Anne Notations

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Read this book

Since we've settled in, this has been a summer for reading. Being down here at the beach, with our old clutter gone, I have felt both the freedom and the need to dive into books.

On a whim in July I checked out a hardcover novel from our old branch library in Providence; the jacket copy lured me in. The book was A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, and it followed the life of Moinette, a mixed-race slave girl in 1812 Louisiana, a time of change for white people (English-speakers increasingly were arriving in the French-speaking territory) and not so much change for black slaves in the South. Straight's language was both dreamy and stark, Moinette's life was often picaresque (but never easy), and both the era and the characters seemed to breathe with verité in my imagination. That being said, the book is almost unrelentingly sad, and for that reason I would give it only a 3.5 out of 5. It is really hard on readers to turn page after anxious page and find yet another setback, although Moinette herself remained self-possessed and proud to the end.

What a cool black author, I thought. I need to read some more by her. I went to Amazon to check out Straight's other books and was surprised to read, in a review, that she is white; moreover, she is known for her audacious fiction that gets inside the heads of people of color and renders them authentically for their times and places in history.

Next up: Straight's 1993 much-praised debut novel, I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Its main character, Marietta Cook, is the Amazonesque and "blue-black" granddaughter of a former slave, growing up in the Gullah-speaking coastal plantation lands of mid-20th-century South Carolina, near Charleston. Marietta endures loss and degradation, but her fierce spirit frees her from near-servitude and condescension as she raises her twin boys alone. Actually, "alone" is not correct, because when Marietta finally lowers her guard out of necessity, she is aided by a small community of neighbors in her Charleston apartment house. These beautifully drawn characters embody the "it takes a village" adage, and hope begins to shine into the life of Marietta and her tall, precocious boys.

I won't say any more. Just this: It has been nearly three days since I finished Sorrow's Kitchen, and Marietta Cook seems to have taken a long-term lease in my brain. She is a powerfully drawn and memorable character. Please head to the library and meet her.

As for me, I'm on to Mark Haddon's most recent novel, A Spot of Bother, and then two more by Straight. On a parallel track, I am making my way slowly through Ken Dornstein's memoir of his brother David, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky. I knew both David and Ken a little when they were at Brown. I was alone at my office in late December the day after Pan Am 103 blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland, and took the phone call informing us that David had died in that terrorist holocaust. I'm not ready to share my thoughts on Ken's book yet, but I may be when I finish reading it.


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