Book Review: LOOKING FOR LORRAINE, a can’t miss biography of this fiery playwright

Perry - Looking for Lorraine (1)Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hainsberry
Imani Perry

Imani Perry described Looking for Lorraine as a “third-person memoir.” That seems a fitting for this book which is worth reading for anyone who would like to know more about this interesting playwright and civil rights activist.

While Perry does pinpoint events in Lorraine’s life that affected her writing, she leaves her biography to others. Instead, she focuses on her experiences as part of the first black family integrating a white neighborhood. She traces Lorraine’s studies at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, including a summer program in Ajijic, Mexico, where she developed her commitment to socialism and widened her acceptance of various lifestyles.

After dropping out of college, Lorraine moved to New York where she lived a vibrant life working at a magazine and engaging fully as an activist. However, her beliefs often put her against the traditional civil rights movement since she had a socialist view of power dynamics. Soon, Lorraine met Bobby Nemiroff, and they were June 20, 1953, after spending a day protesting the Rosenberg executions.

Although Lorraine and Bobby were lifelong partners, she had relationships with women that informed her writing as well as close friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. Especially after her fame following the success of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine used her platform to advocate for equality, not just in the United States but around the world. Sadly, she died at only thirty-four of pancreatic cancer.

Perry connects all of these episodes to her plays and unpublished writings, providing close readings with clear insights. Additionally, she offers analysis of other works published at the time that informed Lorraine. Her writing is engaging and revealing as well as personal.

I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew about Lorraine Hansberry who was such an important playwright and civil rights activist, but gratified to learn so much from Imani Perry’s “third person memoir.” I especially enjoyed reading the analysis of her works and the works of others who influenced her. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in biography, literature, and/or civil rights.

Book Review: SUICIDE CLUB, a great concept with problems in execution

Heng, Rachel - Suicide Club (6)Suicide Club: A Novel about Living
Rachel Heng

Lea, who has just celebrated her one hundredth birthday, has done everything right. She follows the rules, observes the advisories, attends all her Maintenance sessions, and is on track for a promotion at work. With her lifestyle, career trajectory, and body enhancements (DiamondSkin™, Repairants™, SmartBlood™ and ToughMusc™), she easily expects a lifespan of three hundred years. But, if she continues to excel, she may be one of the select chosen for the Third Wave: immortality.

Her behavior and achievements over the past eighty-eight years has virtually erased her troubled childhood and her association with her antisanc father who disappeared when she was just twelve. But, walking to work the day after her one hundredth birthday party, she sees her father for the first time since he left. Eager to reach him, she walked into the street to follow him.

Her choice to leave the regimented routine of her daily life put her under observation from the mysterious Ministry, but also offered her the chance for a world of freedom. As she delves into the ranks of the Suicide Club, she learns the true costs of immortality and has to decide if she’s willing to pay and sacrifice her father.

The concept of Suicide Club was provocative and interesting, and perhaps not entirely unhinged from reality given government intrusion on women’s health. It raises deep ethical questions about who should control decisions about health care, fitness, nutrition, and recreation as well as the inequality of services, the costs of research, and the role of social pressure. Some people are so desperate to extend their lifespan that they acquire black market technology and often become “misaligned” meaning their body parts fail at different times, leading to catastrophic consequences.

The narrative has fun details, such as jazz music being cautioned against because it raises the heart rate too much or dogs being recommended as pets because they lower it. “Lifers,” or those with the genetic profile that puts them in the category for a long life span, exhibit a narrow range of facial expressions to avoid lines and wrinkles, and they forgo sweets, even fruits. When Lea eats chocolate ice cream, it’s a revelation.

Lea herself was a problematic character. Although she was unlikable, that wasn’t the primary issue for me. I was troubled that her characterization was so inconsistent. That she transformed into the troubled child she was into the model citizen she became seemed unlikely, and even within the confines of a single scene she would have a series of multiple, conflicting reactions that didn’t always flow from the narrative. Though she was one hundred, her maturity level was inexplicably low. I was also troubled by Lea’s decisions at the end of the novel. They had no payoff, so they didn’t make sense to me.

Some of the characters that were more interesting, like Anja, a member of the Suicide Club, could have been given more attention. Other secondary characters, like Lea’s fiance Todd, were underdeveloped. Additionally, one of the very provocative questions the book raised was the divide between the Lifers and the sub-100s, those who were not expected to live beyond one hundred years and often had inferior jobs and housing. One minor character represented the sub-100s, but there was so much more potential to mine, and I would have much rather read about the intersection and potential conflict between the groups than about Lea.

I really did enjoy the writing style and the world Heng created, and thought the questions she raised in Suicide Club were important, but after finishing the novel, I felt confounded, unsure of what Heng intended to convey, and it seemed to me the villains escaped while the heroes were punished, leaving me dissatisfied.

Book Review: WELL-READ BLACK GIRL, a book for everyone who loves reading

IMG_2101(1) (1)Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves
Glory Edim

In Well-Read Black Girl, Glory Edim has collected a number of essays from black women writers about what books and reading have meant to them. Some of the essays focus around a particular book or series, some around an author, or some about reading in general. Most of the essays had a similar message. The standard books the women read as children and teenagers had white (often male) protagonists and so limited their ability to see themselves in the pages. When they found books and authors who talked about black girls and women, the results were cataclysmic. Some developed renewed self-esteem, some believed in the dream that they could in fact be writers, others simply felt seen an understood. In sum: representation matters.

In the book, Edim includes several list of recommendations: on classic books, books on childhood and friendship, black feminism, poetry, plays, and science fiction and fantasy. I’m putting several of these book on my to-be-read list. I also liked the design of the book quite a bit. Each chapter began with an illustration of the writer in the style of the cover image. At first I was surprised by this choice, but a later essay talked about how one of the authors received a sheet of poetry with the poet’s picture on it, and it reflected her and meant so much to her she started including photographs herself when she was a teacher.

Well-Read Black Girl Collage

I am not black, but I would encourage women and men of privilege to read this book. First of all, the essays are fun to read, charting how the writers discovered their favorite authors. Everyone who takes joy in reading will understand these moments. Even more important though is empathizing with what it is like to be invisible in literature, in movies, in television. People of privilege should read and celebrate these stories and help tell more of them.

Like any anthology, some of the essays are better than others, though on the whole these are high quality with contributors like Jesmyn Ward and N.K. Jemisin. Gabourey Sidibe offers an irreverent and humorous perspective on a tragic childhood. Kaitlyn Greenidge closes the book with recommendations based on moods that are very funny, like “A Book to Read When Someone Tries to Shame You for Enjoying Cardi B.”

The essays also touch on intersectionality. The women’s sexuality, education, social classes, and countries of origin matter, too. There is always room to go, and always more stories to tell.

Book Review: SKELETONS AT THE FEAST, a harrowing novel about refugees in the final days of WWII

Bohjalian, Chris - Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian

The Emmerich family has lived at Kaminheim, a beet farm and apple orchard, for generations. But when the Russian army approaches the area, the Prussian family, along with Callum Finella, a POW who was assigned to help the family during harvest and who secretly became lovers with eighteen-year-old Anna, began a difficult journey west into safer territory. Along the way, they face winter weather, starvation, illness, and malevolent enemies. Yet they also meet Manfred, a German corporal, actually Uri Singer, a German Jew who escaped a train to Auschwitz and has survived by impersonating German soldiers. His presence provides opportunities and security they otherwise would lack.

As they make their difficult trek west, so does Cecile, a French Jew, a prisoner at work camp who is evacuated with her fellow prisoners. Their guards subject them to unbelievable cruelty and privation yet Cecile maintains a positive attitude that buoys her and the women around her.

The Russians, feared as barbarians, are at the heels of both groups, and the sounds of war are ever present. They pass the destruction of war: the ruined buildings, the bombed fields, the abandoned belongings. They see the too young and too old pressed into service. They wrestle with their consciences as they face unbelievable losses.

Well-written with interesting characters, Skeletons at the Feast, while joining a wealth of historical novels about World War II, offers a new perspective: that of German refugees fleeing the east for the west. Not only did the refugees have to leave their homes and belongings, they were often targeted by planes, so fleeing was almost as dangerous as staying.

I particularly liked young Theo’s relationship with animals, though hated the representations of how war affected animals, in this story, horses in particular. The historical details resonated and seemed accurate. One thing I liked less, though, was the multitude of perspectives and the frequent shifts between them.

Skeletons at the Feast is a difficult book to read because of the unrelenting cruelty and devastation it depicts, yet it is also valuable to read. I think at some level, it’s our responsibility to witness and remember the atrocities committed to prevent them from happening again. Though Bohjalian certainly takes the Germans to task over the holocaust, he doesn’t present the allies as innocent, including the destruction of Dresden in the pages. Overall, it’s a commentary against war.

Book Review: THE MOTHER-IN-LAW, a well-written page turner

IMG_1760(1)The Mother-in-Law
Sally Hempworth

Successful, proper, and aloof, Diana founded and runs a charity focusing on caring for pregnant refugees. Diana has always intimidated her daughter-in-law Lucy, who, having lost her own mother at a young age, had hoped to have a close relationship with her. Instead, their relationship was fraught with tension and littered with miscommunication and misunderstanding, with Lucy once even pushing Diana and rendering her unconscious.

Everyone was surprised when Diana died and there was evidence of suicide–a note explaining she had breast cancer. But there were also anomalies. The autopsy found no breast cancer, but it did show traces of carbon dioxide and poison, and unexplained gold fibers were found in her hand. Shortly after her death, the family is shocked when they learn that only a few weeks before her death, Diana changed her will leaving her entire estate to her charity, not to her children.

Lucy might have know much more about Diana’s death than she revealed to her husband or the police, but other suspects arise as well, and they all have secrets they were keeping from each other.

The Mother-in-Law is a suspenseful, well-written thriller told from the point of view of two interesting characters, Diana and Lucy. Seeing the roots of their misunderstandings make them even more tragic, though Diana can be quite devilish and Lucy quite stubborn.

This is a great pick if you are looking for a well-paced, well-written page turner!

I won an advance reading copy of The Mother-in-Law through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Goodreads and St. Martin’s Press! All opinions are my own.