Monthly Archives: November 2010

Teaser Tuesdays: “The Secret History”

The Page Turners have decided to participate in Teaser Tuesdays, a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title, page number & author, too, so that other readers can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

It’s funny, but thinking back on it now, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something different from what I actually did.    But of course, I didn’t see this crucial moment them for what it was; I suppose we never do.

pg. 188, The Secret History

by Donna Tartt


Any teasers you’d like to share? Post them in the comments!


Teaser Tuesday: Half of a Yellow Sun

The Page Turners have decided to participate in Teaser Tuesdays, a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title, page number & author, too, so that other readers can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

“She took it carefully from his fingers; they did not touch each other.  It was a tiny moment, brief and fleeting, but Olanna noticed how scrupulously they avoided any contact, any touch of skin, as if
they were united by a common knowledge so monumental that they were determined not be united by anything else.”
– pg. 223, Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Any teasers you’d like to share? Post them in the comments!
– Nakia W.


Book Review: Getting to Happy

terry mcmillanIn Getting To Happy, we revisit the four women from Terry McMillan’s classic novel Waiting To Exhale. Its been 15 years and the ladies have all experienced their share of growth, gains, losses and grieving.

Robin is still single and has a sassy teenaged daughter named Sparrow who frequently fills in as Robin’s BFF, instead of as her child. After hoping for love for so long, Savannah has married her Mr. Right, but finds out the hard way that her husband may not be who she thinks he is. Gloria is married to Marvin, but must adjust everything she’s known for the last 15 years when a tragedy strikes.
After her kids leave for college, Bernadine finds herself alone, fighting new and old demons from her past, leaving her bitter.

Let me start off by saying that Terry McMillan is one of my favorite authors, so I was excited to read this book. Once I checked out the copy that was reserved at the library for me, I  hopped on Facebook and posted on my wall that I was so happy to have the book and then hurried home to crack it open!

Unfortunately that’s where the excitement ended for me. 
After the first few chapters I was on the phone calling my mother complaining about how McMillan chose to make one of the main characters deal with a traumatic, life shattering event before we even got to witness the good times in her life.

This was a frustrating read for me for a few different reasons. The story was all over the place with no central focus on the issues each character was dealing with. In the parts about Bernadine’s struggle, the author goes from the relationship she has with her adult daughter,  to the entire process of her making a pot of gumbo and what each person thinks about the meal. The transitions were not smooth.

Robin experiments with internet dating and the author adds fictional responses from the guys who view her profile to show the type of undesireable men online. These details were simply not needed and had me wondering if they were used as page fillers in the novel.

The dialogue between the ladies was as real and hilarious as they were in the first novel, but it too seemed to run on and on with no purpose. I never thought I would find myself bored reading a Terry McMillan book, but I must admit that I lost focus while reading a few different times.

Maybe the problem was that the author waited too long to re-introduce the characters to us. Fifteen years is a long time and I found myself wanting to know what was up with the ladies a few years back. I would’ve loved to check in on Robin right after she had Sparrow, or witness the bliss Gloria and Marvin shared early on in their relationship, not 15 years after their nuptials.

Nothing is ever all bad, so I will say that that there were a few parts of the book that I enjoyed, and if you follow Terry McMillan on Twitter, you will see the same traces of humor that she shares daily in her tweets, throughout the book.

Overall it was nice to catch up with the ladies, but I would have loved for the reunion with them to be a few years sooner and with more character development. Perhaps there should have been a a book titled Glad To Be Content in between Waiting To Exhale and Getting To Happy.
– Malca W.

Book Review: When You Reach Me

Book Cover

Rebecca Stead’s intelligent children’s novel When You Reach Me is full of your typical tween fair: hush-hush middle school crushes, teenage insecurities and tiffs with Mom about not checking in when you’re going to be home late from school. But what separates this 199-page genre-bending novel from its kiddy fiction counterparts is its ability to weave together mystery, suspense, humor and fantasy into one thought provoking story.

Reach Me tells the story of Miranda, a 12-year-old, 6th grade latchkey kid who narrates her life experiences living in upper Manhattan in the late 1970’s.  Her mom, a single mother who works as a typist in a law firm and dates one of the lawyers at her firm is obsessed with her upcoming stint as a contestant on the $20,000 Pyramid.  It’s their chance at a brighter future and they’ve already begun to make plans for the money (a new rug, an exotic vacation). When Miranda isn’t doing practice rounds with her Mom, she’s trying to figure out who is writing cryptic, mysterious notes to her, predicting her very-near future.

It’s these notes that propels the drama and provides the tension in the book and forces a frightened, yet, intrigued Miranda to put together the clues to find out who’s writing her these notes – and why. Along the way, she loses a longtime friend, develops a crush on the boy she works with at the local sandwich shop and makes friends with a well-to-do classmate who lives in a posh NYC apartment that puts her rundown tenement to shame.

Reach Me is an easy read and the chapters are super short.  On the flip side, it does lull a bit midstream as Stead spends a lot of unnecessary time giving expository information about secondary characters. The explanation that was lacking was that of Miranda’s absentee father. But her unspoken feelings about her father’s absence leap off the page in the chapter where she visit’s her new BFF’s apartment for the first time and instantly realizes how involved her father is in her life.

The novel picks up steam in two explosive chapters towards the end when Miranda goes to watch her mother compete on the $20,000 Pyramid and discovers who (or what) has been leaving her those obscure notes. You’re forced to play back every detail of the story to pick up the clues you (and Miranda) both missed that were there all along.

When You Reach Me is a great read for children between the ages of 9 and 14 who love thought provoking fiction and who are curious about the inner workings of class, race and personal relationships.

“Leaving Atlanta” At The Movies

A few years back, I fell in love with Leaving Atlanta, a fictional novel that tackles the real life tragedies behind the Atlanta child murders that took place between 1979 and 1981. Tayari Jones tells the story of these heinous crimes through the eyes of the children most affected by the horrific turn of events.

SYNOPSIS: At the start of a new school year in 1979, we get to know three children and their families as the entire community deals with the initial reports that there is a child murderer in Atlanta. Tasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Harrison will discover back-to-school means facing everyday challenges in a new world of safety lessons, terrified parents, and constant fear. When classmates begin disappearing and friends become headlines Tasha, Rodney and Octavia find ways to live with the fear or escape it. (source)

When I read this book, I was in college and had yet to learn of the Atlanta child murders that terrorized the Black community in Georgia, resulting in at least 30 deaths and disappearances. Jones’ novel had me glued to each word, praying for the safety of these children, wishing the horror would come to an end and the perpetrators be found immediately.

It was then that I also fell in love with her writing: poetic, subtle, with strong, resonating storylines, and characters that you can almost feel right beside you. She went on to garner many awards for this story, notably the Hurtson/Wright Award for Debut Fiction. Leaving Atlanta was also named one of the best books of 2002 by The Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So, I was ecstatic when I found out indie filmmakers Althea Spann and Karon Om Vereen are readying Leaving Atlanta for the big screen. I usually have a disdain for movies based on books, mainly because the movie always tends to fall short, but something about this story makes me feel like it needs to be told to a larger audience. It needs to reach those of us who don’t read, or pay attention to old or current headlines. People need to be pricked in their hearts, feel compassion, hold their children a little closer, and be more aware of the dangers that can lurk right outside of our homes.

Recently, Jones tweeted a link to a teaser clip made for the project.

The duo and their crew are busy raising money and seeking backers to help this production get on the road to completion. Check out their site over at Kick Starter, which offers easy and simple ways in which everyone can help.

I truly hope this project is able to get off the ground. I also encourage everyone to pick up this book. It’s entertaining, informative, and damn good writing!

Also, stay tuned for Jones’ upcoming release, Silver Girl, scheduled for May 2011.

For more info:

Leaving Atlanta’s website:
Tayari Jones’ blog:


“The Between”: A Brilliant Introduction to Science Fiction

“The Between” is a riveting science-fiction tale by Tananarive Due. I picked this novel up in a thrift store about two years ago for only $.80 and after finally reading it, I can say it was the best $.80 I’ve ever spent. It is a brilliant first novel by a woman who has drawn me into the sci-fi genre in a way that I never thought I’d be able to enjoy. I appreciate finding an author who can introduce me to a different style of writing to which I can relate so heavily.

“The Between” tells the story of Hilton James, a husband, father and director of a drug treatment facility in Florida. He is loved by his wife Dede, a newly-elected circuit judge in Dade County and the only black woman in that position, although they have had some rough times in the past. His children, eight year-old Jamil and thirteen year-old Kaya are bright kids and reflect the love and support that Hilton and Dede have showered upon them. Hilton is admired and respected by his friends and colleagues for going above and beyond the call of duty in his position at work. Seems as if he has the idyllic life that dreams are made of, right? But for Hilton, dreams are far from idyllic. They are haunting and menacing night terrors that are driving him to the very brink of insanity.

Hilton has been carrying a secret around deep within since he was a small child: he found his dear Nana, who had raised him since his mother ran off, dead on the kitchen floor when he was seven years-old…or did he? When he went to find help, he returned to find Nana singing hymns and cooking their dinner. From that day on, little Hilton was afraid of the woman he loved most in the world. He couldn’t understand how he could find Nana lifeless, clammy and cold to the touch on the floor one moment and in the next she’s up and about as usual.

Hilton did lose his Nana after she rescued him from drowning while on a family trip to the beach not long after she died in the kitchen the first time. She gave her life for his that fateful day in the ocean. He was adopted and raised by distant cousins, given all the love possible but he was haunted: The Dreams. The night terrors persisted even after he left home and went to college, met his future wife, began his career and started his life. They were finally alleviated through intensive therapy and hypnosis and lay dormant for five years. Five years of peace that suddenly comes to a screeching halt when Dede begins to receive threatening racist hate mail after winning her judgeship.

Hilton goes from a rational and well-respected man attempting to protect his home and family to a raging, sleep deprived maniac, unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is happening in his dreams. His wife and children fear him and his friends and co-workers think he is losing his mind. Hilton indeed hovers powerlessly in “The Between”.

This story is suspenseful, as it draws the reader in and forces you to accompany Hilton on his descent into madness. You as the reader also begin to question where the line between the natural and supernatural, between here and there, and between good and evil lie. With each turn of the page, I found myself asking “Where are WE going from here??” I got so spooked out reading this book at times, I had to put it down and take a few breaths.

Despite the ending of this book not being as explosive as I expected it to be, I would give this book a 5 out of 5 star rating. The characters were believable and attractive. The plot was well fleshed-out and the pace was deliberate and served its purpose as a suspense novel. Ms. Due definitely set the bar high for herself as a science-fiction writer with this debut novel. I look forward to reading more books by Tananarive Due as I delve deeper into the sci-fi genre.

Wanna Get to Know Me? Study My Bookshelf.

There are a ton of ways you can get to know someone: Observe how a man treats his mother; ask to use someone’s bathroom and peak behind the shower curtain to see if their tub is clean; bring up FICO scores on the first date and see if the person gets hot under the collar and begins to fidget in their seat.

Sure, those are all good suggestions, but I recommend a much easier solution: Peruse a person’s bookshelf and you’ll find out everything you need to know about them – and more.

Take my six-tier, dark brown bookcase from Ikea for instance. It’s a hodgepodge of juicy novels, self-help books, journalism and communication textbooks from college, classic plays I’ve performed in and even a few books that I never finished reading. Yep, my bookshelf is a direct reflection of me.

I used to be anal about the arrangement of the books. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing Suze Orman was mingling on the same shelf with Shakespeare.  I would sit all of the taller books to the left and all of the smaller books to the right, making a nice, descending slope as you gazed the titles from left to right. I’ve since relaxed the requirement on size order. After I moved and unpacked all the books from the boxes, I was too lazy to reorganize them the way I had them before so I just mixed everything together.

On the top shelf you’ll find all of my favorite plays: A Raisin the Sun and the The Sign in Sidney Brunstein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry, a tattered marked up copy of Fences by August Wilson, which I had the pleasure of performing on stage a few years ago and a collection of wonderful plays by African American women from the Harlem Renaissance to the present called Wines in the Wilderness.

There are also some Modern American classics on my shelf by Neil Simon, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller and a rare copy of the 1916 play Trifles by Susan Glaspell.  And some contemporary classics like Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas and Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan who penned one of my favorite films You Can Count on Me.  Many of these plays were required reading for an American Theatre course I took in college.

In fact, many of the books on my shelf are expensive textbooks I bought for college and the acting conservatory I attended: The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Reinventing the Museum, Understanding Art and my favorite TRIANGLE: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle. Triangle is a study on social history in New York City during the early 20th century. Fantastic read!

Then there are my beloved novels: Middlesex, Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking?, Getting Mother’s Body, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. And staples by Bebe Moore Campbell, Omar Tyree, Walter Mosely and E. Lynn Harris that you’re bound to find on most black folks’ bookshelves.

I’ve also have a few books I’ve never finished: The Known World by Edward P. Jones, The Corrections by Jonathan Frazen and The Sidney Poitier memoir The Measure of a Man.  All three are great reads, but for some inexplicable reason, I just never got through them.

Oh. And I love a good self-help book too.  One Day My Eyes Just Opened Up by Iyanla Vanzant changed my life when I was 19-years-old. I’ve also got copies of Dealing with People You Can’t Stand (self-explanatory), Fighting for Time (how to multitask and manage time – I need to reread this one *sigh*) and of course I’ve got The Secret up in there too.

By scanning the titles on my shelf, you’ll also learn that I’m passionate about my crafts: Writing and acting.

The Actor’s Way by Julia Cameron, The Power of the Actor, by Ivanna Chubbuck, Respect for Acting by famed acting teacher Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner on Acting by Meisner and Dennis Longwell and The Camera Smart Actor by Richard Brestoff should be on every actor’s bookshelf.

I’ve also got The AP Stylebook, The Elements of Style, Keys for Writers, Making a Good Writer Great. And there’s evidence of my failed attempts at creating my own work: Making Short Films, Making a Winning Short and How to Write a Play and several books by famed screenwriting expert Syd Field.

There’s a complete shelf dedicated to magazines I’ve read over the years that have stories that have touched me in some kind of way or are so well-written that I just had to keep them as a reminder of how much growing I have left to do as a writer.

And finally, there’s an empty shelf just waiting to be stocked with books, but I’ve got the feeling it will be empty for a while.  Lately, I’ve been listening to audio books and I’m probably going to buy an iPad within the next few months and I’ll just buy books on the Kindle app and read them from there.

So there you have it, my beloved bookshelf and all its artsy glory.

How about you?

Do our bookshelves share some of the same titles and writers?

Are you a history buff?

Do you love to read, hot steamy romance novels?

If I were to come over to your house and scan your bookshelf, what would it tell me about you?

Talk to me.

I’d love to hear about your thoughts.

PS. I love food too but I don’t keep my cookbooks on my bookshelf. They stay stored in the kitchen for easy access.

“Waiting to Exhale” Revisited

“I want to know why I’m thirty-six years old and still single. This shit is not right. What ever happened to the good old days?”’

“What good old days?” Gloria wanted to know.

“You know. When a man saw you in a crowd, smiled at you, flirted, and came over and talked to you. Not one has asked me for my phone number since I’ve been here. Why not? There’s nothing wrong with me. Shit, I’m smart, I’m attractive, I’m educated, and my pussy’s good, if I do say so myself. What happened to all the aggressive men? The ones that arent scared to talk to you? Where the fuck are they hiding?”

“They’re not hiding. They’re just scared to make a damn commitment,” Robin said.

“They’re with white women,” Bernadine said.

“Or gay,” Gloria said.

“Or married,” Savannah said. “But you know what? They’re not all with white girls, they’re not all homosexuals, they’re not all married, either. When you get down to it, we’re talking five, maybe ten percent. What about the rest?”

“They’re ugly.”


“In prison.”







“Too possessive.”




“Stuck in the sixties.”




“Too gotdamn old and set in their ways.”

“Cant fuck.”

“Stop!” Savannah said.

“Well, shit, you asked,” Robin said.

I never in my wildest dreams thought that the subject matter in this book, especially conversations like the one above, would make it’s way into my conversations with friends, associates, and random people on the internet. I especially didn’t think I’d have the same complaints…not the first time I cracked open this book, back when I was 12 years old.

With the recent release of Terry McMillan’s highly anticipated novel, Getting to Happy, I thought it would only be fitting to re-read Waiting to Exhale. I hadn’t read the story of Bernadine, Gloria, Savannah, and Robin’s friendship since I was 19, in college with no real idea of how their situations might be similar to my eventual life as a grown ass Black woman. It was just fiction, entertainment, something  to past the time. Back then, never did it cross my mind that one day I’d identify with these characters. But that seems to be why Waiting to Exhale was such a hit back in 1992. As I stated in my intro, I remember Black women gushing over how much they enjoyed this book. My mother had it. Her friends had it, but it wasn’t until I saw Kimberly from “A Different World” walking around with it on campus, did I ask my mom could I borrow her copy. I don’t quite remember my reaction to the book, other than it resulting in me wanting to read everything else Terry McMillan had ever written (my mother let me read her copy of Mama. my favorite by her, but drew the line at the adult content of Disappearing Acts; I then turned to my dad who didn’t hesitate on buying it for me…he didn’t know any better lol).

I don’t quite remember my reaction to the book during my college years either. I do remember seeing the movie and feeling like Whitney was not fit for the part of Savannah. She was my favorite singer at the time, but Savannah was sassy and sometimes belligerent. Whitney didn’t quite fit the character in the book, but hey…you do what you have to do to sell movie tickets.

This time around, I’m 29. I’ve had my share of grown up experiences, relationships with Black men being high on my list. So I wondered, would I receive the story as just entertainment, or would I see myself in some of these characters?

There was Bernadine, reeling from being smacked in the face with the news of her husband cheating with his white secretary while secretly storing away money, property, and assets to prevent her from getting more than their house in their divorce. The pain of being thrown into single motherhood without consistent support after having given up her dreams of having her own catering business because her husband wanted her home with the kids, set her off on a new beginning that started with a new haircut and an irresponsible affair with a married man.

There is Gloria, an overweight single mom who can’t remember the last time she has been touched by a man, who gives all of her time to her salon, her teenaged son, and food. We meet Gloria as she prepares to welcome her son’s father into her bed for a tune up, if you will, only to find out that his strong hesitation is rooted in the fact that he is gay.

There is the youngest of the bunch, Robin, who doesn’t make a move unless her horoscope says so; in love with a handsome dirty rotten scoundrel, and in an attempt to get over him, trying to step out of the box and give someone who doesn’t fall into her “type” a try.  “Lately, though, I’ve had to ask myself some pretty tough questions, like, What am I doing wrong? And why do I keep picking the wrong men to fall in love with? I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, to tell the truth, but I do know that one of my major weaknesses has always been pretty men with big dicks. And Russell definitely fit the bill. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get over this syndrome, but it’s hard, especially when that’s all you’re used to.”

And lastly, there is the aforementioned Savannah, recent transplant from Denver to Phoenix, the setting of the book, who is giving herself one year to find a man in Arizona, or she is off to another location. “Then as corny as I know it is, I actually found myself thinking about a few resolutions of my own. On the top of my list is finding a husband. I promise myself that in 1990 I will not spend another  birthday by myself, another Fourth of July by myself, another Thanksgiving by myself, and definitely not another Valentine’s Day, Christmas, or New Year’s by myself.”

My side eye put it in a lot of work during the first few chapters.  These women were making mistakes in their mid thirties that I wouldn’t dare make in my late-20s. Savannah  jumped at the chance to allow a man she barely knew to drive with her from Denver to Phoenix during her move, only to find out that he was just using her for a ride, and had every intention to move in with her once they arrived.  She then stumbles into an affair with an old love, who happens to be married.  Robin falls head over heels with a man before he even takes her out on a real date. She finally cuts it off with him once she realizes he is a drug user, after  having already slept with him multiple times. Bernadine cheats with Herbert, helping to destroy another woman’s marriage in the same way that her own failed. And Gloria tops it off by trying to convince a man who obviously is disgusted by her, to sleep with her.

Reading of these circumstances at this age with a more mature perspective had me wondering, “What the hell is wrong with these women? Where is their common sense? What was Terry thinking?”

But, as I delved deeper into the story of these four women, I realized that behind all of the mistakes and bad decisions, was a desperate urge to be loved. And not just any old way. They wanted consistency and respect and strength behind the love that they craved.  And much of this seemed to be right out of their grasp.

Throughout most of the book, I felt like I had nothing in common with Robin but  I finally identified with her when she decided to give Michael, the good, safe guy, a chance to win over her heart. “I knew I wasn’t attracted to him physically, but maybe that’s what I needed: the kind of man every woman wouldn’t be drooling over. Somebody decent and ordinary.” I can’t even count how many times I’ve had conversations with friends and associates about settling with the guy we aren’t passionate about, but who we know would keep our hearts safe and sound, treat our hearts gently, and live to make us happy.

And there was Bernadine, who ran into a stranger at a bar on the night she went to celebrate the finality of her divorce. A man who she fell in love with right there, that night, who restored her faith in men, which helped her start off feeling free and happy on her first night as a single woman. “In the house, she sat down on the couch and, out of habit, reached for a cigarette. But she didn’t have the desire or the need, and didn’t smoke it. She sat there, smiling, replaying the past night in her head for hours. It didn’t matter if she never saw him ever in life. It didn’t matter at all. She was alive again.“ I loved this part of the book, how it helped Bernadine resolve her issues with men without having been saved by a knight in shining armor or some other ludicrous fairytale ending.

I identified the most with Savannah and her brokenness after having met a man from San Francisco at a professional conference in Vegas for her job. They spent a week of bliss together, sharing secrets, learning each other inside out, even went as far as to read the Bible together. He spoke of the future with her, shared his past, and convinced her to open up to him. It ended when they returned to their respective homes and he forgot she ever existed. She was crushed.  “I’ve got feelings. And right now they hurt. And he’s the cause of it. All I want to know is this: What happened to all the pride, the tenderness, the love and compassion, black men are supposed to show us? I thought we were supposed to be a prized ‘possession‘. How are we supposed to feel beautiful and loving and soft and caring and gentle and tender and compassionate and sensitive, when they treat us like shit after we surrender ourselves to them… I can’t afford to do this shit anymore. It costs too much. And besides, being lonely has never made me feel this damn bad.”

I don’t tend to say those words out loud, but they definitely run through my head every now and then. The hurt and pain of getting one’s hopes up and the disappointment of it all being a lie was captured superbly in this storyline.

By the end of the novel, where they’d all found a little bit of peace to hold on to, I was able to recognize this story for what it was. A very well written, extreme version of the struggles with love that a lot of Black women deal with. Many of us have made huge mistakes in trusting too soon, or putting our own happiness on the back burner for others, or using our bodies to get the attention we crave, or destroying our bodies to distract ourselves from the love that we lack.  Some of it may have been exaggerated for entertainment purposes, but much of it happens in the every day lives of Black women all over the country.

The most important part of the book though, was the friendship that she created amongst these women. So many of their conversations, though brash and vulgar, reminded me of hilarious conversations with my girlfriends about love, life, jobs, and everything in between. McMillan captured the definition of Black woman kinship and stretched it into a novel. They were there for each other to lean on, assist, tell each other off when they needed to, and to stop each other from making fools of themselves.

I now see why this book resonated so well within the Black community. Terry showed the world how badly Black women want to be loved and how deeply we cherish our friends. And she hit the nail right on the head.

-Nakia M. White

Sigh… bad books.


So a lot of our focus on this blog will be about books that we love or at least like a little, but what about bad books?  Funny you should ask:  I have read some great books and definitely some bad books.  Some I half expected to be bad, and some were huge let downs that made me extremely upset that I wasted the tine and/or money.  I realized in these bad books there was a common vein in them that lent to their lameness.

Here’s a short list:

  • Nonsensical story lines and characters permeate the world of bad “literature.”  I have read books where none of the characters are realistic; they just kind of do whatever was in the authors head after a cocaine bender.  I like twists and turns in books, but make it believable and make it have a point.
  • Underdeveloped characters are just as bad as the contrived ones.  I have read books where I couldn’t tell you more than one or two things about the main characters.  What part of the game is that?  Isn’t a big part of the point of a story about the characters themselves?  I want to build an emotional bond with character(s) in a book, it helps me get lost in the story or sometimes feel like I am part of a story.  I read to get that emotional experience, it’s what makes it fun or meaningful.
  • Overuse of slang/patois/foreign language irks me to no end.  I understand that some stories require slang in the dialogue, but I am not talking about in the dialogue.  I am talking authors who write the entire narrative in that way.  It is distracting, bad writing, and will make me put a book down tout de suite(immediately/quickly).
  • Overly simplistic writing….. I feel my side-eye flaring up.  I have read books, particularly “urban literature,” that read like a remedial English class project.  Now keep in mind, I don’t feel an author has to use overly colorful language and complicated indecipherable metaphors, but please give me something that makes me think past a 2nd grade level.
  • BAD F*CKING GRAMMAR and misspellings. Here comes my pesky side-eye again….  Have you heard of an editor?  Was your editor taking shots while reading your book?  There is nothing worse than reading a book and finding excessive amounts of errors.  I should be thinking about a character’s unrequited love and not the proper use of there, their, they’re , noun/verb agreement, or how you say irregardless 4 times in the first chapter.  Not a good look.  Not a good look at all.
This is just a short list, what are some things that irk you and make a book unreadable?

Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”

I’d heard about this book on a few occasions prior to picking it up. My good friend Vaughn, of The Nubian Drifter, was particularly passionate about me reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, as he thought the writing style was “very me”. Then, I saw the book on three different “to read” lists, hit up Amazon, and ordered  it.

This tells the tale of Oscar de Leon, a likeable “ghettonerd” with an unhealthy obsession for “Dungeons and Dragons”, sci-fi, and women, who has no game whatsoever and hopes to become the Dominican J.R.R Tolkien. The book alternates between Oscar’s story and that of his rebellious punk rock sister Lola; his roommate from Rutgers and on/off boyfriend of his sister, Yunior; and his traditional, imposing mother, Belicia Cabral. We are also introduced to the multigenerational family curse (the fuku) that indirectly brought a young Beli to the states.

Oscar’s desire is simple: to be cool. Well, that, and to be loved by a girl. Oscar fears that he will be the only Dominican man to die a Virgin. He falls madly in love with any girl who shows him even the slightest bit of attention, be it negative or positive. He loves hard, obsessively, ignores his own needs, feelings, and well-being in pursuit of affection. Hell, who hasn’t been there?

Reading this book took me on quite the emotional journey. Junot Diaz kicked me in the face from the first page. Diaz masterfully blends wild and fanatical prose, brilliant characterizations that propel the story along, pertinent historical background, and humor (both effectively and effortlessly) to create a magnetic family saga that I could not put down.

Perhaps one of the strongest tools used is the unconventional presentation. From the ¾ page historical footnotes, to his mashing/creation of words, to his fluid use of Spanglish, to the very distinct, clear, obscure cultural references, the book demanded my full attention. He’d use an entire page to drop relevant (or irrelevant) tidbits on the background of “the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated” or go off on a tangent about how fuku followed his family from father to daughter across oceans and onto a new continent and new generations. There’s a moment when one sentence spans over a page and a half. Several times a sentence will shift from English to Spanish and back. More importantly, Diaz is unapologetic for his cultural nods. The English-speaking reader is forced to infer, decipher meaning, and guess on multiple occasions.

Whether we’re learning about Oscar’s mother’s torrid affair with a Dominican mobster or Lola’s struggle for independence, the voices are distinct and discernible. Diaz switched flawlessly between characters, giving them their own unique style of storytelling, each with a clear, strong voice. Though the title alludes to the impending demise of the central character, watching his numerous failed attempts at love, the reader naturally roots for Oscar, hoping to see him shed pounds or dorkiness, to succeed at something. Your heart breaks for him time and time again, while applauding his unshakable determination. The four narrators’ tales are intertwined, supporting one another to collectively convey that, ultimately, it is that same unyielding determination—not a fuku—that ends lives here.

An excerpt:

In September he headed to Rutgers New Brunswick, his mother gave him a hundred dollars and his first kiss in five years, his tío a box of condoms: Use them all, he said, and then added: On girls….The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Domincano soy. After a spate of parties that led to nothing but being threatened by some drunk whiteboys, and dozens of classes where not a single girl looked at him, he felt the optimism wane, and before he even realized what had happened he had buried himself in what amounted to the college version of what he’d majored n all throughout high school: getting no ass.

There were moments when I had to put the book down and walk away. I’d literally yell out, “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THIS,” or I’d call Vaughn and express my disbelief that this person, Junot Diaz, actually exists. He so smoothly seams Dominican folklore into the family’s epic that I sometimes questioned the line between reality and fiction.

Here is a man who has obviously been reading voraciously since sliding out of the birth canal. Diaz flexes his geek muscles, weaving Japanese Manga, Marvel comics, history, and fantasy into the tale. The most lasting sentiment is that my desire to polish my own craft is newly intensified. This piece of work ignites that fire to read more, study more, learn more, and live more. Diaz writes fluently and freely and takes full advantage of writer’s privilege. There had to be times when his sprawling (but warranted) run-on sentences were marked up by some editor’s red pen. I’m certain someone frowned on some of the graphic scenes presented. But I love the shit. Every crazed bit of it. He undertakes feats that are only pulled off through literary mastery. He gives me hope that my tangential rants do have value. This work has earned a place among my favorites. Junot Diaz’s writing touched me the way the drug-fueled ramblings of fictionalizing memoirist James Frey did. His style is mesmerizing, inspiring, and my life has been enriched by exposure to this masterpiece.

Do yourself a favor and buy (versus checking it out—you’ll want to re-read) this book.

-Alex H.