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by Charles Ellenbogen 

Eddie has just escaped from the farm; Eddie also has no hands.

Those are among the first two things we learn in James Hannaham’s outstanding, tense and underappreciated novel, Delicious Foods (underappreciated despite winning the 2015 PEN/Faulker Award). Having established that frame, Hannaham recounts the events that led to that point using the voices of three narrators: Eddie, his mother Darlene and Scotty. I am going to avoid explaining who Scotty is.

It suffices to say that Hannaham takes a risk here that in other hands might have come across as a gimmick; here, it works. Darlene, having lost her husband Nat to a brutal act of racist violence (an act for which Darlene blames herself), spirals downward and severs the relationship with her son.

Darlene’s obsession with the loss of her husband and her role in it is not the only kind of enslavement in this story. She becomes, by all accounts, a pretty unsuccessful prostitute and falls under the spell of a self-help book. This allows her to be seduced by representatives from Delicious Foods, who promise her excellent accommodations and wages in exchange for her work on their farm. We are not fooled; Darlene, without telling Eddie, is. As soon as she arrives, she finds herself in another kind of slavery, one akin to the logistics of sharecropping. She doesn’t know where she’s been taken. That’s part of how the company controls her. Her accommodations are far from luxurious and her wages are abysmal. In fact, by the time she wakes up the next morning, she already owes the company money. And she can’t make the phone call to her son to tell him where she is.

And Eddie wants to know. Despite all of her frustrations with her, Eddie loves his mother. Hannaham explains in this elegant passage:

He remembered eating a certain brand of chocolate sandwich cookie that matched her complexion, not the deep brown of stained wood but lighter and ruddier, like cedar-bark chips. She had grace, and painted her finger and toenails a respectable shade of plum. A night sky of faint dots spread across her face. . . He remembered sitting in her lap and tracing these constellations. . .

After wandering among the people of the night, Eddie finds the same representatives from Delicious Foods and is reunited with his mother. The problem becomes that he, too, cannot leave the farm. And his mother doesn’t always want to.

In addition to taking us back to both the slavery and sharecropping eras, Hannaham’s descriptions of life on the farm resonates with the conditions that farmworkers face today. Some of the farmworkers dream about the plates and mouths where the food they pick will end up. How often, Hannaham seems to be asking, do we really acknowledge the labor that brings us our food? Where have you gone, Cesar Chavez?

Darlene gets increasingly drawn into life of the farm. Eddie, despite finding himself favored by the farm’s owner and therefore a prime candidate for an overseer position, becomes increasingly desperate to escape. And while his desperation does lead to his escape, it also explains – in a prolonged scene that is both horrible and true – why, when we first meet him, he is driving with no hands.

In what I first thought was a mistake, the story does not end there. Both Darlene and Eddie have to continue living and find a way back to each other. Like the readers, they are haunted by their experiences with Delicious Foods. Like the readers, they know their lives will never be the same. Life will not suddenly be easy. Hannaham – who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and teaches at Pratt Institute – does not let them, or us, off of the hook.

Delicious Foods, like Emma Donoghue’s Room, demonstrates the incredible power of the love between a parent and child while they are both ensnared in very dismal circumstances. But in the end, there is hope. Hannaham writes of Eddie: “He had to survive. He had to live. He was free.”

Hannaham – who earned his MFA at the University of Texas at Austin – has written a new kind of Southern Gothic.  Flannery O’Connor would be proud. Thanks to Hannaham’s understated prose, the power of the novel sneaks up on you. And it does not go away.

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. 

Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” took home the Man Booker Prize for 2016, making him the first U.S. author to win the British award. The satirical novel, whose plot kicks off from an absurd trial that puts resegregation and slavery before the Supreme Court, was a unanimous choice for the judges. Historian Amanda Foreman, jury chair of the prize, called Beatty’s work “a novel for our times.”

“The Sellout is one of those very rare books: which is able to take satire, which is a very difficult subject and not always done well, and plunges it into the heart of contemporary American society with a savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain,” Foreman said. “It manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct nuance, every sacred cow. While making us laugh, it also makes us wince. It is both funny and painful at the same time.”

This marks the second major award for “The Sellout,” as it collected the National Book Critics Circle prize in March. Below, the review from our own Karen R. Long, a member of the NBCC jury:  

Try reading the first paragraph of The Sellout aloud. Better still, in public. It begins “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything” and it ends describing our narrator handcuffed and sitting on “a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

As the poet Kevin Young points out in The New York Times, this bit “takes the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man’(‘I am an invisible man. No, not some spook . . .’) and spoofs it beyond belief.” Indeed, the satire of Paul Beatty corkscrews its reader into one stunning contortion after another, until it feels as if every social construct is splayed and strangled, caught like a codfish in the reader’s own horrified throat.

“Horrifying” is one of my margin notes. So is “outrageous,” “incendiary” and “tour de force.” The vehicle delivering this is the dazzling voice of the narrator, raised in a neglected “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he grows prize watermelon and omnipotent marijuana. (After he passes a blunt to a group of surfers, “shaggy, aboriginal, blond-haired white boys, damn near as dark as you,” one says: “Incredible bud, dude. Where’d you get this shit?” Answer: “I know some Dutch coffee shop owners.”)

In this way Beatty serves cake and eats it: confirming and blowing up an expectation in the same sentence, pretty much sentence by sentence. The protagonist’s father treats his son as a life-long demented experiment; he is known as “The Sellout!” during roll call of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, where our narrator scarfs down a “batch of Oreo cookies.”

California plays the bass line in this painful music; here is one passage I marked tour de force: “If places like Sedona, Arizona, have energy vortexes, mystical holy lands were visitors experience rejuvenation and spiritual awakenings, Los Angeles must have racism vortexes. Spots where visitors experience deep feelings of melancholy and ethnic worthlessness. Places like the breakdown lane on the Foothill Freeway, where Rodney King’s life, and in a sense America and its haughty notions of fair play, began their downward spirals. Racial vortices like the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where misbegotten trucker Reginald Denny caught a cinder block, a forty-ounce, and fucking centuries of frustration in the face. Chavez Ravine, where a generations-old Mexican American neighborhood was torn down, its residents forcibly removed, beaten, and left uncompensated to make room for a baseball stadium with ample parking and the Dodger Dog. Seventh Street, between Mesa and Centre, is the vortex where in 1942 a long line of buses idled as Japanese-Americans began the first step toward mass incarceration.”

Taking a page from Dave Chappelle, our narrator decides the solution lies in racially segregating the local middle school and reinstituting slavery on his own spread. The weird and terrible thing: it goes well.  The novelist Mat Johnson praised  The Sellout, telling the New York Times:  “Hordes on Twitter spend all day arguing and denouncing each other over perceived identity slights, racial or otherwise. Beatty’s work is a beautiful reminder that sometimes you can say more by laughing at yourself than by screaming at everyone else.”

Maybe so. But if a joke is “the truth that’s gone out and got drunk,” this brilliant novel makes a case for Carrie Nation, looking for an ax to sober the place up.

Another-Brooklyn-393x600Do you remember being fifteen? Let Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years, jog your memory. In this gritty, coming-of-age tale, Woodson transports readers to sweltering 1970s Brooklyn, New York, as a young girl grapples with unbearable grief, friendship and lost memories.

When we meet August, she’s an anthropologist in her mid-30s who has returned to Brooklyn after a long absence to bury her father. She has an accidental run-in with an old friend — more like a sister, really — that triggers remembrances. The rest of the novel is a flashback to early adolescence. August narrates her own story.

We begin with eight-year-old August moving from a dilapidated Tennessee farm to New York City with her father and younger brother. The Vietnam War claimed her mother’s younger brother and the loss drove her mother to an early grave.  

In those early days in Brooklyn, a trio of girls — Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela — soon become her confidants. The longing for connection is palpable, both to readers and her newfound friends.

                What did you see in me? I’d ask years later. Who did you see standing there?

                You looked lost, Gigi whispered. Lost and beautiful.

The new foursome blend so tightly that even their descriptions on the page feel fluid. The three girls become kin to August, the intimacy of their relationship soothing but never extinguishing her grief: “…I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.”

They all navigate complicated home lives, short-lived romances and persistent predators, giving each other tips on how to protect their bodies. (They all know to avoid the owner of the shoe repair shop: He’ll offer you a quarter to see your panties.)

Woodson is a master at summoning small details — the glint of a wrench used to twist off a fire hydrant cap, the tips of toes hanging over the edge of too-small shoes — and at painting a portrait of a neighborhood in flux. There are no throwaway sentences in Another Brooklyn — each short, poetic line feels carefully loved and polished. The first half of this novel asks urgent questions; the second delivers uneasy, heartbreaking answers. At its core, this book is about fragility, how light shines in the broken places.

While most of the characters are vibrant and well-drawn, it is surprising that our protagonist is so mysterious. The readers don’t really know August beyond her grief. Woodson keeps the details scant: August is a protective big sister and a dutiful daughter. But what defines August, through all 170 pages, is her inability to cope with the foundational loss of her mother. Every page holds a dull ache. 

Asked to name her influences by Booklist, Woodson said, “Two major writers for me are James Baldwin and Virginia Hamilton. It blew me away to find out that Virginia Hamilton was a sister like me. Later, Nikki Giovanni had a similar effect on me. I feel that I learned how to write from Baldwin. He was onto some future stuff, writing about race and gender long before people were comfortable with those dialogues. He would cross class lines all over the place, and each of his characters was remarkably believable. I still pull him down from my shelf when I feel stuck.”

Woodson has spent the last two decades crafting smart young adult fiction and poetry, most recently winning the National Book Award in 2014 for her poetic memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson’s return to adult fiction doesn’t stray far from her comfort zone; minus a few scenes, Another Brooklyn would work entirely as a young adult novel. It is one that strengthens as the pages pile up.

In absorbing August’s journey, we’re reminded that our teenage selves still roam within, only tempered by time and adult responsibility. But Another Brooklyn brings them back to the forefront, asking us, Who were you when you were 15?

the underground railroad colson whiteheadby Charles Ellenbogen

With all of the recent discussion about the changing faces on U.S. currency, some controversy emerged over a seemingly safe and definitely popular choice – Harriet Tubman. How many people, some asked, did she really lead to freedom? Do we really want the story of slavery memorialized on money? And, most persuasively, would Tubman herself have wanted this honor?

By not bringing up her name in his breathtakingly great new book, The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, winner of the 2002 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for John Henry Days continues this conversation. Like most movements, the Railroad was made up of both the heroic conductors such as Tubman and the many nameless others who aided escaping slaves. Cora, Whitehead’s protagonist, and Caesar, who inspires Cora to run, make use of the Railroad on their escape.

But this is not Tubman’s railroad. Whitehead has, instead, imagined an actual train that runs underground. This is in keeping with Whitehead’s fictional moves elsewhere – he takes reality and winds it even more tightly to create a hybrid. This is not magical realism; this is Whitehead’s world. It is life intensified.

As with many journey stories, there are echoes of the Odyssey here. Indeed, Whitehead even has named a 10-year old former slave Homer. He drives a carriage for Ridgeway, a kind of Inspector Javert of slave hunters. Having failed to catch Cora’s mother, Mabel, Ridgeway is obsessed with capturing Cora, who is escaping from Georgia. Homer, having been freed, stays with Ridgeway; he has nowhere else to go. In fact, “Each night with meticulous care, Homer opened his satchel and removed a set of manacles. He locked himself to the driver’s seat, put the key in his pocket, and closed his eyes. Ridgeway caught Cora looking. ‘He says it’s the only way he can sleep.’” The soul aches. Absolutely.

While he does not shy away from the intricate details of suffering (you’ll want to look away, but you won’t), Whitehead’s language is both spartan and evocative. Near the novel’s beginning, Whitehead recounts the story of Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother being captured and sold. He explains that two “yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.” The language evokes the bones of the Middle Passage that Ajarry is about to take. We register the harshness – humming while taking someone to be sold – and the abruptness of the word ‘bone.’ The sailors, having lost their humanity, have become skeletons of human beings. When it comes to Whitehead’s writing, less is definitely more. Much more.

In the end, though, The Underground Railroad is not just Cora’s story. Or even the story of her family. It is a story about stories – the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories our documents give us, the stories we find in libraries and museums and on money, the stories that are forbidden to us, the stories of America. “Truth was a changing display in a shop window,” Whitehead writes, “manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen offers a test of this premise. He suggests choosing one element in American history to track how it is treated in different sources over time. I chose John Brown. In some textbooks, he was absent or limited to a brief mention as a lunatic. In other texts, he earned several paragraphs and was depicted as a hero. “Cora blamed the people who wrote it down. People always got things wrong, on purpose as much as by accident,” Whitehead writes. This happens in textbooks. Novels too. Whitehead has gotten the Underground Railroad wrong, deliberately wrong, but to fault him is to miss the point. We must look, and we cannot look away. Whether we read, see an exhibit or watch a movie, we should do both and we should ask ourselves why we need to do both.

Whitehead is already racking up acclaim for this novel. Oprah chose it for her book club. The New York Times chose excerpts from it for its first broadsheet. There are, I am sure, more prizes in his future.

And I am happy for Whitehead’s success. It is time to move past considering him as a one or two-hit wonder — he wrote Zone One and Sag Harbor — and to start considering his work as a whole. If you haven’t read any of his work, The Underground Railroad is a great place to start. Some reviewers have noted how the novel resonates with today’s headlines. While this is true, such comments diminish the book. This novel will outlast headlines. It speaks to the truths underneath them. I read The Underground Railroad and was moved. Things I thought I knew shifted, sometimes slightly and sometimes violently. I was spectator, bystander, and, as hard as it is to admit it, participant. The novel is a journey, from captivity to freedom, from south to north, from past to present. It’s quite a ride.

Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. 

the-fire-this-time-9781501126345_hrThere are 108 tally marks on the cover of The Fire This Time, the new essay collection that brings forth 18 perspectives from a new generation of writers, working in the tradition of James Baldwin. Each mark represents a black life lost too soon, a visual representation of the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter.

In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, Jesmyn Ward went to Twitter to share her frustration, but found the platform too ephemeral. She was much more struck by the pertinence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ward, editor of this anthology, decided she wanted a book that “would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.”

The results are mostly successful. The Fire Next Time contains a broad spectrum of essays that tackle everything from Phillis Wheatley’s mysterious marriage to Rachel Dolezal’s recent identity hoax, an engaging concoction of both the historical and contemporary. Eleven of the 18 pieces are original, with the rest published between 2014 and 2015.

The Fire This Time opens with Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” a 14-line poem that links the imagery of a brilliantly colorful meadow with the brutal deaths of John Crawford, Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Its early inclusion instructs us to get unsettled. (Brown won an Anisfield-Wolf book award last year for The New Testament.)

After a sturdy and moving introduction, the book falls into three parts – Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. In “Da Art of Storytellin’” Kiese Laymon’s fuses of his grandmother’s 30 years of hard work at a chicken processing plant with the Southern stank of Outkast’s Atlanta classics. Emily Raboteau criss-crossed four of New York’s boroughs to capture anti-police brutality murals in “Know Your Rights!” Isabel Wilkerson, who won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf award for her Great Migration history, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” revisits 150 years of U.S. history in a slim three pages called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Her precise retelling comes with parting encouragement: “We must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”  

Still, reading most of these essays feels heavy. The collective thesis is that Black life in America, like Claudia Rankine posits in her essay, is “the condition of mourning.” But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote to his son, echoing the advice of generations before him: “That this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”

Edwidge Danticat, who took home an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2005 for The Dew Breakers, closes the book with a powerful message to her two young daughters, born in the “Yes We Can” era of Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Danticat, born in Haiti and raised partly in New York, offers a view of refugee status — a position held both by immigrants and some U.S. citizens: “The message we always heard from those who were meant to protect us: that we should either die or go somewhere else.”

Still, Danticat fortifies her daughters against this, encouraging them to seek joy: “When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”


 by Gail Arnoff

“I was not sorry when my brother died.”

So begins Tsi Tsi Dangarembga’s semi-autobiographical novel Nervous Conditions, the story of Tambudzai, a teenage girl in (the former Rhodesia now Zimbabwe) who lives in two worlds: that of her parents, poor farmers who earn a meager living, and that of her aunt and uncle, whom the British colonists have chosen to receive an education in England and eventually to run the missionary school.

I fell in love with Tambu in the first few pages, and as I introduce her to more readers, I have discovered that they take her to their hearts as well. This includes participants in a Books@Work group, women who are thirty to sixty-five, and college students in a “Questions of Identity” seminar. Until I requested it, the Cleveland libraries did not even own a copy of Nervous Conditions, but I consider Nervous Conditions a classic deserving of a wider readership.

When I mention the title, people often think that I am referring to a book on psychology. However, the title comes from a quote by Franz Fanon, a psychiatrist, writer, and revolutionary who declared in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth (1961) that “the condition of the native is a nervous condition.” Dangrembga’s semi-autobiographical novel suggests that like the natives living in what was called Rhodesia until 1980,Tambu also struggles against her condition, not only as a native, but as a girl living in a patriarchal society.

The plot is complex, but fairly easy to follow as Tambu sets out to explain, in the opening chapters of the book, why she is not sorry her brother has died.  (No spoiler alert here, as it is best to let Tambu explain herself.)  We meet other members of her family, including Jeremiah, her lazy, demanding father; Mainini, her mostly submissive mother; her Uncle Babamukuru, who heads the family and the mission school; Maiguru, Babamukuru’s college-educated wife who continues to kowtow to her husband’s many needs; and Nyasha, Tambu’s troubled female cousin, who plays a major role in introducing Tambu to a new world.

The Books@Work group related easily to Tambu’s brave response as she comes to understand the patriarchy of her family, members of the Shona group. Many readers recognized themselves in Tambu’s spirited rebellion and determination to become an educated, independent woman.  Several readers recounted their own teenage adventures, as well as those of their teenage daughters. We laughed often when sharing stories of sneaking out to see a boy or taking that first sip of beer. In more serious discussions, we listened to a participant who grew up in Nigeria and another married to a man from Zimbabwe. Both provided insights into customs and issues that frame Tambu and her family. These women’s experiences added richness to discussions fueled by Tambu’s resourcefulness and tenacity.

My college students, much closer to Tambu’s age, were often outraged — particularly at the patriarchy and the colonialism. When Babamukuru and his family return from England to Rhodesia, their acquaintances treat them differently. They have become, as Nyasha says, “hybrids.” At her uncle’s house Tambu is shocked when Anna, a woman working for the Babamukurus, kneels down in front of the two girls to tell them that dinner is ready.  Nyasha tells Anna to get up, but “Anna continue[s] her message on her knees.” These scenes shocked some students, most of whom have never seen the stark discrimination and race separations confronting Tambu and her cousin.

Nevertheless, students who come from places quite different than 20th century Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, are drawn again and again to the characters in Nervous Conditions. “I found myself relating to [Tambu’s] thought processes and parts of her personality, in particular the way she takes on the role of observer in many situations,” wrote one first-generation American whose parents are Chinese. Another student said that reading the novel was “like walking into a swimming pool: I felt pretty cold when I first started reading, but I got warmer and more engaged as I got to know the characters and began to puzzle out the themes.” Yet another young man was surprised by his connection to Tambu and wrote that “though I did not know what to think at first, Nervous Conditions and Tambu have garnered a special place in my heart and I thoroughly enjoyed watching both of them exceed my preconceptions and expectations.”

For both groups of readers, Dangarembga’s writing seemed more straightforward than lyrical; it is the responses of her characters that kindled interest. Tambu “does not look back on her life with kind or insensitive eyes,” one student wrote. “Instead, she is pragmatic and honest.  She acknowledges the nostalgia that may or may not have seeped into her narrative, but otherwise, Tambu is a shrewd and reliable narrator.  I appreciated Tambu’s fairness.”

Maybe it is especially that “fairness” that wins over readers.  Tambu tells her story without pronouncing judgements or offering solutions. She reports that she has gone through a “process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began.”  Dangarembga wrote another novel, a sequel to Nervous Conditions called The Book of Not.

Next up: my book club will discuss Nervous Conditions.  We have just read two novels by African authors, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, and Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Annisfield Wolf award for Half the Yellow Sun in 2007. These novels are as different from one another as one can imagine. I am keen to hear yet another group’s response to Nervous Conditions, and I hope that my friends, like me, will open their hearts to Tambu, just as the other groups have.  But that is a tale for another time.

IMG_8206_adj_4x6Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.

When Andrew Solomon went to Finland to promote The Noonday Demon, his ground-breaking 2001 book on depression, he landed on a leading morning television show.

The interviewer, “a gorgeous blonde woman, leaned forward and asked in a mildly offended tone, ‘So, Mr. Solomon. What can you, an American, have to tell the Finnish people about depression?’” the writer recalls in his newest work.

“I felt as though I had written a book about hot peppers and gone to promote it in Sichuan,” Solomon jokes in the leisurely and chatty introduction to Far & Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years.


Clearly this 52-year-old writer, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013, has serious wanderlust. Solomon has traveled to 83 of the 196 recognized nations in the world. “I’ve been to so many places, and seen so much, and sometimes it feels like a glut of sunsets and churches and monuments,” he admits.

But it is also clear that travel has helped form Solomon into a public intellectual. By the end of this book, he himself is setting off scandals in Ghana and Romania, largely via his reputation as an LGBT activist. Far & Away collects 28 essays from Solomon’s decades of globe-trotting, including one set in northern Bali called “Where Everyone Signs.” It is plucked from his chapter on deafness in Far From the Tree, his Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction.

“I had started traveling out of curiosity,” Solomon writes, “but I came to believe in travel’s political importance, that encouraging a nation’s citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation, or national thrift.”  A few pages later he elaborates, “When I was in Libya, the people I met who had an essentially pro-American stance had all studied in the United States, whereas those who were vehemently anti-American had not.”

As a young New Yorker studying in England, Solomon cops to some youthful callowness: “I confused, as many young people do, the glamour of being an outsider with the liberty to do or think whatever crossed my mind.” Serious travel taught the writer to grapple with ideas he would not have otherwise encountered: “When Chinse intellectuals spoke to me of the good that came of the Tiananmen massacre, when Pakistani women spoke of their pride in wearing the hijab, when Cubans enthused about their autocracy, I had to reconsider my reflexive enthusiasm for self-determination. In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, and this often allows for more visionary ambitions.”

Today Solomon leads a highly political life at the helm of the Pen America Center, a venerable nonprofit that advocates for imperiled writers globally.

His new book has a dizzying array of datelines. The first essay, “The Winter Palettes,” stems from Solomon’s first reporting assignment abroad. In 1988, the British monthly “Harpers & Queen” sent him to the USSR to cover Sotheby’s first sale of contemporary Soviet art.  It begins with a toast, and in a book of many toasts and parties, captures some of the intoxication swirled into art and social change.

“I am susceptible to that little moment of romance when a society on the brink of change falls temporarily in love with itself,” Solomon writes. “I’ve heard to same people speak of the great hope they felt when Stalin came to power and the hope they later felt when he died; others, of the hope they felt when the Cultural Revolution began and the hope they felt when it ended. . . Hope is a regular chime in political life.”

His last essay, “Lost at the Surface,” details a narrow escape from drowning while scuba diving off Australia.  He wrote it last year for “The Moth.” Invariably, it is illuminating to look out through Andrew Solomon’s eyes – whether he is drifting in the open ocean or realizing in Cuba in 1997 that “If you want to get to know a strange country quickly and deeply, there’s nothing like organizing a party.”

by Gary Stonum

In electoral politics you must choose one candidate. In identity politics, it is often the same. As Warren Duffy, the African American narrator in the 2015 novel Loving Day, tells his newly discovered teenage daughter Tal, “There’s Team White and Team Black, okay? You probably didn’t even know you were on Team White.”

Of course, things are not so simple. Like author Mat Johnson, Duffy identifies as black but looks white, “the human equivalent of mismatched socks.” Repeatedly, he must perform his race in order to fit in. Worse, 17-year-old Tal, who is actually darker than her father, has been raised Jewish since her mother died, and was, as her father puts it, “casually racist.”

This may sound like the setup for a 21st century update of a tragic mulatto plot. Johnson instead writes the comic mulatto novel.  Many of the scenes in Loving Day are hilarious, the literary equivalent of Key & Peele sketches expanded into a full Marx Brothers movie. But like those confections, Johnson’s plot is secondary – and generally less successful than the sharply witty observations and wacky set pieces. In this, the novel is much like Pym, Johnson’s less ambitious, more focused 2011 book that established his reputation as a satirist in the tradition of George Schuyler and Ishmael Reed.

Duffy, packing an extra dose of double consciousness because of his skin color, understands all too well the guilty satisfaction his peers take for “sitting in judgment over others for insufficient blackness.” Our protagonist notes, “Black people aren’t used to not having the final say on race in America; it’s uncomfortable.”

Learning the name of one Sunita Habersham, Duffy observes that the British identify class from accent but “in African America first names offer not only class and region but year” of birth.  She predates the “celebrity insane-name movement, which means her parents were also hippies and most likely young and idealistic when she was born.”

But Duffy, back in the U.S. from Wales and a wife who has just divorced him, has more pressing problems. Broke, feckless and a failed at his chosen profession as a comic-book artist, he has inherited from his father a dilapidated, roofless, and haunted colonial mansion. It sits incongruously on seven acres of lawn in a dilapidated section of 21st century Philadelphia.  To pay for the divorce and provide schooling for Tal, Duffy must either sell the heap or, better, burn it down for the insurance.

The two burdens eventually converge when Tal enrolls at the Melange Center for Multiracial Life, a would-be “Mulattotopia” squatting at first in a city park but soon decamped to the grounds of the mansion. Hijinks and heartbreaks mount among a cast of mixed-race characters, including a giant blond Thor look-alike who has renamed himself “One Drop” after the infamous rule.  Tal believes the mansion is haunted by the ghosts of the Lovings, the sacred First Couple of interracial marriage, whose successful 1967 lawsuit legalized interracial marriage nationally. Loving Day, the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, is celebrated at the Melange Center as “Mulatto Christmas.”

Like the Duffy family lawyer who is fluent in “Caucasian, street, and brotherman,” Johnson is especially acute on speech patterns, noticing a white clerk who “keeps his expression passive and servile” and concluding that we “have truly arrived in a new age.”

New age or not, the characters here can scarcely agree what to call themselves:  Mixies, mixed race, redbone, halfro, biracial, triracial, mulatto, WASPafarian and, for epithets, the matched pair of Oreo and sunflower. None names a Team.

Gary Stonum is a critic and professor emeritus of English at Case Western Reserve University.

the turner houseSpread over the opening pages of Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House” is a family tree, its branches enumerating the 61 members of the Turner clan, the Detroit family at the heart of her engrossing debut novel. Inspired by her father’s Detroit upbringing and his 12 siblings, Flournoy makes her mark in modern literature with the Turners.

The Turner family home — a mint-green and brick single family structure on Detroit’s fictional Yarrow Street that served as its “sedentary mascot” — has seen 13 children come and go, and many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren walk through its doors. With matriarch Viola in failing health and patriarch Francis long deceased, the question of what to do with the house, its value plummeting, calls the Turner heirs together. 

The home is more than just a childhood sanctuary; it’s the place where mysteries reside and secrets linger. Flournoy cuts to the quick, offering the defining mystery of the book in the first sentence: Are there haints (ghosts) in Detroit?

Turner family legend has it that eldest son Charles (nicknamed Cha-Cha) rumbled at midnight with a pale figure emitting a strange blue light. Even when five other Turner siblings corroborate the sighting, Francis Turner firmly insists, “There ain’t no haints in Detroit.” End of discussion. Fifty years later, the reappearance of the pale blue light prompts Cha-Cha to explore his childhood in depth.

Newly available in paperback, “The Turner House” made a splashy 2015 debut as a finalist for the National Book Award, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and an NAACP Image Award. The skillful storytelling and realistic sense of history and place combine into an elegant and heartwarming narrative. The novel traffics in science-fiction, romance and historical fiction, but at its heart it’s a page-turner.

You don’t have to be a Detroiter to smell the Midwestern air, to see the crumbling neighborhoods, to feel the residential pride and worry as you flip the pages. After the youngest child, Lelah (now in her early 40s and newly evicted) seeks refuge in the empty Turner home, a neighbor comes over to check on the place, telling her of a recent squatter nearby: “Up in there like he paid rent, just living the life of Riley. Eatin her food and makin long-distance calls.”

Like most African-American families of the period, this story has its origins in the Great Migration, as Francis leaves Arkansas (and his new wife and son) to build a new life in the bright promise of Detroit and to send for his family after he gets settled. Stability proves hard to come by, however, and the reader is left wondering how Francis and Viola possibly reunite. Once they do (and eventually fill their hard-earned home with one child after another), it’s clear that the house means more to them than any mortgage deed could say. 

The novel feels familiar to anyone with a sibling or two — the playful squabbles, the family meetings, the jockeying to be a parent’s favorite. There are very few missteps here, but a few siblings are barely present. Most of the story focuses on Cha-Cha and Lelah, the bookends of the Turner line. And a couple of outsider characters do prevent reader claustrophobia.

Flournoy told the National Book Foundation that she wanted to present both sides of life in Detroit — the well-documented struggles and the lesser-known cultural traditions that keep Detroiters smiling.

Numerous readers are likely to join in. 


In March 2012, U.S. Representative Bobby Rush stood on the House floor dressed in a gray hooded sweatshirt, one month after Trayvon Martin was shot dead in a Florida suburb. “Just because someone wears a hoodie, does not make them a hoodlum,” said the Illinois Democrat. “Just because someone is a young Black male and wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum. . .” He was escorted off the floor and out of the chamber by the sergeant-in-arms for violating decorum.


Author Alison Kinney begins her “Hood” – publishing this week — with this telling moment. Part of the publisher Bloombury’s “Object Lessons” series, “Hood” contains a definite chill as Kinney tracks the history and significance of the garment through the 15th century to the present.

“We all wear hoods,” Kinney writes, “but our hoods evoke everything from recess and the wind chill factor to executioners and cross burning.” The hood, at its core, is all about power, she writes: who has it, who lacks it and where the power originates.

Kinney tells a riveting story of the origins of the Ku Klux Klan’s hooded uniforms.  The deadly persistent terrorists of the Klan originally lacked cohesion: some members simply wore blackface to conceal their identities (and taunt their victims) and others donned horns or flour sacks. But after D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1905, the cinematic outfits became standard. Factories opened in Atlanta to mass-produce the regalia, outfitting some 100,000 new recruits. Kinney doesn’t editorialize here, because she doesn’t need to—the facts are eloquent.

The adoption of the “hoodie” over the past few decades as a ubiquitous part of American wardrobes reflects our need for protection from the elements. But as Kinney reports, the “only criminals don hoodies” stereotype became a convenient and covert way to discriminate against Black people. A Harlem bodega threatened trespassing charges on customers wearing hoodies; several school districts restricted hoodies as part of the dress code. “There are lots of crimes happening on Wall Street, but we don’t stop and frisk people who wear Brooks Brothers suits,” one interviewee says. “What suit was Sheldon Silver wearing? What kind was Bernie Madoff wearing?”

This examination is part of the strength of the Object Lessons series. (Other titles look at “Silence,” “Glass,” and “Dust.”) Kinney, a writer in Brooklyn, New York, knits seemingly disparate subjects — burkinis and gentrification, for example — together in such a way that the connection is instantly appreciated – and she does her work in fewer than 200 pages. It’s thought-provoking without the lecture.

In examining these small yet significant objects of daily life, we find new meaning in the world around us. Next time you get a little chilly and reach for your hoodie, thank Kinney for this history lesson.

Violence permeates nearly every page of “The Education of Kevin Powell.” Neighborhood boys, relatives, authority figures and even the author himself doles out pain aplenty in this memoir and coming-of-age story.

Born and raised in a poverty-stricken Jersey City neighborhood, young Kevin’s early years are a series of grim vignettes—fights on the school yard, nightmares about rats in the walls and a few brief visits from a father scarcely there. From such beginnings he grows into a prominent activist among the post-Civil Rights generation—fighting police brutality, racism and sexism.  

Powell, 49, traces his love for words to the Greenville Public Library, where he stumbled upon “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as an 11-year-old. He fell in love with Ernest Hemingway. “If I could not physically leave my hometown, or escape the numbing sensation of being trapped in a concrete box,” he writes, “well at least my mind could be free to go wherever a book or play or poem took me.”

If the library sent him on imaginative adventures, his adolescent temper often landed him in terrible straights: Powell scrapes with a high school classmate and an interfering police officer knocks him out. He draws blood fighting with his cousin. “I don’t think you gonna make it, boy,” his mother says on more than one occasion, usually after a brush with the law. “You been givin’ me trouble your whole life.”


But Rutgers University provides a portal to a better sense of self, history and pride. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston on the syllabus of a Harlem Renaissance course awakened his ear: “The language that my people spoke, including my mother and my Southern kinfolk, was beautiful poetry, as fine as anything that I ever studied by Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Keats.”

The reader watches the writer organize and clash with campus peers simultaneously, and sees him land a place as a cast member of the first season of MTV’s The Real World in 1992.

Immediately after, Powell joined the staff of Vibe magazine, a new hip-hop publication founded by Anisfield-Wolf winner Quincy Jones. But a few years in, he becomes disillusioned. After criticizing management and confronting other staffers one too many times, Powell is fired. He uses the next two decades to write 11 books, give speeches in all 50 states and launch two idealistic bids for Congress in Brooklyn.

While his professional trajectory makes up the bulk of the book, Powell’s relationship with his mother is its heartbeat. She is his constant companion — their first night apart is his first day at Rutgers. A stern woman who pushed her only child to excel academically, she was quick to dole out beatings for small infractions. Her son vacillates between yearning for her love and choking down his bitterness toward her. When fellow hip-hop activist Sister Souljah attempted to hug him, Powell’s instinct was to pull away. “In my eighteen years of life my mother and I had never hugged, had never kissed, had never said to each other, ‘I love you.'”

“The Education of Kevin Powell” falls short in grappling with how this harshness affected relationships with women, and with himself. The writer breezes past his contemptuous treatment of lovers and others, alongside stints in therapy. Powell does, however, open up about his depression and alcoholism, following his dismissal from Vibe.

The book’s pacing is problematic and some of its stories here deserved a stronger arc. Powell’s reunion with paternal relatives after his father’s death should feel celebratory, but it is flattened by brevity.  

In spite of such flaws, “Education” is powerful, and worth reading, a searing testimony worth much more than an entire series of “The Real World.”  

About a year ago, I noticed a number of black women I follow online all wearing the same “Black Girls are Magic” t-shirt in their social media profiles. Launched by @ThePBG on Twitter, the t-shirt line was created in “celebration of the beauty, intelligence and power of Black women everywhere.”

It’s not hard to imagine those magical black women nestled somewhere reading journalist Tamara Winfrey Harris‘ first book, ‘The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America.” Her thesis is that black women are “neither innately damaged nor fundamentally flawed,” but instead are aching to be recognized for their full humanity.

So what is Winfrey Harris pushing back against? In a brisk 123 pages, the Indiana native investigates the “three-headed hydra” of black women stereotypes—the sassy Sapphire, the subservient Mammy and the hypersexual Jezebel— interspersing her own narrative with interviews from other black women. “Black women are not waiting to be fixed,” she writes. “They are fighting to be free — free to define themselves absent narratives driven by race and gender biases.” (Sound familiar?)

Winfrey Harris breaks these broad stereotypes into smaller, more nuanced discussions.  She examines the sudden re-emergence of the natural hair movement and the back-breaking albatross that is the “strong black woman” syndrome. As one exasperated subject tells the author, “When are they going to realize I’m a complete phony? I just want to go back to bed. I don’t want to do this, because what if I’m not strong? What if I want to cry? What if I want to admit that things hurt? Who do I admit that to?”

I was most drawn to the chapter on parenting and the ways in which black women are chastised for their reproductive choices, from slavery to the present, despite the acknowledgement of the hurdles black women uniquely face. One anecdote was particularly haunting: a mother teaching her son to scream out his first and middle name if ever he was confronted by someone looking to harm him, a lesson she thought wise to impart after the confusion over who was screaming in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman confrontation. This is “parenting while black” in the age of #BlackLivesMatter.

Harris’ work is not merely reactive. While she does push back on the negative stereotypes, her book is as much affirmation as it is repudiation. Nestled within each chapter are a few “Moments in Alright” vignettes, highlighting black women who created their own spaces and their own success stories.

There is something innately familiar about this work, starting with the old-school cover illustration of four happy black girls. As a black woman reading a text written by a black woman about being a black woman in America, it was the most invigorated I’ve felt in a long time.

And the timing couldn’t be better. When Ta-Nehisi Coates was asked about the lack of black women in his blockbuster Between the World and Me, published a week after Winfrey Harris’ book, he responded that the best answer was to “have more books” that can speak to all facets of the black community. Here’s hoping that some of those who rushed to buy Coates’ work find out The Sisters Are Alright too.

When a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates watched his 15-year-old son Samori slowly stand up and walk into his own Baltimore bedroom to cry.

As Coates recounts this story in Between the World and Me, he writes that he followed his son, but did not hug or console him: “I did not tell you it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”

Originally conceived as a collection of essays on the Civil War, Between the World and Me arrived four months ahead of its scheduled publication with a more urgent focus. Coates writes about the physical and psychological toll of being black in America, in the form of six letters/chapters to his son. Publisher Speigel and Grau bumped the release date up in response to the massacre of nine churchgoers in Charleston, as Between the World and Me “spoke to this moment.”

But the rush to get the book on shelves didn’t preclude Toni Morrison: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died,” Morrison had written. “Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

If Coates record-breaking 2014 reporting in “The Case for Reparations,” an Atlantic article, can be considered an intellectual appetizer, Between the World and Me serves as the entree.

Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Coates has delivered a work that is as authoritative as it is inquisitive. Why can’t we, as a nation, come to terms with what we have wrought? Why do we constantly discuss “race” when we need to be eradicating racism? And perhaps most importantly, will we get it right anytime soon?

The Baltimore native connects his son’s disappointment in the Wilson non-indictment and the incident that hastened his own disillusionment with the American criminal justice system. In 2000, a Prince George’s County officer shot and killed Prince Jones, a Howard University student and friend of the author.  This scorched Coates’ soul and psyche and he spends a sixth of his book writing about Jones.

He frames Jones’ slaying as an exemplar of what can befall the black body even in the best case scenario: a young man with a bright future, educated at some of the nation’s best schools, nurtured from birth toward greatness, bleeding to death outside his fiancee’s house in a case of mistaken identity. “Prince Jones was the superlative of all my fears,” Coates writes. “And if he, good Christian, scion of a striving class, patron saint of the twice as good could be forever bound, who then could not?”

Jones’ death is part of the reason Coates avoids shackling his son with “twice as good” generational mantra of black folks everywhere: “It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered….It is the raft of second chances for them and twenty-three-hour days for us.”

Not all in this book is grim. The most encouraging chapter centers on Coates’ undergraduate years at “The Mecca,” Howard University. Here he takes us on a virtual campus tour, leading up to the transformation many young adults undergo when they are learning on their own terms for the first time. He devours books three at a time and marvels that he’s walking in the footsteps of alumnae Lucille Clifton and Toni Morrison. Coates meets the woman he will marry, Kenyatta Matthews, a Chicagoan with a bit of wanderlust. (She inspired his first trip to Paris, where later this year, the couple and their son plan to relocate for a year.)

Read through my own lens as a black parent of black children, Between the World and Me is sobering. It offers no sense that the job will be made easier by magical conversations on how to navigate life safely in America. Coates’ parenting is blunt: “I have always believed that my job was not to hide the world from you but to guide you through it and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as a celebration or a wake.”

One nitpick: In certain passages, Coates meanders around a subject as if figuratively speaking, he forgets his son is in the room. The message is still there, but the receiver is not so clear. Other reviewers have called into question whether Between the World and Me is too male-centric. Buzzfeed editor Shani O. Hilton writes that she was disappointed that the “black male experience is still used as a stand in for the black experience.”

Nevertheless, this book is a masterpiece, and here is a postscript: I would still like to read that Civil War book. What does one of the most fertile and curious minds of our era have to say about our nation’s deadliest war? He gives us a tease here, but let’s hope a full-bodied work is still on the way.

Between the World and Me goes on sale Tuesday, July 14.

A 200-page book on the untimely death of a spouse hardly seems like it would make for light summer reading. But as I’ve devoured Elizabeth Alexander‘s new memoir, The Light of The World, I’ve discovered that there’s beauty in loss, there’s sparkle in remembrance.

The poet lost her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus (pronounced Fee-kray Geb-reh-yess-oos) in April 2012, days after his 50th birthday. Their 15-year union produced two sons, Solomon and Simon, and a cozy life in Connecticut, where Alexander is a professor at Yale University. She composed “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration; a year later she won the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize.

Light does not begin with her husband’s passing, with Alexander preferring we get to know the man before we get to know the ghost. We get to peek into their daily courtship, the mundane aspects of a relationship—leaving for work, waiting up for a partner to get home—taking on a heightened importance. She paints a portrait of a man filled with pride for his Eritrean heritage and an extended family that spanned the globe. Still fresh from her loss, she decided to write this memoir to “fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”

Alexander insists that she knew she would marry her husband at first sight, confiding that she felt a “visceral torque” after laying eyes on her future beloved. But perhaps more powerfully, Alexander is able to show how much her husband loved her, how much of his life was dedicated to bringing light to hers.

Readers holding their breath for the details of Ghebreyesus’ death should know that it comes quickly. Here, the pain and uncertainty of death arrive fresh, even though we know what story we signed up to read. Alexander wrestles with the brutal unfairness of it all: “The slim one who eats oatmeal and flaxseed is the one who dies, while the plump one who eats bacon unabashed stays alive.”

Their story is overwhelmingly and achingly beautiful, with passages that elevate ho-hum Sunday dinners to love-drenched culinary affairs. (The inclusion of a few of Ghebreyesus’ best recipes only tease the senses; I’ve got my eye on the shrimp barka.) Their whole lives were art, from the music to the food to the telling of it all—it is a fitting tribute that one of her husband’s paintings adorns the cover.

“What are the odds that we would end up in the same place and fall in love?” she mused. “Once upon a time, halfway around the world, two women were pregnant at the same time in very different places and their children grew up and found each other.” What are the odds, indeed.

The second installment in March, Rep. John Lewis’ acclaimed graphic memoir trilogy on the civil rights movement, picks up where the first volume left off, but this book is more handbook than history lesson.

“I see some of the same manners, some of the same thinking, on the part of young people today that I witnessed as a student,” the Georgia Congressman, 74, told the New York Times. “The only thing that is so different is that I don’t think many of the young people have a deep understanding of the way of nonviolent direct action.”

March: Book Two, released in January, offers a robust crash course. This book centers on a young Lewis and his increasing responsibility within the movement from 1960 to 1963. The graphic memoir opens on young protesters staging a sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter. The peaceful protest soon turned ugly as the restaurant owner deployed a fumigating device to drive away the demonstrators.  Lewis, by then seasoned, was still in disbelief: “Were we not human to him?”

Those sit-ins led to the Freedom Rides of 1961. In his letter to organizer Fred Shuttlesworth, Lewis was resolute in his desire to participate: “This is the most important decision in my life — to decide to give up all if necessary for the freedom ride, that justice and freedom might come to the deep south.”

The harrowing bus rides — orchestrated to test the new anti-segregation bus laws made possible by the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virginia — unleashed angry mobs that bloodied and battered many of the riders. This led to conflict within the movement, with divisions growing between members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. (Lewis would later become chairman.)

The book culminates with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where a 23-year-old Lewis spoke sixth. A sense of relief settles in for the reader, yet it doesn’t last long. The final pages are a sledgehammer to the gut. It is clear: there is much more work to do.

Interwoven with this narrative is the historic 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, shown through Lewis’ eyes. The juxtaposition is stirring but somber.

Lewis’ goal is not simply to explain the methods of the movement, but also the soul. Book Two’s greatest strength is its focus on sacrifice — the graphic memoir centers on the physical, emotional and financial price paid by those at the forefront of the movement. Lewis praises his comrades repeatedly for their intellect and fortitude, allowing them to shine alongside King. (He is particularly fond of A. Phillip Randolph, noting, “If he had been born at another time, he could’ve been president.”)

Lewis’ senior aide Andrew Aydin is a co-writer, as he was for the first book.  Both are illustrated by award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell, who does exceptionally detailed work here. Almost two years ago, March: Book One became required reading for first-year students at several major universities. Moreover, schools in more than 40 states are teaching March at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. USA Today and The Washington Post named it one of the top books of 2013.

At the debut of March, Lewis said, “I hope that this book will inspire another generation of people to get in the way, find a way to get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

by Terry Pederson

If you dreaded English class and still stumble over there, their and they’re, then Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” may not be the best use of your leisure time. But if you love the English language – if you approach it with reverence, if you delight in translating thoughts into words – then jump right in and enjoy the ride.

Subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” this book refutes the popular notion that the Internet is systematically destroying the language and our ability to clearly express ourselves on paper or screen. In fact, self-appointed scolds have been deploring the perceived decline in proper usage for centuries, as Pinker documents in a series of citations dating to the invention of the printing press.

Conversely, Pinker believes that evolving linguistic standards keep English vibrant and relevant. Far from an inflexible purist, Pinker – chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror – generally embraces this progression. He notes that 10,000 new words and word senses made it into the dictionary’s fifth edition, published in 2011.

Yet the real value of Pinker’s new book lies less in refereeing the incessant grammar wars than in probing the magic that permeates fine prose. All writers, he maintains, labor under the curse of knowledge: “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” Hence the impenetrable, jargon-filled corporate announcement or the pompous academic paper that defies understanding. Skillful writers know how to surmount the curse of knowledge.

Proper grammar, word choice and punctuation are potent weapons in this struggle, but Pinker’s opinion of what is acceptable today can seems arbitrary. Thus, he sanctions the increasingly common “comprised of,” which grates on the ear of many a careful writer who believes that the whole comprises the parts, while he nitpicks “parameter” as a synonym for “boundary.”

Such quibbles aside, Pinker is persuasive and writes exceedingly well, enlivening his text with references to that renowned linguistics expert, humorist Dave Barry, and colorful examples of syntactic strife, like a Yale student’s news release advertising “a faculty panel on sex in college with four professors.”

“The Sense of Style” is an entertaining romp with a contemporary message about the timeless gift of clear, graceful writing.

It took three attempts before I could get past the first entry in Patient, an uncomfortable jaunt into America’s crippling disregard of black bodies. It is raw.

In this collection of 53 poems, Bettina Judd excoriates two famous men — Dr. J. Marion Sims, long considered the father of modern gynecology, and circus showman P.T. Barnum — for their exploitation of enslaved women in furthering their careers. The poet, a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary, investigates this trauma and somehow coaxes dignity from a horrific past.

Dr. Sims arrived at an Alabama plantation in the mid-1840s to assist an enslaved woman in a stalled, three-day labor. He used his discoveries in that delivery to refine his medical knowledge. Over five years, Sims performed dozens of operations and procedures on enslaved women, all without anesthesia or consent. Yet the first statue erected in the U.S. to commemorate a physician depicted Sims, according to the American College of Gynecology’s journal Clinical Review.

But little is known of the women he used as subjects. Here, Judd offers three of them a platform, giving voice to their pain and erasure from history. A taste of their journey, from the poem “Betsey Invents The Speculum”:

I have bent in other ways
to open the body   make space

More pliable than pewter,
my skin may be less giving

Great discoveries are made
on cushioned lessons and hard falls

Sims invents the speculum
I invent the wincing

the if you must of it
the looking away

the here of discovery

A fourth voice of Patient belongs to Joice Heth, a blind enslaved woman put on exhibition by Barnum in 1835 during his first foray as a showman. Billed as an 160-year-old former “mammy” to President George Washington, Heth was a huge draw, allowing Barnum to pocket more than $1,000 a week. When she died, Barnum held a public autopsy to prove her age, charging spectators 50 cents to watch. Judd masterfully gives Joice the megaphone in “Joice Heth Presents: Herself,” as she booms through her own death:

Hover over my corpse
and escape.

A nameless modern voice floats in this collection, representing the plight of African-American women like Esmin Green, who died on the floor of a New York City emergency room in 2008. She laid motionless on the floor for 30 minutes before anyone came to take her pulse. Judd notes the importance of how distinctly the past informs the present.

Marinated in pain and sacrifice, Judd’s work is evocative, even as it is hard to stomach at times. Readers who gird themselves will be quite moved by the art they find.

For a stretch in the 1970s, television producer Norman Lear had nine shows on the air at once—with four in the top ten Nielsen ratings. He marvels at his own prodigious output in Even This I Get To Experience, a new witty and exhaustive autobiography.

Born in 1922, young Norman got off to a bumpy start. During the Great Depression, when he was 9, his father Herman went to prison for selling fake bonds to a Boston brokerage house. Norman shuttled among various relatives in Chelsea, Mass., while his mother and sister moved two hours away to New Haven, Conn. This abandonment would haunt Lear most of his life. By the time his father was released, Norman had found a new role model: his uncle Jack, a publicist. This, he decided, is what he would be when he grew up.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lear enlisted in the Air Force, flying on more than 50 bombing missions and finding time to marry the first of three wives. After his return, he packed up his family and headed west, lucking into a writing gig for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. He quickly realized — both monetarily and emotionally — that comedy was home.

When Lear began his career in television in the early 1950s, he found the medium soulless. “For twenty years—until All in the Family came along—TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House,” he writes.

Lear wanted more realism, and he used his “rascal” father as inspiration for Archie Bunker. Many of his iconic shows—All in the Family, Sanford & Son, The Jeffersons, and Maude—wrung comedy from serious subjects: racism, poverty, drugs and abuse. Maude Findlay’s abortion storyline was the first time a leading character on a primetime show underwent the procedure. The episode aired in 1972, a year before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision decriminalized abortion in the early months of pregnancy.

Actress Esther Rolle made a vivid impression in her supporting role as Florida Evans, Maude’s housekeeper, and Lear recruited a few black writers to script a spin-off featuring Florida and her family. The resulting show, Good Times, was the first television show to feature a two-parent African-American family. It debuted to high ratings and proved to have wide appeal, attracting a viewership that was 60% white.

But such a high-wire act brought new challenges. Lear recounts going toe-to-toe with Rolle and co-star John Amos in the writer’s room. Rolle and Amos insisted certain lines be scrubbed, arguing that black people didn’t use certain vernacular. One story involved Jimmie Walker’s character, J.J., painting a black Jesus. Rolle considered the episode blasphemous. Lear was tickled: “Odd that the largely white writing staff of a show about a black family was defending the notion of a black Jesus to a black woman.”

When Walker’s J.J. ad-libbed “Dy-no-mite!,” he thrilled audiences but dismayed Rolle and Amos, who found his portrayal too buffoonish. Weighted by distrust and exhausted on both sides, Good Times wheezed to six seasons. The idea for Lear’s next sitcom, The Jeffersons, came out of a Black Panthers’ critique. Lear recalls the men stopping by his office to demand better representation: “Every time you see a black man on the tube he is dirt poor, wears shit clothes, can’t afford nothing.” George Jefferson, owner of a successful dry cleaning chain, was born.

Lear estimates he helped develop more than 100 shows, producing The Facts of Life, Who’s the Boss and 227. In 1999, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts for “changing the way we look at American society.”

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens his memoir, “Fire Up In My Bones,” with a face full of tears.

“I had never thought myself capable of killing,” he wrote. “I was a twenty-year-old college student. But I was about to kill a man. My own cousin, Chester.”

The murderous impulse is triggered by a brief, casual phone call from his older cousin, who molested Blow when he was a young boy. The brief event splits his life into two. “Trauma stays alive and stays with you,” Blow, 44, told Mother Jones. “You relive it every day, so those scenes are incredibly fresh.”

Blow ultimately changed his mind and returned to his dorm, cleansed of the anger that he carried for more than a decade. That betrayal informed his perception of the world and his place in it. As a child, he took pains to adapt to his new reality, first immersing himself in religion and finding solace in the arms of his first girlfriend, then throwing himself into his schoolwork with vigor.

Like many sexual abuse survivors, Blow never spoke of the abuse to his mother, Billie, with whom he had a particularly close relationship. As the youngest of five boys, he is her shadow, accompanying her through most of his waking moments. It is this reluctance to leave his mother’s side that caused his first label to stick: Mama’s boy.

“Daddy’s boy,” not so much. His parents’ tumultuous relationship led to the couple calling it quits when Blow was young; his father only made sporadic visits thereafter. “The only time I ever saw a person actually shoot a gun at another, I was five years old, and it was my mother shooting at my father,” Blow wrote.

His life in small-town Louisiana changed drastically as Billie worked at a nearby chicken factory to provide for her sons. Among their new pastimes: hunting for treasure at the local dump, eating clay dirt from a roadside ditch, and scouring wreckage on the interstate. But, Blow noted, no matter how tight money became, his mother never cancelled her subscription to the local paper.

His father’s absence created an “emotional, spiritual loneliness,” Blow admitted. He looked to relatives, neighborhood boys and schoolmates to show him how to be. That thread of masculinity—how you define it and live it on a daily basis—permeates Blow’s musings from adolescence to adulthood. Childhood friends are defined by where they fall on the sexuality spectrum. An early sexual encounter with a girlfriend leaves him shaken after he realizes he doesn’t know how to perform “as a man should.” The yearning to belong pushes him to pledge during his freshman year at nearby Grambling State University in Louisana. Blow, plagued all his life by accusations of being “soft,” earns respect from his fraternity brothers for being able to endure the most pain during hazing.

He entered college as a pre-law major, a stepping stone to his then-career aspiration of becoming Louisana’s first African-American governor. But it was an English professor who, after Blow submitted a particularly strong essay, convinced him to focus on a journalism career. He landed at the New York Times as a graphics intern (a position created especially for him) where he rose up the ranks to become the paper’s visual op-ed columnist.

The ending is abrupt—he fast-forwards through college and on to the present day in roughly half a chapter—but it’s a credit to his storytelling that you still want 50 or more pages. He ends with a message of self-acceptance, a vow to “accept myself joyfully, fully, as the amalgamation of both the gifts and the tragedies of fate, as the person destiny had chosen me to be — gloriously rendered, deeply scarred, magnificently made, naturally flawed — a human being, my own man.”

Laird Hunt’s transfixing new novel “Neverhome” unspools in the voice of a Civil War soldier.  It works upon the reader like a haunting.  The narrator is Ash Thompson, a young woman passing as a man into the uniform of the Union.

The opening line: “I was strong and he was not so it was me went to war to defend the Republic.” Ash Thompson—born Constance—is telling us about her young husband Bartholomew and her strong desire to leave their Indiana farm to see the world: “I wanted to drink different waters, feel different heats. Stand with my comrades atop the ruin of old ideas. Walk forward with a thousand others. Plant my boot and steel my eye and not run.  I said all of this to my dead mother, spoke it down through the dirt: there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark. We both of us, me and Bartholomew, knew what my mother would have said in response and it was like she was saying it each time I asked her what she thought.

Go on. Go on and see what you got.”

So the reader and Ash are launched. Toward the end of the story, an educated woman in Springfield, Ohio takes in the remnants of this subterfuge and murmurs, “Penelope gone to the war and Odysseus staying home.”  Ash can only reply, “Ma’am?”

Indeed, some dozens, perhaps hundreds, of American women chose to bind their breasts and fight instead of wait during the War Between the States. On the pages of “Neverhome,” they occasionally recognize each other. Hunt credits, “most crucially,” in his acknowledgements “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Private Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1865” by Lauren Cook Burgess.

As erudite as Hunt is, and as careful his research, “Neverhome” casts the powerful spell of fiction, hurtling its reader into “the stripped and battle-burned land” as lyrically as the best war novels. Hunt, 46, a University of Denver professor in Boulder, Col., won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “Kind One,” a slavery-shadowed story anchored on a Kentucky pig farm.  (He will return to Northeast Ohio to speak about “Neverhome” at 7 p.m., Tuesday, September 23 to the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.)

Hunt has a gift for rural voices and rural ways, and for teleporting us into the mid-19th century American landscape.  The thrill of “Neverhome” is akin to the one Robert Olmstead delivered in “Coal Black Horse,” and, like Olmstead’s, the cadences of Ash Thompson can be almost Biblical:

“Nor did I, nor any of those around me I am proud to say, slow down when the cannon fire grew so hot it seemed like the injury was already being done to us before we had fairly arrived and that we were already part of the world’s everlasting grief and glory, and we could see the trees crashing down destroyed in the heights and hear the sound, from all quarters, of hurt men letting the air out of their throats.”

The reader, mesmerized, swallows whole that singular beautiful sentence. There are many others.  The vocabulary in “Neverhome” is perfect – plain and strange and tuned as true as a pitch fork. Hunt is a student of stories and story-telling, and he mixes fable and song into “Neverhome,” even more than he did in “Kind One.”

And though “Neverhome” is not about slavery, the peculiar institution casts its evil pall here. Ash comes upon bloody shackles in an abandoned shack, and later a dilapidated gallows near “a old slave-selling emporium.”  Cross-dressing affords Ash some life-saving trickery, and it provides Hunt some plot twists that feel proto-contemporary. Hunt is interested in the human mysteries – one being sex. Another is aggression, and the damage the aggressor does to self in the pursuit of another’s blood and pain.

So Hunt, like Homer, sets his protagonist on a road to war. She, like the Greek king, is cunning.  She, like he, is captured.  Song is made of their stories and so is woe. Eventually, Odysseus returns after long years to Ithaca.

In this spare, splendid novel, readers will burn to know if Ash Thompson can find her way home.