-word poetry performances in intimate theaters. All of these things made her happy, but none of them fell under any job description she'd ever seen" (pg. 18). I could relate to that statement until I took a Comparative Government&Politics class and discovered I LOVE international politics so now I have a idea for a major (but of course that could change). So I was already fond of the book since I thought Zora was the embodiment of who I wanted to be. After reading the entire book I'm not so sure I would want her whole life but she gained some noteworthy experiences and while the route to her somewhat happy ending was rough, it wasn't depressing or anything. I wasn't enamored with the writing style, it didn't make me wince by being overly dramatic/too flowery but it didn't wow me with its beauty either. I was surprised at how long it took for the Brad&Zora storyline to take off and I didn't see it as a cliche since it's the first book I've ever read with a nanny/husband affair. while I was surprised by Kate and her friends, Brad was less surprising because I've met many liberal white people who can still be racially insensitive (unconsciously). He had a nice quote about love "[l]ove is such a crazy thing. Sometimes you can convince yourself it's not even real, that's just this elusive concept, yet when you fall in love, it can shake your world in ways you never dreamed possible" (pg. 319). It was bizarre to me as to why Kate disapproved so much about one of the career secrets Brad kept from her. I thought it was cute and nice that he got the chance to really follow his dreams.

I'm fairly naive when it comes to issues concerning working mothers and race relations and how competitive moms get over their kids. My mouth dropped open several times when conversations between Kate and Fiona (one of her white friends) were shared because they were so...not outrageously racist but very subtly prejudiced. I couldn't believe educated, so called 'modern' women still talked in a particular way. BUT I don't think the older generation would be that surprised. I also didn't realize mothers had such dilemmas about leaving their children with nannies. My mother has been working since I was born and I've never known anything else and I don't mind one bit. I felt a twang of sympathy for her if she agonized so much over her decision to leave my siblings and I with a babysitter. Working moms as a kid whose mom has always worked (still does), your kids will turn out fine and no they won't hold it against you (honestly I wouldn't like it if my mom was super-involved in my life, ugh). Anyway I digress, this book seems like an obvious bookclub pick because it addresses very accessible, universal issues. I really appreciated (and chuckled) over how often Zora bemoans how cliche her story is and she reiterates over and over that she wants to be more than just "Mammy". It sort of reminded me of all The Help controversy about Black women once again being regulated to "Mammy" roles/characterizations. To me she seemed to hint at the fact that there's nothing wrong with being nanny if you love being one and are treated with respect.

Disclosure: Bought from my closing Borders. Check out the AALit section people!

PS Fun tidbit: This story takes place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. When I was in NYC I had lunch at an amazing Thai place in Fort Greene with Zetta Elliott, Lyn Miller Lachmann and Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich. It was a great lunch and much too short.

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2006
Anchor Books/Random House

IQ "The rawness of Edna's grief made her helpless, brought the urge to stretch her hand in the past and reverse history. Finally, Edna fell asleep. Olanna gently placed a pillow beneath her head and sat thinking about how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off. She thought about how ephemeral life was about not choosing misery." pg. 306

Set during the late 1960s during a tumultuous time in Nigeria's history; a time when the southwestern region of Biafra wanted to be independent from the rest of Nigeria. Through the characters of Ugwu a thirteen-year old houseboy, Richard a young Englishman in love with Kainene a dynamic woman from a wealthy Nigerian family, Olanna the beautiful twin sister of Kainene and Odenigbo, a revolutionary university professor who is dating Olanna, the war is brought to light from various perspectives.

Now here is a book that defines the word EPIC. At first I was impatient for the war to begin, but gradually I relaxed and soaked up all the conversations. I'm always fondly jealous when in books the characters attend not just parties but also gatherings where they discuss politics openly, this is quite a common theme when I read books not set in America. I don't think you can do that in the United States nowadays, it can be too violate, we've lost too much civility to be able to calmly discuss international affairs and domestic politics. Half a Yellow Sun is no exception, Olanna & Odenigbo host gatherings of intellectuals who are not all like minded but they are polite and their discussions range from politics to literature to religion but always come back to politics. These discussions create an opening for the author to showcase the various viewpoints of secondary characters who will remain relevant throughout the entirety of the novel. My favorite character was Kainene because she was so hard to read (pun intended). She was so cold towards other people and so difficult to understand but I loved her passion, her commitment to helping people throughout the world. Her ending made me very sad because I grown quite fond of her and Richard but their endings suit them and I can't always say that I feel that way after reading another book where the same end meets the characters but this book is different. Plus if you like romance this book is chockful of lovely (and harrowing) romantic tidbits.

I would be able to honestly use the word epic to describe this novel because while it is surrounded by grand, sweeping events, it is filled with small moments that if you blink you might miss the importance to the characters. For example, I might have overlooked the following quote had I not studied Nigeria in my Comparative Government & Politics class "but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,' Master said. 'I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came'" (pg. 25). From my class I knew that many Nigerians identify themselves by their tribe first, country second. Although some of my Nigerian friends say that is changing, their parents identify themselves first by tribe then Nigeria, but they (the younger generation) are content with simply calling themselves Nigerian. A small quote in the context of a longer discussion that I might not have picked up but it's an example of how careless the imperialistic powers were upon leaving Africa, just throwing together tribes with no thought to their warring history. Half A Yellow Sun is an epic and epic itself. The story does not take place across generations but it does span several years while managing to never lose the reader. It's epic because it completely immerses the reader in Nigerian culture as a whole but specifically in Igbo culture, it had me walking away thinking of words in Igbo (such as "biko" a term of endearment). There were also tiny bursts of feminism such as when Olanna resolutely decides after being cheated on that "[s]he would not let him make her feel that there was something wrong with her. It was her right to be upset, her right to choose not to brush her humiliation aside in the name of an overexalted intellectualism, and she would claim that right" (pg. 129). A mini review cannot do this book justice I don't think but I'll try in a sentence: Enrapturing tale with dynamic characters of various temperaments from various backgrounds, dense without being overwhelming. I loved Purple Hibiscus but I wouldn't want to re-read it, I would re-read Half A Yellow Sun.

Disclosure: As a sign that my mother does indeed love me she bought me this book (heehee)