Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

How is it the end of March already? Then again, we’ve been stuck in a strange time warp for a year. Here’s what I have been reading:

How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, Clint Smith III
Poet and educator Clint Smith visits eight locations with deep ties to the history of slavery, to explore how the U.S. has (and has not) reckoned with the brutality and the deep scars. He’s such a good writer–this book is thoughtful, clear and evocative, though obviously heavy, given the subject matter. Highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 1).

This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, Jacqueline Winspear
I love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mystery series. This memoir chronicles her childhood in rural Kent, but also explores her family dynamics and the effects of two wars on her elders (a theme she continually returns to in her novels). Elegant, thoughtful and full of rich period detail.

84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff
A friend mentioned the lovely film adaptation of this book and I pulled out my old copy, above (bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, years ago). Hanff struck up a friendship with the booksellers at Marks & Co. in London, and their letters make for warm, amusing reading. So much fun.

You Go First, Erin Entrada Kelly
Charlotte’s dad just had a heart attack. Ben’s parents are getting a divorce. Through their online Scrabble game, they help each other navigate a seriously tough week (plus the usual middle school ugh). This was cute, but I wanted more from the connection between the characters.

A Deadly Inside Scoop, Abby Collette
Bronwyn Crewse is thrilled to be reopening her family’s ice cream shop. But when a dead body turns up and her dad is a prime suspect, she turns her attention to amateur sleuthing. This premise was cute, but Win’s best friend Maisie, who helps her solve the case, was seriously obnoxious. So-so, in the end.

Murder-on-Sea, Julie Wassmer
It’s nearly Christmas in Whitstable, and Pearl Nolan is juggling work and holiday plans when several of her neighbors receive nasty Christmas cards and ask her to investigate. The plot of this one was so-so, but I like Pearl and her cast of supporting characters.

Perestroika in Paris, Jane Smiley
I adored this charming tale about a curious filly–Paras, short for Perstroika–who noses out of her stall one night and finds her way to Paris. She joins up with Frida, a savvy dog; Raoul, a voluble raven; a pair of ducks and a lonely young boy, Etienne. A delight from start to finish.

Most links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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We are (almost) at the end of January, and it has felt so long (and cold!). But as always, the books are helping me get through. Here’s what I have been reading:

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
I’ve been hearing about this novel for years and finally picked it up as part of my ongoing efforts to read more Black voices. It’s a powerful collection of linked stories tracing the different destinies of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, and their descendants in Ghana and the U.S. Heavy and thought-provoking.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, Sonali Dev
Trisha Raje is a brilliant neurosurgeon who has to tell Emma, an artist patient, that a lifesaving surgery will cause her to go blind. Emma’s brother, DJ Caine, is a talented chef who caters several events for Trisha’s wealthy, close-knit family. Trisha and DJ give each other all kinds of wrong impressions, but are forced to reexamine their assumptions. I loved the gender-swapped nods to Pride & Prejudice, the complex dynamics of Trisha’s family, and the fierce dedication to work and family displayed by all the main characters. Recommended by Vanessa.

March Sisters: On Life, Death and Little Women, Kate Bolick et al.
As a longtime fan of Little Women, I expected to enjoy these essays about the March sisters much more than I did. They were well written, but felt forced, and (except for Beth’s) seemed to focus on less significant aspects of each character.

Hope Rides Again, Andrew Shaffer
Joe Biden and Barack Obama are back chasing down criminals, this time on the mean streets of Chicago. When Obama’s BlackBerry is stolen, Joe tracks down the thief, but quickly realizes he might be in over his head. Funny and very meta; the mystery plot was thin, but I read this for the bromance and the laughs.

The Fixed Stars, Molly Wizenberg
I adore Wizenberg’s first foodie memoir, A Homemade Life, and enjoyed her second, Delancey. This one is quite different: an exploration of how her sexuality shifted and what that meant for her life and marriage. She’s an excellent writer, and the parts about her divorce and soul-searching are well done. But I agree with my pal Jaclyn – some other parts felt too personal, even voyeuristic. Complicated, but still worthwhile.

Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev
Chef Ashna Raje is struggling to keep her father’s restaurant afloat, when her cousin (Trisha – see above) convinces her to compete on a potentially lucrative reality show. The catch? Her celebrity partner on the show is her estranged first love, footballer Rico Silva – and they’ve got 12 years of secrets sitting between them. I really enjoyed this Persuasion retelling (and sequel-of-sorts to Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors), though there was a lot of trauma (especially for Ashna) that never quite got properly dealt with.

Links are to Trident and Brookline Booksmith, my perennial local faves. Shop indie!

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This is the summer, as I said recently, of antiracist reading (along with sunflowers and bike rides and strawberries). On a recent Monday afternoon, a friend and I decided to explore with both our feet and our brains: we met up in Beacon Hill to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

I’ve lived in Boston for a decade now, and I used to wander Beacon Hill frequently when I worked at Emerson College. But I didn’t know this trail existed until recently, and the more sites we found and the more snippets I read aloud from the National Park Service website, I wondered: why not?


Like many American schoolchildren, I learned certain parts of Boston history: Paul Revere’s famous ride, the Boston Tea Party. I walked most of the Freedom Trail as a newcomer to Boston, ten years ago. I knew Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement (though it is also persistently racist). But I didn’t know about so many of the folks we learned about on the Black Heritage Trail: their names or their occupations or their contributions to the ongoing fight for Black freedom.

The trail comprises about a dozen sites, starting at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a volunteer infantry regiment made up of Black soldiers (made famous in the movie Glory). The memorial itself is closed for restoration right now, but there’s a great temporary exhibition wrapped around the fencing, so you can still learn about the soldiers of the 54th.

Most of the trail’s other sites are former homes of Black people who fought for the abolition of slavery, helped house people escaping enslavement, helped integrate schools and churches in Boston, and played other important roles in Black community life. There are two former schools along the trail: the Abiel Smith School, the first Black public school in Boston, and the Phillips School, which became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.

The trail ends at the Smith Court Residences and the African Meeting House (now the Museum of African American History), which seem to have been the epicenter of Black life in Boston in the late 19th century. But even as we walked, we saw plaques on other buildings noting people who had lived and worked for abolition and Black rights in the neighborhood.


I might never have seen these plaques, or any of these houses, if I hadn’t been looking for them – and I kept wondering: why not? Why aren’t we taught these stories, alongside those of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and John Hancock? Why had I never heard of Lewis and Harriet Hayden or George Middleton or Elizabeth Smith? I want to find out more about them now – but their stories should not be tucked down a side street. They should be highlighted, celebrated.

So much of the work of adulthood, for me, is paying attention: noticing the details of each day, really listening to my loved ones when we’re talking, not simply scrolling or sleepwalking through this life. The work of anti-racism also involves paying attention: seeking out the stories we don’t know, the ones that have been ignored or erased or shunted aside. This walk, this trail, is a small beginning. I’m glad we went, and I’m committed to finding out more.

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book breakfast tea the novel cure morning

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
When Sarah Grimké turns 11 in 1803, she receives an unwanted gift: a 10-year-old personal slave, Hetty “Handful” Grimké. Although Sarah tries to free Handful, the two girls are bound together for the rest of their lives. Drawing on historical accounts of Sarah Grimké’s life, Kidd has created a rich narrative of loss, love and bravery, narrated by both Sarah and Handful. I especially loved Handful’s mother, Charlotte, and the portrayal of the city of Charleston.

Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything, Amanda Gefter
Since she was a teenager, Amanda Gefter has relished long discussions about physics and the nature of the universe with her father. But when the two of them crash a physics conference to get the inside scoop on the nature of reality, their hobby becomes an obsession. A smart, funny, highly readable memoir-cum-exploration of spacetime, reality and various physics theories. Gefter makes her subject accessible even to humanities geeks. To review for Shelf Awareness.

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton
A small girl arrives in Australia on a ship in 1913, carrying a small suitcase which holds a few obscure clues to her past. Taken in by a loving family and named Nell, she learns about her origins as an adult, and attempts to trace her biological parents. After Nell’s death, her granddaughter, Cassandra, takes up the quest, traveling to England to visit Nell’s childhood home. A multi-generational saga – part family history, part fairy tale, part Gothic mystery.

The Dirt Diary, Anna Staniszewski
Rachel Lee is so bummed to spend her weekends helping with her mom’s new cleaning business. But if she doesn’t, she’ll never make back the money she secretly took from her college fund. Cleaning the houses of all the popular kids in her grade, Rachel discovers some serious dirt – but is it ethical to use her newfound knowledge? A sweet, funny story with a likable protagonist. (A total impulse buy at the Booksmith and well worth it.)

Lord Peter: The Complete Stories, Dorothy L. Sayers
I can’t get enough of Lord Peter Wimsey, that bon vivant sleuth with a (long) nose for murder. These short stories featuring him were like a box of chocolate truffles – rich, varied and best savored one at a time. Bunter, that imperturbable valet, appears frequently and the last two stories include Peter’s wife Harriet, whom I adore.

The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin
A witty, ingenious compendium of novels to cure almost any ailment, from wanderlust to a stubbed toe, from the common cold to being disappointed in love. The only downside: some of the remedies (i.e. the novels) are depressing! Took me ages to finish because I read it in snatches, but highly enjoyable.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, Katherine Pancol
When Josèphine’s ne’er-do-well husband runs off to Kenya to work on a crocodile farm, she’s strapped for cash until her trophy-wife sister Iris makes her a deal: Josèphine will write a historical novel and pocket the royalties, but Iris will get all the credit. (Of course, it’s not that simple.) Frothy, a bit racy and très French, this novel was so much fun. I hope its two sequels get translated into English.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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the bookstore lenox ma

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
I read Lahiri’s debut collection Interpreter of Maladies in college and was blown away. I did not love her novel, The Namesake, but I do love her writing – elegant, understated, evocative. These stories, like her other work, feature Indian immigrants to the U.S. and their children, all caught between differing cultures and expectations of family and love. Some stories felt satisfying, others less so. Beautifully written and at times intensely sad.

The Little Lady Agency, Hester Browne
Melissa Romney-Jones is tired of office jobs – and of getting laid off from them. When she’s sacked yet again, she founds an agency (and a blonde alter ego) offering social advice and fashion help to London’s hapless bachelors. But her work soon begins spilling over into her personal life. Fun and witty, though it took Melissa long enough to stand up for herself.

Applewhites at Wit’s End, Stephanie S. Tolan
The zany Applewhites are back – this time running a summer camp for creative kids on their ramshackle property in the North Carolina woods. The campers, though, are just as eccentric as the Applewhites, and then threatening letters start appearing in the mailbox. Fun and kooky, like the first book.

Little Lady, Big Apple, Hester Browne
Melissa Romney-Jones (see above) heads to New York for a holiday with her American boyfriend (a former client). While there, she can’t resist a chance to help out a fellow Brit – but she quickly ends up in the tabloids. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is pressuring her to choose between him and her business. (I really wanted her to dump him.) Entertaining, but not as good as the first one.

The Little Lady Agency and the Prince, Hester Browne
Melissa’s grandmother asks her to work her makeover magic on a playboy prince. It’s a fun assignment, but Melissa is also trying to plan her own wedding, make some decisions about her agency and deal with her family’s never-ending stream of crises. After a few late-night sob sessions, Melissa ends up with the right man (finally!) and gets to keep her business. Clever and charming.

Astor Place Vintage, Stephanie Lehmann
Amanda, owner of the titular NYC vintage shop, finds a journal from 1907 sewn into a fur muff. Olive, the journal’s author, struggles to build a career after her father dies and she is left penniless. Meanwhile, Amanda is facing eviction and having a depressing affair with a married man. The book alternates between Olive’s and Amanda’s voices – I found Olive much more interesting and less whiny. The ending wrapped up too quickly for me, but I did love the glimpses of 1907 New York.

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
I’ve been reading this book since January and finally finished it. It’s a big, sprawling, rambling, heartbreaking story – similar in outline to the popular musical (which I love) but much more layered and complex. (It also involves several long philosophical digressions.) This one deserves its own post, so look for it soon.

Me, My Goat, and My Sister’s Wedding, Stella Pevsner
Doug and his friends are goat-sitting – but Doug’s sister is getting married and it isn’t long before chaos ensues. I read this book years ago and it was such fun to pick it up again.

The House Girl, Tara Conklin
I loved this novel, which alternates between two women: Josephine, the titular house slave, who tends to her mistress in 1850s Virginia and is also a talented artist, and Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer anxious to prove herself in New York, 2004. When Lina gets assigned to a case involving the artwork of Josephine’s mistress, she finds herself researching Josephine’s life, trying to discover which woman was the real artist. I found both stories absorbing (Josephine’s even more so than Lina’s), and the writing evocative. Lovely.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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