An American Marriage, review

At sixteen I thought I knew what romantic love was. Head over heels for a boy who turned my world completely upside down there was never a doubt in my mind that what we had was real. And what was real was meant to be held onto, no matter how painful the grip. The idea of “meant to be,” began to feel more like duty than destiny and that is the conflict that ties An American Marriage by Tayari Jones together. Celestine and Roy are two individuals who think they have this love and marriage thing figured out, but life has a way of showing the both of them that they don’t know the first thing about anything. Both their love and notions of duty are tested by an unforeseen circumstance that, while unfair to both parties, reveal truths that were bound to come to light regardless.

I will admit I struggled with the story at first, but the more I kept reading, the more I saw myself in both Celestine and Roy. I understood the duty that Roy and the other men in the novel tried to impose on Celestine, knew it because I felt a sense of duty to stick by the man I had committed myself to at sixteen even when I wasn’t sure he was worth it anymore. And I understood the need for liberation and autonomy Celestine was trying to explain to everyone in the novel who seemed to ignore her voice—it’s what ultimately led me to realize what I was holding onto wasn’t worth the sacrificing of my own life. What I love most about Jones’ novel is how it gripped me in a way I was not prepared for. She has a way of crafting a mirror that so clearly reflects truths people often hide from.

At twenty-five I learned how to let go. Just as Roy realized that what he was fighting for was a phantom of a dream, something that was worthless if it had to be forced. I looked into the eyes of a man I swore I loved and realized I didn’t know him at all. I realized that what I was fighting tooth and nail for was something that did not exist between us anymore, and maybe it never did, but I knew that regardless it was not worth holding onto. I do not imagine that he and I will ever get to the point of where Celestine and Roy find themselves at the end of An American Marriage,  but I can say, confidently, that I have learned something about love: it boils down to acceptance.

The beginning of the first Corinthians scripture about love are probably the most popular, but the line that sticks with me the most is, “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.” I have come to understand that love is not possible without accepting the truth of who someone is just as it is not possible without revealing the truth of who you are. When Celestine and Roy are able to finally see each other for who they are—not who they want the other to be—they are able to accept one another and unlock a freedom that wasn’t possible before then. I have experienced this in my own life and I don’t believe it would have been possible without my foolish first attempt at love, just as Celestine and Roy would not have been able to arrive at their final destination without going through the journey we watch them navigate throughout the novel. The brilliance of Jones’ book is so unassuming it sneaks up on you toward the end, instantly making you want to start from the beginning again. It’s a feat so astounding I see why Oprah chose it for her book club.

If you want a light read that packs a meaningful punch, I highly recommend An American Marriage. It will stir some dormant questions in you and make you look at love, destiny, and duty in a different light. 

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Queen Sugar – A Review

Queen Sugar

Published: 2014

Publisher: Penguin Group

Pages: 372

Summary: Charlotte Boderlon, a California based teacher, inherits a sugar cane farm in Louisiana after the passing of her father. Driven by a need for a fresh start, she packs up her life, and eleven-year old daughter, Micah, and sets off for Saint Josephine Louisiana. Charlotte, Charley, quickly learns that neither a fresh start, nor managing a plummeting sugar cane farm, is as easy as it sounds. Family ties are tested, Love is discovered, and Life is re-defined in Natalie Baszile’s debut novel.

richmond barthe the cane cutter

The Cane Cutter, Richmond Barthé

“When Someone in a family needs help, it’s up to everyone to see that he gets what he needs”

Review: I love southern literature. My affection for the south runs deep. Anything that takes place in Louisiana or Alabama’s gulf coast I sniff out like a hound, so when I heard Ava DuVernay was creating a show about a woman running a sugar cane farm in Louisiana I scoured the internet for more information. As a bibliophile, you can imagine my delight–to put it mildly–when I discovered the series was based on a book. Once I got my hands on Natalie Baszile’s debut novel I felt a sense of nostalgia and longing surface for the region so deeply nestled in my heart. And to some degree, I was satisfied.

Charlotte Boderlon, or Charley as she prefers to be called, is a woman in need of a do-over. At mid to late thirties her life hasn’t quite gone as planned. So when she inherits her father’s sugar cane farm, trading her life in California for a second chance in Louisiana seems like a logical plan. As she and her reluctant daughter, Micah, make their voyage, Charlotte is hoping this second chance will not only allow her to re-direct the course of her life, but to rectify the strained relationship she has with her daughter. More than anything she is seeking forgiveness.

The theme of forgiveness overtly weaves itself throughout the novel as we discover Charley is not the only one in need of a do-over. Her brother, Ralph-Angel, is on the run with his son, Blue, in tow. Like his sister he is escaping a life that hasn’t quite gone in his favor, but what he’s searching for continues to elude him and eventually he finds himself returning to the home, and memories, that have caused their equal share of joy and pain.

It is in Miss Honey’s house in Saint Josephine, Louisiana, where the two siblings “come to roost” after twenty-years. It is not a reunion either is exactly ecstatic over, but for a brief moment a bud of hope blossoms in Charley’s guarded heart as she ignores the warnings against trusting her shifty brother. She wants to believe that, despite the past, everyone deserves forgiveness–she herself has made gruesome mistakes. That hope is not only extended toward her brother, it reaches to the acres of unkept sugar cane land she’s now been crowned the owner of.

“You can’t come down here thinking the field’s wide open. You gotta know this thing. You got to live it” – Queen Sugar 

Chances of the crop’s redemption seem slim and just when Charley has dug herself out of a hole, she tumbles into a ditch. As much as she considers throwing the towel in, she understands that this land is more than just sugar cane crop, it’s a family legacy: a chance to re-right the wrong that was done to her father, a chance to bestow something on her daughter–even if it is simply showing her how “a woman in desperate straits could pull her own survival out of the ruddy earth.” She takes that chance, and it is not without risk as the more she toils the tougher the terrain becomes. What she’s working at is bigger than her individual self.

“People had fought over sugarcane and died for it. They had married for it, prayed over it, and cursed its existence” – Queen Sugar

The quest to restore her father’s land comes with a battle she hadn’t prepared for: her family’s skeletons. A fresh-start does not always mean an escape from the past. But sometimes, “you go looking for adventure, all you find is disaster.”

Queen Sugar has all of the elements to make it a compelling story. Baszile has a way of revealing the history and process of sugar cane farming that does not put you to sleep. Her prose is sweet and she paints the south in such rich and realistic colors you can feel the Louisiana sun beaming on you. I understand why Ava was inspired by the novel. While there is beautiful language, an empathetic protagonist, and a quasi love-triangle, Queen Sugar also examines the very real presence of race and its -isms. Baszile weaves reflections of farming’s racial history with the harsh reality of attempting to operate in a white male dominated industry as a black woman. The odds are stacked against Charley, but her determination and her sense of duty is endearing enough to win the partnership of the most revered and knowledgable farmer, and speak to the history of black female resilience and “generations of struggle and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.” Charlotte is not a woman made of stone, but she is also no push-over.

 

“You couldn’t expect to be the only woman in an industry filled with men and not think someone would eventually say something stupid; you couldn’t ignore the long, dark, tortured history of Southern race relations, or pretend everything would be fixed overnight. [..] But you could be brave.” – Queen Sugar 

 

I enjoyed Queen Sugar although the story began to lose grip of its reins toward the end and what should have been a gut-wrenching scene almost flew by too fast for me. Nevertheless, it opens up a dialog that will leave you wrestling with what’s left unresolved.

Rating: 3.5/5

Cane River Review

I have a fixation with the south, particularly Louisiana—it’s a borderline obsession. My father is from a small Alabama town on the Gulf of Mexico, two hours outside of New Orleans, which I deem close enough for me to claim some sort of Louisiana roots. In fact, Mobile was once the capital of Louisiana during the French colonial period. There is a rich and unique history that lies in that gulf state. From the music, to the food, to the eclectic cultures and hues of people, it’s hard not to fall in love and, in my case, romanticize Louisiana. So, imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Cane River. Ok, more like scoured the internet for novels that took place in Louisiana, but, nevertheless, I became acquainted with this gem of a tale.

Cane River is the story of four generations of women in Lalita Tademy’s family spawning from Slavery, the Civil War, and the Depression era all along Louisiana’s Cane River in Natchitoches Parish. Before going any further, I have to applaud Tademy for her copious amount of research and dedication—she quit her job in Silicon Valley—to telling the incredible story of her family. From word-of-mouth to factual records Tademy wove in elements of fact and fiction to bring us the story of four women who used their ingenuity, coupled with their limited access, in order to survive and keep their family together. The tale begins with Emily, the fierce matriarch of her family–composed and resilient. Despite the tragedies she has faced, she is never deterred from her goal of keeping her family together. From Emily, Suzette is begotten. A once idealistic and romantic girl, Suzette is accosted with the harsh reality of her circumstances and though she must bury those old dreams, she grows stronger and more determined for her family and her children to see the light of freedom. Philomene is the even fiercer re-incarnation of her grandmother with dreams bigger than the two women before her. She is a fighter, despite the repeated blows of reality, she maintains her tenacious will to secure financial independence and reunite her family. The tale concludes with Emily, the realization of all the dreams and sacrifices of the women before her. She operates a new and confusing space of freedom and economic affluence, but she too is unable to escape the affliction of the her reality’s harsh times. But, just like the strong women who came before her, she squares her shoulders and stands up to the challenges of her society, unwilling to let them break or demean her. I was impressed by Tademy’s humanistic approach to each character in her novel. She shed the 21st centuries’ convictions on America’s most heinous crime against humanity and allowed us a deep psychoanalytic glimpse into the world of slavery and the complex factors that held up its institution. The characters lift right off the page and you become so immersed in their story that you feel as if you’re right there beside them. I finished the book in less than three days and was so engrossed that I couldn’t bother to pause and mark up the text for fear that I would miss something. Tademy’s beautiful prose is filled with poetic figurative and metaphoric ethos as it opens the window of the souls and minds of these women. She is able to spare us from too graphic details while still providing us the weight of sacrifice and the complexity of rationale. You’ll find yourself not in criticism of these women and their choices, but understanding their position respective to the confines of their reality. Tademy provides no good characters and no bad characters; she creates humans. Cane River is a story that goes beyond our notions of morality and ethics and centers on survival and the power of family.

 

Citizens Creek Available for Pre-Order

CitizensCreek___Latita Tademy

Lalita Tademy became a well-recognized name when Oprah inducted Tademy’s debut novel, Cane River, into her reverenced and devoutly-followed book club. Both, Cane River, and Tademy’s second novel, Red River, earned her spots on the New York Times Best Seller’s list, and now she is back with her latest novel, Citizens Creek. 

According to Tademy’s websiteCitizens Creek, is a tale about:

a once-enslaved man who buys his freedom after serving as a translator during the American Indian Wars and his granddaughter, who sustains his legacy of courage.

I can speak first hand of the genius and literary-talent that is Tademy’s work. She has a gift and a commitment to telling the diverse stories of African-American history that explore the bonds of family and the resilience of a people who, no matter the circumstances, refuse to give up their stride toward freedom. Her writing is so visceral you’ll feel as if you’re present in each word you read.

Tademy’s work is timeless; she tells the stories that need to be told in a way that is evocative and original. She is sure to continue such a reputation with her upcoming work, Citizens Creek.

Pre-Order your copy today.

Bibliomaniac

Bibliomaniac

Books have remained constant fixtures in my life. From childhood to early adulthood, I have always had my nose stuck somewhere in the middle of a book. Currently, I have eighteen books checked out from my university’s library–will I get to all of them by the end of the semester, probably not–and I just spent over twenty dollars at a discounted bookshop–did I need any of these of these books for any particular reason, not really. So why hoard an obscene amount of books that I know I haven’t the time to read? Because I’m obsessed with reading–have been since I read my first sentence. I remember when I got my first library card and would practically live in between the shelves—scanning the summaries of novels, piling them up high on the counter and taking them all home to divulge, some with ravenous intrigue, others with a close and slow analyzation. Most books I could never get to, but refused to part with them (resulting in a shameful accumulation of library fines).

There’s an excitement I feel when I think about a good story at home waiting for me to finish. I often rush through tasks, absent-mindedly, longing for the moment at which I and my current beloved book are reunited. It’s not as creepy as I’m making it sound, or perhaps the debilitating need to constantly have a book at the ready, be it in my bag, in my trunk, on my kindle, is a bit manic. Judge all you like, but I am not the only one.

Critically-acclaimed author, Zadie Smith (White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty) in her article for oprah.com, has given a name to this addiction “bibliomania,” and has inducted herself into its solitary and obsessive club. 

She admits to:

“packing for a short flight between London and Belfast, with my Kindle, certainly, but also with four or five hardback books jammed into my hand luggage, just in case. Just in case we happen to fly through a wrinkle in time in which an hour expands to accommodate infinity.”

Though Zadie might not feel as if such an obsession is worth being boastful of, I find no reason to be ashamed of it (although it can be quite pathetic if you decline weekend plans with your friends to stay in and read).

If you’ve foud yourself overcome with the same disorder, read more of Zadie’s article.