Monday, July 30, 2012

#BookReview: The Whitney I Knew - Bebe Winans

When I saw the announcement of this book in June, my first thought was, "It's too soon.  Has she been properly grieved yet and people are putting out books?"  I admit upfront that I'm a Whitney stan.  From the moment I saw her singing You Give Good Love on Video Soul, I was hooked.  She was gorgeous and her voice was heavenly.  So you'll understand that I took her death personally and stayed in bed the day of her funeral, watching it from beginning to end as the choir sang and her friends and family remembered her.

Through the comments and singing, I was able to maintain my composure.  Then BeBe Winans stepped up to talk about his "sister" and brought his birth sister, CeCe with him.  I've followed the careers of BeBe and CeCe since the late 80s, so I was aware that Whitney appeared on some of their early tracks and that they were friends.  I knew that Whitney and CeCe were like sisters, but was not aware of how close Whitney and BeBe were until he began recounting stories of their times together.  His words and his singing brought tears to my eyes then and again as I read The Whitney I Knew.

With Winans' words, readers are reminded that what we see of celebrities is not all there is.  Though to some it feels as though this book was rushed out to capitalize on Houston's fame, I think it was an attempt to humanize her.  Winans shares stories of Whitney that aren't well known.  For example, for her 26th birthday, Michael Jackson sent her a monkey.  Perhaps it was because he was living a secluded lifestyle and knew the loneliness that came with fame, so he decided to give her a companion.  Whitney, however, laughed it off and said that monkey was getting dropped off at the zoo!

I loved that Winans was close enough to her to see the regular girl from Jersey side of her and share a few glimpses into their friendship.  He talked about how she loved to talk on the phone and how she would invite him and CeCe over for lunch as if New Jersey and Tennessee were right next door.  The stories of how she would pop up at their concerts and sing background as if it were the most natural thing in the world and as if she weren't THE Whitney Houston or how she claimed the entire Winans clan as family from the moment she met them made her all the more charming.

I was slightly taken aback at how Winans weaved stories of other celebrities in, at times it seemed that he was name dropping just to prove how close he was to them.  At one point, he brings up Vanessa Williams and the incident that caused her to give up her Miss America title.  All I could think was, "You had to bring up Vanessa though? I mean, she's somewhere minding her business and you're rehashing a story from 30 years ago. Seriously, BeBe???"

Overall, this book is a testament to the friendship and kinship that Winans had with Houston.  With the offering of pictures from personal family collections and rarely seen video footage, Winans welcomes fans of Houston to see her as he, and those closest to her, saw her.  It's a glimpse you won't want to miss.

Published: July 2012
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: Jesus Loves Me by Whitney Houston

Friday, July 27, 2012

#BookReview: Almost Single - Advaita Kala

As guest relations manager at the Grand Orchid Hotel in New Delhi, Aisha Bhatia meets people of means daily.  If it were up to her mother, she'd put a sign that says, "29 and Single" on her desk and hope that one of the available men checking in at the hotel would ask her out.  Aisha is desperate, but not that desperate.

29 year old single women in India are an anomaly.  Aisha's cousins and one of her best friends, Anushka, have all crossed over into the land of holy matrimony.  Anushka is crossing back though and Misha, Aisha's other best friend, has firmly stayed on the single side with Aisha, but not because she hasn't been trying to find a husband.

Like a scene straight out of a Bollywood flick, Aisha bumps into a handsome stranger in a country club parking lot as she's toilet papering a car and, again, when she catches sight of him, stark naked in his hotel room.  And, of course, she continues to have frequent run ins with him, no matter where she goes.

This book was cute and funny, but had the potential to be more entertaining than it was.  The author didn't do a good job of making the reader care about any of the characters.  The interactions between Aisha and Karan felt very stiff and it came as a surprise that they considered themselves a couple, since those stiff interactions rarely happened when the two of them were alone.

Published: February 2009

Theme: Party by Beyonce'

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

#BookReview: The Healing - Jonathon Odell

I can admit when I'm late to the dance.  I've had the ARC (advanced reader's copy) of this book since October...2011.  Right, so for almost 10 months, this book just sat on my Kindle waiting for me to get around to it, but as Polly Shine would say, "I can pour water on your head, but you got to wash yourself."

Who is Polly Shine, you ask? She's the healer and giver of sight to those around her.  Things on the Satterfield plantation surely changed for the better the day Polly Shine arrived.  Prior to her arrival, Granada, the teller of The Healing, only thought she knew who she was.

Born on the same day that the mistress of the plantation's daughter died, Granada was taken from her mother and given to the mistress as a play thing.  Now normally a slave of Granada's complexion would not have been allowed to step foot in the big house.  House slaves tended to be light-skinned and were considered more favorable as their appearance was closer to white.  As the daughter of a field slave, Granada should have been out in the fields, but grief is a powerful thing and the mistress was willing to overlook the norms.

Granada takes great pleasure in dressing up in the gowns of the deceased daughter of the mistress annually for Preaching Day.  Standing at the side of the mistress in the fancy clothes and ribbons gives her such joy that she's willing to ignore the laughs and horrified looks of those around her.  Her place is firmly in the big house, next to the mistress.

All of that changes the day Polly Shine arrives.  What kind of slave is worth $ 5,000?  One that can heal.  When slaves on his plantation begin to fall ill, Ben Satterfield, who has never brought in outside slaves, brings in Polly Shine to heal them.  Not only that, he has a hospital built for her and gives her Granada as an assistant.  Of course, this doesn't sit well with Granada.  She belongs in the big house, everyone knows that.  But in becoming Polly's assistant, Granada begins to learn and remember what and who she is and to whom she belongs.

Odell touches on so many points with The Healing.  There's the constant reminder to and from house slaves that they're better than those that live in the swamps and the fields, simply because of the complexion of their skin.

 "Remember, Granada," Sylvie said, "what is bred in the bones will be in the marrow.  You ain't like them out in the swamps that got no behavior.  You been brought up around white folks and learned their manners.  Don't forget that, you hear?  You a proper house-raised girl, and you pretty as a pea, even if you is black as the bottom of a pot."

Then there's the slave mentality exhibited by Old Silas, who had been with the master since he was a boy, and resented any thought of freedom.  He even goes so far as to tell the master how to keep the other slaves in line by keeping them afraid, rendering them unable to hope.

'Mark my words,' I said, 'when a man's not afraid, then he's hoping.  And that's when all hell brakes loose.'

Odell bravely takes on a topic and time period that would normally send white authors running.  But he does so respectfully and definitely did his research.  Using words of former slaves as recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives, the Fisk Collection of Slave Narratives and oral histories of midwives as his guide, he is dedicated to telling the story accurately.  It shows in his work.

Published: February 2012

Theme: Time After Time by Cassandra Wilson

Monday, July 23, 2012

#BookReview: And Laughter Fell from the Sky - Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Have you ever seen two people that you were sure were siblings or, better yet, perfect strangers, because there was no chemistry between them?  That's how I felt the whole time I was reading And Laughter Fell from the Sky.  While Jyotsna Sreenivasan has written several nonfiction books, this was her first work of fiction.  I'm afraid that she has a lot more work to do before crossing into this genre.

What Sreenivasan has given us is the story of Rasika and Abhay, mid-20s Indian-Americans.  Abhay is a friend of Rasika's younger brother, so while the two know each other from childhood, they don't really know each other.  A chance encounter in a coffee shop gives them a chance to reacquaint themselves.  From there, the road gets bumpy.

Rasika is expected to marry and if she can't find a suitable husband, her parents will find one for her.  Raised with traditional Indian values, she's an American girl at heart and longs to be independent, but she still lives with her parents.  She spends a lot of time sneaking around behind their backs, using her friend, Jill, as an alibi.

Abhay has recently returned to Ohio after living in a commune for two years.  His parents would much prefer that he do something meaningful with his life, like go to law school or graduate school.  He's unsure of what he should be when he grows up, but he knows he wants to make a difference in the world.

When Rasika and Abhay run into each other, you would expect sparks to fly.  Instead, there's little to no fizzle.  Readers will find themselves going through all 336 pages and not caring one way or another if the two of them end up together.  At no point does the author give them enough dialogue with each other to convince the reader that they even like each other as something beyond friends.  They could have picked random people off of the street and I would have been convinced that they had more in common with them than with each other.

Published: June 2012
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: 1 Thing by Amerie

Friday, July 20, 2012

#BookReview: Destiny's Divas - Victoria Christopher Murray

90s R & B superstar Raine Omari had the career most people dreamed of, but she walked away from that life to fully embrace her love of the Lord.  More than that, she wanted the freedom to express her Christianity through her music and use her life's testimony as a witness to others.  And she decided to bring along a few more singers to help her out. 

Twenty something Sierra Dixon is certifiably nuts.  Actually, calling her nuts is an understatement.  Damaged goods, she was raised in a home with an alcoholic mother who dictated to her a list of things to do, and not to do, to trap and keep a man.  Sierra has more issues than the New York Times, but she doesn't see it that way.  She's just doing what she has to do to get ahead, even if that means lying about being celibate to retain her membership in the country's hottest new group, Destiny's Divas.

First lady Liza Washington has been hiding a secret for twenty-eight years.  From the outside, she appears to have the perfect marriage to her mega church pastor-husband.  As the forty something member of the group, her life is supposed to be a testimony to longevity and endurance in marriage.  In actuality, her husband has been shadier than an oak tree of late and Liza fears that it's just a matter of time before his actions bring the world crashing down around her.

The group organizer, Raine Omari, has it all.  She's in love with her husband and would do anything for her daughter.  But how can she testify about unconditional love when she can't stand her mother-in-law?  Truth be told, her mother-in-law, Beerlulu, could drive anyone ever the edge, but her meddling ways threaten to harm Raine's daughter and drive a wedge between Raine and her husband.

I found that though I felt sorry for Raine and Liza, I didn't have much sympathy for Sierra.  While the other women seemed changed by their situations, Sierra's damaged thoughts were too deep to have simply been changed without benefit of therapy or medication.  You don't go off the deep end one day and hop back up a month later like everything is everything.  Perhaps she talked it out with someone, but the author didn't mention it, so I have to assume that she was as nutty at the end as she was in the beginning. 

Even though Destiny's Divas is 400 pages, it's a quick read as you try to find out how each woman will deal with her situation.  I was amused by the author's reference to current places and people.  She referenced Hue-Man bookstore, an actual bookstore in Harlem that's scheduled to close soon, and a comment she heard Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the Melissa Harris-Perry Show, make.  If you're a fan of Victoria Christopher Murray's previous works, this does not disappoint.

Published: June 201
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher; opinions are my own.

Theme: God's Grace by Trin-i-tee 5-7

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

#BookReview: The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection - Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe and her sidekick, Grace Makutsi, are back for another adventure in Gaborone, Botswana.  Unlike other books where mysteries have come to them from outsiders, each story to be solved this time around comes from those close to them.  And they're still as entertaining as they've always been.

Mma Makutsi married furniture store owner Phuti Radiphuti in 2011's  The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.  The two have decided that it's time to build their own home instead of living in Phuti's family home.  Grace is immediately suspicious of the builder, who won't directly address her, only Phuti, and with good reason.  He's a flim flam artist and it's up to her to prove it to her husband.

Of the two mechanics that work in J.L.B. Matekoni's Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, readers are most familiar with Charlie because he stays in trouble.  The lesser known Fanwell finally gets his chance in the spotlight in the latest from McCall Smith, but not because he's done something well.  In fact, Fanwell has been arrested for illegally working on cars.  At the insistence of the same guy that bullied him in school, Fanwell gets caught up in a scheme that he has problems getting out of by himself.

Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphanage from where Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B. Matekoni have adopted their children, has been fired from her post, one that she's held for years and planned to hold until she retired.  A conflict with a new board member have left the matron without a job and without any hope.  Mma Ramotswe will stop at nothing to see her friend restored to her position.

While these three cases might seem like a lot for the ladies to handle, they have help this time around in the form of Clovis Andersen, the author of a book that has been like their Bible for detecting, The Principles of Private Detection.  While Clovis is quick to point out that he's not the great detective that the ladies think he is, he does serve as a sounding board for them to bounce ideas off of and by the end of the story, you know that he respects them just as much as they respect him.

With this latest book, there are no big surprises and no big changes.  It's the same steady story lines that readers have come to love and expect from McCall Smith. 

Published: April 2012

Theme: Don't You Worry 'Bout A Thing by Lionel Hampton featuring Tito Puente

Monday, July 16, 2012

#BookReview: Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I come late to her fan club, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's work is truly worthy of all the accolades it receives.  In Purple Hibiscus, she skillfully combines a coming of age story with a military coup and domestic abuse.  Each of these topics could have been difficult to handle, but Adichie manages to write about each of them in a way that doesn't overwhelm the reader.

Fifteen year old Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, live a good life in Enugu, Nigeria.  Their father, Eugene, is a big man, meaning wealthy and well-connected, so they enjoy privileges that their classmates and friends do not.  But because their father is a big man, no one suspects that he rules his family with an iron fist in the name of religion.  So strict in his faith is Eugene, that has renounced his own father, who has not converted to Catholicism, and limits the children's time with him to 15 minutes during the Christmas holiday.

It's not until Kambili and Jaja get to visit their Aunt Ifeoma and cousins that they learn that everyone does not live by a daily schedule.  Every aspect of their lives, from the time they wake up until they go to bed is dictated by schedules their father has created for them. In Aunt Ifeoma's house, children are encouraged to have a voice and actually use it.  At home, speaking out of turn or acting independently without guidance from their father is a cause for immediate disciplinary action.  In Aunt Ifeoma's home, there is laughter and open emotion, things that have been stifled in Kambili and Jaja's home.

At one point, Eugene boasts that his Kambili and Jaja are “not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God;” to which Ade Coker replies: “Imagine what the standard would be if we were all quiet.”  This conversation really hit on so many things for me. The children and their mother's silence has enabled Eugene to keep them living in constant fear of his punishment, should one of them step out of line.  The voices of the students and faculty at the university where Aunty Ifeoma teaches have been raised, resulting in a military coup and the persecution of those that have spoken up.

Forced to leave Nigeria as a result of the coup, Aunty Ifeoma moves to the United States to teach.  Though her daughter, Amaka, always saw the U.S. as the promised land, she soon begins to believe that though times were sometimes hard in Nigeria, there was a freer sense of self and others there than in her new home.

 “There has never been a power outage and hot water runs from a tap, but we don’t laugh anymore . . . because we no longer have the time to laugh, because we don’t even see one another.”

By the end of this book, I was drained.  While I was hoping for a happy ending, instead I got a,, "okay, this is life, make the best of it" ending.  And I'm okay with that.  I just wanted better for characters that I became deeply invested in during the course of my listening.

I do have to point out that I didn't care for the narrator's voice, so I was tempted to stop listening and read the book instead.  The problem I had with it is the story is told from the point of view of Kambili, a fifteen year old Igbo girl from Nigeria.  The narrator was significantly older and sounded nothing like I would imagine Kambili to sound.  I was so thrown by her voice that I actually looked her up.  I understand that she's narrated several of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, but since I've never listened to them, I wasn't familiar with her voice.  Much like I like my female characters voiced by women and not men, I like my characters to sound more like the actual character than a distinctly older person.

Listening time: 11 hours
Published: October 2003

Theme: Sorrow, Tears & Blood by Fela Kuti   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

#BookReview: Nowhere is a Place - Bernice McFadden

Sherry has drifted from place to place for most of her adult life in search of something.  Though we're told initially that Sherry has spent her life wondering why her mother, Dumpling, slapped her one day, we know that there has to be a deeper reason for Sherry's restlessness.  As she and Dumpling set off on a journey from Nevada to their family reunion in Georgia, you have to believe that she'll find answers along the way.

More than just the story of one woman's wanderlust, Nowhere Is A Place is a family history, the story of how their family homestead came to be.  Told through the words of Sherry, as she imagined it from research and conversations with Dumpling, it's a journey back to slavery and to present day Georgia.  Beginning with the story of Lou, an Indian girl sold into slavery, right up to fast-tail Lilly, Dumpling's mother, who couldn't take another minute in that small town and sought the bright lights of Philadelphia, Bernice McFadden's words pull you in quickly.

One aspect of the book that I really loved was that as Dumpling was reading Sherry's words, and observing her during their long drive from Nevada to Georgia, she began to gain a better understanding of who her daughter was.  Often parents only know their children as the person they remember growing up in their house, not as an adult.  Dumpling has no idea why Sherry is the way she is or why she does the things she does until she spends time with her and gets to know the adult Sherry.  Prior to their road trip, she always thought of Sherry as her strange child or the child that didn't tell her anything about herself.  I feel like by the end of their journey, Dumpling found her to be extraordinary and learned that while Sherry had been telling her about herself all along, Dumpling hadn't necessarily been listening.

As I go back and listen to McFadden books that I've previously read, I'm reminded of works by J. California Cooper.  This book, especially, made me think of Cooper's The Wake of the Wind.  And though I enjoyed this book when I read it, the narration of  Myra Lucretia Taylor really brought it to life.

Published: February 2006
Listening time: 9 hours, 7 minutes

Theme: Sentimental by Alexander O'Neal

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Just Read Already: Why Huffington Post & Others Continue to Get it Wrong

It's no secret that I love books by and/or about people of color.  If you click on the header of this blog's home page, you'll shuffle through three collections of books based on genre.  Of those 18 books, only two were not written by people of color.  While my blog focuses heavily on books featuring characters of color, it does not solely.  I'm open to reading about all cultures and, hopefully, readers of this blog are too.

African Americans are as much a fabric of this country's history as anyone else.  So it's ironic that on the 4th of July, a day to celebrate America's independence, Huffington Post would release a list of  "50 Books That Every African-American Should Read."  Like bookstores and publishers, they continue to get it wrong.  I don't necessary agree that every book on this list should have made anyone's list, but I strongly disagree that this list should be limited to African Americans.  The result of lists like this is that readers that are not African American can be made to feel as if these books don't apply to them and are specifically for African Americans.  This is the same vibe they get from the segregated sections in bookstores that are labeled "African American Lit."  Sure they can venture into the section, but does that label really encourage them to?

I can honestly say that I've never seen, and I highly doubt that I will see, a list of "50 Books That Every White American Should Read."  You know why? Because that list is simply called "the classics" and everyone in America is expected to read them in their high school or college lit classes, regardless of their race or culture.  Books by and/or about white America are considered the norm.  Why not recognize that some of the books on Huffington Post's list belong on the classics list instead of continuing to segregate through literature?  Actions like this are part of the reason why some in white America grumble about things like Black History Month or the NAACP Awards.  If mainstream America recognized the contribution of African Americans as American contributions and fully integrated black history into the American history taught in schools instead of relegating it to three paragraphs, and recognized achievements of people of color overall, there would be no need for either.  By the same token, don't throw just any old book at me simply because a person of color wrote it.  Some of the books on that list had no reason for being there other than the fact that their author was African American.

As I read through the comments on Huffington Post, it would seem that most people agree that the title of the list wasn't well thought out, even though its intentions may have been good.  Perhaps the article should have been titled "50 Books by African Americans That Everyone Should Try Reading," because, ultimately, real readers want to read good books regardless of who wrote them.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tis the 4th

Another holiday is upon us.  Enjoy time with your family, good food and good books and I'll see you back here Friday.