BS Reading Project: An America Marriage

It is not a big surprise that Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is good. This is one of those books I know I should read because (a) I see the cover prominently displayed everywhere, (b) I look at a lot of book lists, and it is on Every. Single. One. and (c) Oprah told us all to read it. What more do you need to know to figure out that this book is probably a really good read. *Spoiler alert: It is!*

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Which is not to say that it is a “fun” read. The book is about a married couple–Celestial and Roy–who have been married about a year when Roy is accused of a crime that he didn’t commit and sent to prison. They write letters to one another, but they haven’t even really started to figure out how to be married when he goes to jail for several years, and both of them are forced to live very different lives. What has happened to Roy is unjust and terrible, but he must figure out how to deal with his situation while simultaneously, Celestial begins to come into her own as an artist who becomes rather well known for making hand crafted dolls. She wants to do right by Roy, but she must balance that with her career taking off, and she much figure out what it means to be a woman who is both married and alone.

Some of my favorite drama comes not from a mustache twirling villain–though perhaps the criminal justice system metaphorically serves this role here–but from a situation that happens where good people have different perspectives, and they just can’t bridge the divide. The thing that is so gut wrenching about Celestial and Roy’s story is that this thing that has happened is terrible, but they can’t really come together to work through a problem because by the very nature of their situation they are kept apart. Both of them struggle with their situation, but their struggles are very different.

To the very end, it is unclear how the situation will resolve itself, but it is very clear that their relationship can never be the same. Jones does a great job of making you feel for all of her characters, and I found myself hoping for one thing to happen and also for the opposite to happen at the same time. No matter what a character does, I wanted them to be happy, and knew that they would only be happy by doing something that was also very painful.

It also is worth re-emphasizing that the book is very clear that Roy is innocent of the crime he was accused of. No one in his life doubts it for a moment. Because these characters are forever changed by something that should not have happened, and all of this pain and suffering should not have existed because Roy is innocent, but it happened anyway because Roy, a black man, was convicted of something he didn’t do. The specter of the prison industrial complex hangs heavy over this book, and several characters are outspoken about the justice system. This book confronts both the personal devastation these characters face as well as the larger systemic issues that could lead a man like Roy to wrongly end up in prison. Jones has written a book that beautifully and effortlessly works on different levels.

Finally, I want to just mention the extra bonus of reading a book set in Atlanta while I am just beginning to discover the city. I have always found it thrilling to read a book and see references to real things that I recognize. There is a thrill of the familiar that delights me when I read about a place I know well and can picture the place fully because it is a place I have been. Simple things like street names and neighborhoods make me feel an extra degree of fondness for a book. Before this, I read a series of mysteries set in Atlanta just to see references to Little Five Points or Candler Park. Because of the nature of the BS Reading Project, I am reading books set throughout the South, but this one makes me want to seek out more books set in Atlanta. One of the books I have added to my reading list is Tayari Jones’ novel Leaving Atlanta, about the Atlanta Child Murders. The topic is one that I only recently learned about from the podcast Atlanta Monster, but I am also excited to read more books by her.

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BS Reading Project: Amal Unbound

Just in time for International Day of The Girl, I finished reading Aisah Saeed’s middle-grade novel Amal Unbound. The book is about a young Pakistani girl who has been forced into indentured servitude, meaning that her dreams of going to school and becoming a teacher are in jeopardy as she works as a servant for a wealthy family. While she is somewhat fortunate that the woman she serves is kind, the woman’s son is a tyrant. Standing up to him, in fact, serves as the catalyst for her being forced to work for his family.Image result for Amal unbound

It has been a tough month for women and girls, so perhaps it is a good time for a novel to serve up some positive role models. Even as my cynical side wants to argue with the novel’s somewhat positive ending, the Author’s Note talks about how Malala Yousafzai served as an inspiration for her heroine, and I begin to remember that change is hard but possible. While Saeed acknowledges the widespread problem of indentured servitude, she also points out both a real and a fictional example of young girls bravely advocating for themselves and others around them.

I bought a copy of this book as a gift for a 10 year old girl I know, and I picked it because it not only came recommended as part of the Bitter Southerner Reading List, but it also has a beautiful cover and was written by an Atlanta author. That last part, though, was not really relevant as the story takes place entirely in Pakistan. You will have to wait until next week for me to talk about the pleasures of seeing familiar places dropped into things you are reading. Saeed, however, is Pakistani American, so I really enjoyed reading and learning about a country she knows but which I know very little about. I have been making a concentrated effort to read widely to gain different perspectives, and this book does a good job of creating a sense of place and atmosphere–especially around food–that was a great introduction to Pakistan.

While a lot of the emotional content is easy for a middle grades student to understand, there are some surprisingly complex feelings in here. When events in the novel take a turn for what we would consider justice and things begin to look up for Amal, she does not rejoice in bad things happening to the woman she has been serving. There are people who are employed by the rich family that pressed Amal into servitude, and their fates are seen as more complicated and not as purely joyful as Amal’s. Toppling a ruling family is not easy, and the fallout will be complicated, which is not really something I’ve seen even in dystopian fiction aimed at a slightly older YA audience.

And yet, there is a lovely realization for Amal that a person can have more than one dream, and that many of their dreams can come true, which is a really wonderful thing for kids to know also.

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BS Reading Project: The Almost Sisters

In many ways, Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters does a lot of the things that Whiskey and Ribbons tried but came up short on for me. To be fair to Leesa Cross-Smith, last week’s book was her first novel, and this is Joshilyn Jackson’s eighth. But The Almost Sisters exists in a fully developed world. One that is familiar to me, and at times frustrating to me. I have no real love for small towns,  but Jackson is clearly fond of them and has depicted a charming one in her setting of Birchville, Alabama.

Our narrator, Leia Birch Briggs was perhaps born to be a sci-fi fan since she is named after the princess in Star Wars, but she is a comic book artist who has created her own successful graphic novel Violence in Violet–that I would totally read–about a vigilante named Violet. After a drunken hookup at ComicCon, she finds herself pregnant by a man she only really knows as Batman. I enjoyed how developed Leia’s career was, peppered with the names of comic book labels, writers, and artists that I recognized.  While Leia’s sister doesn’t really seem to understand what she does for a living or how impressive her career is (a funny note that also tracks with what a lot of my artist friends have said about how their parents are loving and supportive, but do not understand what they do for a living), Leia is clearly very accomplished.

Leia has to go home because her sneaky grandmother has dementia, but she and her close friend Wattie have been trying to cover up how serious the issue is. I do love a sneaky grandmother, though there is sort of a weird mix in the novel of sweet old ladies, small town pettiness, and…murder. The tone of The Almost Sisters is tricky because it is light overall, but, I mean, there’s a murder. Also, I generally prefer my Southern murder plots to be of the Gothic variety, but this is a book about characters, and it works because there are so many good ones.

Leia goes to Alabama with her niece Lavender, who feels like a real kid. On the one hand, she is very perceptive, and on the other, things are happening in her life that she doesn’t totally know how to process or talk about. Leia’s relationship with her step sister, Rachel, is strained at times, but Rachel isn’t a villain. She just sees the world very differently, and at times you get glimpses of why these two characters struggle with one another for reasons that are understandable and innate to each of them.

There are also, of course, two sweet little old ladies. They are perhaps a little too sweet.  Almost “cute” at times, but the struggle of getting older and yet being an adult who doesn’t wan’t to give up her own autonomy is one that many of us have seen our relatives go through. The machinations they orchestrate to hold on to their independence are ones I may file away for 40 years from now when I am someone’s sneaky old aunt.

I enjoyed this book, and it certainly captures a version of the South that I know and understand. But I often feel a disconnect with fiction that happens in a sweet little town. Small towns in fiction always seem a little quirkier, nicer, and generally more charming than they are in real life. Otherwise, no one would want to visit.

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BS Reading Project: Whiskey and Ribbons

Let’s start with what is interesting about Leesa Cross-Smith’s Whiskey and Ribbons. The story is told from three points of view that tell the story from different times in a regular rotation of voices. One thing that was kind of fun about the book to me was that they don’t swap the voices out willy nilly, but they follow a strict rotation of voices and time periods, which gives the book an interesting structure. Particularly as the timelines approach one another and begin to inform each other.

Evangaline or Evi is a ballerina who lost her husband in the line of duty a few days before she gave birth to their first child. Her story starts several months after his death on a snowy night when her son is staying with her parents. Eamon, Evangaline’s husband–tells the story from the time that he met Evi up until his death, and his half brother Dalton’s narrative overlaps the two.

There is some really good stuff here as the different timelines and different points of view are able to comment on and add to each other, but the story is largely about Evi and Dalton being snowed in together and coming to terms with their feelings for one another. (They’re into each other, but it’s complicated.) Eamon’s story gives Cross-Smith an opportunity to show Evi and Eamon in love to help us better understand their relationship and Evi’s grief.

It is an interesting idea and a skillful execution. But here’s the truth: a reading project like this is good because it pushes me out of my comfort zone in terms of the kinds of books I read, but there is a risk in that as well, and Whiskey and Ribbons made me consider bailing. I will not say this book is bad or good but simply that “your mileage may vary” and that this book was not for me.

I believe this is Leesa Cross-Smith’s first book, and I would consider reading another book by her if the subject seemed interesting to me. “A moving triptych on grief,” which is how I saw the book described elsewhere is just never a thing I want to pick up. I also found the romance between Evi and Dalton a little weird. It isn’t an impossible situation, but I didn’t really feel a connection between them other than their love for Eamon, and I really, really wanted them to at least acknowledge the weirdness of their potential romance in a way that they didn’t really.

In an interview with Salon, Cross-Smith says she always knew how the book would end, and early on, I knew how it was going to end, too. It just didn’t ring true for me.

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BS Reading Project: The Cooking Gene

One of my cousins was married on a plantation in Louisiana.  I was in college at the time, and I always loved weddings because it was one of the few times I got to see most of my mom’s family together all at once. Still, it felt weird that it was happening at a plantation. My cousin worked there as a chef, so there was a logical connection to the place. But…it was a plantation.

One of the things I found fascinating about Michael Twitty in his book The Cooking Gene is that he regularly goes to places like the plantation where my cousin was married as a culinary historian and historical interpreter. He creates meals using techniques and technologies of the past. I didn’t really know that demonstrations like that were a thing, and knowing that they are–in fact–a thing and that Twitty, a black man, was conducting these demonstrations made me feel the same uneasiness I felt at that wedding years ago. I felt a strong liberal guilt about why this history is being recreated and for whose enjoyment. It made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if these kinds of demonstrations were maybe A Problem. Maybe this shouldn’t be a thing.

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But that is the wrong impulse. Because it overlooks the fact that Twitty has agency and has chosen to do this work. It also fails to understand why this work is valuable to him. Twitty’s interest in researching the history of these foods is about him seeking things he feels are important and that he wants to see preserved. That is an idea that would never have occurred to me because of my particular perspective on the South, slavery, and the Civil War. That is why reading is so cool because it helps me discover ideas that I would never have come to on my own. I learn answers to questions I didn’t even know to ask.

This book can be really academic, and for a minute upon reading the first few pages I put the book down and thought, “Am I smart enough to read this?”  Not because I am dumb but because I have been reading a lot of lighter fare, and my brain quickly realized this book would take more focus from me. Twitty is very good at explaining the cultural significance of Southern food and its African influences, but it is a book I had to stop regularly to process.

Some parts of his research appealed to me because it taught me things about Southern food that I never knew even though those foods are connected to vivid memories of my own childhood.  As a kid on my grandmother’s farm, I picked and shelled wash tubs full of black eyed peas, and unlike shucking corn, I found shelling peas really satisfying. I also adore a good batch of black eyed peas, but I didn’t know how or why they had come to be part of the Southern diet.

Weirdly, I also got very excited whenever there was mention of eating squirrel.  Some of the men in my family hunt squirrel, and I have at times played that fact really close to the vest because I have gotten some stunned reactions when I mention it.  Once, during dinner, my grandfather got up and walked to the sliding glass door to pick up a BB gun and shoot at a squirrel getting after his tomatoes. At the time I had a huge crush on a boy who was a vegetarian, and I briefly imagined how he would react to that scene.

But squirrel, like deer and fish (and opossum, which Twitty discusses but which my family does not eat) is a source of protein that can be had quite cheaply if you have a little real estate on which to hunt it yourself.

The culture and social justice issues around food also connected with my own upbringing. My parents have almost always had a garden to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and other staples.  Twitty’s book has a section on both the historical and modern day significance of farms and growing your own food as a source of healthy eating and empowerment.  He also articulates things about Farmer’s Markets that I have felt but never been able to explain.

I connected less with Twitty’s interest in genealogy and tracing his family history because I have never really understood why people find that subject interesting.  But Twitty points out that few people whose ancestors were slaves can trace their family tree back beyond a few generations. Genealogy for Twitty involved DNA tests like 23 and me, painstaking study of poorly kept records, and a great deal of uncertainty. The amount of work he does is astonishing to me since I have a book of family history that a relative compiled and gave me and a few other family members as gifts. I never read it. Is my disinterest in genealogy a function of the ease with which I can access it whenever I want?  I had never considered that before, but it feels very true.

This book took time.  I had to renew my library copy twice before I finished it.  But it made me think about foods that are familiar to me and my concept of “Southern” food quite differently.

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BS Reading Project: The Comfort Food Diaries

I started my BS Reading Project with Emily Nunn’s The Comfort Food Diaries because comfort is something that I have been actively seeking for a while.  On its face, The Comfort Food Diaries is maybe not what I should have reached for to start this reading journey.  The book starts with Nunn dealing with her brother’s suicide and soon after, her relationship with a man known only as “The Engineer” ends.  He asked her to move out, so she was also without a real home. I feel better already.

All of this information is dispensed very quickly, which seems like it should make for a really heavy first chapter, but it doesn’t.  Not really. It is sad, but by the time she is writing about these things, she seems to have found a way to process and talk about them.  By page 20, she had drunkenly posted about predicament on Facebook and received messages of kindness, love, and support. Friends offered to cook for her.  Others offered a place to stay. A few graciously and affectionately offered to let her cook for them. And at this point, I thought I knew what this book would be: a road trip to visit friends and eat their versions of comfort food.

In some ways, I was wrong on both counts, and I think the book is better for it.  First, Nunn unpacks the incredibly personal nature of comfort food. Letting people cook her what they consider comfort food could be educational in an academic sense, but it might not nourish her soul in the way that comfort food can sometimes do.  When you are craving soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, but are presented with BBQ brisket or cake, the contrast between your idea of comfort and someone else’s has the potential to make you feel worse and Nunn wisely realized this before she began.  So, the recipes (and, obviously, are there recipes) and meals presented in the book unfold in a more organic way as she meets up with people from her past who are happy to reconnect with her.

The other thing I wasn’t expecting was that her journey was more a spiral than a line.  At one of her early stops, she beautifully sums up conversations in the South:

This is the way southerners are.  No one simply tells you something directly and then leaves it at that.  Each conversation is loaded down with other conversations and extraneous information and inconsequential observations and non sequiturs…It is not entirely meaningless; it’s circular, a secret code you either learn to decipher or just not worry about too much.

I love this because I have had thousands of conversations with strangers who disclosed way too much by way of telling you the thing you asked about.  Or sometimes just as a way to say “hello.” I do it too. Sometimes I am aware of it and sometimes not. But circular is a good way of describing the way that Nunn keeps coming back at times to particular people and places that seem to truly offer comfort.  And more than comfort, they offer unconditional love and friendship.

It becomes clear over the course of the book that some of her key relationships offered highly conditional love.  Sometimes she knows why she had displeased the other person, and sometimes she only knows they are displeased but not the cause or the remedy for it.  There are plenty of memoirs where people write of nightmare childhoods. Before this book, I read Tara Westover’s Educated, but I could easily list many more. It is more unusual to me to read about a family where things are not violent, but still difficult in this quieter, oddly strained way.

The thing I related to in Nunn’s journey to get back to her old self and to figure out how she has found herself repeating the same unsatisfying relationship patterns is how people who care about you will be more gracious than you expect and are willing to give more than you ever would feel comfortable asking for.  Friends and family are so gracious, and she never seems to stop being overwhelmed by the things that they offer without the slightest thought or hesitation.

It is a good reminder because, like Nunn, I am sometimes afraid at times that I am asking for too much or simply just being “too much” for people, but my friends are generous and open hearted, and every time I am reminded of this, it is overwhelming and restorative. In talking about this book on the podcast Literary Atlanta, Kyle Tibbs Jones summed the author’s journey up perfectly saying, “Some friends are not the friends you thought they were, and some complete strangers become the best of friends.”

This memoir turned out to be a great place to start.  It is full of smooth, beautiful prose and a whole lotta butter, both of which can be very comforting.

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Introducing The BS Reading Project

I read 63 books last year, which was probably too many. My goal last year, and for several years has been to create stuff, but instead I have primarily consumed. Consuming things is much easier than producing them, and my media diet included some really respectable and thoughtful books and a lot of stuff that was not so much those things. I decided to create a challenge for myself to both slow down my consumption and give myself a built in framework for creating things.

Since I recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia, I wanted to focus on a project that would help me reflect on my new city as well as a lifetime of living in the South. To date, I have lived in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and now Georgia. There is a local online magazine with a title and mission statement that I really like: The Bitter Southerner. The title alone told me the publication was for me–a lifelong Southerner, who considers it home and also never quite feels like I belong there. As it happens, the Bitter Southerner is based out of Atlanta–my new hometown–and they are also avid readers. They published The Bitter Southerner’s Summer Reading Roundup, and that is the framework for what I am calling the BS Reading Project.

My goal is to post weekly about the books on the list as I read through them. I may also wander slightly off the list as there are some books on their list of books from the previous year as well as ones that were listed as “coming soon” at the time the list was published that were already on my reading list, so they have been added to the metaphorical pile. Depending on how the projects go, I may also branch out to include some things that aren’t on the list, but that might help me learn about Atlanta or Georgia. After a lifetime of moving every few years, I somehow spent eight years in Austin, Texas, so I am having to re-learn how to be in a new place.

That is the project. So check back to see how the Project is progressing and feel free to recommend books. I am always looking for the next great read.

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