Across the Tracks

by Alverne Ball and Stacy Robinson
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Content: There are depictions of violence, including lynching. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the early 1900s, due to Jim Crow, the Blacks in Tulsa developed their own community. They had stores, libraries, doctors, and were a thriving community. Of course, because of white supremacy, the white people in town couldn’t have the Blacks getting all successful. They invented a reason to arrest and lynch a Black kid, and then, when the Black families rose up in defense, burned the Black part of town, killing and unhousing families. The Black people built things back, but it wasn’t ever the same, and the white people swept history under the rug.

This is a very good history of that moment in time, highlighting the achievements of the Black people — doctors, lawyers, businessmen, educators — as well as the maliciousness of the white people. The text is pretty frank, and the art reflects that: it’s realistic and descriptive.

I think this is an important graphic novel and one that everyone should read. But, I’m not sure it was a great graphic novel It was lacking something to bring me into the story – perhaps because it was history and not really a story. it lacked a personal element, something to make me really care when the Black part of town burned. (That sounded harsh; I mean I care that white people were awful and racist and destructive. I just meant the story lacked an emotional core, if that makes sense.)

Recommended for the history.

Two Black Historical Fiction Books

Finding Langston
by Lesa Cline-Ransome
First sentence: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I an think about is kicking up their dust.”
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Content: It’s short, with short chapters and about an 11-year-old. There is some bulling. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Set in 1946, the book follows 11-year-old Langston, who has recently moved to Chicago with his father from Alabama. It’s a bit about a southern Black family trying to make a life in a big city. It’s not easy: they live in a one room apartment, Langston is bullied because of his accent, and they don’t have the comforts of family being nearby. The one thing Langston finds that is welcoming is the branch of the Chicago Public Library . he finds Black authors and learns about Langston Hughes. It makes grieving for his dad mother and the dealing with the bullies at school easier.

It’s a sweet family story, one with sympathetic characters (I even liked the dad), and a good look into issues surrounding the Great Migration. It went quick because it was short, but it had some complex character development and dealt with touch issues like classism and Northerners looking down on their Southern neighbors. I’m glad I read it.

Harlem Summer
by Walter Den Myers
First sentence:”I like Harlem in the summer except when it gets too hat, which it had been for the last week and we hadn’t even reached July yet.”
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Content: There is some violence and talk of people drinking but it’s short. It’s in the Teen section of the library, but I’d probably up t it in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Set in Harlem in the 1920s, it follows the summer of a 16-year-old named Mark. He gets a summer job at the Crisis, a magazine run by WEB DuBois celebrating the “New Negro”. All Mark wants to do, though, is play his saxophone and impress Fats Waller (who was a real person!) with his jazz. Unfortunately, that gets him into a whole mess of trouble involving stolen whiskey, gangsters, and Langston Hughes.

I didn’t like this one as much, partially because I felt like it was a who’s-who of 1920s Harlem, which is fine and all, but doesn’t led itself to a really great plot. But I also kept thinking of Kendi’s description of assimilationists, and how they wanted Black people to “prove” themselves to white people. That was a huge part of the book, the talk of “New Negros” and how the 10% was going to save the rest of the race. And that’s just, well, racist. Myers may have been poking fun at them; in the end Mark decides that the Crisis and the people there aren’t nearly as much fun or interesting as the people involved in jazz music. Even so, it bothered me. I didn’t hate the book, but I did struggle to finish it, and it just wasn’t what I had hoped it would be.

The Collector’s Apprentice

by B. A. Shapiro
First sentence: “This isn’t how it was supposed to be, Edwin.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are a couple of f-bombs, and a couple of tasteful sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s 1922 and Pauliene Mertens is in Paris, abandoned by her ex-fiance (he took the money and ran, ruining her family’s fortune and name) and disowned by her family. So she changes her name to Vivienne Gregsby and reinvents herself, as a secretary to an American, Edwin Bradley, who is in Paris looking to collect art and start a museum. Knowledgeable about Impressionism and post-Impressionism, Bradley soon discovers that Vivienne is indispensable, and brings her to America to help him set up his (private) museum. From there, it’s a lot of drawing-room drama: alleged and actual affairs, money issues, ex-fiance popping up with another scheme, Matisse and Gertrude Stein, and the whole undercurrent of whether or not anyone will figure out who Vivienne really is.

It’s a little bit of a mystery — who killed Edwin? It’s a little bit 1920s art history. It’s a little bit romance (Vivienne takes up with Matisse, not to mention her relationship with George that starts the whole book off). It’s a little bit of a lot of things, which maybe is what kept me from loving it. I enjoyed the art history part the best; the way Shapiro writes Matisse is fabulous; he (and Gertrude Stein) was my favorite character. Vivienne was kind of a bland character to spend most of the book with, and it made the ending kind of surprising. (In fact, the only thing I wanted out of the book was George to get his comeuppance. Seriously.)

It’s (really) loosely based on history, and I found myself wondering what was true (answer: not much, really) and what wasn’t. And while I enjoyed it well enough, it wasn’t my favorite novel this year by a long shot.

Audiobook: Beyond the Bright Sea

by Lauren Wolk
Read by: Jorjeana Marie
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Content:  There are some instances of violence that could be intense for younger readers. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Crow has lived her entire life on a small island in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. She lives with the man — Osh — who found her, washed ashore in a small boat,  as a new baby.  Her history hasn’t bothered her, but something about being 12 has got her wondering where she came from. Her questions lead to a chain of events that involves pirates, lepers on Penikese island, and finding her family.

I’ll be honest: I tried this one in print. It didn’t take. I just wasn’t compelled enough by the writing or the characters to keep going. So when I saw that it was audio, at first I was hesitant. But, I gave it a try, and maybe it was right place/right time, or maybe it was the fantastic narrator, but this time it stuck.

I loved hearing about Crow and Osh’s spartan life, getting the feel of life on the northern islands. I loved going with Crow as she discovered the history of her family, and felt for Osh as he struggled with his own feelings (maybe that was just the adult in me reacting).  I loved learning the history (of sorts) of the leper colony on Penikese, and to just get a sense of the place and time. Wolk is a good historical fiction writer, though I’m not sure her work is best suited for kids. (Well, maybe those precocious ones.) Even so, it’s a lovely book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.


The Calligrapher’s Daughter

by Eugenia Kim
First sentence: “I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear.”
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Content: It’s pretty long and involved, and some off-screen sex (both married and extra-marital). It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Najin Han was born in 1910, soon after the Japanese invasion (I suppose) of Korea.The daughter of a talented calligrapher, she was supposed to be raised in the traditional manner: to be a servant to men, without the education or opportunities men have.

But, because her mother was Christian, and because Najin was curious, she ended up having more opportunities than she “should” have. She went to school, learned both English and Japanese.She spent time in the exiled court (thanks to some terrific maneuvering from her mother and a well-placed aunt). She got trained to be a teacher and a midwife. So when her husband — an arranged marriage, of course — goes to America for theological training and she gets stuck in Korea, she has Options.

Based on her parent’s lives, Kim writes a fascinating story about life in early-20th century Korea. There was much I didn’t know, from the way the Japanese took over the Korean culture, trying to suppress it to the fact that Christianity was in Korea fairly early on.

I enjoyed reading this one, though there were times that I skimmed — I didn’t care when Kim switched into other points of view; Najin’s story was the one I was most interested in — but for the most part I found this to be a fascinating portrait of a country and time we don’t hear much about.

The Diviners

by Libba Bray
First sentence: “In the town house at a fashionable address on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, every lamp blazes.”
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Content: There wasn’t any language (at least that I noticed), and there was only illusions to sex. What puts this in the Teen (grades 9 and up) section of the library is the violence. There are 5 gruesome murders, spouse abuse, and other assorted violence. And then there’s the whole occult/creep factor, not to mention the teenage drinking. However, I’d give it to a 12- or 13-year-old if they weren’t overly sensitive.

Evie hates her small-town Ohio life. She’s a modern ’20s woman, and hates being shackled, especially by her Prohibition-supporting mother. So, when Evie makes big blunder with her talent for “reading” objects — she accuses the town’s Golden Boy with knocking up a maid — and she’s shipped off to Manhattan to stay with her admittedly odd uncle, she’s more than happy. She’s thrilled: finally, her life can Begin!

But while Evie makes some good friends, and goes to a couple of thrilling events, things aren’t all coming up roses. There’s a serial killer out there, brutally murdering people and leaving occult signs on the bodies. Her uncle — who runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult — has gotten involved with the investigation into the murders, and Evie, being the Modern Woman that she is, weasels her way into that. Which brings a whole mess of problems.

One of the strengths and weaknesses of Bray’s book is that Evie’s isn’t the only story. Bray is weaving a huge tapestry here, with multiple story lines that weave in and out of each other. She’s setting up a huge confrontation, of which the murders only play a small part, but I didn’t mind because the characters themselves were so engaging. To the tortured Ziegfeld star Theta, to the daughter of union supporters Mable, to the charismatic thief Sam, to the tortured Jericho, to the African American bookie runner Memphis, they were all characters I wanted to spend time with and get to know. But in many ways, there was almost too much. The book comes in at nearly 600 pages, and it’s only a first in a series. That’s a lot of set-up going there. And while the overall plot line — the murders — gets resolved, the last 40 pages are spent setting up the next book, which dampened my enthusiasm for it.

But dampened isn’t a dislike. There really is so much to love about this one, from the creepy to the characters.

Audiobook: One Summer: American 1927

by Bill Bryson
Read by the author
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Content: It’s popular history. And because of that, there is talk of sex and some swearing (maybe 4 or 5 f-bombs). It’s adult-oriented, but I’m sure an inquisitive high schooler could read it.

I adore Bill Bryson. Sure, he’s a former journalist and a popular historian, but he comes at history in such unique ways that I can’t help but love him. Rather than Another Dry Biography of any of the people he talks about in this book — Charles Lindberg, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Al Capone, Calvin Coolidge, Ruth Snyder, Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, among others — he realized that talking about a summer, the summer where everything seemed to gel, would be so much more interesting.

And he was right.

He had me enthralled from the prologue when he talked about the failed attempts at flying across the Atlantic in the early 1920s. And he kept me enthralled (for the most part; I did tune out the banking parts) for the whole of the entire book. (Granted, that may be because I listened to it, and I love listening to Bill Bryson read his books. Kind of like Neil Gaiman.) It was chock full of trivia (the one thing I remember is that the summer of 1927, Memphis had the highest murder rate in the country, not Chicago), sure, but also of insightful passages. (I would quote them, but again: audio book.) That’s one of the things I love about Bryson; the way he throws in asides and commentary about his subject, but you never quite feel he’s being didactic. Snarky, yes. But didactic or preachy? No.

One of the things that I kept thinking as listened is just how much history repeats himself. And how much we ARE. Racism and trying to block immigrants? Check. (Except it’s south of the border and Middle East rather than Ireland, Italy, and Jews.) Banking bubble because politicians won’t regulate it? Check. I’m sure there are others, but (audio book, dangit!) I can’t think of them right now. I’d say everyone needs to read this for that reason — so we can grow and change and become better — but really? Read it because it’s Bill Bryson and it’s fascinating and a lot of fun.

You won’t regret it. Promise.