Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

lucky fish

True confession: I bought this book for its cover. Not knowing much about graphic design, I took advantage of an AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference to wander through its sales hall where a couple of gymnasiums full of publishers displayed their books. When a cover caught my eye, I started a conversation with the representative staffing the table about why it was so intriguing (I’d chosen a slack time so as not to inconvenience them).

Tupelo Press, the publisher of this collection, Nezhukumatathil’s third, had quite a number of outstanding covers. And their representative was generous with their knowledge.

But it’s the inside of the book I’m here to talk about. Nezhukumatathil draws on her Indian-Filipino heritage, her Florida childhood nurturing recalcitrant citrus trees, and her husband’s Kansas farming experiences to create these poems. She writes about two-headed calves, made-up folk remedies, fables and families. She writes about love in fresh yet simple ways, such as this excerpt from “Suppose You Chopped Down a Mulberry Tree”:

I know a man who has such a sweet face,
bees follow him down the street. Ants still collect

in the tread of his shoes.

Many of the poems are a luscious cornucopia of images. The author doesn’t hold back, but sprinkles them liberally throughout, often in surprising combinations that still work. Here’s the beginning of “Fortune-Telling Parrot”:

I will pick
a black card

of luck for you;
star, pinkmoon,

mirror, ostrich, eye,
and jasmine bloom.

How does she do it? What a remarkable imagination!

In the third part of the book the poems are about giving birth, speaking simply and directly about this most fundamental experience, yet incorporating whimsical images and strong emotion. She imagines her baby born with a hedgehog resting in its hand and how that might play out. She speaks of the small moments every new mother will recognise, such as in “Waiting for Him to Speak” where she notes that “his hair // is the tobacco hue of an owl feather.” She worries about whether the baby will latch properly, thinking that “if she thought to wear the silver anklets her Indian grandmother gave her, at least there would be happy bells.”

But she doesn’t shy away from the larger world, writing about the Chinese children assembling her child’s toys. In other poems throughout the book there is a welcome astringent note within the sweet and magical songs. In these specific and sensual poems, whether about the taste of soil or the sound of the stone found in an eel’s head, Nezhukumatathil captures the universal and invites us to share the celebration.

Have you read any poems that overwhelmed you with their richness?

Tracks in the Snow, by Wong Herbert Yee

tracks

I’ve been reading a lot of picture books lately since I’ve been babysitting for a two-year-old. We’ve both fallen in love with this one. It starts with a child looking out the window at the snow and wondering what made the tracks there, and where the tracks go.

They (I’m deliberately using the plural because the child is not named and is not obviously a particular gender—part of the book’s charm) put on boots, coat and mittens (a skill my young friend has been working on recently) and go outside.

Following the tracks, the child wanders through typical landmarks for a little one: a garden gate, woods, some rocks and over a small footbridge. As they meander, they are shadowed by various animals: a squirrel, rabbit, fox, deer. The child considers what could have made the tracks: a duck? a woodchuck? a hippopotamus?

As you might have guessed, they follow the tracks all the way back to their own house and realise they themselves made these tracks the previous day.

This is a quiet book, like the snow’s hush, full of curiosity and imagination. The gentle illustrations are minimal, almost suggestions, yet they capture a child’s body language beautifully. Being snowy landscapes, of course there’s lots of white space.

In my opinion, the best picture books tell a story and, indeed, even in this brief text we have a full story. The protagonist is the child; the problem is to solve the mystery of the tracks. The antagonist is more abstract: ignorance, what we don’t know, the impenetrability of the world.

I remember as a preschooler being terrified by the vast sea of things I didn’t know. I knew my house and yard. I knew my block, more or less. But everything beyond that was a blank, simply inscrutable. For all I knew, there could be dragons. If I wandered off my block, how would I find my way back home?

Solving these mysteries, mapping out the nearby streets a little at a time, became my ambition. I think it’s partly why I enjoyed being a mechanic and then an engineer: understanding how cars and computers work. I never liked black boxes, those enigmatic spots in a flowchart labeled “Here the magic happens”.

So in this brief tale, I see not only an outward journey for our protagonist—following the tracks, answering the question—but an inner journey to satisfy that yearning to explore the world and begin to comprehend its mysteries.

What picture book have you read that you particularly enjoyed?

The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, by Stuart Hall

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It’s actually all about race, I often find myself thinking as I read the euphemisms and cover stories promulgated by blustering politicians and repeated by their supporters. Growing up in a racially mixed city in the U.S., coming of age during the civil rights movement, I learned the code words and recognised what was really meant. It was so clear to me that “poor people” meant people of color that when a new friend told me she was on welfare, I blurted out, “But you’re white!”

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

You might think that this collection of talks given at Harvard in 1994 by Stuart Hall couldn’t be relevant 25 years later, but nothing could be more germane to what is happening today. Hall, a prominent intellectual and one of the founding figures of cultural studies, examines the three words in his subtitle and how their meanings—how we understand them—have changed over time.

In examining these three terms of cultural difference, Hall uses Saussure’s concept of the linguistic sign, which is that language, each word that we use, that sign has two parts: the signifier which is what we hear and what is actually signified, i.e., the abstraction behind it.

Thus, the title of the first part is “Race—The Sliding Signifier”. In this talk he examines how what we understand by the word “race” has changed over time, yet retains echoes of its earlier meanings. He finds these changes in what is signified by this and the other two terms by looking at public discourse, saying:

As we set out to ask what it means to rethink cultural difference in discursive terms, discourse should be understood as that which gives human practice and institutions meaning, that which enables us to make sense of the world, and hence that which makes human practices meaningful practices that belong to history precisely because they signify in the way they mark out human difference.

These three lectures are obviously not light reading, but they are immensely rewarding. Hall also invokes Saussure’s theory that our words do not operate independently; instead they are part of a web of meaning, related to other words, a systemic model. These three concepts are central to the process of classifying difference in human societies. And this system is hierarchical. It’s all about power or, as Humpty Dumpty says, who is to be master.

By looking at how the discourse around these three terms has changed over time and what lies behind those changes (see what I did there?), Hall challenges us to consider how these terms can slide in the future, as we look at the things that are changing our culture such as globalisation and mass diasporas, which are leading to a “weave of differences” rather than a binary (e.g., black versus white) definition of identity.

He says (italics the author’s), “The question is not who we are but who we can become.”

Who can we become?

Memento Mori, by Charles Coe

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I heard Charles Coe read from his new collection at the Brattleboro Literary Festival and had to take a copy home with me. Coe is a teacher and an award-winning poet, designated “A Boston Literary Light” by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. The poems he read that day celebrated ordinary days, finding treasure hidden in plain sight.

The poems are those of a man no longer young, one who has looked at his own mortality and chosen to live every day, every moment; a man who wishes he could go back and give advice to his teenaged self about what really matters.

Coe is also a jazz musician and his musicality comes through in every line. His experiences and knowledge of jazz rhythms come through especially in several poems about musicians where he explores the peculiar doubleness of performing: the invitation to the audience to respond and the physical, intensely personal, rapt absorption in the playing itself.

He writes movingly about Boston, by which I mean Boston and its surrounding towns, taking a moment on a stalled subway train, for example, to illuminate the peculiar raggedness of a New England winter and the moments that can lift us into the universal.

Long ago, with other young friends, I visited an older man we knew in New York City who took us on a peculiar tour. “Don’t look at anything until I tell you to,” he said, leading us to one odd and beautiful space after another: corners, pockets, a particular painting. In the same way, Coe’s poems celebrate the secret delights of city life. One such is “The Dance Hall of Porter Square”, inviting us to share a sweet moment among the street people gathered there.

Some poems speak specifically to the experience of being old in this culture, while others to the experience of being black. Many find something unexpected in common sights, such as divining the lineaments of their ancestors in landscape gardeners in “Yardwork”.

Using humor as seasoning, he can pull the rug out from under the reader, turning our laughter to thoughtful frowns as the reversal sinks in. Even “The Saga of the Fish Sticks”, which is even funnier than its title, takes us back to the theme of his title poem and of this collection.

He includes a few prose poems, which use the syntax of prose but have the imagery, compression and music of poetry. An example is “The Night My Sister Danced with a Mouse”, a retelling of a family anecdote taken to a higher plane by the use of an image reimagined in the course of the piece. With humor and minimal but precise details, Coe brings us into this scene to relive it with him, and be warmed by it.

As with some of the best poems, Coe’s work draws our attention to something so small and ordinary, perhaps even ugly, that we would normally overlook it. He invites us into the fullness of the moment, unfolding the lotus to reveal the heart. Here is one such poem quoted in full:

mnemonic

It is sometimes necessary
to walk along a moonlit riverbank
barefoot, on the sodden strip
where water meets land,
to remind oneself
that something in the mud
remembers the stars.

Have you read poetry that made you see the world with new eyes?

The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield

Jane2

Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers for my poetry discussion group. I’ve written before about her essays on poetry in Nine Gates. I return to these essays frequently to remind myself of what I love about poetry and what I aspire to in my writing.

The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days, such as these from the beginning of “Within This Tree”:

Within this tree
another tree
inhabits the same body . . .

Or this from the beginning of “Floor”:

The nails, once inset, rise to the surface –
or, more truly perhaps, over the years
the boards sink down to meet what holds them.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Autumn” which so brilliantly evokes this particular moment in time, as the wind sweeps through the trees here, taking our glorious season into its next phase. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Again the wind
flakes gold-leaf from the trees
and the painting darkens –
as if a thousand penitents
kissed an icon
till it thinned
back to bare wood,
without diminishment.

Think about these images for a moment: flaking gold-leaf such a perfect description of yellow leaf-fall, an icon thinned by kisses for the tree’s gradual disrobement. Most of all, though, the bare wood—of the painting, of the tree—is not only without diminishment but is in truth the real value of each. What do we value? What do we repent of? What do we revere?

Winter-lover that I am, I adore the bare black skeletons of trees; they are a revelation, the strong bones beneath the leaves and fruit, a promise.

One thing I love about The October Palace is the section at the end titled Notes on the Poems where she gives a snippet of background on some of the poems: a dedication, a description of a proper name, a slight hint at what inspired the poem.

With some of the poems, my group floundered a bit, offering different interpretations and personal responses. To me, this openness is one of the great gifts of poetry: the leaps we readers must take, as Robert Bly said. Or as Hirshfield says in Nine Gates about storytelling in poetry:

. . . the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions . . . The words of a poem are not ends, but means into an exploration without limit.

Rather than a response to the commonly asked question “What author living or dead would you like to have dinner with?”, I would most love to walk in the woods with Hirshfield or perhaps prepare a meal with her. I would ask her questions about her poems and essays. But in the end it’s the poems that matter, and I value the distance they must travel to reach me because it leaves me free to bring my own memory, intellect and imagination to them.

Have you read any of Jane Hirshfield’s poems? Is there one you particularly like?

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

my sister

Don’t be put off by the title of this brief but powerful debut novel. I myself hesitated, wondering if it would be sardonic humor or a grotesque butchers’ ball, but was persuaded to read it by one of my book clubs. I’m glad I did!

This is the story of two sisters. In the first chapter Korede, our narrator, gets a call from her younger sister, the beautiful and pampered Ayoola, asking for Korede’s help in cleaning up after her latest murder. This is the third one, leading Korede to note that her sister has now met the definition of a serial killer.

Not that Ayoola believes she’s a murderer. No, these are boyfriends who threatened her in some way and she pulled her knife in self-defense. The knife was their abusive father’s proudest possession which Ayoola helped herself to after their father’s untimely death.

Despite the title and this first chapter, the story is very much grounded in Korede’s everyday life. It’s more about family dynamics and personal worldviews than about violence. As one person in my book club said, “. . . there are rich veins to mine when you take ordinary, commonplace conflicts and amplify them to the extreme.”

So far from resenting her sister’s favored status, Korede has made it her mission to protect Ayoola, though of course we only get this through Korede’s eyes so she could be deceiving herself or us. But the crisis comes when the handsome young doctor at the hospital where Korede works, the doctor she has been trying to attract, catches sight of her irresistable sister. Should she warn him? Or will she continue to enable her sister?

The Nigerian author is also a poet, so it’s not surprising that she brings a poet’s use of compression and white space to this novel. What is astonishing is how effective it is. Each short chapter burns with purpose. There are no subplots or plot layers to distract us. Characters other than her sister and the young doctor are not presented as complex, which makes sense because we see them only through Korede’s eyes and she is focused, laser-like, on the two of them. As another person in my book club said, “For that reason [her succinct prose], the story delivered a sense of smooth, inexorable movement toward its resolution.”

Korede’s deadpan voice gives us her character: practical, straight-forward, a little OCD about cleaning. Eventually we begin to question her reliability. Was the father’s death an accident? Isn’t her protectiveness toward Ayoola laced with some other emotions? Does she care more about the idea of protecting her sister than for Ayoola herself?

There is good, if understated, use of symbolism and setting. Korede keeps coming back to the idea of the third bridge under which the sisters disposed of the body in the first chapter. The bridge isn’t described; it’s more the idea of it. I’ve mentioned the knife as a symbol, but there are others, such as the use of flowers and the bleach Korede uses to clean up the blood.

There are glimpses throughout the novel of conditions in Nigeria, such as an interaction with the blatantly corrupt police at one point, or the accepted patriarchal system. Also, a third person in my book club mentioned that “ . . . there’s a whole genre of Nigerian films that feature over-the-top, comedic violence, with the strength of the family prevailing in the end.” This idea gives me a different perspective on the novel and how it fits within its cultural context. From within my own context, though, I saw the humor but concentrated on the co-dependency of the sisters and Korede’s ethical dilemma.

Expanding further, while ostensibly about the relationship between the two sisters, the story can also be read as a comment on today’s inequality: the gap between the pampered one-percenters, so entitled that they can lie, abuse and rape with impunity, and the rest of us, beaten down by the treadmill of getting by while we labor to provide their goods and services. Since they pay almost nothing in taxes, with miniscule tax rates and generous offshore hideaways, the tax burden is left to us.

However you read this story, you’ll find much to think about and discuss with friends.

What would you recommend as a good book club choice?

The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigursdardóttir

silence

In the middle of a cold night, a luxury yacht appears in Reykjavik harbor on schedule, but instead of slowing down it plows into a pier. When the security guard and three customs officials board her, they find no one on board. There is no sign of the captain, two crewmen and the young couple with two small children who had set off from Lisbon a few days earlier.

As a lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is subsequently hired by the elderly parents of the husband. The youngest daughter had been left in their care, now apparently an orphan. The grandparents need to establish that the couple is dead so that the little girl’s future can be secured. They also fear that the authorities will take the girl away from them, saying they were too old and not well off enough to care for her. Apparently this is common practice in Iceland. The grandparents hoped that the life insurance would at least do away with one factor.

The atmosphere is suitably chilling, calling up echoes of other ghost ships such as the Mary Celeste. or is there a more rational explanation for what went on and if there could be survivors somewhere. The chapters alternate between Thóra’s efforts to discover what happened, belated accompanied by a police investigation, and a narrative of what happened on the yacht through the eyes of Ægir, the young husband.

Thóra must assemble as much documentation as possible to persuade the insurance company that the whole thing is not a scam perpetrated by Ægir and his wife, who have jumped ship somewhere and gone off to lead a new life. One would think that the youngest daughter as a hostage left behind, not to mention the missing crew, would be enough to end that line of enquiry, but apparently not.

Although the book is described as “A Thriller” on the front cover, I found the pace, especially in Thóra’s chapters measured, more befitting the PI/police procedural genre that it fits. Meanwhile the initial sense of unease in the yacht chapters accelerates gradually as their situation worsens. This adept handling of pacing is one of the things I appreciated most about the book.

One thing that struck me as unrealistic from the beginning is the behavior of Bella, the receptionist. Thóra and her partner Bragi in the law practice have five employees; the only one we meet is Bella who not only damages office equipment, insults Thóra and tries to sabotage her, but also spends her days using the firm’s computer and limited internet resources for her own personal purposes. Then she blackmails Thóra by refusing to tell her information she’d been asked to dig up unless Thóra pays for higher internet capacity, something the partners had decided they couldn’t afford. That’s when I almost put down the book. She is so astonishingly awful. Who would keep an employee like that? Though it’s possible there’s something I don’t understand about the Icelandic culture that would explain it.

I was also confused about Thóra’s home life. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, but a man named Matthew is introduced as her partner, which I at first took to mean another business partner as well as her significant other. It’s not clear what his profession is; at first I thought banker, but later she seems to refer to him as a doctor. Then there are a three children living with them, two of whom are apparently teenagers who have a baby. It took me way too long to untangle the relationships. This is the kind of information that should be completely clear, even in a series book, and not make us have to reread several times to sort out.

This is a minor quibble, though. Overall, I thought the book presented an intriguing mystery set in a country I’m eager to visit. The ending was abrupt but believable, though it left a couple of unresolved questions. Thóra is an interesting protagonist. I admired the fluidity of the way the people on the ship were presented; their twists and turns increased the suspense. I especially liked the way Sigursdardóttir used our bemused fascination with ghost ships to add to the creepy atmosphere.

Have you read a book set in Iceland?

A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry

Berry

A recent post on Writer Unboxed by Kathleen McCleary looked at what kind of book prompts a really good discussion by readers and book clubs. The first quality mentioned was that such books “deal with big themes that are at the heart of human experience.” That certainly describes this gorgeous novel.

I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

The story is centered on Mat Feltner, a farmer like his father and grandfather before him, but includes a wide cast of characters, some of them eccentric but all of them deeply human. As it begins, Mat and three other men are playing cards in a store left empty when the son of one of them went off to war. It’s early March, a quiet time in the life of a farmer. Mat has just learned that his son Virgil, his and Margaret’s only child, is missing in action.

As spring turns to summer and then into fall, Mat must make place in his consciousness, in his plans and expectations, for the possibility that Virgil might not return. Interwoven with Mat’s story are those of others in the town: Virgil’s pregnant wife Hannah, Burley Coulter who has lost one nephew in the war and just seen off the other to boot camp, Old Jack Beecham who cannot work his land anymore and has been moved into town and an unwelcome retirement, Jayber Crow who lives above his barbershop in a room full of books, to name just a few.

Berry writes with the poet’s eye for beauty and ear for music. While this novel is a realistic portrayal of country life, it occasionally drifts naturally into lyricism, perhaps a description that is achingly beautiful, or a moment of insight that raises the story to a greater sphere. Mat, wakeful in the night, hears the first stirrings of morning:

And Mat’s mind would return like a ghost to his body, leaving its uncertain questionings, the conjectures and absences it had wandered among. He felt himself shaped again, weighty, among the intimate clear objects of his days: the spacious dawn-filled plainly furnished old room; the leaves of the fern on the windowsill, in which the greenness appeared suddenly to have woken up, the shadows hanging over the pot rim as if peeled downward by the light; his clothes lying on the chair at the foot of the bed. And he would turn to these things gladly—as if, out of the unknowing magnitude that surrounded and diminished it, he took back his life.

Another big idea that Berry explores is what is the purpose of our lives? What do we hope to accomplish? What does death mean? What is left after we die? And nested within those intersecting ideas is the notion of work. This to me was the most striking part of the book, this description of what it means to work every day. I loved the way he describes the rhythms of work within the day, across the year. Here’s Mat trimming his apple trees:

He likes this work—the look of his hands moving and choosing, correcting, among the tangle, the wild good health of the branches. The orchard is one of the works of his life, one of the most satisfying ones. From its young hesitant beginnings it has taken possession of the plot, become a landmark. There has never been any income from it except for the fruit, with which Matt provisions his own table and which the neighbors are made welcome to pick. He has a greater intimacy with what he grows for his own use than what he grows for the market. The orchard lights and shapes one of the deepest enclosures of his mind, his monument to the ground.

And here is Mat’s brother Earnest, going back to work after a short rest:

The day and the work are established around him again. He goes on, deeper in, with a kind of excitement growing in him, a kind of hunger for what it’s possible to do before night. It becomes easier to go on than to stop. The afternoon settles into its passing, less pleasant than the morning but more forceful, more gathered into itself, the impetus and urging of it building tighter and higher.

While my experience working on a farm was brief, I still recognise these same rhythms in my days working in an office or laboratory, and at home writing. I know Mat’s satisfaction in the competence and skill that comes with experience. And even more than that, I recognise the uses of work, the benefits beyond the completed project. In all my years of reading, I have rarely found this theme explored, much less embodied as well as it is here.

This is one book that I never wanted to end. I consciously slowed down my reading to savor every sentence. My only consolation is that Berry’s other novels are apparently about the people in this town.

What have you gained from the work you do, beyond a paycheck or a finished product?

Murder in the Bastille, by Cara Black

cara black

I’ve written before about Black’s series set in Paris featuring private investigator Aimée Leduc. After the shocking death of her father, a police detective, she decided that she would stay away from crime-solving; she and her partner René would only provide information security services, such as computer forensics and corporate security. However, when Aimée stumbles into a murder investigation, she can’t help but be drawn in.

One of the pleasures of this series is the setting. Each installment takes place in a different neighborhood, or arrondissement, of Paris. Here, it is the Bastille, known to many of us because of the famous prison. Once a working class neighborhood, it’s now a gentrified area with the Opera Bastille, fancy restaurants and nightclubs. However, there is still a maze of old passages, back alleys and inner courtyards, the home of furniture makers since the 12th century. Now, apparently, these mostly house trendy shops, but in 1994, the time of this story, some older businesses still held on.

In this, the fourth book in the series, she wears a new—supposedly one-of-a-kind—Chinese silk jacket to dinner only to find the woman sitting next to her wearing the same jacket. The woman appears afraid and forgets her cell phone when she leaves. When Aimée takes it up to the maître d’, it rings and she answers it. The person mistakes her for the owner of the phone and implores her to show up at a planned assignation. Aimée goes there, expecting to find the woman but instead is brutally attacked in the dark Passage Boule Blanche.

Found by René, she awakens to learn that damage from the beating has blinded her, though it is not known if this is temporary or permanent. Even worse, the woman wearing the same jacket was killed in a nearby street. Now she must help Loic Bellan, the distracted policeman in charge of the investigation, solve the crime before the murderer silences her.

As a reader what I most enjoyed was René’s expanded role. Preferring always to work at a computer, his partner’s blindness forces him to take on some of her investigative activities, a prospect which terrifies and excites him in equal measure.

As a writer what I most enjoyed about the book was the intimate experience of sudden blindness. The author has thrown herself heart and soul into Aimée’s emotional and practical struggles, ranging from despair to pride to the craving for a cigarette. I have no idea how accurate the treatments and expectations for the blind might have been at that time, only that Aimée’s emotions rang true to me.

What I can say, as an information security engineer and analyst myself, is that the technology side of the story is accurate. Some readers have complained that the technology used in the story didn’t exist in 1994, but they are wrong. Not only were Aimée and René, by virtue of their profession, working with cutting edge equipment and software, but the technologies described in this story were in common usage in certain arenas in the U.S. and even more so in Europe.

I don’t know Paris and have only schoolgirl French, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the descriptions and the various French phrases scattered through the book. I can only say that I enjoyed them and hope someday to visit Paris, seeing it not just through the eyes of a tourist but through the gritty lens Cara Black’s books have given me.

Have you been to Paris? Which arrondissement did you stay in?

The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois

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When my book club chose this book , I thought Really? Yes, I want to read more diverse books; yes I want to read classics. But would this 1903 book really have anything to teach me?

Yes.

First off, the writing is amazing. Although I’ve known of DuBois forever, I’d never before read any of his books. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

Second, yes, as a Caucasian who has tried to pay attention, I still have much to learn. I thought the whole book would be about conditions in the past. If only that were true.

Each chapter begins with the score of a spiritual, which I found myself humming as I read, adding another layer to the text. The chapters lay out a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly.

He describes conditions just after Emancipation, particularly the Freedman’s Bureau. Much of this was new to me: the way Negro colleges grew and the idea that we had to start with the colleges and work down to the grade schools. Yet the political shenanigans described in later chapters, intended to return Blacks to virtual slavery, made my heart ache.

He talks about the role of the Black church and how music—what he calls the Sorrow Songs—grew out of slaves’ longing for freedom, traveled through the influence of the church and out to influence and be influenced by the White American culture. Having just watched Ken Burns’s remarkable exploration of country music, I was primed to recognise this primary source of America’s folk music.

The chapter that moved me most was the chapter on Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who, according to DuBois, was subject to three temptations: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. In Crummell’s story we see in a single tragic life the effects of what DuBois names the Veil: an invisible barrier that separates Black and White Americans. White people do not comprehend what life is like within the Veil, the “double-consciousness”: “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I learned a lot from this book. And even those things I already knew I came to understand more deeply.

Have you read this book, or anything by DuBois? What did you think of it?