Tag Archives: African American literature

Book Review: Jesus Boy

“I averted my eyes and in a sudden move wrenched my hand from her grasp. When I dared look again, the hand that had held mine was brushing tears.
‘Don’t forget about me Elwyn.’
Strange music began to play in my head. Was my light-headedness a result of her flowery perfume? The memory of the shape and feel of her waist? God forgive me, I silently prayed, this is Brother Morrisohn’s widow. Brother Morrisohn, a man I loved.
‘I won’t forget you,’ I said.
When I got to my car, where Peachie awaited, I was breathing as though I’d just run a great distance.”

And so begins the love affair at the center of Jesus Boy, Preston L. Allen’s hilarious, satirical novel about the outrageous happenings at the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters. Sixteen year old Elwyn Parker, devout believer, respected youth in his community, and piano prodigy suddenly finds himself stumbling into a May-December romance with his deceased godfather’s 40 year old widow, Sister Morrisohn.

“And then I wept some more because the more she rubbed my neck, the more forgiveness I needed. For when she got down on her knees beside me and began to pray against my face, the very scent of her expanded my lungs like a bellows, and her breathing — her warm breath against my cheeks, my ear, into my eyes burning hot with tears — was everything I imagined a lover’s kiss might be.”

When shining light on the sins of the saints at the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters, Allen does not stop at Elwyn and Sister Morrisohn’s indiscretions. We are also introduced to Elwyn’s former life long crush, Peachie, who at sixteen, shockingly becomes pregnant by and immediately marries, an upwardly mobile minister in the church.

The stories are highly exaggerated but the circumstances are real and truthful to an extent. Having been raised in the Black church, I was pleasantly entertained by Allen’s illustration of hypocritical church members without being judgmental or condescending in his writing. However, I can see many people in the church being offended by this story, because it sarcastically mocks the ways in which people within the church behave. For instance, when Elwyn’s grandmother, one of the highly revered Mother’s of the church, suspects that Sister Morrisohn has seduced her grandson, she rips the woman to shreds with an evil tirade:

“Aren’t there enough slack-leg Johnnies with whom you can satisfy your vile, pagan lust? When it burns down there, why don’t you just run to the nursery and throw yourself on the infant with the fattest diaper…Thou thankless apostate, thou creeping Jezebel. The stink of thine iniquity rises to the nostrils of God…You should be flung from the highest tower. And when you burst open, the dogs should pick your rotting flesh from your putrid bones.”

Eventually, you find out that Elwyn’s grandmother, along with his father, his dead godfather, and a host of other people to whom he has always looked for spiritual guidance and examples of Christian living, all have past and current sins and mistakes that come back to haunt them.  No one is without sin in this novel.

Despite the drama throughout the storylines, Allen expertly immerses the reader in the workings of the Black church, the many positions handed out to those with the most money, the most saintly, and the oldest parishioners.  He also includes the weekly and monthly church activities and the cultural traditions during special events, like revivals, weddings, and funerals. These were my favorite parts of the book.

Readers who are open minded or not bogged down by their own opinions of religion, may get a kick out of the primary theme throughout the story:  nobody is perfect, no matter how much closer to God you think you are because of your title within the church. By the end of the book,  and after having lived a life filled with guilt and self righteousness, this is something that Elwyn finally realizes.

“God is love,” Peachie says. “God is here with us right now.”

I am looking forward to reading a lot more from this author.


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Nakia’s Favorite Reads of 2010

With the help of GoodReads.com, I recently set my 2011 reading goal at 24 books. That may not seem like a lot to some of you, but as someone who just two years ago only read five books in an entire year, and is internationally known as a lazy procrastanista, twenty four books is commendable. Let’s pray I reach my goal (I’m 4% done already lol)

I read 21 books in 2010 though, and I’d like to share a few of my favorites.

10. Bitch is the New Black by Helena Andrews (pub. June 2010):  This memoir was the June selection for my bookclub. I enjoyed it because I identified with Andrews’ shenanigans as a late-20 something Black woman, witty, smart, attractive, and still wondering why she’s single. She is hilarious and insightful when sharing her life experiences. Some of the chapters lagged when she ventured away from her dating mishaps, but Andrews’ is a wonderful writer and with Bitch is the New Black having already having been optioned for the big screen by Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), I’m looking forward to the movie.

9 Orange Mint & Honey by Carleen Brice (pub. Feb 2008): I wouldn’t have known about this book had it not been for Jill Scott. I love me some her, and when friends got word that she would be starring in the television adaptation of Orange Mint and Honey, titled “Sins of the Mother”, I received links and emails out of the ying yang telling me to tune in. I of course picked up the book a few weeks before the movie premiered on the Lifetime Movie Network. I’m so glad I did. This story of Shay, stumbling grad student and daughter of an alcoholic who suddenly becomes sober and has another baby, was riveting. It was hard not to cry during certain parts of the book, especially when Shay agonized over the pain from her past and used that as an excuse not to forgive her mother, who did everything in her power to make it up to her . Brice handled the mother-daughter relationship superbly, and I give her two thumbs up on accurately introducing the audience to how children are affected by living in a home filled with alcoholism.

8 Jesus Boy by Allen L. Preston (pub. April 2010): Hilarious, satirical story that delves into the skeletons that clutter the closets of the leaders and most revered saints in the Black church. After his life long crush becomes pregnant and quickly marries a burgeoning minister away at Bible school, sixteen year old musical prodigy and devout Christian, Elwyn Parker, starts a risque affair with 42 year old Sister Morrisohn, the wife of his recently deceased godfather. Highly exaggerated, but still truthful to an extent, I was pleasantly entertained by how easily Allen was able to illustrate how hypocritical church members can be, without being a judgmental or condescending story teller. I can see many people in the church being offended by this story, but those who are more open minded may get a kick out of its primary theme: Nobody is perfect, no matter how much closer to God you think you are.

7 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (pub. 2006): This was my book club’s pick for November. Even though I had to read a few hundred pages before it captured my full attention, I’m so happy I kept pushing through. Ngozi Adichie did an AMAZING job telling the story of the Biafran War of the 1960s through the eyes of Olanna, Odenigbo, Egwu, Richard, Kainene and countless other memorable, endearing characters. This story was about war, but it was also about love during a tumultuous time. I enjoyed this story immensely, and learned a huge amount of Nigerian history and the differences between ethnic groups in the process.

6 Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan (pub. 1992): Before reading “Getting to Happy”I decided to re-read Waiting to Exhale to familiarize myself with its characters and scenarios. McMillan is a hilarious writer and she is fantastic at showing the camaraderie that Black women share within their friendships. I saw a lot of the old me in Bernadine, Savannah, Gloria, and even Robin, which at some points made me sad, and at other points made me extremely happy that I’d learned my lesson at an earlier age. That is what I enjoyed most about this book. The meet ups and girls night outs definitely reminded me of how I interact with my friends. Check for my review, “Waiting to Exhale Revisited” here.

5 A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown (pub. 1993):  This is the memoir of Elaine Brown, chronicling her poverty laden childhood in Philadelphia; her migration to Los Angeles where her job in a strip club led to romantic liaisons with powerful celebrity connections; to becoming a pivotal part of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party, eventually becoming one of Huey Newton’s lovers, working tirelessly as the editor of their newspaper, abruptly becoming national president, and spawning the new, unheard of, and short lived era of female leadership within the highest ranks of the organization. My book club read this in February and I absolutely loved it, mainly because it gave me a peek into the history of my city, a first hand account of the historical significance of the Black Panther Party, and the treatment of women in such an organization.

4 Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (pub. Jan 2007): I never had any desire to read this memoir, but when it hit the movies, my book club decided to see it together after reading it in September. Words cannot express how much I loved this book! Emotional, funny, open, honest, descriptive. I feel like felt EVERYTHING that she went through while dealing with her divorce and the depression associated with her new lover. I fell in love with Italy right along with her, and I can’t wait to visit Bali after reading of the spiritual renewal, inner peace, and new love she found there. Elizabeth is definitely my kind of writer. Can’t wait to read the sequel, “Committed”.

3 Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts (pub. 2009) Found this book on a list of favorite books of 2009 on author Carleen Brice’s blog, which led me to suggest it to my book club, making it our first pick of 2010. Pitts brilliantly tells the story of Mo, former successful soul singer and recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, who decides, before all of his memories are gone, to take a cross country road trip from Maryland to Los Angeles with his 18 year old son Trey, to visit his own dying father. Trey is headed down the wrong path fast, while Mo hasn’t talked to his own father in decades. The theme of manhood, fatherhood, and responsibility, is littered throughout this story of redemption and forgiveness. Pitts is a master at weaving layers to produce a full, powerful, and touching story. There were times when this book made my heart race (from chapter 18 until the end), when it made me angry, when I wanted to cry. Everyone in my book club LOVED it. We also felt that this is a book that all Black men should pick up, no matter their status, background, or history. The novel was multi generational, making it easy for a number of different ages to identify with the story.

2 After the Garden by DorisJean Austin (pub. 1987): What happens when Elzina Tompkins, raised and sheltered by her bible thumping and VERY judgmental grandmother, becomes pregnant and marries immediately after high school, Jesse James, from the James clan filled with boisterous, belligerent, and illegitimate alcoholics? One of the best love stories I’ve ever read. This novel chronicles the ups and downs of two completely different people who survive solely off of love, in Jersey City in the early to mid-1900s. This book was brilliant and I have no idea why it isnt a classic! Full review coming to The Page Turners soon.

1 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (pub. 2002 , Pulitzer prize for Fiction 2003): I added this book to my reading list because it was an Oprah book club pick. It was brilliant, amazing, heart wrenching, mind boggling…this story made me feel every emotion. I wrinkled my nose in disgust, laughed, cheered, and felt compassion for every character in this epic saga. Eugenides weaves the tale of how and why Calliope Stephanides lived the life of a girl well into her teenaged years, before realizing that something was biologically wrong. Starting from the mistakes made and secrets kept by her grandparents, on down to her parents, unfolds the story of an hermaphrodite who is too scared to love. Eugenides knows how to make you root for these characters, no matter the laws of love and procreation that they break. He also shares the story of immigration and the development of Detroit from a booming auto center, to a desolate ghetto. Loved every minute of it. Almost cried when I lost the book halfway through the story. Thank God I found it. If one can get past the uncomfortable thoughts that may arise, you’ll be able to ingest a wonderful story. Adding this to my list of favorite book of all time!

Honorable mentions go to Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these, or share some of your favorite reads of 2010.

-Nakia

Book Review: Third Girl From The Left

 I’m so excited to bring in the new year with a review of my latest read Third Girl From The Left by Martha Southgate.

Third Girl From The Left centers around  the lives of three generations of African-American women who come to realize that they share more than blood and familial relation as they discover their shared love of cinema is the thread that links their lives together.

Their lives didn’t matter to anyone but me. They were the only parents I knew. But not being able to talk about who they were, acting as if it wasn’t happening, that was the hard part. (p. 182)

Tamara, a self-described “film nerd”  has big dreams of becoming a film director with only a small budget to make it happen. Tamara has spent her whole life desperately wanting a family, affection, and a past to help her to decipher the meaning of her current life. When Tamara’s estranged grandmother gets sick, she leaves her job behind and flies from New York to Oklahoma and, with the permission of her family, she uses her ever present video camera to capture their stories.

My mother believed in the power of movies and the people in them to change her life. (p. 2)

Tamara’s mother, Angela, has star-studded dreams so big she can’t contain them in the small town of Tulsa, Oklahoma where she grew up. She moves to L.A to be “in the movies” and meets up with a fellow Playboy bunny Sheila who introduces her to the fast life and stays with her until Angela is forced to slow down and change her wild ways.  Angela didn’t look back once she got her first taste of stardom and alienates herself from her family and hometown, which trickles down to Tamera being forced to grow up without the presence of any of her family, besides her mother and Sheila.

There was always this need to do things right, to be seen to be right, never to be too mussed or too loud or too worked up or too anything. (p. 20)

For Angela’s mother, Mildred, life is boring and routine as a housewife and mother. She has everything a woman in her small town could want but she ends up finding what she needs in the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of people. Mildred later finds herself unable to deal with her wayward daughter because of the guilt she feels for satisfying those needs.

And there we are. My mother is beautiful and my grandmother is beautiful and I’m beautiful. You see that beauty as it finally is even though no one wants to see it as it is in a black woman in America, not a hoochie, not a ho, not a mammy, not a dyke, not a cliché,  just a woman. (p. 268)

And there you have it. This book was amazing. I love everything about 70’s culture so I was super excited reading about the era of Blaxploitation movies and foxy sistas with Afros. The author dedicates a good portion of the book to that era and even manages to squeeze in a guest appearance by Pam Grier. Southgate did a wonderful job of staying true to the time period each character lived in with so many details if felt like I was reading historical documents. The 1921 Tulsa race riots were of particular interest to me since I’m from the area and this book has inspired me to research the incident further.

The major theme in the novel that ties the characters lives together, second to their blood relation, is their love of movies. Mildred used watching movies as a way to escape her mundane life, Angela desired to be in the movies, and Tamara wanted to be behind the camera creating them.

I loved how Tamara filming the women for her documentary made them feel comfortable enough to reveal their secrets to each other which, as a result, helped them to heal. Southgate addresses issues like infidelity, sex and drugs, homosexuality and racism. And I must say she does a wonderful job of fully exploring these themes in only 268 pages. 

I was able to relate to each of the main characters and I loved that none of them were perfect. The women had flaws and some of the relationships that were broken were never fully mended in the story…like real life. The author wasn’t afraid to take risks or approach subject matters in depth  that others would shy away from and that’s why her characters and story are so dynamic. I can’t wait to get my hands on the other books shes’ written so I can get my read on!

I want to thank Author Carleen Brice who recommended Third Girl From The  Left on her blog.

– Malca

 

Alex’s Bookshelf

The first book I can remember purchasing with my own money was Billy, by Albert French. It was a dark, gut-wrenching tale about a ten-year old boy, Billy Lee Turner, who was found guilty and executed for stabbing a young white girl in 1930’s Mississippi. I read this book in the sixth grade and its colloquial delivery and ever-present tension struck me more than any book I had read up until that point. It was heavy. Billy Lee lived in a time where Blacks were less than second class citizens, and seeing such hate directed at a child stuck with me for a long time.

Billy opened the door of my imagination. I remember being fascinated by the use of language as the dialog was true to speech used in rural, segregated South at the time. It was a powerful moment for me; I began to read not just for the story, but to absorb the language and take note of varying writing styles. That signaled the beginning of my love affair with books.

In a book I could imagine my awkward self decades, centuries in the past, light years in the future, in any place or situation imaginable or unimaginable. They offered me an escape from reality, and I sought refuge in books when my social dealings weren’t exactly satisfactory. I began accumulating books, reading anything I could get my hands on. In Miss Sexton’s seventh grade class, I was introduced to Uncle James Baldwin, with If Beale Street Could Talk. Fonny and Tish’s saga drew me completely into the world of Black literature.

Moving to New York in 2006, my collection grew. Drifting from one temporary living situation to another, my box of books got heavier with each impromptu move. New York is the perfect place for the bibliophile. Most of my reading happened underground. With the train being the preferred mode of transit, most days I had between 30 and 45 minutes of travel time in each direction to devour a new title. Above ground, I had Union Square (center of my universe) and thousands of ledges, staircases, stoops, fire escapes, cozy corners, coffee shops and bookstores to drop my bag and get away. Falling into conversation on the subway about a book I or someone was reading was the norm. It was heaven.

In New York, I also learned about bargain booksellers. Aside from the Barnes & Noble, Union Square, Strand bookstore on Broadway is easily responsible for 25% of my book collection. The sprawling $1 and $.50 book collection that covers the sidewalk outside is endless, disorganized bliss. Classics mixed in with kiddie books, mixed in with cookbooks and the occasional damaged new release makes for a great way to while the day away.

Between Strand and other book retailers, I was introduced to The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley (among my top 5 favorites), the drug-fueled magical mind of James Fry, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (finished in 3 days) and other brilliance by Walter Mosely and dozens of others. Here, I also happened across Native Son by Richard Wright, my favorite book ever.

Then I moved West, to Lost Angeles. I sent three sizable boxes home to Virginia to store at Mom and Dad’s house, and came here to rebuild my collection. I carried about nine essential books with me. Among them, Self Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I will soon cover here. After some shady living arrangements, I felt it was time to get a proper shelf for my friends books.

I am a lover of all things second-hand, and have developed quite the keen eye for things to be potentially re-purposed. I spotted this gem on the side of the road:

…and tied that hoe to the roof of my car, brought it home, and went to work. With some spraypaint…

and some creativity (plus some wood, nails, a power drill, and aerosol fumes galore), I added five shelves and turned that discarded entertainment center into this:

A home for my books. Hooray. Since my time here felt a little more permanent that originally intended, I have had my parents gradually ship books from Virginia. Like fellow Page Turner Alise, thrift stores and many free book finds have helped contribute to the madness. Since January, my California-based collection has gone from this:

…to this:

Some people hoard teeth and backfat. My thing is books. I’ve discovered tons of new authors recently, including favorites Thomas Chatterton Williams, Junot Diaz, and Dave Eggers, two of which will be covered in future book reviews.  Mentioned in my intro, books have been there when people have fallen short. I’ve failed at several self-imposed “book-buying freezes”, but what’s the use? I see no chance of slowing down.

Look forward to the collections from the rest of the gang. How did your collection come to be?