Category Archives: african-american literature

Review: Shake Down the Stars by Renee Swindle

8th August 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the author Renee Swindle in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been five years since Piper Nelson’s daughter died, but she’s coping worse than ever. Her mother and sister are so absorbed in the sister’s celebrity wedding, they don’t have time to notice Piper’s pain. Her ex husband has moved on, and the loss seems to sever her last connection to her daughter, adding to her sorrow.

Her job as a high school teacher suffers as Piper begins drinking more and more to stave off the pain. And like many addicts, she’s hurt too many people by the time she reaches the end of her descent to know where to turn. Help comes in the unlikely form of Selwyn, whom Piper meets at a disastrous engagement party for her sister and her sister’s pro football fiance. Not put off by Piper’s anger and addiction, he instead offers her support and friendship.

She knows she needs to change, but how do you move on from such a loss? How do you shut it away when others are ready to pass over it?

Though Shake Down the Stars could easily have been a depressing or morbid book, Renee Swindle writes a book that feels incredibly realistic and respectful. Addiction is never demonized but written about with understanding and empathy. Swindle also respects that loss looks different to different people and that the reactions to death can range as widely as the people that death affects. But Piper can’t see that in her grief, and the family dynamics and her eventual recognition of them is just as pivotal to her story.

Piper learns to find joy and laughter again through unexpected relationships, including other addicts who walk the same road she does. Yet never does Swindle brush over Piper’s pain, making for a book that can cause laughter and tears sometimes on the same page.

ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere says it best, calling Shake Down the Stars “a rich, savvy exploration of the many kinds of love, loss, and dysfunction that can unearth us or save us, bedevil us or deliver us.”

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

In the Classroom: American Literature

17th August 2012

I taught writing and literature until last August when I finally landed a full-time job as an ESL instructor, teaching reading and writing. Though I really enjoy my job, I have missed teaching literature. Like, a lot.

Yesterday morning, the English department called and asked if I could take on an American Literature course in the afternoon, and I literally danced down the hallway to tell my co-teacher. I may have done a leap.

American Lit is my favorite course to teach because America, as an ideal/concept, is endlessly fascinating to me. I love reading something from 1852 that is still being discussed in newspapers today. The Declaration of Independence makes me beam from ear to ear, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech” brings tears to my eyes always. So yeah, the leap down the hall was understatement.

This afternoon I pulled out The Norton Anthology of American Literature, shorter seventh edition, which I refer to in my syllabus as ironic, since it’s three inches thick and weighs about five pounds…

I thought I’d share with you our reading list and the overarching course question we discuss at the start of each semester:

American literature and its history are directly linked to how we think of America as a nation and ourselves as Americans – even if the two don’t always agree. Its literature is a constant conversation, evolving as time goes by while still asking the same questions of each generation. This course is designed to examine “America” as ideal while seeking links and corollaries in the literature between time periods and across gender, race, ethnic, culture, and class lines.

Because America is a composite of these components and so many more, one can argue that there is no American literature; however, these texts are all defined by a quickening, urgent sense of identity: What is an American? Countless authors still subtly and not-so-subtly explore the complex answers to this question, making the study of this literature interesting and necessary while calling for readers/students to be open minded to and critical of the ideologies put forth. So…what is America?

Background and Introduction to American Literature (Discussion of Orature/Journals):

  • Handouts on oral storytelling traditions and Native American oral literature; Native American Creation stories: American Indian Trickster Tales/American Indian Myths and Legends
  • Letters of Christopher Columbus
  • Thomas Harriot, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
  • John Smith, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles

Conversation on Puritans/Captive Literature:

  • John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
  • William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
  • Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration
  • Cotton Mather, “The Trial of Martha Carrier”
  • Jonathon Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” [Using Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shimates to emphasize importance]
  • Anne Bradstreet, various poetry

Toward Nationalism: Discussion of Age of Reason and Revolution:

  • St. John de Crevecoueur, “What is an American?” [I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the topic. Students will also examine current essays/articles responding to the same question.]
  • Thomas Paine, “Common Sense”
  • Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
  • Phyllis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” “Language”

National Conversation on Equality Including Civil War:

  • Sojourner Truth, “Speech to the Women’s Rights”
  • Margaret Fuller, “The Great Lawsuit” [Fantastic piece on equality between sexes; students will examine current similar articles]
  • Fanny Fern, “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” [I talked about this piece here and will use various articles to discuss]
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Slave’s Dream”
  • Abraham Lincoln, “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg”
  • Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” [Masterful speech]

Emerging American Literature: The Romantics:

  • Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”
  • Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle”
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil”

Discuss American Realism & Naturalism: Why the Change?

  • Emily Dickinson, various poems
  • Kate Chopin, “The Storm”
  • Walt Whitman, excerpts from Leaves of Grass
  • Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp”
  • Mark Twain, Adventure of Huckleberry Finn [Students will work in groups on discussion questions & discuss in class]

What Is an American? Have we decided yet? How and why is “frontier” so important to America?

  • Frederick Jackson Turner, from “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”
  • Theodore Roosevelt, from “The Strenuous Life”

Discuss American Conscience and Inequality, A Reprisal:

  • Booker T. Washington, excerpt from “Up From Slavery”
  • W.E.B. DuBois, excerpts from Souls of Black Folk
  • Music as poetry: Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Josephine Baker

Post-World War I America: How do we continue?

  • Amy Lowell, “September, 1918”
  • Robert Frost, “After Apple-Picking”
  • Carl Sandburg, “Chicago” “Grass”
  • William Carlos Williams, “The Young Housewife” “Queen Anne’s Lace”
  • Ezra Pound, “To Whistler, American” “A Pact”
  • Claude McKay, “America”
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I Think I Should Have Loved You Presently” “I Forgot for a Moment”
  • ee. cummings, “next to of course go america i”
  • Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” “The Weary Blues” “Democracy”

The Modern Era:

  • Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire[show the film]
  • William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
  • Ernest Hemingway, “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”
  • Raymond Carver, “A Small, Good Thing” “Careful”
  • Andre Dubus, “Killings”

Discussion of Voice: Why is it important? Who is silenced?

  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Louise Erdrich, “Dear John Wayne”
  • Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
  • Julia Alvarez, “The Mother”
  • Martin Luther King, “I Have A Dream”
  • Sandra Cisneros, “Woman Hollering Creek”
  • Sherman Alexie, “Do Not Go Gentle”
  • Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” “Pawn Shop”
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, “No Name Woman”

Whew! I know that’s a lot, but we generally discuss most of it, particularly as I have different activities for different sections, and in some places, students will be teaching selected pieces, so they will not all be reading all the works. In the past, we have had some really insightful conversations. One thing I will be doing again is first day/last day material. I pass out post-it notes to students and ask them to write the first few words that come to mind when I say the word “America.” That opens up our discussion. I ask them to keep in mind the words they wrote down as we continue the semester, and on the last day before finals, I ask the same question. Seeing the thoughtfulness and intensity students put into their second post-it is so rewarding (for me, at least).

So, what do you think? I think I better get to re-reading… 🙂

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

14th July 2011

*I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of this book from Ms. Jones at BEA11. You can purchase a copy of this book pubbed by Algonquin through Indiebound.

Sometimes it is really, really difficult to write a review. Not because you didn’t like a particular book, but because you did. Silver Sparrow is that book for me, and I have saved about six different drafts of this review. So just know, I loved this book.

******

From the first line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” Jones tells a story unlike any other I have read, about Witherspoon’s two daughters – Dana, the “outside” daughter and Chaurisse, the “inside” daughter.

James spends one night a week with Dana and her mom Gwen and the rest of the week with Chaurisse and her mom, Laverne. However, Dana and her mom live with the burden of knowing about James’s other family, while Laverne and Chaurisse have no idea of James’s betrayal. But James’s secret (and quite beautiful) wife and daughter don’t remain a secret for long, and inevitably the two girls meet. Dana Lynn is curious about her counterpart – the girl allowed to be called James Witherspoon’s daughter.  Chaurisse, though, is oblivious to Dana’s relation to her. All she knows is she isn’t “silver” or pretty like Dana, and sometimes Dana has an anger that puzzles Chaurisse.

What Chaurisse doesn’t understand is the true selfishness James shows toward Dana. Once, she comes home with a drawing from elementary school. In it, she draws her daddy and his other family in the foreground and Dana and her mother in the background. Her daddy tells her she can’t draw pictures like that because it’s nobody’s business:

“Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?” I asked him.

He put me down from his lap, so we could look each other in the face. “No. You’ve got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.”

I’m not a momma, but I had some choice words for this man when I read this scene. And maybe that’s why it has been so difficult for me to write this review. Because try as I might, I cannot forget what James Witherspoon did to the women he loves. Yes, Silver Sparrow is a story about love, friendship, sisterhood, loss and growing up, but it is also more than anything, a story of one man’s decision and the women he loves having to painfully come to terms with that choice.

 ******

Read this: immediately/as soon as possible/when you get a chance/eh-if you’re bored

jenn aka the picky girl

32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

7th July 2011

*This book was sent to me via the publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins. You can purchase the paperback from Indiebound here.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently by my female African-American students is why it is so difficult for them to find books about African-American girls their age, today, who aren’t being raped and victimized at every turn. Not that those stories shouldn’t be told. But where are the great modern, everyday-girl kind of stories about women of color? Because sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered and that’s what many of my students (African-American or otherwise) want to read.

Ernessa T. Carter’s first novel 32 Candles is exactly what they, and I, are looking for, though the main character Davidia Jones is far from happy as a child. She lives in Mississippi with her abusive mother who brings home a different man every night. She doesn’t know her daddy, and she doesn’t speak. To anyone. She goes to school with classmates who call her Monkey Night. It isn’t a great existence until James Farrell enters the picture. Smooth, wealthy, and kind, James is a dreamboat, and Davidia is crazy for him. Her only real source of pleasure is watching 16 Candles with Molly Ringwald, and Davidia is sure she and James (her Jake Ryan) will have a happy ending. But it’s high school, and James’s icy sister Veronica knows something that is eating her up inside, and she takes it out on Davidia.

This isn’t a young adult novel, though. The true story lies in Davidia’s bravery in stepping away from her toxic past and falling into a future she never knew she wanted – as a lounge singer. At least that’s what Ernessa T. Carter and Davie want you to think. Because let me tell you – this book has a twist, a fun, fantastic, cringe-worthy twist that will have you cheering for Davie and shaking your head at her at the same time.

32 Candles was a fun read, but it wasn’t a cookie-cutter romance. Davie is independent. She grows up much too quickly, which I think accounts for some of her more immature and vindictive actions, but all in all, she changes and grows with the help of Nicky, the night-club-owner-turned-surrogate father and Mama Jane, the lesbian truck driver who takes Davie under her wing. I loved the characters because they loved Davie, in a way her real family never could.

Here’s my favorite quote, in a moment where Davidia becomes “Davie”:

She was Little Davidia, the girl that I had been before Cora knocked her out of me.

And man, could she sing.

I mean, she was killing this song. She was taking it home to its rightful maker and showing it off in heaven. She was letting people know that she had risen from the dead and that she was back.

Little Davidia finished the song on a long note — not because she was showing off, but because she did not want it to end.

If you’re looking for an entertaining read with a bit of romance and a mean streak a mile wide, 32 Candles is a sure thing. Plus, as a product of the 80s, the pop culture references didn’t hurt either. 🙂

read this: by the pool/at home in bed/anywhere (as long as you can read uninterrupted…)

jenn aka the picky girl

P.S. Check out Ernessa T. Carter’s blog.

P.P.S. Don’t take my word for it: Check out the other reviews on the tour stop here.

#fridayreads take me away

30th June 2011

#fridayreads take me away is a weekly meme to celebrate the start of the weekend and the glorious day of reading whatever the heck you want. I’d love for you to join!

What is Friday Reads/#fridayreads? Readers around the world join together in community to support one another and celebrate the simple joys of reading. Readers can win prizes for participating commenting on the Friday Reads blog, the Facebook page, or tweeting your book with the #fridayreads hashtag.

What is #fridayreadstake me away? It is a new meme for readers/bloggers. I have noticed different readers/ bloggers apologize for a certain book or phase of reading. I say, read. Period. Whether it’s a magazine you’ve saved up for Friday afternoon or evening or a mystery, romance novel, sci-fi, bodice ripper, or New York Times bestseller, Friday is about doing what we love most: reading.

How does it work?

-Figure out what your Friday/weekend read will be

-Blog about why it’s perfect weekend reading and why you recommend it

-Grab my button and add it to your post

-Come back and add your URL to the Simply Linked URL box

-Visit participating blogs to see what they recommend

-Enjoy your weekend

What if I don’t have a blog?

Tell me what you’re reading anyway. Let me know if you need a great suggestion. I’m full of them, and I’m bossy, as are a lot of other people around these parts. 🙂

 

**psst – tell your friends about #fridayreads take me away. if we can get enough participants, i plan on doing a giveaway. a hint: it’s something simple…