Books / Culture

Book Reviews: Stories and Lives that Matter

Senak’i book reviews

With much of my attention over the last year focused on completing a novel manuscript, I’ve kept my distance from other “serious” literary reading. In fact, most of my knowledge of the world’s current events was then and somewhat now remains gleaned from NPR podcasts, Facebook and Twitter alerts and swiping through sundry gossip sites across my iPad screen. I figured if the sky were falling, someone would let me know.

Now that I’m entering the “agent search” phase, I’ve decided to manage my inevitable manic upswings and depressive lows with pleasure reading again. For months, there’s been a small stack growing on my night table. Slowly, I’m forging my way through a backlog. I have to. With the approaching BEA (Book Expo America, NYC) setting up camp at the Jacob Javitz Center next week, there will be loads more of soon-to-be-released publications that I will dutifully collect, then position onto my expectant night table.


The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a captivating debut novel by Ayana Mathis. Her writing calls to mind the opulent language and narrative rigors of Toni Morrison and August Wilson. A multi-generational montage that begins with matriarch Hattie Shepherd, we follow the young mother’s Great Migration journey from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1925. Early in her life, she is betrayed by the death of her firstborn twins. Stubborn resilience and the unfolding odysseys of her surviving children, redeem her. Mathis renders an affecting portrait of Hattie’s eldest son, Floyd, a gifted jazz musician, who is emotionally unmasked by his love for men in a pre-Stonewall world. This novel is a dazzling, historical chronicling of a family that held America to its promise.

While in Vermont last fall, I was fortunate to meet an exciting young novelist, Justin Torres and attend his reading during an appearance at Goddard College. His acclaimed inaugural novel We The Animals, has been fêted by critics and readers with the kind of praise that every emerging writer dreams they’ll receive. A coming of age fable that unloosens a boy’s coming out story is set in the backdrop of a mythic New York City. Torres uses imagistic, lyrical writing that almost seems too tender for the cruelties that the youngest brother, “the pretty one…who danced a special underwater dance,” witnesses of life in the company of his beastly brothers. In this moody, often scary world, love and family are enchanting because they are so volatile.

Jacqueline Woodson is the cherished, award-winning author of books for children and young adults that have earned the Newbery Honors and National Book Award among others. Although I’m still moving through Brown Girl Dreaming, what I’ve absorbed so far is deeply resonating. It leaves me wishing that I’d read her stirring journey of awakenings and possibility as a young girl, while benefitting from the instructive life manual that her book reveals. Written as a memoir, stylistically, Woodson crafts her story through a series of biographical poems that bring to mind Rita Dove’s, Thomas & Beulah. She chronicles her singular, yet universal aspirations of a girl-child that grew smart, curious and questioning, in a world not always convinced that she mattered. Then Woodson discovers that she’s “a writer,” also the title of one of the book’s concluding poems, and recalls the fostering observations of a teacher who first sees her promise. She writes:

“You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says,

She is a feminist, she tells us

And thirty fifth-grade hands bend into desks

Where dictionaries wait to open yet

Another world to us.”

Through the love of family and community, teachers, friends, and mostly her love of writing stories—she grows as a spirited child into a young woman who realizes her most ambitious imaginings. Woodson’s voice and her story are a much needed, affirming response that reminds us—all of our children’s lives have value and all deserve gentle care.

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