Book Reviews

The Wedding by Dorothy West

Adapted from the 1995 edition of The Wedding by Dorothy West, published by Doubleday, NY: On the island of Martha’s Vineyard, a special community has flourished since the turn of the century, an exclusive summer colony of affluent vacationers.  A proud, insular, nearly unassailable group, it is made up of the best and the brightest of America’s black middle class. A world of doctors and ministers and lawyers and college presidents, it represent a side of the black experience known by too few, a  side that is seldom considered. It is a world Dorothy West knew well, for it was her world, and in The Wedding, set in the 1950s in an enclave known as The Oval, she brought it to wonderful life.

Langston Hughes once called Dorothy West “a student of the human race,” and The Wedding bears him out, for it contains some of the most unforgettable flesh-and-blood characters you’ll ever meet, including Shelby Coles, the daughter of a loveless marriage, whose engagement to a white jazz musician threatens to tear her family apart; Lute McNeil, a social-climbing Boston businessman who sees in Shelby and her family everything he could ever want for his three motherless daughters, and who sells his soul to try to win her; and Gram, the daughter of a plantation owner, who’s own daughter broke her heart by marrying an ex-slave, and who is kept alive only by bitterness.

Through a delicate interweaving of past and present, North and South, black and white, The Wedding unfolds outward from a single isolated time and place until it embraces five generations of an extraordinary family. It is an audacious accomplishment, a monumental history of the rise of a black middle class, Read More→

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In Search of Nella Larsen by George Hutchinson

George Hutchinson’s biography, In Search of  Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (2006) delves into her experience as a black woman who passed for white in certain environments. A factor studied by many, this privilege inspired Larsen’s unique perspective on the world, showing in her novels. Hutchinson gives justice to Nella Larsen’s influence in the world of African-American art; namely the era of the Harlem Renaissance as she progressed as a writer despite the boundaries of race.

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Gone with the Wind: Echoing through the ages

Contributed by Adam Burgess. “The greatest love story ever told.”  “The epic novel of our time.”  These are just two of the many descriptive phrases applied to Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant tome, Gone With the Wind.  Is it an epic tale, indicative of the essence of the American south during the Civil War?  Absolutely, it is. Is it one of the most tense, romantic, and familiar love stories of all-time?  Yes, it definitely is.

But, when it comes down to it, do these short phrases accurately describe what Gone With the Wind is all about? No, they do not. Gone With the Wind is about the end of an era – the collapse of a civilization. It is about selfishness and prosperity, morals and aristocracy, war and destruction, mercenaries and old maids. Read More→

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Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Gender, Identity, and Sexuality Through Time

Contributed by Adam Burgess. Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s sixth major work and was written in a year, between To the Lighthouse and The Waves. It is an epic novel and historical biography which follows the journey of one character, Orlando, over the course of about 350 years (1588-1928). It is a biography not of any one character, but of the nature and history of gender, identity, and sexuality through time.

At the start of the novel, readers will encounter Orlando as a young boy of noble birth. His family entertains Queen Elizabeth I, who is the first to notice Orlando’s beauty and potential. As he ages (slowly), Orlando will spend much of his time with “low” people – those well-outside the realm of nobility, though he himself is a member of the court. He explores and enjoys sexual relations with women of varying types, though each of his three serious ventures into love soon goes sour. Orlando will twice mistake the loves of his life for the wrong gender, which is particularly complex after Orlando himself has become a woman, remembering himself as a man, loving a man who is actually a woman. Read More→

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“March” by Geraldine Brooks — a review

By Susan Bailey, Louisa May Alcott is My Passion. Historical fiction is a risky genre, especially if the author is tackling a beloved American classic. Geraldine Brooks presents a bold and provocative story centered on the “shadow” character of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Mr. March, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, March (Penguin Books, 2005). She takes that risk a step further by fleshing out Marmee, the quintessential mother figure. March succeeds in taking characters of mythical proportion and bringing them down to earth, turning them into living, breathing people, vastly more interesting, with decided with feet of clay.

Reader beware: you must be willing to set aside any pre-conceived, black and white notions about Little Women in order to appreciate March. Brooks places you in a decidedly gray-shaded world which is not for the faint of heart.

Geraldine Brooks’ writing is aggressive: poking, prodding and shaking the reader out of complacency. March is not a leisurely read. Read More→

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