And a very happy Free For All birthday to Jamaican-American poet and author Claude McKay!
McKay was born in Jamaica in 1889, and educated by his older brother, who had a considerable collection of English literature and scientific texts. In 1912, McKay published a book of verse called Songs of Jamaica, recording his impressions of black life in Jamaica in dialect. That same year, he traveled to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He remained there only a few months, leaving to study agriculture at Kansas State University.
During the 1920’s, McKay became a devoted Communist, and was invited to Russia by Lenin to aid in the rebuilding of the country after the Revolution. From Russia, McKay went to France, returning to the US, and Harlem, in 1934. Losing faith in Communism, he turned his attention to the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders in Harlem, eventually converting to Catholicism. McKay’s viewpoints and poetic achievements in the earlier part of the twentieth century set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance and gained the deep respect of younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes. His remarkable range of work run the gamut from sonnets to modernist novels, making McKay a true original in the history of American and African American literature. Today, we share one of his poems with you in honor of his special day.
The White House
And now, on to the books!
Sing, Unburied, Sing: National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, has returned to grace us with a book that echoes Toni Morrison, William Faulkner and Homer in this tribute to Southern literature. Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise. This is a timeless story, and yet one that is startlingly immediate, dealing with identity, race, loss, and the opioid epidemic, in remarkable ways. Buzzfeed wrote a glorious review of this book, which reads, in part, “The heart of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is story — the yearning for a narrative to help us understand ourselves, the pain of the gaps we’ll never fill, the truths that are failed by words and must be translated through ritual and song …. Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love, and this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it.”
The Cooking Gene : a journey through African-American culinary history in the Old South: Michael W. Twitty is a highly respected culinary historian, and in this wonderful book, he tackles the incredible divisive issue of race in a new, intriguing, and beautifully insightful way–through food! Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who “owns” it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine. From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty not only tells his family’s story, but suggests that there is a hope for healing in Southern food, and embracing the discomforts of the past. Positive reviews have been pouring in for this book, including a starred review from Kirkus, who said “Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way… An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.”
Are You Sleeping?: Were you a loyal listener of Serial? Did you adore the twists and turns that podcast presented? If so, then Kathleen Barber’s new psychological thriller is for you. Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s best friend, betrayed her. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, and is desperate to make a life with her partner Caleb. But when investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future. This is a novel that will keep you guessing, re-thinking, and doubting everything you think you knew about each of these characters and their motivations. Publisher’s Weekly loved this book, giving it a starred review and calling it an “inventive debut…The intense plot and character studies are enhanced by the emotional look at the dynamics of a family forever scarred by violence.”
A Legacy of Spies: There are plenty of us who are mourning the Cold War, if only for the dearth of high-tension, intellectual spy novels. But weep no more, dear readers, for John Le Carré has returned to his immortal Smiley, bringing us his first novel from the Circus in a quarter century. Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, including George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications. By interweaving past and present, Le Carré reminds fans just why they fell in love with his work–and presents a whole new generation of readers with the deliciously gray world of espionage. This book is making headlines all over the place, and The Atlantic raved “Le Carré is such a gifted storyteller that he interlaces the cards in his deck so they fit not simply with this book, but with the earlier ones as well.”
The Clockwork Dynasty: Another thriller that blends the past and present, but Daniel H. Wilson’s tale is one where automatons are hidden amongst humanity, biding their time…In the present, June Stefanov, a young anthropologist specializing in ancient technology, uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical doll. With her career and her life at stake, June will ally with a remarkable traveler on an around-the-world adventure and discover breathtaking secrets of the past. Meanwhile, in 1725, in the depths of the Kremlin, the tsar’s loyal mechanician brings to life two astonishingly mechanical beings; a brother and sister fallen out of time, possessed with uncanny power. Struggling to blend into pre-Victorian society, they are pulled into a legendary war that has raged for centuries. This is a story that will have fans of steampunk and gothic, as well as techno-fans, and readers in need of a great female lead, singing with delight. Kirkus loved this book too, noting “It may wear its influences on its sleeve but it’s also a welcome treat for steampunk and fantasy fans. A thrilling mix of influences, much like Sylvain Neuvel’s Sleeping Giants and HBO’s Westworld, that creates a captivating scenario begging for many sequels.”
Until next week, beloved patrons….happy reading!