Sunday, August 12, 2018

Between the World and Me, by Ta Nehisi Coates.

This book is a letter addressed by the author to his 15-year-old son: Samori. 

Ta Nehisi Coates relates the fears of his youth while growing up in West Baltimore. “When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid..… The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats… which was their armor against their world. “

Everybody knew someone who had lost a child or adult life violence, jail, or drugs. “I saw it (fear) in my own father, who loves you.” But if the young Coates got in trouble, which he often said he did, his father would crack the belt, “which he applied with more anxiety than anger. “

Coates tells his son that “fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into a television sets. “

The author explains that the law did not protect the Black community. “And now in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping in frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. “

Coates repeats several times in his letter that he had been a curious boy. His mother taught him to read and write when he was very young. His father was a research librarian at Howard University; his father loved and owned many books by and about Blacks.

Coates suffered at the hands of both the streets and the schools. He believed the schools “were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance…. When the elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning, but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Schools did not reveal truths, they can concealed them. “

Ta-Nehisi questioned the need for school: “Their are laws were aimed at something distant and vague.” It was not the classroom but the library that he loved. “The library was open, unending, free. “

Coates wants his son to ask many of the same questions as mother had put to him: “Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher; why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect; how would I want someone to behave while I was talking?” author goes on to state that his mother’s assignments did not curb his behavior, but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness… she was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing— myself. “

It was later at Howard University and especially The Mecca, that Ta-Nehisi he was formed and shaped. 
The Mecca: A machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body… We have made something down here. We have taken the one drop rules of Dreamers and flipped them. They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. Here at the mecca under pain of selection, we have made a home as do black people on summer blocks marked with needles, violence, and hopscotch squares. As do black people dancing it out at rent parties, as do black people at their family reunions where we are regarded like the survivors of catastrophe.
—Lauri Jones 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

In an author interview at the end of The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh says of her inspiration for the novel, “I’d been a foster parent for many years, and I felt it was an experience that had not been described well or often…. With Victoria, I wanted to create a character that people could connect with on an emotional level—at her best and at her worst—which I hoped would give readers a deeper understanding of the challenges of growing up in foster care.” As someone who worked for seven years with kids in foster care, some of whom aged out like Victoria, and as someone who was briefly a foster parent, I think Diffenbaugh does a terrific job.

We meet Victoria on her way to her “last chance” placement with Elizabeth. “I pressed my forehead against the window and watched the dusty summer hills roll past. Meredith’s car smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was mold on the strap of the seat belt from something some other child had been allowed to eat. I was nine years old. I sat in the backseat of the car in my nightgown, my cropped hair a tangled mess. It was not the way Meredith had wanted it. She’d purchased a dress for the occasion, a flowing, pale blue shift with embroidery and lace. But I had refused to wear it.”

Diffenbaugh’s language as she tells Victoria’s story is full of this kind of rich sensory detail that puts the reader in the backseat with Victoria when she shows us the mold on the strap of the seat belt. And that one tiny, dirty, carefully observed detail suggests larger truths about the foster care system. For that trip to her “last chance” Victoria is still in her nightgown. Because we all feel vulnerable in our nightgowns, we take Victoria’s vulnerability into our own sensibilities.

Victoria is a very specific girl; she’s not a type, and that’s where the charm and intelligence of the story lies. She is memorable. She speaks the language of flowers. She burns down the vineyard and lies to the judge. Against all odds, she becomes a successful business person with her language of flowers. She lives in weird places. The scene where she wraps her baby in moss to give to Grant is such a wonderful, fresh, memorable scene. As is her almost Homeric battle with Hazel to get nursing routine under control. I will never forget Victoria, just as will never forget Dellarobbia in Flight Behavior. 

Yet Diffenbaugh also achieves her goals of giving readers an understanding, generally, of the hardship of growing up in foster care. Victoria’s anger (which is really a mask for terror), her ravenous hunger (a sign of her emotional emptiness), her inability to learn in a normal school setting are normal behaviors of foster kids. The kids are usually terrified, emotionally drained, and unable to concentrate. Victoria makes these generalities specific in the most compelling way. 

We say goodbye to Victoria when she’s a mother and a small business owner and on the cusp of beginning a new and hopeful life with Grant, Hazel, and Elizabeth. And the journey from hello to goodbye is steered by the language of flowers. Victoria finds that language clear and unambiguous—Hazel means reconciliation; moss means maternal love; purple hyacinth means please forgive me. And where there is ambiguity, Victoria sorts it out, nails it down, and records it on two cards. One for her; one for Grant. The language of flowers, which Elizabeth introduces her to, connects Victoria to Elizabeth, Grant, Hazel, and her customers. And that’s where her hope lies at the end of the story. —Sharelle Moranville

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Our Recommendations for Next Books

1984 by George Orwell
All The President's Men by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller
Faith: A Journey for All by Jimmy Carter
Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamottt
Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek by Annie Dillard
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by 
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class, by Elizabeth Warren
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones 
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Island: The Complete Stories by Alistair MacLeod
I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt  
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (book set at WDM library)
Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett 
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb
The Swimmer by Joakim Zander
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger  

Saturday, June 23, 2018


Published in 1975, Ragtime is an amazing tapestry capturing the spirit of America in the era between the turn of the century & WW1, when … “patriotism was a reliable sentiment … everyone wore white in the summer… the only thing more irritating than immigrants is black folk, specially when they start acting like they was white folk.”

It’s aptly titled too, for Doctorow manages to capture the ragtime music energy of the era. A quote by Scott Joplin, a famous ragtime musician, at the beginning of this novel, affirming that “It is never right to play Ragtime fast”, gives away the style and tone.  It starts very slowly, with descriptions of the main characters, where they live, and what they do., and then proceeds forward.

This colorful semi-historical novel is jam-packed with a myriad of characters, some fictional and some real-life, revolving around the fortunes of three families; a white family who are unnamed (simply referred to as father, mother and mother's younger brother), a Jewish immigrant family and a black family. Their lives intersect in both happy and tragic ways. Interspersed are a cast of real life authentic figures such as magician Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary, tycoons Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, anarchist Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, and even a brief mention of Tom Thumb.

There is no inkling of a plot or hint that the book will be anything more than disparate descriptive passages for several early chapters. When interconnections between the characters intermingled with their encounters with some of the famous historical personages of the age begin to appear, these are the first indications that it will evolve into the veneer of a novel. 

These strange characters are inextricably linked by unexpected and unforeseen events seemingly outside their control; the young boy’s uncle is in love with a woman who meets a revolutionary who is arrested for creating anarchy when a criminal holes up in J.P. Morgan’s library after his fiancĂ© is killed when she leaves the house of the mother of the young boy’s uncle. And so on.

Maybe it is Doctorow’s genius that he can link together as many characters as he chooses, keeping them intertwined in the fine fabric of turn-of-the-century New York. Or maybe it is because this bedlam and turmoil is intentional, reflecting perfectly the chaos and confusion of the era.

There is an undercurrent of radicalism in the novel and a strong sense of the inequality of society. What I found most stimulating was the fictional character of Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist, and his fight for his rights stands out against an obvious injustice. His fanatical pursuit of justice drives him to revolutionary violence at a great cost to himself, but also to those he loves. It’s about this time that the book begins to become very interesting, and his story dominates the rest of the novel.

Ragtime definitely delivers. This is extrovert writing – witty, active voice, strong verbs, present tense. It is beautifully crafted, a stylistic tour de force, ingeniously pulled together and craftily presented, worthy of the era it captures, and should be enjoyed by anyone interested in the period.

“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your
headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E. L Doctorow

By Ken Johnson, June 23, 2018

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende is known for creating strong, smart, passionate, and occasionally eccentric female characters. In Daughter of Fortune, this includes Eliza and her adopted mother Rose, plus several bit players that make this story like none other of the California Gold Rush of 1849. And the men are no slouches either.

Baby Eliza shows up on in a soap crate at a wealthy family’s home in Valparaiso, Chili—with or without a mink blanket, depending on who’s telling the story—and Rose, who lives alone with her stodgy brother Jeremy, takes her in and raises her as her daughter. For 15 years Eliza is a model child, dressing like a beautiful and delicate doll and following Rose’s guidance on how to become a proper young lady. Womanhood, though, takes her for a wild ride, and she has a torrid affair with one of her Uncle Jeremy’s lowly employees, the serious and romantic Joaquin. She gets pregnant, but Joaquin has already left to find his fortune in California. Eliza, of course, follows him as a ship’s stowaway and spends the next four years impersonating either a Chilean boy or a Chinese boy searching the High Sierras for her lover.  

Rose, a spinster at the age of 25, surreptitiously pens lusty stories that eventually also make their way to California to help miners get through the misery that greets them in the gold fields. As it turns out, Rose has her own secrets, mainly a love affair with one of the proteges of the Marquis de Sade, which gives her plenty of material for her books. Rose secretly wishes Eliza luck with her love affair with Joaquin because she herself was banished from England to Chili to save her reputation, and she’s quietly resentful.

Meanwhile Pauline de Santa Cruz, daughter of a wealthy landowner and wife of an entrepreneur, decides to buy a steamship, fit it with dried ice, and use it to transport fresh fruits and vegetables to the gold fields. She makes a fortune. 

We’re never clear about the fate of Joaquin—did he die in California early on, or did he become an outlaw? Jacob Todd, who we first meet in Chili when he pretends to be a missionary, ends up in California, changes his name and calls himself a journalist. He earns his living making up stories about Joaquin, so nobody actually knows what’s what. Even, possibly, Jacob.

Eliza’s friend Tao Chi’en is a Chinese doctor who saves her life aboard the ship and also earns the respect of the California community because of his medical wisdom. He helps Eliza maintain her secrecy and hides his own love for her, which, we’re sure, will eventually be requited. 

Rose’s other brother, the dashing sea captain John, adds mystery to the plot. Plus there’s the prostitutes who have learned to stay safe in a dangerous occupation and even more dangerous country and the Singsong girls who Tao Chi’en tries to save, earning a reputation as a reprobate because others think he’s using them in one awful way or another—and are fine with it.

The book is a primer on Chinese and Chilean culture and the horrors of the goldrush. We learn much about human nature while reading this book, in which nobody is entirely who we think they are. Except, possibly, boring Jeremy. — Pat Prijatel    

Monday, June 4, 2018

My Antonia, by Willa Cather

We had one of our most engaged discussions ever while reading Willa Cather’s classic,  My Antonia. In the book’s epigraph, Cather quotes Virgil: “Optima dies…prima fugit,” which translates to “The best days are the first to flee.” The quote has two meanings. First, the book is a romantic look back at childhood and the happiness of the past. Second, the Virgil poem itself is about appreciating and living off the land.The book was first published 100 years ago and new editions continue to be marketed. More than 30 different versions, all with different covers, are available on Goodreads. Most BBB members had a different cover, some showing just the land, others showing Antonia, others combining the two, others using only type and graphics. 

Some topics of our chats:

  •How and why did Cather become such a successful writer at a time when other women were writing under pseudonyms? One reason: She found a home at McClure’smagazine, one of the most active muckraking publications, which gave her credibility as well as a platform.

•Did Cather choose to write the book from the point of view of Jim because having a man tell the story might have been more acceptable to male editors? Perhaps, but maybe she did it simply because she felt that was the best was to tell the story.

•Jim clearly loved Antonia, but their lives were defined too differently for the two to be together in that world at that time. To be a success, Jim had to leave the land and get more education, which pushed him farther away. To Antonia, however, success meant staying on the land.

•Some of the “hired girls” also found success away from Nebraska, where they could redefine themselves and live on their wits and talents without the social restrictions of the city-country divide of class and status.

•If Antonia’s father had decided to stay in the city after leaving his native Bohemia—settling in New York instead of Nebraska, for example—would he have had a fuller and longer life? Antonia’s mother, however, knew she could not fit in and moved the family far enough that her past could not follow them. Her husband paid the ultimate price and her kids had a life that was far more difficult than it needed to be.

•While Antonia’s life was hard and often harsh, she was one of the happiest characters in the book. She knew who she was and where she fit in, and she embraced her own truths.

Cather’s descriptions of people and the land are so rich that I reread several passages just for the pleasure of the words. This book has one of my favorite lines, which I remember every time we spend the day traveling through Nebraska on our way to Colorado. When Jim first encounters Nebraska as a child, he observes, “The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was, still, all day long, Nebraska.” Nevertheless, he clearly loved that land, as did Cather. —Pat Prijatel

Friday, April 27, 2018

TATTOOS ON THE HEART, by Gregory Boyle

In this uplifting and intimate memoir, Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle recounts his three decades of working with “homies” in the barrios of East Los Angeles, an area with an extreme concentration of murderous activity, including over 1,000 gangs with almost 90,000 members. I was by turns mesmerized, horrified, and enthralled as I read.

In each chapter, we benefit from Boyle’s hard-earned wisdom, inspired by his faith, serving alongside the gang members and loving them as Jesus intends us to love others (our neighbors), amply demonstrating the impact that unconditional love and compassion can have on lives. Father Greg, or G-Dog as he is called by the homies, saw the need for a rehabilitation center and started Homeboy Industries in 1986 to provide jobs, tattoo removal, job training and encouragement for members of rival enemy gangs. Their motto, printed on tee shirts is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Homeboy Industries has grown to a $8.5 million headquarters, housing Homeboy Bakery, a beautiful Homegirl CafĂ©, a catering service, various craft industries, and a Homeboy Diner.  It currently employs about 300 former gang members, daily serving about 1,000 customers, and monthly provides 500 treatments for tattoo removal.

The book distills his experience working in the ghetto into a breathtaking series of stories which capture and convey the lessons he learned from kids who have struggled through challenging times and tried to turn around their lives. In each Chapter the reader benefits from Boyle’s wonderful, hard-earned wisdom. With an ear for dialogue, he deftly captures the expressive flavor and colorful language of the Spanglish patois spoken there.  That alone makes Tattoos of the Heart remarkable literature.

The individual stories he tells are woven into parables that will break your heart, as many are about young gang members who start to get on track, only to be randomly shot and killed. It’s difficult to keep a dry eye. Manny was a boy covered with tattoos caught in the crossfire of gang warfare and died on the emergency room operating table. He had enrolled in community college, but was cut down before he ever attended a class.  A nurse who was evidently disgusted by his tattoos, told another “Who would want this monster’s heart?” The other nurse reacted angrily, “How dare you call this kid a monster. He belonged to somebody.  Shame on you.”

Then there was Jason, a young crack dealer, the son of two addicts, who, after rejecting several of Boyle’s invitations, finally got a job with Homeboy Industries. He left his anger behind him, eventually had a home and family, and was looking forward to his daughter’s baptism and had bought her a new dress. But then he was gunned down in the streets.

Luis, also a drug dealer, came to Greg after his daughter was born. He was hired to work in the bakery.  He got a car, a home and a whole new life. One evening, while loading his car, he was shot and killed by some gang members who ventured into his neighborhood barrio.
There are other stories like those of Manny, Luis, and Jason, kids who Greg befriended, turned their lives around, looked to the future with hope, only to end up one more victim of the violence of the LA streets
But then there are other stories of some who turned their lives around. Bandit came to see Greg after being locked up for selling crack. Boyle got him a job in a warehouse, and Bandit got married and had three kids.  He told Greg he was proud of himself, showing people were wrong who called me a “Bueno para nada” (Good for nothing).

Boyle sees beyond these experiences and reminds us that we are all deserving of God’s love. These young people are not monsters, but scared kids who want a purpose in life. He challenges the reader to “stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” This is a holy book about the power and impact of unconditional love and compassion.

Considering that he has buried more than 150 young people from gang-related violence, many of which he has known since childhood, and called them by the names their mothers used, the joyful tenor of the book remains an astounding literary and spiritual feat. Tattoos on the Heart, which reminds us that no life is less valuable than another, is destined to become a classic of contemporary spirituality. But, be careful -- reading it may change your thinking, and your ministry! —Ken Johnson

P.S. The book left a tattoo on my heart too.