The Social Ladder and Sorority Life in "Rush", by Lisa Patton - Book Review

When I saw Rush in the window of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, I was anxious to read it. The cover art popped (yes, it’s important) and I was curious to see how the experience of sorority rush is portrayed in current times. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it does not seem to have changed much in the thirty years since I went through it. While this book is in large part about rush, it delves into weightier topics such as generational racism and the inequities in pay and benefits to people of color.

Set in Oxford at Ole Miss, the story is told through the eyes of three main characters: Miss Pearl, the beloved African American house keeper in the fictional Alpha Delta Omega sorority; Cali, an un-“pedigreed” freshman from a small blue color Mississippi town; and, Wilda, Alpha Delt/Ole Miss alum and mom to another incoming freshman, Ellie. No good tale can be told without a villain and Patton’s Lilith Whitmore, in her powder blue rompers and matching David Yurman jewelry, rivals Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Not far behind her in wicked intent is her aptly Southern named daughter, Annie Laurie, who rises at 6am to do her hair and makeup before 9am class.

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Lyrical Writing in "Sing, Unburied, Sing", by Jesmyn Ward - Book Review

Sing, Unburied, Sing is heartbreaking and intense. It is the contemporary, rural South where location and characters are inextricably intertwined. This is Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, and she is certain to become one of South’s most notable writers.

The story is of a black family in coastal Mississippi, laden with the pain of memories, disease, drugs, and obsessions.  But it’s also a story of love, survival, and deep devotion. The chapters are told from the perspective of Jojo, a sensitive, prescient thirteen-year-old and his mother, Leonie. Jojo and his three-year-old sister, Kayla are raised by Pop, their grandfather who cares for them as well as his cancer-ridden wife, Mam, and their small home and livestock.  Leonie waitresses in a bar, gets high on meth, and is consumed with her white imprisoned boyfriend, Michael, also the father of her two children.

Focusing on the struggles of each character, Ward brings racial conflict front and center - from a story of slaves kidnapped from their homes in Africa and the harrowing ship ride to America, to Pop’s time in prison as a young man trying to look after a black child who was also jailed and brutalized. And we get a glimpse into Michael’s family - enough to witness extreme prejudice, violence, and hate’s repercussions.

Tight knit, Jojo and Pop care for Kayla and Mam, and Pop tries to prepare Jojo for manhood; while Leonie works and gets high, planning for the day Michael is freed from prison. Jojo listens to Pop’s stories of growing up and of his time prison; of the boy he tried to save; and of the blood on his hands. He is haunted, and they are all plagued with ghosts in some respect. 

Ward is able to weave together the mystical - through memories and specters from the past who can’t find their way home - and a jarring reality of racism and drug addiction. This is not an easy book to read, but it is certainly worthy of the effort.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Scribner

Vickie’s rating: 4 Stars

Unforgettable Prose in "Something Rich and Strange", by Ron Rash - Book Review

Ron Rash excels in expression and economy of words. His style is unpretentious, yet evocative. Something Rich and Strange is my first encounter with Rash, and certainly time well spent. It’s a book of short stories that crosses eras, from the civil war to present day. Each story, unique in it’s characters and circumstances, share the working class of North Carolina as its backdrop.

There is humor and tragedy, and sometimes both in the 34 stories. Whether overt or not, the book has a veil of melancholy throughout, providing us with a glimpse into lives hard-lived and sometimes our own condition. Rash’s characters are in the heart of Appalachia - farmers, soldiers, teachers, radio jockeys, janitors, carpenters, meth addicts, and widowers - each with a unique story in which their being  becomes palpable and relatable. Rash almost modestly presents us with heartbreak, and just as austerely, with wit, though it is also tinged with sorrow. 

And though everything seems swathed with this gloom, I could not tear myself away from soul-baring simplicity and stillness of Rash’s stories.  The title seems to sum the quality of this work perfectly, because the book is something rich and strange

Published: 2014
Publisher: Ecco

Vickie’s rating 5 stars

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

"The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls", by Anton DiSclafani - Book Review

It's not easy transitioning into adulthood, and certainly not for a 15-year old southern society young lady in 1930. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls introduces us to Theodora "Thea" Atwell, narrator of this coming of age novel. Thea has lived an idyllic, autonomous childhood with her parents and twin brother in rural Florida until she becomes the center of a scandal and is sent off to boarding school. 

Thea is angry with her parents for sending her away, but she takes on the challenge of this new, foreign environment with poise. At times she is a youthful spirit, and at others she is wise beyond her years. She must learn to navigate the social strata of wealthy southern girls in this North Carolina landscape. She is a quick study and soon discovers who her allies and adversaries are. She is most at ease when in the riding ring as she expertly commands her steed, evoking the confidence of her youthful roaming at home in Florida.

Thea is a combination of innocence and shame, and author Anton DiSclafani artfully combines these traits into an authentic character. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a well-written book that gives nothing away. It is filled with suggestion, and gives credit to the reader to reach the correct conclusions.

Published: 2013
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie's rating: 3 stars