Shannon’s Reading List: The Street; Heaven, My Home; How We Fight For Our Lives

The Street  by Ann Petry

I read about his book in Shelf Awareness back in January and was like how have I never heard of this and how quickly can I get it? This book, about a single mother raising her son in 1940s Harlem, is the first by a black woman writer with sales of over a million copies.

I began reading it in the middle of a blustery wind and rain storm, and how magical that was. It’s a wonderful intoxicating blend of lush literary prose and noir plot. A lot of harrowing, yet par for the course details about the singular vulnerability of being both black and a woman. So many times I admired how firm and resolute the protagonist, Lutie, was in the face of relentless peril, like when looking for an apartment, and dealing with a too-interested Superintendent.

“When he didn’t move, she said, ‘you go first.’

Then he made a slight motion toward the stairs with his flashlight indicating that she was to precede him. She shook her head very firmly.

‘Think you’ll take it?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know yet. I’ll think about it going down.’

When he finally started down the hall, it seemed to her that he had stood there beside her for days, weeks, months, willing her to go down the stairs first.”

The Street, Ann Petry

Also great were her observations on being black in a white world. This passage describes the change in the behavior of her fellow subway riders after they leave the company of white passengers:

“These other folks feel the same way, she thought — that once they are freed from the contempt in the eyes of the downtown world, they instantly become individuals. Up here they are no longer creatures labeled simply ‘colored’ and therefore all alike. She noticed that once the crowd walked the length of the platform and started up the stairs toward the street, it expanded in size. The same people who had made themselves small on the train, even on the platform, suddenly grew so large they could hardly get up the stairs to the street together. She reached the street at the very end of the crowd and stood watching them as they scattered in all directions, laughing and talking to each other.”

The Street, Ann Petry

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

I love me some Attica Locke, as demonstrated in my gushy blog post about her Jay Porter books. Bluebird, Bluebird set a lot of the groundwork for this book and was rich in setting and conflict. But Attica did not come to play with her follow-up Heaven, My Home. It’s been a long time since I stayed glued to a book, huddled up in the corner of my couch watching the sun go down, unaware the porch outside had gone pitch dark because I just had to finish the book. That ending though. And, well, here is a rather topical quote from the book:

“. . . a black man should have a right to his own fear. Otherwise, he would forever be dying because of someone else’s.”

Heaven, My Home, Attica Locke

How We Fight For Our Lives by  Saeed Jones

The prologue alone, which is the author’s ode to his mother in the form of a poem about her dancing to Prince, is worth the price of admission. Listen to Sam Sanders read it out loud on his It’s Been a Minute podcast. It’s just like “Dammmmn.”

Every glowing praise you’ve read about this book is true. All I can add is that so much of it related to what the protagonist of my WIP is going through, and of course since there’s always a part of yourself in your characters, then so much of what he said resonated with me. My character is dealing with shame, and shame is an underlying theme throughout Jones’s entire book and discussed heavily in his interview with Sam Sanders. I had a critiquer comment that she had never read a character with as much low self-esteem as the one in my manuscript, and I thought to myself really? Because she seems baseline to me. No, not baseline, but the idea that someone could be struggling with low self-esteem was not surprising or foreign to me. And then I read Saeed Jones’s book and I’m like vindication! He’s so brutally honest about his desires and how often desires are messy, tangled up with shame and the power structure in America and repression.

“Leaning against that wall, dispassionately sipping a beer, he was the kind of quiet I’ve noticed in certain men and long hungered for: the silence of men who have it all and thus find it all boring, who don’t exert the energy necessary to flirt, persuade, or convince because they know America will come crawling to them on hands and knees. I realize now that what I wanted was not just the body of such men, but their power and what they could use that power to do to the rest of us. The brutal exertion of will, destiny made manifest by the unspoken threat their muscled bodies and white skin posed. I hungered for the power of the all-American man, the Marlboro man and the Marlboro man’s firstborn son, the high school quarterback, the company’s future CEO, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Odysseus, Hercules, Achilles, the shield itself, the stone-cut archetype, the goddamned Everyman, the golden boy, the one.”

How We Fight For Our Lives, Saeed Jones

I mean, there’s really nothing more to say.

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