Review of Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State

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This week I finished Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. An Untamed State is the fictional tale of Mireille Duval Jameson, a confident borderline arrogant successful immigration attorney, wife, and mother. However, it is her family name that makes her a target of ruthless kidnappers when she and her husband visit Port-au- Prince, Haiti on vacation. While in captivity, she endures countless forms of emotional and physical torture by her kidnappers as she waits for her wealthy father to pay her ransom. However, her strength and fortitude are challenged when she soon realizes that her prideful father has refused to pay 1 million dollars for her release. As a South Florida native of West Indian roots, I loved this book because it flips back and forth from Port-au-Prince  to the streets of Miami to the corn fields of Nebraska. Gay does a noteworthy job of taking her readers through tours of the opulent mansions of Haiti’s elites protected by barbed wire and armed guards  and the crime ridden streets of Haiti’s poor ruled by violence and organized crime lords. Nevertheless, Gay successfully never lets her readers forget that people with the same hopes and dreams makeup both sides of the island and are separated by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness to address and fix the inherent economic and geopolitical problems that have plagued this proud country for centuries. When Mireille is snatched away from her pristine life and held captive in a cell under the direction of a sadistic kidnapper named “The Commander,” she is forced to not only acknowledge but see “how the other half lives.” There were some parts of this book that were exceptionally graphic and brutal but were balanced by the raw love story  between Mireille and her husband  that Gay skillfully weaves between each chapter of Mireille’s confinement. I will warn you that the story neither ends with a happy  ending nor sad ending but a real ending and is worth a read.

I am really excited by the fact that the rights to a screen play have been purchased by Gina Prince Bythewood, the same force behind Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. I can’t wait t see the film adaptation!

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Review of Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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I recently finished Balm by Dolen Perkins -Valdez over Thanksgiving Break. Balm is Perkins-Valdez’s second novel and follows her New York Times bestseller debut Wench.I had the pleasure of meeting Perkins-Valdez four years ago while she discussed the premise and success of Wench. I have to confess that Wench held me hostage for an entire weekend and would not allow me to leave my house until I finished reading it. Wench was  a historical godsend, for it explored the relationship among four African American enslaved women whose owners would meet and vacation at  a resort in antebellum Ohio and bring their servants with them. Over the years, the women formed a friendship and bonded over the fact that they all shared many of the sorrows that  specifically plagued enslaved women such as abuse, broken families, and the struggle to control and express themselves under a system that sought to strip them of their femininity. At the same time, each of the women had their own unique background and story to tell and was very similar to the structure and content of Nina Simone’s Four Girls. The depiction of the bond and community of support these women formed over the years to survive such an oppressive system  was a breath of fresh and is in direct contrast to the misguided images currently dominating many of today’s reality television shows .wench

When I heard that Perkins-Valdez had finally released her second novel, I was elated and could not wait to pick up a copy. This time around it took me a little longer to read because of my work schedule and the fact that I  am now mom to a rambunctious toddler. Perkins-Valdez introduces us to three characters: Madge, Sadie, and Hemp. Before I began, I had to make a conscience effort to remind myself that I was not reading a sequel to Wench, for this turn around only one of the main characters, Madge, is African American and she shares the spotlight with Sadie, a white woman, and Hemp, and African American man. All three of the characters converge on Chicago for different reasons before the conclusion of the  Civil War and immediately feel like fish out of water. Madge, who has been taught the art of homeopathic healing, like so many other African Americans moves to Chicago seeking new opportunities that were absent  back home in Tennessee among her emotionally distant mother and aunts.Sadie on the other hand  has been forced to move to Chicago after her mother and father arranged a marriage to a  wealthy Union soldier she met only once . Upon her arrival, she is greeted by the news that her husband died a few days before. While trying to find her way in a new city as a wealthy widow to a man with whom she had yet to consummate her marriage, she instead finds herself consumed by a male spirit who begins to use her as a medium.  Hemp unlike Sadie and Madge is a runaway that relocated to Chicago with  hopes of finding word of his  wife who was taken from him during the war. All three of their paths cross in a  foreign city where the lingering effects of the war hang around every corner.

Although Perkins-Valdez formula slightly deviates from Wench, the celebration and exploration of sisterhood is still an integral piece of the story whether it is being displayed in the relationship between Madge and her mother, among Madge’s mother and aunts, or between Madge and Elizabeth who eventually employs Madge as her maid .In addition, both Madge and Elizabeth are forced to identify, recognize, and embrace their strength as single women living in Chicago free from the guardianship of a man.

I really sympathized with Hemp’s search for his wife which seems to be the core of his story .One can only image how many enslaved men and women wrestled with  the same inner turmoil he experiences over his attraction to Madge and temptation to pursue happiness. Although he desperately tries to honor the matrimonial vows he holds dear, he is constantly reminded that those very vows were  exchanged under a system that does not legally recognize marriages among the enslaved. At the same time, I was disappointed by the fact that Perkins-Valdez successfully built up the suspense and mystery behind his wife’s disappearance only to provide somewhat empty answers to a plethora of questions I just knew she would address upon the conclusion of his story. In retrospect, I think this is an issue I have with all of Balm’s main characters. I ended the book still feeling that I needed to know more about their fates in Chicago or with the families they left the behind.

Nevertheless, Balm is a great read, and I can’t wait for Perkins-Valdez’s third publication.

What am I currently reading?

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

Hello out there! Last week I finally picked up a copy of Swing Time by Zadie Smith. . .

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Zadie Smith is an accomplished novelist of Jamaican and English heritage. She has authored  numerous works of fiction in which two, White Teeth and On Beauty, changed my life. She has a natural gift for crafting stories that center around the exploration of race, class, gender, and the immigrant experience in contemporary England. Smith has an amazing ability to dedicate enough space and time to the development of each character leaving even the most introverted reader  with the feeling that they have either acquired a new best friend or been whisked away to England and are living the experience with them. She has further earned rock star status in my book by the fact that she tends to explore the experiences of many generations and groups that were born and raised or migrated to  England  and has avoided the temptation to paint or depict a uniform “immigrant experience.” Swing Time begins its story in London in the 1980’s with the introduction of the young narrator who finds solace in swing and bebop music, dance , and old black and white musicals and who interestingly enough remains nameless throughout the entire book.Tracey is the narrator’s best friend who like the narrator is biracial and equally shares a love for dance but unlike the narrator is not cursed with flat fleet. The narrator’s mother, a proud Jamaican immigrant who desperately desires to both intellectually separate herself from the masses and serve as their champion,  has become one of my favorite characters thus far while the narrator’s father, has left me wanting to know more about his background.I am halfway through the book and cannot wait to share my review!