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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Changing the Narrative and Mapping Our Stories

I just finished The Yellow House early this morning and so many thoughts are swirling in my head that I have to come back to my blog to process these feelings. Sorry I've been absent from the blog, but I have been reading and sharing my favorite books on another platform. Yes, I've been cheating on this blog at Instagram. Follow me and see almost everything I'm reading there @hatrireads. I'll edit these thoughts on this amazing book for that platform as well.

So, The Yellow House by Sarah M. Bloom is definitely hard to describe - more than a memoir, more than a Katrina story, more than a story about place. It's all those things and more. Sarah, also known to her family as Monique or Mo, Broom uses the metaphor of a map to describe her place. Most significant to her story is the fact that New Orleans East is left off most maps of New Orleans. Just as the Yellow House that she grew up in has been wiped off her street, the short end of Wilson Street in New Orleans East.  She starts and ends this book with the image of her brother Carl, also called Rabbit, sitting alone on the lot of the house that used to hold her life. And her father. Underlying the story of the house is the story of her father, Simon Broom, who died six months after she was born. When the house is demolished, without the family's consent, in the aftermath of Katrina, she felt like she'd lost her father all over again. 

The book is the history of that house, the history of her family, the history of New Orleans, and the story of America, according to Broom. I had the delight of hearing her speak at her book launch in New Orleans a few weeks ago. She read to a standing room crowd of 200 outside Garden District Bookshop. After the reading, she was interviewed by Marcus Carlos Ruffin, author of another new favorite of mine, We Cast a Shadow, and also product of New Orleans East. When asked about the place they were both born, Broom said, "New Orleans East is off the map, literally." She said she sees being a writer as similar to being a cartographer, "drawing a map of the place and the people I love." She added, "My life's work is to revise existing maps. Fill in the blank spaces. It's sad that more people aren't writing about these communities."

In this her first book, Broom uses language and description in a masterful way. She writes: "I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood that the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me. We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not." Earlier in the book, she writes about finally getting eyeglasses when she was 10 years old and she compares that to the "ways we can choose not to see things." She wants to "keep her glasses on and look directly at the world. I want to be real about what the world looks like and report on it." 

Trained as a journalist, Broom was called the "human tape recorder" by her family as a child.  She has been taking notes, interviewing her family and researching her town ever since. This book was created over the last 20 years of her life and she has drawn on a variety of sources to tell this story. Her family is probably the biggest source for this and she relied on her siblings and her mother to tell her their history. As the baby of her mother's 13 children, Broom has to use the voices of the others that came before her to tell their history.  Her mother, Ivory Mae is central to the story. Her determination to own her own home,  to raise her children to be respectful, to be loving and gentle shines through every page. Most of Broom's family was at the reading I attended and at the end I got her mother to sign my book, which is really her story. 

Part of the reason Broom wrote the book was to put Katrina (or the Water as she called it) in context. "It's not the only thing," she says about Katrina. She calls it "one of many official negligences...Katrina can't define us all." She said that if she only told about the Katrina part then she would not be telling her whole story. Her story and her family's story encompasses more than that one event. She wants to tell about the "little moments that make up a life."  She added,  "The story I love is all the areas no one is talking about."

I've been thinking a lot about the stories that haven't been told since the New York Times released its 1619 Project, observing the 400th anniversary of slavery. The print publication also includes lesson plans and more educational materials to deepen understanding of this central part of American history as well as share untold stories. I highly recommend the accompanying podcast. Host Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the ways her story and the story of all black Americans has been ignored even though it is central to our shared history as a nation. 

I also want to the opening of an exhibit here in New Orleans at Newcomb Art Gallery last week. The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation is a mixed media exhibition organized by the Critical Visualization and Media Lab at Tulane University.  Gordon Plaza is a housing development built in the lat 1970s on top of the former Agriculture Street Landfill in the Upper Ninth Ward. The "beautiful subdivision" was created to provide affordable houses so African Americans could realize the so-called American Dream. These toxic homes were deemed a Superfund site but residents were not given the opportunity to sell their homes back. Through the People's Assembly of New Orleans and other groups, the remaining 52 residents are telling their story and asking for a fair and fully-funded relocation. The exhibit amplifies these unheard stories. We need to hear these stories and put these places and people back on the map of our minds.

Monday, January 7, 2019

A Book A Week: 2018 Books in Review

According to my Goodreads account, I read 52 books in 2018.  I keep up with all the books I read (and  listen to) on this platform as a way to keep track and occasionally share my thoughts. I love reading and talking about books so Goodreads is a consistent way to keep track because otherwise I would never remember all the books I've read. And I like lists. 

Since I like lists, I will do as I did this time last year and share my four-star and three-star books of the previous year. The four-star books really stood out as outstanding in their genre - mainly fiction with one nonfiction and several memoirs. The three-star books were really good books that I would recommend to a friend. So with no further ado, here are my four-star, or top favorite books read in 2018, beginning back last January:
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Still Writing:The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempst Williams
Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Becoming by Michelle Obama

Now for my three-star books read in 2018:
Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown
Notorious RBG: The Life and Time of Ruth Bade Ginsberg by Irin Carmon
The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
Still Me by Jojo Moyes
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
White Houses by Amy Bloom
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
How to Walk Away by Katherine Center
Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro
Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Been Told by Kate Bowler
Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas
The Strays by Emily Bitto
Relativity by Antonio Hayes
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
Educated by Tara Westover
The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman
Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving and Reading by Anne Gisleson
Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life by Abigail Thomas

You can see I got on a memoir kick this year and have at least seven (or eight if you count Life Reimagined as memoir) on my three-star list and three on my four-star list. I just finished yet another memoir - Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith - but that will be on my 2019 list. I enjoy reading about real lives but I still love fiction best. Good novels transport me to places I've never been. And I do love travel. 

I've added links to my four-star books, but not the tree-stars. I wish I could write reviews of all my favorites, but that would take days. But if you follow my Goodreads account, you can see my quick thoughts on most of the books I read last year, including the ones I didn't list here because I ranked them below three stars. I try to write my thoughts just after finishing and rating a book. Don't worry I will continue to share my thoughts on books here at words + ideas. And you be sure to let me know what you are reading and enjoying. Happy new reading year! 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Spying on London in WWII

Kate Atkinson's new novel, Transcription, is about a young girl at the start of World War II who is hired by the M15, the British intelligence agency, to transcribe secretly recorded conversations between a British M15 agent posing as a Nazi sympathizer and other British Hitler supporters. The Fifth Column was the name for the network of Brits who supported the Nazis and the German cause. 

This fictional story of Atkinson's is based on real transcripts recently released by the M15. Atkinson became interested in the Fifth Column and fascinated with the unnamed "girl" who transcribed these conversations. The book moves from 1981 at the end of the life of this "girl," whom she names Juliet, to 1950, when she is working for the BBC post war, to 1940 during the time Juliet is working for the M15 as a transcriptionist.  We learn that Juliet is a naive orphan learning about life and love while negotiating layers of intrigue in the early days of WWII.  Juliet has her own secrets which we don't learn until the end of the novel. I am certainly not posting any spoilers here, but the book is another winner by one of my favorite novelists. I highly recommend!

Monday, August 20, 2018


It's been a long hot summer in America. Watching Trump lie daily.  Seeing racism and sexism out in the open. But the worst sight was seeing children being separated from their parents on our border with Mexico. Living on the border. Border line. Bordering on insane.  Borders, boundaries. Arbitrary lines created by governments.  Protecting whom from what?  More Mexicans are leaving this country than entering. MS-13 gangs started in Los Angeles, not Mexico. Who are we kidding?

In late June I got to meet Jose Antonio Vargas at the American Library Association meeting. He told his story. His mother sent him to America from the Philippines to live with his grandparents in California when he was 12.  He didn’t know he was not a legal resident until he was in high school. He found out when he couldn’t go with his school choir on a trip to Japan because he had no passport. Later he couldn’t apply for scholarships to go to college. He ended up getting a special scholarship to go to college and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Washington Post on falsified papers.  He’s 37 years old now and has "come out" as an illegal alien. He said it was harder to come out as illegal than to come out as gay, which he is also. He has spent time in detention in McAllen, Texas. He has not been deported. Yet. 

Vargas has just written a book called Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.  This will be released in September. He said he might not be living here then. But he still considers himself an American citizen, even though this country thinks of him as an alien. The book was eye-opening and instructive. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Stay Warm with Winter Book Recommendations

People are always asking me for book recommendations and I often refer them to this blog, but I haven't written a list post in a while. So here are some of my favorite books from the last six months with very brief reviews.  The ratings were given immediately after finishing the books, but pretty much still hold true in comparison.

My recent five-star books:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward - Searing is a good word to describe this book. Ugly, hard life to read about, but so gorgeously written. The afterlife is the only bright spot in this dark book. This is a great novel. Jojo is now one of the Great American characters and is a redemptive figure in a land of despair. I even had sympathy for his flawed mother Leonie by the end. Well done, Jesmyn Ward. You are truly a genius.

Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama - I had to give this five stars because I got to hear Barack Obama's voice in the middle of this Trumpian madness of threatening nuclear war and supporting white supremacists. I got to listen to Obama read his story about being the son of a multi racial couple - a foreign Kenyan student and a white midwesterner. He used different voice and accents as he read this book, maybe not the best written, but definitely the best read and the best story. Even though I've heard the story over and over, I'd never read the book. It tells his life story (and ancestors) until just before he started law school. The book made my heart smile and gave me hope in the midst of this Trump darkness. And surprise of surprise, at the end, the book had the bonus of Obama's 2004 Audacity of Hope speech at the Democratic Convention. I cried. I will listen to it over and over. There is hope for this country. The whole book on Audible is a must listen!

My recent four-star books:
The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst - Wow! An beautiful book. This Katrina story is searing and heartbreaking. Babst gets so much right about that time and about New Orleans and the people that call it Home. Since we are moving back in a few months after 11 years in Houston, I found it heartbreaking but also redemptive. A few things didn’t ring true to me but mostly it was agonizingly realistic and beautifully written.

The Spare Room By Helen Garner – This was a wonderful novel by a beloved Australian writer. I plan to read more by her. I was blown away by her description of the feelings of a woman who offers to host a friend with cancer in her home for three weeks. The friend is undergoing a controversial treatment and while the hostess starts with loving, generous feelings by the end she is filled with regret and fury. Honest and accurate.

Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving - I slowly read this important nonfiction book over several months and learned so much. I would not have called myself racist until I realized all the ways my privilege makes me totally unaware of what people of color face every day. I now want to learn more and do more for racial justice. This book was easy to read and written in a way that a white girl like me can understand. I hope more people will read this book.

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny – I started reading this book for the second time and didn’t realize it for a few pages (like you do sometimes on your Kindle) but I kept reading because I love her books so much. This is #12 and one of my favorites. I also devoured #13 in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books, Glass Houses, one of the greats.. These Canadian mysteries are simply the best. My favorite is still How the Light Gets In, but this is my second favorite. I can’t wait for #14!

Incendiary By Chris Cleave - Wow! I read in this in one sleepless night during Hurricane Harvey in Houston. It was as terrifying as the weather. Written as a letter to Osama bin laden from a working class mother who lost her husband and four year old son in a bomb attack in London, it was spell binding. Funny and tragic and plot driven, this book made me cry several times but I couldn't stop reading it. I highly recommend this great novel by a favorite writer.

I read many other books that ranged from entertaining to dull and worthless. Here I am listing the better books I read since mid-August.  Insider scoop: The only way I can remember what books I’ve read is to look back on my Goodreads Books Read. I love Goodreads and try to quickly post a short review of every book I read just as I finish on my page there. Follow me – I think you just look up my name, Harriet Riley, to find me. I’d love to know what you are reading as well!!! Next week, I’ll share my three-star books, an excellent reading list on its own.  Some of these might make your five-star list because taste is subjective. Happy reading!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Raising the Dead in 2017

I have been spending a lot of time in cemeteries recently.  Not only did I visit my local favorite, Glenwood Cemetery, several times in the last couple of months, but three of my favorite books in 2017 led me along the paths of graveyards and the undead. The novels were not in the horror genre either. All three books are outstanding fiction and truly some of the best I read this year.

The first of my cemetery books in 2017 was  Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by the acclaimed short story and essay writer George Saunders. Called experimental fiction, the book patches together historical truths about the death of Abraham Lincoln's young son, Willie, with a lively chorus of voices of the dead from many different time periods and backgrounds. The book is original and inspiring and completely takes place in a graveyard.

Next was The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman which I read last summer and reviewed here. The living boy Bod is raised in a cemetery by the kindly ghosts who are protecting him from the bad man who killed his family and is trying to murder him as well.  Gaiman weaves an unforgettable tale set guessed it...a graveyard.

Then this fall, I read and loved Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, who I wrote about in this blog post.  As my current favorite Mississippi writer, I read the novel immediately upon its publication this fall. She won her second National book Award for this book. Her first was for Salvage the Bones. Ward had a big year because she also won a MacArthur Genius Grant! But Sing, Unburied Sing happens to also be about ghosts or the unburied, as the title suggests.  The novel tells the story of Jojo, a 13-year-old boy learning what it means to be a man in rural Mississippi. The book is heart wrenching in the details of the struggles of this poor, black family. The ghost in this book is also a 13-year-old boy who carries all the sadness and hurt of the past generations of black men in Mississippi.

It wasn't until I was wandering through Glenwood Cemetery preparing for a workshop for teachers that I will be leading in the new year, that I noticed this theme in my reading. At Glenwood, the dead are very much present. As Jojo's dying grandma says in Sing, "...That don't mean I won't be here, Jojo. I'll be on the other side of the door. With everybody else that's gone before." She continues, "Because we don't walk no straight lines. It's all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once."  The living and the dead co-exist in all three of these novels, as well as Glenwood, a park-like cemetery, where I often go to write. That veil between the living and the dead feels very thin in cemeteries and in these three novels.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Best Medicine

When the world feels particularly scary, I look for a book that makes me laugh and takes me away from thoughts of global disaster.  Domestic disasters seem to cheer me up. 

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny was such a book.  This funny, tender tale of a marriage, the second for him, first for her, made me laugh out loud. Infidelity, house guests, origami, parenting are all covered here through the voice of Graham, the husband. Graham and Audra have been married 11 years and have one son, Matthew. He has Asperger’s and has some eccentric friends, but the book is not about raising a child with a disability. Well, maybe it is in some ways. But it also makes readers smile about daily domestic life and ex-wives. Audra, the wife, is an energetic talker and a people person without filters. Graham’s first wife, Elspeth, comes into their lives and this makes Graham re-consider his marriage and look at his life more closely.

His observations about life are spot on. For example, Graham thinks, “there should be a houseguests’ club, like the kids’ club in a resort, where your houseguest could watch movies and play games and have a snack while you recharged your batteries.” I personally thought this was such a clever idea. Graham also thinks about one of the great paradoxes of parenting as he drops his child off for a play date with a new friend. Graham does not know the parents but is so eager for his child to have a friend, that he just leaves his child with a father that he probably wouldn’t hire to work for him or lend money to or trust to house sit his apartment or valet park his car. “But leave their only child with for two hours? Oh, well, sure, no problem!” He says, “No one tells you shit about parenting ahead of time, really. Well, they do but not anything useful.”

While there were some melancholy moments with hard truths, I mostly laughed throughout this book. And laughter is the best medicine. So thanks to Katherine Heiny, her clever first novel came to me right when I needed it. I’ll be looking for more from this talented author.