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Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Black lives matter. These are among my favorite reads — novels, plays, poetry, nonfiction — about Black lives in America and overseas. Each is illuminating, infuriating, heartbreaking. 

Native Son, by Richard Wrignt (1940)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The Street, by Ann Petry (1946)  

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003) 

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (1976)

Harlem, by Langston Hughes (1951)

We Real Cool, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih (1966), which ends, “Help! Help!”

During this pandemic and rightful unrest, I read books that made me think about oppression, migration, motherhood and creativity, and showing up for those we love. I am so much at home, still. I read in my city garden, on my sunny deck, and in a favorite spot beside some open windows. 

Here’s what I can recommend: 

 

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a young Muslim woman on her way to a better life than her indigent parents. She is educated, speaks English, works retail. After hours she unwinds with a cigarette — such a luxury — in a Kolkata public square. There she witnesses a train bombing, which kills nearly 100. Police do nothing to help its victims, trapped by flames. Later that night, Jivan posts on Facebook the notion that government, in its inaction, is equal to the terrorists. 

Swiftly, Jivan is jailed, tried, convicted, sentenced to death. 

Hers is one of three stories in this quickly paced tale. PT Sir is a phys ed teacher at the school Jivan attended. He’s annoyed that she dropped out, after he’d been kind and encouraging. PT Sir, also upwardly mobile, does favors for a political party and rises in its ranks, eventually allowing him to leave teaching. In his new post, can he save Jivan?

There’s Lovely, a hijara, who dreams of a film career. Jivan had tutored Lovely in English, and Lovely — a man who presents as a woman — testifies on her behalf. As Lovely’s star rises, will she save Jivan?

This read took me deep into a world I barely knew. I loved the story, and admired its telling. 

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman

I admit to picking this up because a reviewer said it contained one of the best sex scenes ever written. Half way in — the story concerns sailors attached to a ship that’s not seaworthy, docked in a Brooklyn port — I thought, did I get this right? There’s a sex scene? And then our hero, Esteban, dreams of his dead novia, La Marta. Wowza. It’s only a page or two but rivals Joyce’s Molly soliloquy.

That said, this book is so much more than a great sex scene. Esteban and his mates, all from South America, are marooned. (The ship’s owners visit, bring food, assure them that once the ship is repaired, they’ll be on their way.) These seamen have no rights, they speak no English. When they venture off the boat, they are robbed and beaten. 

Interwoven stories of the ship’s owners — yes, you’ll want to strangle them — and a Ship’s Visitor liven the read. 

Eventually, Esteban dares to leave the boat alone, at night. In a neighborhood of immigrants, he finds kindness, love, friendship, hope. 

A great read, published in 1997. 

The Equivalents, by Maggie Doherty

Mid-career women artists, poets, writers, scholars were invited, in 1960, to apply for  paid fellowships at Radcliffe College at Harvard University. (A kind of “room of own’s own,” with others.) 

The Institute for Independent Study was the brainchild of Radcliffe president Mary Ingraham Bunting, who felt that the U.S. asked little of its women outside the home. It was “a climate of unexpectation,” at a time when women in the Soviet Union were 30 percent of its engineers and 75 percent of its doctors. The U.S., she declared, was wasting a precious resource: educated women.

With the Institute, Bunting sought to kick start the careers of scholars and artists who had been sidelined by motherhood. Most fellows had advanced degrees; if not, they were deigned “equivalent.” 

Among its first class was a group whose lives and work would thereafter be entwined: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olsen, artist Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda. 

Doherty captures the time and place, the personalities, the work, the place of women in society and education. She explores the competing desires of motherhood and creativity. This is nonfiction at its finest. Bravo, Maggie Doherty.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver.

I’m a fan of her work because no matter the subject, Shriver provides a fluid read, typically about intelligent people doing questionable and sometimes awful things. This book is not as searing as, say, We Need to Talk about Kevin, but this is still a Shriver.

Serenata (ugh, that name) is the book’s unsympathetic narrator. (That’s a skill, to get and keep a reader invested in an unlikeable person.) Her recently retired husband Remington decides to train for a marathon. Wait: extreme exercise has always been her thing! Remington hires a sexy trainer and joins a group with the same goal. With her bad knees, Serenata is sidelined, reduced to spectator and provider of snacks. Also in the mix: the couple’s newly evangelical daughter and her many children. Also their drug dealer son. 

This is delicious satire. It’s fun to see this couple fall apart and find each other again. It’s set in beautiful Duchess County, New York, an area I know and love. 

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I’m always reading but I read most in or near a cabin in the woods, in Quebec, Canada, beside Lac Pytonga. Days are long and lazy there (well, I did take some IMG_2818epic runs) and nights are free of the usual distractions, since there’s no t.v. and no Internet and no cell service and someone other than me and mine has made, served and cleaned up dinner. Sure, we play Scrabble and hearts and this year unearthed Time, a trivia game that spans the Twenties to the Eighties.

During the day I swim and run and hike and kayak and pick wild raspberries and blackberries, the dogs along with me for the walk. At night, we have a popcorn tasting “war” with neighbors.

Mostly I read. I read on the boat, while others fish. I read on the beach, while kids gunnel-bob or paddleboard or jump from docks. I read when the weather turns cold and rainy and sends us indoors, beside a fire.

This year I read four big books, all of which I can recommend.

IMG_2850First was Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, a multigenerational Irish and American saga. Easily he weaves seven interlocked stories, beginning with the hoopla of the first trans-Atlantic flight in 1919 and ending in 2011, with a mother grieving her then-19 year old son, slain by Irish terrorists. Poverty, immigration, daring, untimely death, race, peace negotiations and an un-opened letter. A slow, good read.

Next I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, nonfiction published in 2003. (Thank you, Cherie.) Poverty in the Bronx is a seemingly endless cycle of teen pregnancy, absent or incarcerated fathers, drug dealing, children raising children. It’s not just men who disappear. A main character, the beautiful Jessica, spends years in Federal Prison for her role in a heroin drug ring. This is a long, brutal, magnificent story, which ends on a hopeful note. Of all these summer reads, this was the one that gave me book grief.

IMG_2835A friend in camp was hooked by Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This and lent it to me once he’d finished. It’s a compelling read, beautifully written, about a family whose missing son returns home after four years, now age 16. The boy’s captor is freed on bail. It’s hot and humid in Corpus Christi: add child abduction and rape for a potboiler. An engaging, thoughtful read. (Thank you, Larry.)

Finally, I curled up for days with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, a beguiling tale set before and during World War Two, as residents flee Paris and later, with the German occupation and siege of St. Malo, a walled city in Breton. In alternating chapters we meet a blind girl in France who becomes a resistor and a German orphan adept at radio construction and use. How these two come together, in St. Malo, is the story of the book. I was completely taken in by this tale, even though it began to smell like a Disney movie. Skip the present-day ending; it’s treacly, and unnecessary.

That’s it for summer reading. On to fall.

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