Searching for Tina Turner

by Jacqueline E. Luckett

299 pages | Grand Central Publishing | $24.99

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve

How much of yourself will you give away? And when you realize there’s none of you left, what will you do to get yourself back? In her first novel, Searching for Tina Turner, Jacqueline E. Luckett asks her reader these two questions through the life of protagonist Lena Harrison Spencer.

Set in Oakland, California, Luckett paints a vivid picture of Lena Spencer’s world. Dazzling jewels, 600-thread count sheets, decadent foods, luscious vacations, fast cars, two beautiful children, and a hot husband—Lena’s got it all. But the novel opens with Lena huddled under her designer sheets and comforter, liquor close by. And the reader soon finds out that she hasn’t budged from bed in days.

The story unfolds and we learn that Lena is a photographer, but because of her husband Randall’s persistent requests, she surrenders her artistic passion and assumes the life of a supportive, encouraging trophy wife, staying by Randall’s side at all times, and tending to his every whim. Randall agrees that in a few years he will return the favor to Lena, supporting her and her dream of professional photography.

But the years have since passed and Randall has forgetten, and once more Lena asks for what she wants. In those moments, Randall, the successful, corporate power monger, hushes Lena’s resumed requests to pursue her dream. He woos her with gaudy and authentic jewelry. He points to their extravagant home and the posh luxury she lives in, and he desperately tries luring Lena into shelving her dreams a little longer. Randall keeps coming back to the need for a little more time to climb the next rung on the corporate ladder, telling her it takes work and time to achieve success, especially being a black man in a white man’s world.

Lena obliges. For twenty-seven years she gives of her time, her love, and her body. She cares for Randall and for their children, Camille and Kendrick. She cooks lavish meals. She entertains haughty guests. And slowly, day after day, she loses herself and slips into a dark depression. Eventually, Randall gets annoyed with her. He gives her an ultimatum, telling her to get a better attitude, appreciate what he’s done for her and the family, or get out. And then, Lena does a brave thing.

At fifty-four-years-old, she stands up to Randall and leaves, and in that moment, no one understands her. Randall writes off Lena as a selfish woman. Their two children hate Lena, believing she should just stop complaining and the reader finds Lena sitting in the dust of this calamity feeling misunderstood and alone. Lena ducks out of the family, clutching Tina Turner’s autobiography I, Tina, and clinging to the need for change. With Lena leaving Randall early on in the novel, there’s much room for Lena’s mission—a mission to find joy, a mission to find Tina, a mission ultimately to find herself. Does she encounter these things? Does she rediscover herself? You’ll have to dive into Luckett’s novel to find out.

When you’re reading Searching for Tina Turner, you’ll see Luckett tackles a myriad of issues—knowing and finding yourself, the relationship between race and corporate America, the differing socio-economic statuses of families, parenting in the midst of divorce, fear of starting over during the season of mid-life, the definition of love and how people function inside that definition. But the issue Luckett hones in on and illustrates best is enmeshed relationships.

Using Lena and Randall’s marriage, Luckett gives the reader an explicit example of enmeshment. At the beginning of the novel, the couple reaches the point where neither can emotionally function without the other. They remain tied to each other, reeking negative influences on the other, even when they’re apart. When Randall makes business trips, Lena winds up in bed, unable to perform daily duties without him and Randall can’t remain emotionally stable when Lena doesn’t grovel at his feet, almost worshiping him the way she did when they first married. Luckett reveals the lack of health in an enmeshed relationship and she also communicates the risks that arise when one person decides to pull out of that relationship, in search of autonomy.

Luckett geared this novel toward an older generation, but as a twenty-six year-old woman, I enjoyed reading this book, too. Using back story and dialogue as her tools, Luckett sculpts loveable, complex, and beautiful characters. She creates clear, evocative scenes, transporting the reader to Lena’s world. Because of her tenacious writing ability, Luckett transcends age differences and makes this novel easily accessible to any generation. So grab a copy this January, walk alongside Lena Spencer in her fear and renewal, and together, you and Lena can go Searching for Tina Turner.

Return to home page



by Roberto Bolano

898 pp. | Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, | $30.00

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong

Roberto Bolano is a difficult writer to grasp, both in terms of what he wrote and who he was. During his life, his relative insignificance on the literary scene outside Latin America prevented the gathering of any biographical details beyond the major facts of birth, marriage, and dates of publication. When his first major work, The Savage Detectives, was published in English in 2007, Bolaño gained a cult following, but it wasn’t until the English version of 2666 published in November, 2008, that his works went mainstream, eventually garnering him a National Book Critics Circle Award—which unfortunately had to be awarded posthumously, since Bolano had died of liver disease five years prior.

Suddenly, Bolano and 2666 were appearing on the pages of all the major literary reviews and newspapers, most of which evaluated the writer’s final novel in a positive, although tentative and puzzling, light.

It is no wonder that critics have had a difficult time with 2666. The sheer scope of the novel is enormous. Spanning a century, leaping across oceans, and shifting between locations and perspectives often within the space of a single page, the text is daunting. The work is divided into five sections, and although Bolano left directions that the manuscript be published as five separate books for purposes of both convenience and profit, his literary executor eventually contravened this decision on the grounds of “respect for the literary value of the work.”

The decision seems to have been fair, although significant battles among Bolaño scholars doubtless lie ahead. The novel adheres to no strict narrative structure, but several themes persist throughout the text, as do patterns of unsettling images that evoke the surrealist literature popular in early-twentieth-century Europe.

Two major story lines dominate 2666: the life and work of a mysterious writer named Benno von Archimboldi, and a series of unsolved murders of women in the city of Santa Teresa.

The Archimboldi plot bookends 2666 in Parts I and V. Readers of The Savage Detectives will see close parallels between that earlier novel and Part I of 2666, in which the plot turns around the search of a group of academics for the writer Benno von Archimboldi. In The Savage Detectives, the pursuing group is composed of four artists, one of whom, Arturo Belano, is Bolano’s fictional counterpart. (Intriguingly, Bolano’s notes indicate that Belano is also the narrator of 2666, although he never appears in those pages).

In both novels, the characters’ search for the lost writer is ultimately fruitless, and both conclude in the emptiness of the Sonora desert. Unlike The Savage Detectives, however, 2666 lifts the veil from the lost writer Archimboldi, and in Part V, the story moves back across the Atlantic to record the writer’s life from his birth in Germany to the point where a number of story lines coincide and conclude the novel.

Although the Archimboldi question flanks the narrative, the core of 2666, and the part that has received the most attention, is Part IV, the Part about the Crimes. Constituting almost three hundred pages of the novel, this section recounts the rape, torture, and murder of scores of women in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, a thinly veiled portrait of the real-life city of Cuidad Juárez, which lies on the border between Mexico and the United States. The emotions that this section produces are hard to describe. On the one hand, the fascination of following the doomed women through the course of their last days and hours can leave the reader feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic, almost as a silent party to the crimes.

On the other hand, to not read the entire section implies a certain moral weakness. Because nothing has yet halted the series of horrifying crimes, Attaching names and faces to the nameless and faceless feels like the least a reader can do.

I do not intend to imply that Bolano wrote 2666 on a platform of social justice, but having read a number of articles and stories about the Juarez murders, I can say with confidence that none of them are able to produce the effect that 2666 does. Without an agenda, rhetoric, or propagandistic language, Bolano brings the desert underbelly of America starkly to life, and it is a portrait that will make the staunchest reader flinch.

The desert is a landscape that seems to particularly fascinate him. As certain writers embody certain geographies, his prose assumes many of the qualities of the desert: a chaos of detail, voids into which words seem to escape, violence, starkness and a lack of patterns. The majority of the desert is uninhabitable, a place where only the most savage creatures can survive, and 2666 seems to make the point that despite the layers of culture cultivated by human beings, an essential savagery runs through the core of our societies. Murder in Europe is equally as cruel and brutal as murder in Santa Teresa -- whether a woman’s broken body lies on the rocks of an Alpine ravine or at the bottom of a sandy desert ditch, the atrocity is the same.

Throughout the centuries, man has grappled with this savagery by imposing rational patterns and moral laws on the world to leach meaning from events that appear to lack reason or justice. The tragedy of Bolano’s universe lies in its negation of this pattern and its bleak insistence on reality as “a senseless God making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures.”

His constant digressions and the equal amount of words he devotes to a death and to a meal, as well as the sheer volume of detail that accompanies each episode, produces the effect of a mirror held up to reality. Repeated throughout 2666 with increasing insistence is the idea that reality, history, and life itself is a whore—the key characteristics of the whore is that she does not discriminate.

No man is unique from another and no tryst holds any more importance than another. The human dilemma is not our inability to judge the value of people and events, it is that no objective value exists at all, and our concepts of judgment and rationality are only semblances.

2666 is a harsh book and one that demands a number of readings. Few books have entered the literary scene recently that have offered such a close reflection of our chaotic, troubled, and senselessly violent world, and it will be interesting to see the place that the novel ultimately assumes in the postmodern canon.

Sarah Vogelsong is an editor living in New York City.

Return to home page


Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society

by Aaron Marrs

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

Reviewed by Dr. Owen Brown and Dr. Gale E. Gibson

The railroads occupy an iconic place in the historiography of America’s development, from a predominantly agrarian society to an industrial powerhouse. The construction of railroads across America played an integral role in moving goods and people, and in the process, revolutionized inter and intra-state commerce. Additionally, it reduced the social distance between the cities of the Northeast and the emerging cities along the Mississippi River, such as St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.

It provided a powerful impetus for white homesteaders to populate the West in search of arable land, contributing to the last phase of the Indian wars and the marginalization of indigenous people. In the South, the “iron horse” united whites that were hitherto separated by vast commercial agricultural holdings that were built on the perpetuation of slave labor.

It may be difficult for many Americans, who grew up in a time where air travel and automobiles have eroded the dominance and glamour of travel by rails, to believe that once upon a time a ride on a coal driven locomotive constituted a special occasion that the young and old looked forward to with great anticipation; and for states such as Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee, the arrival of the railway was a cause for celebration and a powerful indication that your community was in the orbit of the technological revolution that was transforming the world.

In great contrast to today, where Amtrak is struggling to implement a viable business model amidst the record decline in ridership on American railroads since the 1950s, it may be difficult to believe that our nation’s industrial might was once intricately connected to its railroad networks. Aaron Marr’s (2009) recently published Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society is an attempt to re-acquaint readers with the majesty and grandeur that once characterized America’s railroads.

Marr is an archivist by training, and Railroads in the Old South began its journey to publication as the author’s doctoral dissertation. Marrs’ subject matter is the development of railroads in the American South, and the book’s temporal boundaries are the mid-1820s to the American Civil War. Railroads represents an ambitious endeavor to recreate the social and economic context in the Antebellum South that embraced and integrated this new technology in a society that many writers have erroneously characterized as economically backwards vis-à-vis its northern counterpart. Despite the utilization of slave labor, the southern region of America in the first half of the nineteenth century was an important region of the evolving capitalist world economy. As such, the arrival of the railroad and its integration into the social fabric of southern society should not be viewed as an anomaly, but rather as a process of social transformation driven by innovation and opportunities for financial profits. While the author’s exposition fails to illustrate this point, it succeeds in describing in intricate details the technical, financial, and social challenges that accompanied the building of the railroads in the Old South.

Methodologically, in delineating the stories behind the building of railroads in the Antebellum South, the author organizes his narrative chronologically into seven chapters. Each chapter addresses important aspects of the building of the southern railroad system. Chapter one, entitled Dreams, is primarily concerned with retelling the challenges that proponents of this new technology had in convincing an often skeptical public that the railroad was the way to the future. As such, it delineates the fact that while the railway represented the leading edge of the technological revolution during the mid-1820’s, its victory in the South was by no means assured. It faced formidable challenges from other modes of transportation, such as riverboats and canals. Moreover, the dearth of private investors with the requisite capital to finance such large construction projects as building a railroad, led its advocates to turn to state governments as viable funding sources.

Some landowners, astutely aware of the potential financial windfall, attempted to secure the largest prices for the sale of their land to railroad companies, while others attempted to stymie progress by their refusal to relinquish their land holdings. According to Marrs, railroad advocates addressed these challenges with a three-pronged attack. First, they argued that railroads were technologically superior to other forms of transportation. Second, they popularized the idea that Southerners would benefit from the increase in commercial activities associated with this technology. Third, they believed that railroads would “bind the union together.” Ultimately, this approach was efficacious in winning support for this nascent and unproven technology.

Knowledge is the title of Chapter two, and it familiarizes the reader with the newly emerging occupation of civil engineers. Civil engineers were the men charged with building railroads. They gave physical form to railroad advocates’ dreams of constructing a remarkable series of railroads by the eve of the Civil War. As Marrs correctly observed, “These engineers supplement book learning by creating an intellectual community whose body of knowledge and expertise was built on experimentation, lessons learnt from failures in an era where institutional training programs were in an embryonic state of development.”

Sweat, which is the title of Chapter three, documents the abundant use of slave labor in the construction of southern railroads. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the utilization of slave labor was not limited to agricultural production, but was also employed in industrial production. As Marrs illustrates in Sweat, engineers and contractors employed slave laborers extensively in the construction of railroad networks throughout the South. The use of slave labor in railway construction rivaled that of agriculture. Marrs cites the following evidence to illustrate this point:

“The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad’s force of 435 hired slaves in 1856 outpaced every Virginia plantation in 1850 save one and would have ranked sixth in 1860. Compared to Tennessee plantations, the company’s slave force would have ranked second in both 1850 and 1860. The Southwestern Railroad’s 498 hands in 1850 made it larger than all but two Georgia slaveholdings that same year. While railroad workers were not necessarily concentrated in a single area as they would be on plantations, railroads involved some of the largest mobilizations of manpower in southern states before the Civil War. Projects of this scale were unprecedented.”

Despite its importance and applicability beyond agriculture, slave labors’ potential role in industrial production have received scant attention in the historiography of this period. As Stephen Steinberg observed in Occupational Opportunities and Race, “if the perception of black laborers was not held captive by the passions and erroneous cultural beliefs of a race biased society, then there may not have been a need for the Civil Rights movement and the socio-economic status of African Americans in contemporary American society, arguably, may have been vastly improved.”

Chapter four, titled Structure, reveals that southern railways were exposed to the same market pressures as their northern counterparts. As such, they had to implement similar managerial structures and organizational techniques that would in turn ensure the commercial success of the large financial investment inherent in railroad production and operation. These managerial methods of control resulted in the introduction of train schedules, rules and regulations designed to dictate employees’ on-the-job performance, and the introduction of equipment and services tailored to the needs of railways riders and other commercial end-users. These managerial and organizational practices were consistent with the practices of northern railways that in Marrs’ words “…valued efficiency, time management, and bureaucratic accountability.”

In short, southern railroads were not immune to market pressures, and while sentimentalities may have buttressed the argument of those whom pointed to the uniqueness of a “southern way of life,” ultimately what mattered most to those responsible for operating and maintaining the southern railroads was the return on the initial investment. It’s here we can see market calculations in its naked form, devoid of southern sentimentality, with its need for uniformity and predictability as illustrated by the striking similarity in managerial organization and control of northern and southern railways.

Chapter five, titled Motion, addresses three important aspects of railways’ operations. These three aspects are the demand of freight, conflict with nature, and accidents. Marrs examines how these three factors impacted railroads operations and the strategies and procedures that were designed to deal with these challenges. Here Marrs highlighted the central feature of railroads as mechanisms that facilitated market exchange between buyers and sellers.

Trains were used to transport items ranging from artificial manures to wood. They were utilized to transport slaves as well as cotton, which constituted its primary freight. The list of items for which freight rates were established, along with the growing income derived by the Central Railroad of Georgia from 1845-1860, points to the fact that the railroads of the South were linked to regional markets, which in turn were linked to national and international markets, which ultimately made the income derived from commercial activities viable.

These local, regional, and national profit centers were linked to an international market whose epicenter was Western Europe, in general, and England, in particular. This Eurocentric dominated world economy was characterized by multiple political centers and one evolving world economy. Goods and services flowed across political boundaries and people and regions played different roles in the emerging world wide division of labor. In the South, the utilization of the railroads, slave labor, and a system of belief which Eugene Genovese termed the “Political Economy of Slavery,” may well have served to obfuscate this reality. Nevertheless, a close examination of freight records and the annual incomes of southern railroad companies revealed commercial considerations that are very well known to today’s businessmen and women. Specifically, the need to charge competitive prices for your services; to control the impact of nature on business operations and to minimize the liabilities associated with accidents.

Chapters six and seven are titled Passages and Communities, respectively. These Chapters address the different constituencies that utilized this new technology and the appeal that travel by rail held for Antebellum travelers. Specifically, the people of the South did not view the railroads as a purely economic engine for social transformation. Marrs illustrates that railroads held a powerful social meaning, as well, in that they “were not simply faceless corporations, but were vital parts of the communities that they served.” The arrival of the railroads brought tangible benefits to communities in which they were built and as such were cause for celebrations. In short, they linked communities and gave residents a sense of pride.

While Marrs’ narrative is informative and well organized, it nevertheless suffers from some minor deficiencies. These deficiencies are its:

I will briefly discuss each of these points to illustrate the potential of Railways in the Old South and to deepen our understanding of the role of slave labor and capitalist agriculture in the Antebellum South. In so doing, it could serve to dispel the myth that slave labor was backwards and incompatible with capitalist labor arrangements, which is presumed to be modern and progressive.

First, the process of railroad construction and rationalization was not unique to the South. As Hobsbawn remarked, “The spread of railways and, to a lesser extent, steamships, now introduced mechanical power into all continents and into otherwise unindustrialized countries. The arrival of the railway was in itself a revolutionary symbol and achievement, since the forging of the globe into a single interacting economy was in many ways the most far reaching and certainly the most spectacular aspect of industrialization.” Given Hobsbawn and others’ remarks about the railway and its impact on travel and communications during the second half of the 19th century, I failed to understand Marrs’ argument about the uniqueness of the South.

Second, Marrs did not provide a convincing argument to support his argument about the links between Southern culture, slavery and progress. Borrowing from Eugene Genovese’s classic work, The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South, Marrs attempts to convince the reader that Southern culture’s dependence on plantation and slave labor was a barrier to progress and development. In fact, Genovese does a better job of convincing readers of the uniqueness of Southern culture when he wrote, “The Pre-modern quality of the Southern world was imparted to it by its dominant slave-holding class…Slavery gave the South a special way of life because it provided the basis for a regional social order in which the slave labor system could dominate all others. Southern slavery was not ‘mere slavery’ … but the foundation on which rose a powerful and remarkable social class: a class constituting only a tiny portion of the white population and yet so powerful and remarkable as to try … to build a new, or rather to rebuild an old, civilization.”

While Genovese is correct in arguing that slavery and the cultural and legal arrangements that accompanied and supported it gave the South a distinctive character, this does not negate the fact that the South was an integral part of a larger worldwide division of labor. This division of labor is a distinctive feature of the modern world capitalist system. As Immanuel Wallerstein et al. have demonstrated, capitalism has utilized other forms of labor arrangements other than the wage labor relationship that we are accustomed to. The dominance of the slave owning class and the cultural and legal arrangements that perpetuated its dominance, does little to prove that slavery was a fetter to the further development and progress of the South.

Like the bubble, which covered the period from 1998-2001, railway during the middle of the 19th century was the latest innovation (with a tremendous profit potential) to capture the imagination and fancy of the American public. As Marrs acknowledges, “Rumors of an incredible machine had become a reality.” “Incredible” in that it reduced travel time between two distant points from days to hours. A “reality” in that as Hobsbawn observed, “that by the second half of the 19th century travel around the world in 80 days by railway and steamship had become a reality.” As early as 1842, this reality was a mere fantasy. In short, for people, governments, and the emerging middle classes of Western Europe, the railroad offered a new and more efficient means of satisfying old wants. While the railway was a “hauler of goods and people,” for those who profited from this technology and the implicit exploitative relationship embodied in this process, they experienced it as being able to employ large numbers of workers in factories in the English cities of Lancashire and Manchester, and as owners of vast tracks of land and slaves in the American South. On Wall Street, it was experienced as financiers that provided the liquid capital that underwrote this complex web of financial transactions.

In sum, while we would recommend Marrs’ book and the methodological approach to specialists in his field of archival research, it fails to realize its full potential by its inability to place Southern railroads in the context of a series of innovations rooted in the Industrial Revolution. This extraordinary period gave birth to processes that became the midwife of many technological innovations that have transformed the modern world. Contemporary scholars are apt to refer to these processes as globalization, but we would like to characterize these processes as a work in progress.

Return to home page


Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong

By Terry Teachout

496 pages | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reviewed by Ken Liebeskind

New biography doesn’t spare criticism of America’s foremost trumpeter

Louis Armstrong was “a black man born at the turn of the century in the poorest quarter of New Orleans, who, by the end of his life, was known and loved in every corner of the earth,” Terry Teachout writes near the beginning of Pops, the new biography of Armstrong that doesn’t completely tarnish the notion of the well loved Armstrong, but challenges it with lucid depictions of the criticism that was directed at his music and personality, coming from all sides.

Blacks and whites were highly critical of his music, which regressed from the vigorous Dixieland jazz of his early days, to the schmaltzy pop of his later years. Straight ahead jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis condemned Armstrong, as did white jazz critics and mainstream publications, from Time magazine to The New York Times.

There are a number of reasons Armstrong’s music faltered – from his inability to adapt his popular style to the new streams in jazz, which left traditionalists like Armstrong aside - to the fact that he was managed by a man who did whatever he could to milk Armstrong for the money he could bring in by playing popular music.

Teachout writes that Armstrong had nothing but contempt for bebop, while the beboppers thought him ancient. Of course when bebop took fire in the early 1950’s, Armstrong’s career was already 30 years old. But instead of jamming with the avant-garde musicians, he continued recording pop songs, first with big bands and later with his small band of All Stars. To Armstrong, bebop was “threatening to the public’s acceptance of jazz,” Teachout writes. He preferred to “offer his listeners music they could enjoy without exertion.”

Another reason Armstrong’s music is criticized is because he spent so much time singing, which transformed him from a jazz trumpeter to a popular entertainer. While he was initially a compelling scat singer, replacing the words to “’Heebie Jeebies’ with improvised nonsense syllables,” in a 1926 recording that was highly renowned, he went on to become a sappy pop singer. His biggest hit was “Hello Dolly,” the number one best seller he claims to have performed “six jillion” times that was condemned by the music critic Gunther Schuller as an example of Armstrong singing “against a cheap Dixieland sextet (over a soggy string section yet).”

Armstrong’s move to record and perform popular music reflects his desire to “sing prettier for the white people whose favor he sought to curry,” Teachout writes. The same can be said for his performances in popular films, including Pennies from Heaven and Cabin in the Sky, which embarrassed blacks and white critics who called him a “picturesque, Sambo style entertainer.”

Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character” in a Downbeat interview, and Armstrong himself admitted that “some of my own people have accused me of being an Uncle Tom, of not being aggressive.”

Armstrong couldn’t take strong racial stands because it would have threatened his career. He was forced to perform before racially exclusive audiences in the South through much of his career; and he relied on whites to manage his career, white record companies to record him and white club owners to allow him to perform. Teachout says Armstrong took the advice of Benny Williams, a fellow black from New Orleans, who told him to “always have a white man (who like you) and can and will put his hand on your shoulder and say – “This is ‘My’ Nigger and, Can’t Nobody Harm Ya.”

The white man who played that role for Armstrong was his long time manager, Joe Glaser, the underworld figure who Armstrong deferred to without complaint. Teachout says he was subservient.

Armstrong frequently performed with white musicians and there are compelling portraits of his relations with Barney Bigard, the clarinetist, and Jack Teagarden, the trombonist, who was perhaps Armstrong’s favorite all-time accompanist. “More than a friend, Teagarden was also Armstrong’s peer,” Teachout writes. “Teagarden’s easygoing way with a song complemented Armstrong instead of threatening him. If his chops were down, he could step aside and let Brother T drawl his way through “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

The one time Armstrong did take a strong stand on racism was in 1957, when he condemned President Eisenhower and Alabama Governor Faubus for the way blacks were being treated in the South. His statements may have prompted Eisenhower to take action in a desegregation case, because soon after Armstrong made them, he ordered blacks to be admitted to Little Rock’s Central High School, which prompted a congratulatory telegram to the President from Armstrong.

Pops chronicles Armstrong’s life from childhood, when he was sentenced to a term in the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans for firing a pistol on New Year’s Eve, to the end of his life, when he lived comfortably in a large house in Queens with his fourth wife, Lucille. Among the highlights of the book are recognitions of a number of firsts Armstrong achieved: Swing That Music was the first autobiography to be written by a jazz musician. Armstrong was the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine. He was the first black to host his own network radio variety show.

He moved from New Orleans to Chicago, Chicago to New York, spent time in California, and traveled with his band throughout Europe. The book contains a number of performance and personal pictures, from King Oliver’s Creole jazz band in 1923, with Armstrong playing next to his second wife, Lil Hardin, the band’s pianist, to Armstrong seated at a desk in his home in Queens in 1958, typing. Armstrong was quite prolific, having written two autobiographies, as well as numerous articles for national publications.

There are many other biographies and autobiographies of Armstrong. Teachout’s stands out for its use of so many sources, its frequent quotes of Armstrong, the musicians he played with, and the critics who analyzed his work. Pops is an attempt to present a comprehensive view of Armstrong’s life, not all of it terribly positive.

Yes, Armstrong’s music was watered down, and yes, he was overly accommodating to whites, but in the end, he was a highly affable and talented man, who never stopped working, creating his own brand of music based on the original jazz that flourished in his native New Orleans, and popularizing it from coast to coast during his entire lifetime.

Return to home page


Inherent Vice

by Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Press

Reviewed by Katherine Tomlinson

Thomas Pynchon’s new novel finds the author in a playful mood. At 384 pages (roughly one-third the size of his last book, 2006’s Against the Day), Inherent Vice has a narrative that’s contained in both plot and place. As a result, Inherent Vice may very well be a gateway novel to the writer’s earlier work, a sort of literary amuse bouche before a reader digs into the narrative feast that is Gravity’s Rainbow or V.

The story begins when perpetually stoned detective Larry (Doc) Portello is asked by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, to foil a plan to kidnap the billionaire land developer she’s in love with or at least, sleeping with. In today’s romantic shorthand you would say, “It’s complicated.” Those complications include the billionaire’s wife, her lover and a whole lot of other people who wouldn’t mind seeing Mickey Wolfmann disappear, along with his latest development, a beachfront monstrosity called “Channel View Estates.”

Doc’s Aunt Reet, who is making a killing in real estate, has nothing but contempt for Mickey’s planned community, which she calls a “chipboard horror.” Reet is hooked in to both the present and the future—she’s way ahead of the curve on computers—and she urges caution when dealing with Mickey and the neo-Nazi types he has surrounding him. One of the scariest of the hangers-on in the billionaire’s entourage is a cop with acting ambitions named Bigfoot Bjornsen. Doc has encountered him before and is not eager to meet him again.

Meanwhile, a guy named Tariq shows up in Doc’s office (which he shares with an amphetamine-dispensing Dr. Feelgood and his fetish-nurse) claiming he wants Doc’s help getting money from an Aryan Brother cellie who did a bit of work with him and then took off with both of their money. The AB is named Glen and it turns out one of his freelance gigs is working as a bodyguard for none other than, Mickey Wolfmann.

Tariq used to roll with a set called the Artesia Crips and when he got out of prison he went looking for them, only to find their turf had been transformed into Channel View Estates so Tariq’s got a bone to pick with Mickey, as well as Glen.

When someone ends up dead, Bjornsen decides Doc’s a good fit for a frame and that’s when things get really complicated and Doc’s lawyer shows up. True, his attorney, Sauncho Smilax, is a maritime lawyer who doesn’t really know much about criminal law, but then, Doc never really pays him so somehow the relationship works.

Doc is baffled by the changing times and finds it easiest to filter life through a marijuana haze. As he collides with reality and strange and implausible coincidences, he finds himself contemplating mysteries that go far beyond the question of what’s going on with the “Wolfmann”.

Even the minor characters—like Doc’s friend Denis, who orders boysenberry yogurt on his pizza when he’s stoned or actor Jonathan (Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows) Frid, who has a lounge show popular with the Rat Pack—get at least one moment to step out from the ensemble for their star turn and each makes his or her moment memorable.

Real-life characters ranging from Charles Manson to former D.A. Evelle Younger, rub up against Pynchon’s fictional creations and the result is a rollicking neo-noir filled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll with an emphasis on the drugs and the rock. Pynchon has created his own L.A. mix tape here and the playlist definitively answers the question: Beatles or the Stones? (Pynchon, it turns out, is more Jagger than John).

Los Angeles is also a central character in the story and Pynchon’s portrait of a city on the brink of paranoia is both affectionate and horrific. The years of free love have curdled with the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends, and as the new decade dawns, there’s been a shift in the zeitgeist. Doc senses conspiracy behind every curtain and is freaked out when a friend tells him about something called ARPA-net, a linked network of computers that might one day be a world-wide-web.

Doc’s motto might as well be, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” but at the end of this hilariously twisted tale of love and greed, he’s the one having the last stoned laugh. As Doc would say, “this book is a trip”, and that’s high praise.

Return to home page


Lies My Mother Never Told Me

By Kaylie Jones

384 pages | William Morrow, 2009

Reviewed by Andrea Janov

After I finished reading Kaylie Jones’ memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, I tried to answer the question that most people ask when they finish a book: “What is this book telling me?” Usually this question is easy, but in this memoir, Jones touches on many intriguing topics: her famous father, best selling novelist James Jones, who wrote From Here To Eternity, his literary legacy and her insight into the man, the extravagant parties at their Paris flat, her mother’s alcoholism, and her own struggle with alcohol, marriage, and motherhood.

It’s difficult to say what layer is the most prominent.

Each of these topics is fruitful enough to provide material for an entire memoir. Some readers may argue that this is a story about the disease of alcoholism and how it can affect a whole family. Although alcohol is one of the main catalysts for Jones, I don’t believe that this disease is what the memoir is about; but rather, it is about life. It is a story about finding the things that are truly important to you and living for those things.

From the first page the reader is captured. Jones’ direct, unadorned language and tone immediately make the reader feel as if a good friend is telling a story. Jones immediately engages the reader with a simple anecdote, “When I was little my mother often told me, ‘If I had to pick between having your father or having you, I would pick your father.’ This seemed to me a perfectly reasonable and honest statement because given the choice, I also would have picked my father.”

By sharing this with the reader, Jones sets up the family dynamic that permeates the rest of the memoir, while also establishing her voice and the tone of the memoir: blunt, aware, and non-judgmental.

Lies My Mother Never Told Me spans Jones’ entire life, including her childhood in their Paris flat, where ongoing cocktail parties around her father’s beloved pulpit bar, would include discussions with members of the important literary and artistic society. This was a part of her daily life.

It is easy to be enthralled by her unique upbringing, but what really stands out is the relationship that she has with each of her parents. Jones’ admiration, love, and respect for her father, as a father, a human and an author, are clear each time he is mentioned. She shares stories of her father reading at the dinner table, sharing the love and the power of literature with his family; the way he was always able to connect with her in order to soothe her anxieties, or how, no matter how late her father stayed up drinking and entertaining friends, and no matter how hung-over he probably was, he always put in a full day of writing.

She tells the reader all these small stories in a way that paints James Jones just as she saw him, as an extraordinary man.

As much admiration as Kaylie has for her father, she is equally ill at ease with her mother. She tells the reader of the anxiety that overtook her when her beloved nanny would be off for the day, or mounting apprehension in the hours leading up to the end of the school day because her mother so often forgot to pick her up. The reader also sees her mother call her names, taunting her, as a malicious child would. Jones allows the reader to grow with Kaylie’s memories; she tells of her fears and anxieties through the eyes of a child, telling us how she loves the sweet smell of scotch on her mother’s breath, with an innocence that we never question.

She never passes judgment on her mother, yet is aware that what her mother was doing (or not doing) was not normal mother behavior. By keeping us in the discovery along with her, Jones retains the innocence she had at that time, and in turn, never villainizes Gloria. She makes us feel disgust but never full blown hate, by showing us that Gloria doesn’t know any other way to act, tarnished by her own abnormal relationship with her mother.

Due to her open and honest tone, we become invested in what happens to this woman. We are there when she has a drunken fight with the writer, Nelson Algren, about the death of the novel. We are there for her troubled first marriage and divorce, and when Gloria, in a fit of rage, comes to their apartment and tries to stab the man who is leaving her daughter.

We are there when a drunk Gloria tells Timothy Hutton, “’You want to fuck my daughter? You can have her for free.’”

We are there when Kaylie begins drinking heavily and when she realizes that it is a problem. Jones chooses events that have the most punch in order for us to begin to get fed up with Gloria’s behavior, just as Kalyie does in the memoir.

As Kaylie begins to recognize her mother’s alcoholism and her own problem with alcohol, we see her start to grow and feel comfortable in her own skin. Throughout the memoir, there are many beautiful, quiet moments, moments of grace that harness the power of human connection. One of the first takes place early in Lies My Mother Never Told Me, when Kaylie is riding a train with a copy of From Here to Eternity lying on the seat beside her.

She gives a physical description of the conductor and speculates what he did prior to this job. The conductor suddenly comments that From Here to Eternity is the best book that he has ever read. This catches her off guard and Kaylie is too touched to tell the conductor that it was her father who wrote the novel. The reader and Kaylie are very struck, and the conductor will never know.

This inability to speak up shows how introverted Kaylie was at this point in her life.

We are never allowed to forget about Gloria’s role in Kaylie’s life. Just as her mother comes and goes from her life, her voice is always in the back of Kaylie’s head, and the reader is reminded of Gloria by having one of her stories introduce each chapter.

As Kalyie’s life becomes more cohesive, her mother’s deteriorates further, being admitted to hospitals while still denying her addiction to alcohol. Slowly but surely, Kaylie stops feeling the need to take responsibility for her mother and begins to have confidence in her own life.

Throughout this review, I found myself wanting to discuss the techniques that she uses to convey her intentions to the reader, or the way that the teacher in her is present in various passages, but this is not an academic paper. When you read Lies My Mother Never Told Me, you may not notice her techniques, but you will feel them.

Jones inherited her father’s passion for writing, and is using that power to make a statement that she wholeheartedly believes in, that we all have our own obstacles to overcome, but once we do, a whole different world begins to present itself.

Return to home page


The Last Song

By Nicholas Sparks

Grand Central Publishing | 390 pages | 24.99

Review By Jessica Lyons

Another Masterpiece from Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks has done it again. With his latest novel, The Last Song, he constructs a riveting tale centering on the protagonist, Ronnie, a teenage girl who butts heads with her mother and muddles her way through life. She’s a magnet for trouble, has given up on playing the music she used to love, and can’t seem to recover from her parents’ divorce.

Along with her little brother, Jonah, Ronnie leaves her home of New York City to spend the summer with her father in North Carolina, much to her dismay. Ronnie makes no secret of the fact that she has no desire to be there, particularly since she has an ongoing strained relationship with her father.

Although most of the story takes place in North Carolina, it is a pleasant departure to see Sparks leaving his home state to write about characters in a different setting, writing with as much ease and painting a picture that enables readers to easily visualize the characters’ surroundings


In The Last Song, Sparks masterfully weaves the lives of many different characters into a splendid mix, including Ronnie’s family and the people she meets during her forced summer in North Carolina. Ronnie interacts with a variety of colorful characters during her visit including Pastor Harris, the volleyball player, Will, bad boy Marcus, and a girl who goes by the name Blaze, just to name a few. Each character is well developed by Sparks, and it is these intermingling characters that drive the story.

Sparks has an easy, flowing, and realistic conversation that he creates between his many different characters. Whether it’s a flirtatious conversation between two teenagers or a taunting conversation between siblings, Sparks creates an engaging dialogue, inspiring both belly aching laughter and lachrymose tears, ever moving the reader.

The summer proves to be a transforming one for Ronnie, one in which she is forced to go through a tremendous transformation as she emerges from teenager to an adult.

This story has it all – romance, hardship, family problems and self-discovery. Sparks has made a name for himself by writing books that tug at the heartstrings, and The Last Song is no different. It’s an emotional story that pulls one through a wide range of emotions, tantalizingly mysterious to the end, while leaving the reader ultimately satisfied.

The Last Song, like many of Sparks’ other novels, such as A Walk to Remember, Message in a Bottle and The Notebook, lends itself to the big screen.

Although I would like to see Sparks leave his comfort zone and stretch from the formula he typically uses, this is a terrific read from an extremely talented author.

Return to home page


The Anthologist

by Nicholson Baker

Published by Simon & Schuster | 243 Pages | $25.00 | "Only Prose"

Reviewed by Jamie Metrick

It is the sad truth that in these modern times, writers have figured out how to lead a (somewhat) healthy, rewarding life and still be a published author. But without an abusive father like Tennyson, or a life marred by death, like Edgar Allen Poe, or the mental illness and suicide of Vachel Lindsay, how can one expect lasting praise and fame? Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist plays with the fears, pressures, joys, and tortures of writing masterpieces by a generation of bards who are "only a little messed up."

In Baker's new novel, Paul Chowder, a semi-acclaimed poet desperate for money, has one task to complete: to write an introduction to his poetry anthology, Only Rhyme. But the introduction is both the bane of Chowder's existence and the novel's only plot point. As a result, the reader is drawn into the inner works of Paul's mind as he spends his whole summer doing everything but write.

He tries to soothe the strained relationship with his ex, Roz, attempts to clean his barn office, takes on various home improvement projects, and avoids his editor. His exercise in procrastination lasts over two hundred pages, but one cannot help but feel empathy for Paul's cycle of idleness, guilt, and self-deprecation.

Though he claims to be a terrible college instructor, Chowder wants nothing more than to teach us, the readers, how to appreciate poetry; especially rhyming poetry. (He loathes free verse, referring to them as plums.) He defends the brilliance of iambic pentameter, but explains why the phrase "iambic pentameter" is so confusing and wrong. Whole long, freewheeling sections are devoted to the fascinating, but doomed, histories of famous poets.

He shares his love of Louise Bogan and Sara Teasdale and his hatred for Ezra Pound and the Futurist movement. The melodramatic and dangerous lives of Paul's idols compared to his trips to buy a table cloth and reorganize his books, only serve to highlight his mundane life. Most of all, we glean Paul's insecurities as a writer, facing the truth that all well-adjusted artists must. "You have to suffer in order to be a human being who can help people understand suffering. I have a mouse in my kitchen," Chowder wryly laments.

Baker explores the joys of reading poetry and the suffering experienced from creating them. Although little action occurs, the tension of Chowder's procrastination sets an anxious tone that anyone who has ever put off a project can relate to. At times it is painful to watch Paul spiral deeper into self-loathing, and the sections on rhyme and meter read more like a high school text book than a celebration of rhyme.

For a story built on slowly unfurling events, the final chapter brings loose ends to a close too rapidly and with not enough explanation. Three pages after a sudden epiphany, Paul manages to achieve more in a week than in an entire summer of self-doubt and listlessness.

The long lectures and musings by Paul portray the mind of a very real artist in a very real creative limbo. For those who have never picked up a volume of Sara Teasdale or think good poetry doesn't rhyme, The Anthologist is an inspired Poetry 101. For seasoned poets plagued by low pay and bad reviews, Baker has written a reaffirmation for the joys of suffering and of writing. In the end, they are the same act.

Return to home page


The Year of the Flood

by Margaret Atwood

448 pages | Nan A. Talese, 2009

Extinctathon Revisited
Do humans deserve a second chance?

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Interspersed in this compelling tale of the last humans’ survival in a post-apocalyptic world are dopey, goofy, frankly godawful sermons by God’s Gardeners, a nutty-crunchy, tree-hugging religious sect. Vegetarians who dress in shapeless recycled shmattes raise crops and honey bees on a squatters’ building rooftop, school their kids in the lifesaving qualities of maggots (used for both wound healing AND breakfast!), God’s Gardeners appear in stark opposition to the decrepit but fiercely materialistic world around them. They sound at times like simpletons, yet irony of ironies, they accurately predict the Waterless Flood which will capsize all humanity. And their accolates, strangely enough, turn out to be better prepared to face this future than the more sophisticated denizens of their world.

In the pre-Flood world, the rich dwell in locked compounds run by the Corporations like HelthWyzer and the poor dwell in the Pleeblands, which are run by mobs and street gangs and scratch out a living working in sex clubs, burger joints and spas for the wealthy. Women particularly fall easy prey to men who are brutal thugs, philandering Peter Pans, or madmen/fanatics – those seem to be the only choices. All live in fear of CorpSeCorps, the security force that polices the world.

While the Gardeners chant and celebrate a different Saint each day (from Rachel Carson to Sojourner Truth), the Corporation scientists, madhatter mad, take our modern-day obsessions with DNA, genetics and cloning to their logical conclusions: concocting new blended animal entities (just because they can?): liobams (lion + lamb), rakunks (rat + skunk) and wolvogs (wolf + dog), as well as a whole new breed of humans who are meek and seemingly dimwitted, but who may very well inherit our earth.

It’s a scary world out there! Atwood has covered this exact territory before in her 2003 book, Oryx and Crake and now she returns to this world, haunted as she must be by its possible inevitability. Neither a sequel nor a prequel, it’s a companion piece to the earlier work and expands our vision by focusing on the little people in this drama.

This time Atwood has us follow the story of two women, young Ren and older Toby, who meet during their brief stretch with the Gardeners and prove tough enough to make it through to the end. There are four or five other characters that are central to the story (Amanda, Zeb, Shackleton and Croze), but Ren and Toby are the ones we care about and the ones that carry the story. Toby, as a college student, becomes an instant orphan, thanks to the healthcare system which is frighteningly like our own; Ren’s the product of a broken family, an innocent who falls under the influence of a street-savvy friend, and winds up earning her living in a seedy sex club.

The book, a bit like The Time Travelers Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, plays around with chronology to the ultimate confusion of the reader. The hymns and sermons throw us off the track. They definitely disturb the mood and interrupt the flow of the novel. The tone is hard to fathom at times - how much is parody and how much sincerity? Here, for example, is an excerpt from the Gardeners’ leader, Adam One’s conversation with Toby on religion:

“The truth is. . .most people don’t care about other Species, not when times get hard. All they care about is their next meal, naturally enough: we have to eat or die. But what if God’s doing the caring? We’ve evolved to believe in gods, so this belief bias of ours must confer an evolutionary advantage. The strictly materialist view – that we’re an experiment animal protein has been doing on itself – is far too harsh and lonely for most, and leads to nihilism. That being the case, we need to push popular sentiment in a biosphere-friendly direction by pointing out the hazards of annoying God by a violation of His trust in our stewardship.”

“What you mean is, with God in the story there’s a penalty,” said Toby.

“Yes,” said Adam One. “There’s a penalty without God in the story too, needless to say. But people are less likely to credit that. If there’s a penalty, they want a penalizer. They dislike senseless catastrophe.”

So Atwood has stitched together all these sermons and woven them into her story because 1) she believes in God; 2) she believes religion is the opiate of the people and 3) she doesn’t care what you believe as long as you save the animals from extinction. It may take more than one reading to ferret out the correct answer.

At the end, this reader was shocked not by the ending of the tale, but by the real life ending featuring Atwood’s hymns; they have been put to music by one Orville Stroeber, as a visit to will have you know. And did you know it’s possible to nominate other ecological green giants to Atwood’s Hall of Fame via the same website? The future of books is in flux right before our eyes! Also surprising (not really) was the biographical tidbit that Atwood is the daughter of a forest entomologist and a nutritionist. Next up: The Nobody’s-Idea-of-a-Cookbook Cookbook showcasing recipes from the book involving fungi, creepy-crawlies, and cattail soup. The line between literature and life is getting harder to draw all the time.

The celebrated Canadian author of forty or so novels, among them The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, Blind Assassin and Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood is still in her prime. Her speculative fiction is captivating because it is so close to our present, just a few extrapolations away; just a few ethical matters need to be disposed of first. We may laugh at the Gardeners’ simplicity, the Corporation dwellers’ addiction to plastic surgery and Mo’Hair scalp transplants, but this world is a little too close for comfort to our own. Do we laugh or do we cry? This type of dystopia has a pull on us. In Oryx and Crake, Atwood left us hanging as to the future survival of mankind, but the overriding sentiment seemed to be that we didn’t deserve to live, that our murderous impulses would always win out, that we were poor stewards of Earth’s creatures. Here, she leaves us with a singing chorus of strangers: “Now we can see the flickering of their torches, winding towards us through the darkness of the trees.” Time will tell if they are like us or not.

Janet Garber is an author, freelance journalist and native New Yorker.

Return to home page


Anna In-Between

by Elizabeth Nunez

Akashic Books | $22.95 | pp 347

No (Wo)Man Is an Island

by Loretta H. Campbell

elizabeth nunez

“We are the ones they could not break. We are the progeny of the ones they had to leave behind on the islands, the ones they could not tame for Georgia, the ones who refused to die.” --Anna In-Between

Anna the main character in this exemplary novel says this about her ancestors the West Indians, descendants of slaves, who have forged freedom and a new race in the Caribbean. Elizabeth Nunez, author of the superlative Bruised Hibiscus, sets this as one of many parallels in the book using rich and thoughtful imagery.

The first comparison is between the seemingly obedient Anna and her mother Beatrice. Anna, a 40ish- year-old editor for a prosperous publishing company in New York, ostensibly goes home to visit because she hasn’t seen her parents for some time. It soon becomes apparent that an ugly divorce from her adulterous African American husband and a need to bond with her mother are the real reasons for the trip.

Nunez gives us a Beatrice every inch the stereotypical West Indian woman. She is resourceful, always impeccably dressed, unaffectionate, and beautiful. “At seventy-one, Beatrice Sinclair is still as beautiful as the picture Anna has carried in her head from the first time she left home more than twenty years ago.”

However, Nunez digs deep into Beatrice and her motives. By all appearances, her marriage to Anna’s father, John, is solid. However, this union too has been tested by the infidelity of the husband. Almost twenty years into the marriage, Beatrice shamed her husband’s mistress into leaving him alone. She criticizes Anna for divorcing her husband simply because he was unfaithful.

A good wife, as Beatrice explains it, accepts the inability of men to be faithful. She is not a woman given to outward displays of affection, but she is quick to criticize.

She does not see that Anna needs her support. The two woman are drifting apart. Yet, the distance that Beatrice creates between them is soon narrowed by the biggest shock of both their lives. Beatrice shows Anna her bleeding, cystic breast.

“Nothing has prepared her for the lump pushing out beneath the skin on her mother’s left breast or for the thin trail of partially dried blood beneath.” Beatrice refuses to name what is destroying her breast. Inexplicably, she and her husband have never discussed it. Because Beatrice wears one of John’s shirts to bed every night and bloodies it, Anna cannot fathom how her parents are in denial about the illness.

Beatrice shunned her own mother when she was dying of breast cancer. A contradiction, her diseased breast rebuilds the dormant mother/daughter love between Anna and her.

Although Anna is astounded by the passivity of both her parents, she is most angry with her father for not taking Beatrice to the doctor. John seems obsessed with his wife’s modesty. Although he has seen the lump and the soiled clothing, he feels he must wait for his wife to talk to him about both. Nunez takes the opportunity to explain, in John’s voice, this kind of emotional reserve often attributed to many of her compatriots.

“Do you think they [African ancestors] would have lived to bear children and their children to bear other children if they didn’t have discipline, if they didn’t know how to control their emotions, to keep them in check? If they didn’t know how to take the lash, the iron bit in their mouths, and keep their pain bound and gagged, hidden from those who waited for their fall, their collusion in the slaver’s demonic intent to turn them into animals?”

This excuse indicates a misplaced sense of responsibility. This stolidity, Nunez outlines, was a heroic defense mechanism used by slaves in the Caribbean. Now, this silent endurance has become a life-threatening self-repression in their descendants.

What is also true is that Beatrice, a seemingly proud and courageous woman, is simply afraid of cancer or possibly terminal cancer. Worse, she cannot be treated on the beautiful island paradise that is her home. Their country doesn’t have a decent medical system. She will have to go to America, and this revelation brings about another obstacle.

That is the systemic racism in the American medical system. Nunez, who lives and teaches here in the States, is frank in her assessment. Anna tells her mother, “Racism affects the very lives of black people in America. …It affects where they live, what kind of education they get, what jobs are open to them, whether they go to jail or not. …It matters if you would be given the right treatment from doctors or hospitals…”

African American readers of this novel will identify with Beatrice’s growing fear of white American doctors.

Paradoxically, this makes her even more reluctant to get treatment and it makes her see how pernicious racism is in America. Before this, she had assumed that African Americans were exaggerating about its damaging effects.

Once again, Nunez has addressed an issue seldom talked about in the Black Diaspora. That issue is how West Indians view African Americans. To often, we’re seen as undeserving or irresponsible. In other words, the stereotypes about African Americans are believed by some West Indians too.

Having lived and been educated in America for decades, Anna knows these stereotypes are just that. Because she is able to see both sides of the cultural divide, part of her wants to return to America, the land of her education and career. However, the other part wants to remain in her native land with her family and roots.

Unfortunately, it is no longer the land of her childhood. Homicidal drug dealers torture and kill children and adults. Anna’s parents, and most families on the island, live and sleep behind a series of locked doors. There are few jobs, and most of Anna’s childhood friends have moved to other countries to find careers, spouses, and to build new lives. Of course, in America, these problems also exist. The exception being, most Americans do not leave the country for employment opportunities. They leave the small towns to pursue careers in the larger cities.

By the novel’s end, Anna has life-transforming choices to make on either side of this question. Still, she is forging an identity, which encompasses the best parts of both worlds.

Return to home page


Why Women Have Sex

Understanding Sexual Motivations from Adventure to Revenge (and Everything in Between)

by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss

306 pp. | $25.00

Reviewed By Elizabeth Sher

A Long Winded Research Project About the Physiology and Psychology of Female Sexual Behavior.

david buss author

The authors are both psychology professors from the University of Texas, Austin. Cindy Meston, PhD, and David M. Buss, PhD, offer insights into female sexuality from their extensive research. Why Women Have Sex is a book of research project results that are based on new research, including previous researches from the authors. The geographical areas surveyed in this research include women in the United States, Belgium, France and Italy. Why Women Have Sex appears to have been inspired by the classic 1966 Masters and Johnson’s book, The Human Sexual Response. The authors, William H. Masters (1915-2001) and Virginia E. Johnson (b. 1925) were researchers who encouraged studies on sexual psychophysiology; in fact, they encouraged the beginnings of such research.

The area where the book, Why Women Have Sex, falls short is its length. The book is too tedious for the casual reader and its number of quotes is excessive. There are over sixty quotes in the first one hundred pages alone and there are almost three hundred pages that include bibliographic footnotes, as well as an index. Instead of being a concise, inspiring read, it tends to be on the pedantic, scholarly side. When I finished reading this book, I had lost interest in learning about female sexuality.

The book’s chapters include information about attraction, being in love, jealousy, conquest, pleasure, competition, revenge and pacts. These topical areas are all too familiar to the average popular non-fiction reader. Other topics include sexual abuse and sex as punishment.

Cindy Meston focuses more on the physiological origins of female sexuality. Dr. Meston covers these topics, as well, including physiological measures such as fMRI (functional MRI) test results (to “identify areas of the brain involved in human sexual response and behavior.”) and other medical measures, such as the adaptations that shape female sexual behaviors. With brief descriptions of animal behavior, Darwinism, genetics, major compatibility complexes, erogenous zones and various other kinds of research, the reader obtains insights into the biology of sex.

I was surprised that there were no graphs, tables or photographs to illustrate the book’s ideas. The topics herein are all covered in popular fiction, such as Psychology Today, talk shows and soap operas, offering very few new insights. Although the authors mention female sexual behaviors in non-heterosexuals, including bisexual and polygamous women, the range of different ethnic cultures is scarcely explored.

There are quite a number of times when sex occurs as a result of jealousy, revenge and aggression, including experiences of betrayal and deception. These are overriding themes in quite a number of the quotations. On page 90, a woman mentions, “Thinking that if I had sex then he would be interested in me…Nope…That is all he wanted in me. On page 53, “The reason I had sex with my ex-husband? I was young...I thought by having sex it would ensure a committed relationship…and the more that we made love, I thought the more he must love me, I was a fool.”

Each woman frequently has a clear, unique motive. The result of the study yields over 237 reasons why women have sex but it is not clearly reflected in the survey responses. The research is based on an exhaustive survey of 1,006 female research participants and their sexual motives. The findings include statistics, facts, cross-cultural study results and sexual experiences.

Why Women Have Sex offers the reader a glimpse into a wide range of female sexual surveys and a very good theoretical historical survey of sex, as well as other related topics. The book is an important, but ultimately tiresome work covering the psychology and physiology of female sexuality.

Return to home page