Social Justice Book Club: Men We Reaped – Wrap-up Discussion

The readalong for Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is hosted by Entomology of a Bookworm, who provided these discussion questions.

1) Men We Reaped is described as a memoir. While it draws on Ward’s personal experiences, it also explores themes much larger than one woman’s life. Do you agree with this genre classification?

Absolutely, I feel like memoir is a fairly flexible category. (In contrast, I would say that the word autobiography brings more narrow expectations.) Half of the book is about Ward’s life and her family. The stories about the five men profiled in Men We Reaped are still framed around Ward’s personal interactions with them.

2) In what ways do you think Ward’s personal approach to this subject makes Men We Reaped stand out from other books that address similar issues? Did this make the book appeal to you more or less, or were you indifferent?

Ward’s book does well in evoking the struggle and depression that hounds communities that are poor and Black. Her personal stories illustrate ideas such as double-consciousness (Ward’s childhood memory of talking academics with her mother’s employer while her mother cleans the house).

Ward made the narrative choice to connect the twists and turns of each man’s life and death to the larger forces of systemic racism and injustice. I felt this narrative choice worked best in Demond Cook’s story (the man who was murdered outside his house, possibly for his agreement to testify in court). At other points, however, it felt strained and perhaps too speculative and abstract.

I was having a hard time figuring out why I was slightly disappointed in Ward’s book. Then I read author Roxane Gay’s Goodreads review of Men We Reaped which explained it well and which I’ll quote in part below:

The prose is bursting with pain and beauty and truth. This is a book everyone should read. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t do enough to rise above the grief. Ward only briefly addresses the issues of race and poverty and how they indelibly shape too many lives, particularly in the rural South. Instead, that the culprits of these men’s demise is inextricably bound to race is treated as assumption when it needs to be far more fully realized and plainly articulated.

3) In more than one instance throughout the text, Ward writes about feeling silenced and voiceless in the face of overwhelming systems of inequality. Do you think Men We Reaped changes that position by giving her a voice?

I hope she feels that way, but her book also points out that this feeling of voicelessness is endemic in her community. I hope that her book empowers the voices of others in her hometown, especially since it’s from one of their own.

4) Though Men We Reaped is about the loss of young black male life, it is also, in many ways, about the black women left to stand witness to the lives and deaths of those in their community. How does this gendered perspective change the story of the high mortality rate among young men of color?

Ward’s book certainly details the obstacles in her own life and that of her mother’s and sisters’ lives. Their roads are not easy. But the women in Ward’s life soldier on despite their wounds. It is the men who seem more fragile and endangered.

[Edited to add: I don’t have a good answer for this question.]

5) If you could ask Jesmyn Ward any one question about this book and/or the experiences she recounts within it, what would it be?

I’m curious about the reactions to her book from people in her region of Mississippi, so I would ask about that.


In my answer to the second question, I admitted that I had been a little disappointed in the book, as I would have liked to see the ideas more fully fleshed out. I still really liked reading it though. As a memoir, evoking a family, a community, a place, it is definitely worthwhile. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. I live in the third-richest county in the country, and while poverty and racism definitely still have a presence, it is still a place of greater opportunity. So reading Men We Reaped helps inform my perspective, keeps it from being too cloistered.

 

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Visit to Green Valley Book Fair and Shenandoah National Park

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled south to the Green Valley Book Fair, which is near Harrisonburg, Virginia. I had heard about this place from Leslie of This is the Refrain and Teresa of Shelf Love. Basically, the Green Valley Book Fair is a discount book outlet store that is open roughly every other month (dates are posted on their site). The books I bought ranged from $3 to $6 each.

Here is a picture of my book finds, which as you can see were thoroughly inspected by my cat.

img_2042List of the books pictured:

The Devil’s Dream by Lee Smith

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber

Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam


After my visit to the book fair, I decided to take Skyline Drive back north. Skyline Drive is a scenic highway that is part of Shenandoah National Park. I accessed the highway at the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station near Elkton and took it all the way to Front Royal which is the north terminus of Skyline Drive. It was a gorgeous day and as I was driving the highway in the late afternoon, I hit the golden hour and the beginning of the sunset. Even better, I was visiting on a non-holiday weekday, so the road wasn’t crowded.

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Social Justice Book Club: Men We Reaped – Midway Discussion

This Social Justice Book Club readalong of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is hosted by Kerri of Entomology of a Bookworm. She posted some midway discussion questions yesterday, so here are my responses:

1) In the very first pages of her book, Ward calls this her “rotten fucking story.” Did this change how you approached the chapters to come in any way?

That phrase is from the last sentence in the prologue: “Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.” To me, this characterization made sure readers knew she was not offering any hopeful narrative arc. I finished Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken the other day and it is full of the high human cost of war and the horrors that people inflict on each other, but the narrative arc is about the resilience and spirit of Louis Zamperini and others. I haven’t finished Ward’s book yet, but I do not expect her focus to be on the resilience of the dead young men’s surviving family and friends, though that may be true of them. Instead, her focus is on the immense loss that each of these young men represents.

2) When she lists the names and dates of the black men in her life who died in the four years between 2000 and 2004, Ward writes, “That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.” She then goes on to wonder “why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story.” I’ve read a lot about voice and the importance of voice lately, so I’m curious what others think of the importance of voicing the horrors of this story, these losses.

Jesmyn Ward is not just voicing the stories of these five men, I feel like she is voicing a story about Delisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina, people remarked on how the news coverage gave scant attention to the Gulf Coast communities of Mississippi and Alabama. The events of Men We Reaped predate Katrina and show how neglected these communities were before then, in other ways. Empathy is often encouraged by hearing stories. Dismissiveness is often the result of ignoring stories.

3) What do you make of the two timelines in Men We Reaped? To what effect do you anticipate–or perhaps hope?–Ward will use these inverse chronologies?

The death of Ward’s brother is clearly the biggest wound and where both timelines are headed in the end. The story moving forward is basically a memoir of Ward’s own life, and as she and her siblings grow older in that narrative, we will find out more and more what her brother meant to her. In the story moving backward in time, we start out with a community already beaten down by these successive deaths, and are peeling back each layer of grief until we get to the one closest to Ward’s heart.

4) The idea of gender is woven throughout Ward’s memoir, but particularly in reflecting the unique freedoms–and risk of lack of freedoms–of the black men in her life (as compared to the black women in her life, herself included). How do the men and women in Ward’s stories subscribe to (or not) these gender expectations, and how do you think that influences their experiences?

There are many voices out there rightfully challenging the mythos of the “strong Black woman” and the harm that this stereotype can cause to Black women. In Ward’s stories, the reality remains that the women are almost always the ones left alone to raise and support the children. I appreciate that Ward doesn’t demonize the men who left, and points out some of external factors that contribute to this dynamic. At the same time, she doesn’t gloss over the way the women have been holding the families together.

A really great thing that Ward is doing is showing how caring these young Black men were to their family and friends. There are so many negative stereotypes associated with young Black masculinity that I don’t know where to start. But Ward addresses this explicitly and implicitly in Men We Reaped by talking about how these men did late-night runs to the store for diapers, nursed a female friend who was passed out drunk, among other details about their friendliness, welcome and kindnesses.

5) Ward frames her story with a hope: “I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here.” Based on the first several chapters, do you think her exploration of these deaths will get her where she hopes to go? Or are these kinds of events impossible to ever truly understand?

I think she will get there. She’s been establishing some building blocks along the way, and it often comes back to the scarcity of opportunity in her community. She points out the outsized punishments for childhood infractions of Black boys, the failure of public education, the dangers of testifying in court, and other things that narrowed the life choices of these men. Their lives are exposed to risk just by living where they live, while being Black.

So let’s chat: What are ya’ll thinking of this book so far? What do you make of Ward’s style and approach to her topic? What are you anticipating in the second half of the book?

I am really liking the book, for all that it is sad and almost made me cry while I was in the Midas’ waiting room. Ward is good at incorporating the kinds of details that bring her family, friends and community to life for the reader. I am curious about how she felt when she decided to leave her community to go to college. You can tell the distance is hard on her as she describes her visits home.

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Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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2015. HarperTeen. Hardcover. 266 pages.

Review:

In this graphic novel, a shapeshifter girl named Nimona offers herself as a sidekick to Lord Blackheart, supervillain, as he opposes the Institution and its chief champion, Sir Goldenloin.

The world of Nimona is a mash-up of Renaissance Faire fantasy, sci-fi, and modern humor. My mind also kept connecting it tonally to the film Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

The three central characters of Nimona and their interactions are all wonderful. From the banter of Nimona and Lord Blackheart to the whole frenemy dynamic going on between Lord Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin, the story had me invested in these three.

On a more particular note, I realized I’m a fan of when shapeshifters are disguised as animals, especially as animal companions to humans. That particular fondness extends to a whole family of story elements such as people temporarily trapped in animal bodies (Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, various people in Bedknobs & Broomsticks); animals with human intelligence (e.g. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), and even just super-loyal smart animals who come to their human’s rescue (White Fang). I mean this is not guaranteed to make me like a story (that Kevin Spacey-as-cat movie looks horrific), but when it’s done well, it’s a delight.

Nimona has a surprisingly high body count considering its general comic touch. Respect for human life is espoused but most of those who are killed are anonymous, so there’s not much impact to their deaths. I really enjoyed the novel, but I must admit it is a bit callous.

This is the first work that I’ve read by Noelle Stevenson. I haven’t really plunged into the world of comics, so I don’t know when I’ll get around to Lumberjanes, but it will be fun to see how her career develops.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The BiblioSanctum (Wendy) – “Stevenson crafts a dark but quirky and amusing tale of betrayal and corporate shenigans, forcing the questioning of good versus evil and what it really means to be a hero.”

ComicAlly – “Like shape-shifting Nimona, the book starts off as one thing, morphs into something else, and then something else again. It’s like we’re seeing Stevenson try to figure out what the comic is supposed to be.”

things mean a lot – “I’m more of a Ballister than a Nimona in my approach to supervillany (civilians out of the way first, then explosions), but I’m still thrilled to find a character who occupies the sort of gray area traditionally reserved for men and remains sympathetic.

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Haunting Emma trilogy by Lee Nichols

Deception (2010), Betrayal (2011), Surrender (2011)

Recommended by: bookshelves of doom

Review:

When 17-year-old Emma’s parents do not return from an international trip, a former friend of her brother’s arrives to act as her guardian. He takes Emma to his family’s home in Massachusetts and she begins to attend the private school nearby. Although Emma has never been there before, she can’t deny that the house and school seem strangely familiar. In addition, Emma learns that she can see ghosts, and has certain ghost-keeping abilities.

Lee Nichols’ Haunting Emma trilogy has a lot of the tropes of its genre: love triangle, mean girls, main character’s powers are the most special, etc. The outcome of the love triangle is a foregone conclusion – which suitor is the most forbidden and mysterious? Bingo. Cue much romantic angst in second and third books, that strangely glosses over a highly unethical action taken by the chosen love interest.

Despite the tropes, I did enjoy the first book. I generally like stories where people can interact with ghosts – there is a built-in poignancy about that scenario and it appeals to me. And Emma gets to do a lot of cool ghost-related things in the first book as she explores her newly-realized powers. There was one power in particular involving a ring that was my favorite. And I did like that in the second book, a character who dies in the first book comes back as a ghost and I appreciated the attention paid to the emotional fallout from that transition.

That said, the second and third books were overall disappointing. There was no satisfying build to the climactic confrontation with the main villain. It turns out that the villain’s motivations stem from past events involving Emma’s family but since we hardly get to know Emma’s family, this connection has no real heft to it. The story about Emma’s powerful ancestor and that ancestor’s lover had more sense of real peril than the trilogy’s various battles with the villain.

The storyline of the second and third books gets needlessly and repetitively mired in the friendship/romance entanglements of Emma and her friends. On the one hand, yay for Emma having female friends who are interesting in their own right. I know that’s not a given with YA fiction. But Emma’s constant wondering “is this guy interested in this girl or in this other girl” only seemed to distract from the real stakes of the story.

And though the trilogy was mostly free from making Emma an excepto-girl who is “not like all the other girls”, it still slipped in the third book: “he understood I just wanted to be alone. It was more of a guy reaction to a problem. I’d noticed girls often liked to cry and relive every moment of distress with a friend. I wasn’t that kind of girl.” I probably groaned aloud when I read that. Again, most of the trilogy was free of that kind of statement, but still that sentence represents how I felt like the trilogy became more generic as it went along.

I picked up these books for the R.I.P. Challenge because of the ghosts, and I did like the ghosts, but reading this trilogy also reminds me why I generally steer away from YA fantasy.

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Excerpts from others’ reviews:

bookshelves of doom – “In brief: YAY, FUN. Emma was likable and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny” (from review of the first book)

Lauren’s Crammed Bookshelf – “I’ve loved seeing her writing grow as the series progressed, and just like Surrender was the best of the series plot and character wise it was just the same with the writing.”

 

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Library Loot: when the holds come in!

Library Loot 2 It’s been a long time since I’ve participated in a Library Loot post. This weekly meme is hosted by Claire of The Captive Reader and Linda of Silly Little Mischief.

I placed a bunch of holds last week and they were all ready for me today. It is a great feeling to have an armful of books.

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Half of the books I checked out are because the authors are going to be at the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival later this month. Although I looked at the schedule again recently, and I’m not sure I’ll be seeing all of them. The Festival always pulls in great authors but they may have outdone themselves this year. One day, one event and it includes: Stephen King, Shonda Rhimes, Salman Rushdie, Ken Burns, Shannon Hale, Edwidge Danticat, Patrick Ness, Marilynne Robinson, Yaa Gyasi, Colson Whitehead, Geraldine Brooks, Richard Russo, Justin Cronin, Jacqueline Woodson, Rep. John Lewis, Sarah Vowell, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Mary Roach and many others who are no less important, but you get the idea. I don’t know how I’m going to decide who to see! I guess by whichever room still has space when I get there.

Anyway, the three books I selected due to their authors’ presence at the Festival are:

Journey by Aaron Becker, Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea and Nimona by Noelle Stevenson.

The other three books:

Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion is for the R.I.P. Challenge XI.

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years is one of the books that stood out to me from the Kindle samples I read a couple of weeks ago.

And Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz is one of the books from my Classics Club Challenge list.

 

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The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding

1749. ebook. 642 pages.

Recommended by: Eva

It’s been a while since I’ve read an 18th century novel. Most of my experience with them dates back to high school – Voltaire’s Candide, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year. So aside from a few truly old works like the 10th century The Pillow Book, my classics reading has mostly involved 19th century and 20th century books.

Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones seems decidedly different from the later 19th century English novels I have read. It’s a lot more earthy for one. There’s a notable scene where a young woman is jested by the village for wearing a fine dress to church, and her retaliation instigates an all-out brawl where bones from the graveyard are wielded as weapons.

The titular Tom Jones was left as an infant of mysterious origins on the estate of a kind country squire named Allworthy. Allworthy raises Tom almost as a son, and Tom grows into a good-looking rascal who means well most of the time. In particular, Tom is fond of the ladies and the ladies are fond of Tom.

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This lands Tom in trouble when he falls in love with the neighboring squire’s angelic daughter, Sophia. This along with other circumstances causes him to be banished from his home and wander the English countryside, staying in a succession of inns. Sophia herself runs away from home to escape a forced marriage to a man she hates. Along the way, Tom meets a variety of people and a variety of scrapes. In the background, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion is underway.

Tom Jones is definitely a comic novel and Fielding is a playful writer. The ridiculousness and self-centeredness of humanity is on display, though free of misanthropy. The following quote is from a debate among guests at an inn about how much they should fear the success of the Jacobite rebellion and its Catholic supporters:

[The landlady:] “I know a great many papishes that are very honest sort of people, and spend their money very freely; and it is always a maxim with me, that one man’s money is as good as another’s.”

“Very true, mistress,” said the puppet-show man, “I don’t care what religion comes; provided the Presbyterians are not uppermost; for they are enemies to puppet-shows.”

I also enjoyed when Fielding riffed on more formal styles of writing:

Twelve times did the iron register of time beat on the sonorous bell-metal, summoning the ghosts to rise and walk their nightly round. – In plainer language, it was twelve o’clock, and all the family, as we have said, lay buried in drink and sleep…

Not gonna lie, I did find reading Tom Jones to be hard work most of the time. I’m not used to the 18th century prose and it sometimes required an increased concentration to sort out the meaning. Also, each “book” in the novel (of which there are eighteen) starts with an introduction. The introductions are basically mini-essays on topics that may or may not relate to the plot. In one introduction, Fielding rails against his critics, calling them little reptiles. That was entertaining, but not all of the introductions were. Fortunately, we have Fielding’s own permission to skip the introductions if we choose, and I did sometimes skim them, especially toward the end.

So it’s more of an appreciation rather than love that I feel toward Tom Jones, and also I like the expansion it brings to my literary experience. It’s a clever novel, though I would say it went on too long for my tastes.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Eva (The Charm of It) – “The whole book is such a romp, but just when you think Fielding couldn’t be sillier, he busts out some classical allusions to remind you of his credentials.”

intense sensations – “If you’re not sure what a personality looks like when it’s poured into a novel, you could read Tom Jones.”

Teresa (reviewer on Goodreads) – “I’m not saying it’s not well written or interesting BUT there is a lot of useless prattle that kind of drags the thing out in a most annoying fashion.”

 

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