Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingI had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.

The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.

Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.”

Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:

“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .”

That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.

And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.

It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.

Recommendation: For everyone, really.

Rating: 9/10

Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10

The Southerner’s Handbook

The Southerner's HandbookThis book came out not too long after I started my new job in a more rural area of Northeast Florida, and once I saw that it existed I knew I had to read it. Jacksonville is pretty Southern (I tend to think of it as the last Southern city on I-95), but there are enough transplants that it’s not all ma’ams and grits. But in Callahan? Even grown adults are deferring to their parents and there is sweet tea at every big event. So I needed to brush up on my Southern.

This book covers all manner of Southern, from Virginia down to Florida and over even as far as Texas, and it covers it in handy bite-sized essays from various authors, so you can, if you want, pick and choose what things you want to know more about. I chose to read it straight through and learn all the things, albeit over the span of a few months, and that worked okay for me!

The most useful chapters (where chapter equals group of essays) for me were the ones about food, drink, and arts and culture, since those are the ones I certainly participate in most.

In the food chapter, I learned about the two million styles of barbecue that exist in the south, what cookbooks I need to obtain pronto, and even picked up some decent recipes for things like biscuits and grits. I’ve yet to try them out, but it’s just a matter of time. In the drinks chapter I found out that I have indeed been making proper lemonade this whole time, so props to me!, but also that my knowledge of fancy Southern cocktails and bourbon in general is severely lacking. Similarly, the arts and culture section has added about a dozen authors and even more books to my Southern TBR list.

The other chapters, on style, sporting (read: hunting and fishing, mostly), and gardening were also super interesting, if less applicable to my tiny little porch garden or my office attire. I do want to obtain a sassy trenchcoat, though, for wearing in the two months of the year that I won’t die of heat exhaustion while wearing it!

A lot of the essays are sort of straightforward, “here is a thing that exists”, but more than a few of the essays are of the humorous variety, including some from delightful Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me panelist Roy Blount, Jr., and a new-to-me essayist called Allison Glock, who is from Jacksonville and so gets plus two points from me — not that she needs them. I, unsurprisingly, liked the funny ones the best.

Although the book is called The Southerner’s Handbook, I feel like it’s only really a handbook for us non-Southern types who are trying to figure out what everyone else is on about. If you are a born-and-bred Southerner this is probably more like a Southerner’s No-duh-book, but that is not a terrible kind of book by any means.

Recommendation: For Southerners new and old, for different reasons. Possibly not for Northerners?

Rating: 7/10