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Dinaw Mengestu's 2007 debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears gives a thoughtful yet, melancholic look at the isolated life of an Ethiopian immigrant running a fledgling neighborhood grocery in D.C. Sepha Stephanos fled Ethiopia nearly twenty years prior to escape the Ethiopian revolution. He struggles with his ceaseless desire to return to his home country and his indifferent existence in America. His rundown store also serves as meeting place for him and two fellow African immigrants who pass the time naming coups and dictators of the various African nations. Things appear to be on an upswing as his neighborhood is in the beginnings of gentrification. The first home to be renovated, which he describes as "a beautiful, tragic wreck of a building," is purchased by Judith, a white woman who's an academic and has a biracial 11 year old daughter. Sepha and Judith engage in this awkward flirtation while he forms a bond with her daughter as they read Dostoevsky in his store.  Even his budding friendship with Judith's daughter falls into a formulaic routine. Sepha's observations of the lunchtime crowd in and around his neighborhood make their daily routine appear as monotonous as his. His fellow immigrant friends have similarly vacant existences. One is stuck waiting tables as they all once did in the same hotel all those years later and the other has "made it" as a well paid engineer but even he cannot let go of his past and works constantly to ignore his present. None of them are really present in their current lives in America. Mengestu often uses the word "beautiful" to describe things that are not necessarily so as Sepha does to appease his friend about a newly acquired used Saab which is anything but beautiful. To the friend, it was his; he earned the money to buy it and that made it beautiful. As the title suggests, which comes from a line in Dante's Inferno, Sepha will eventually emerge from his own hell and discover the beautiful things that heaven bears. While it has spots that lull, there are also spots that are moving and spots that are heartbreaking. Mengestu's novel is very quiet and subtle in its approach and I actually enjoyed that. This was a strong debut from a skillful writer. I'm e that he's a voice for my generation.


Challenges
POC Reading
African Diaspora


 
 
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Ama Ata Aidoo gives a glimpse into post-colonial life in Ghana. The eleven short stories are well written vignettes revealing a nation and its people in transition. Higher education abroad is highly sought after. Massive conspicuous wigs become an unfortunate symbol of a loss of confidence. The ubiquitous "big man" is a role once played by white men but now one of black Africans deemed to have status and wealth. Probably my favorite and the most telling story of the changes occurring at the time is "For Whom Things Did Not Change." Zirigu, a servant, and his wife, Setu discuss the social acceptance of young girls sleeping with "big men" because of the material possessions they can provide. Zirigu also struggles with his past as servant to white men for whom he prepared English dishes and the young black man he now serves begs for traditional Ghanaian cuisine. The character driven stories of No Sweetness Here are entertaining and informative on a country in the midst of change to a western-influenced society.

 
 
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Precious Williams is practically born into foster care. It's at ten weeks old that she's brought to Mrs. Taylor whom she'll call Nanny. Meanwhile, Precious Anita Williams will be known as "Nin" in reverence of Nanny's beloved literary character, Topsy who is described as a pickaninny in Uncle Tom's Cabin. This sentiment adds to the propriety of this seemingly loosely regulated and trendy practice She's placed with Nanny by her Nigerian mother via an ad in a publication specifically for arranging foster care. The practice was often done between the birth parents and the foster family while the former attended school in England. These arrangements were typically between African parents and white foster parents.

Precious' mother however, is not a student and is descended from Nigerian royalty. She  simply doesn't want to be a mother. Yet, she maintains this inconsistent presence in her daughter's life for most of her childhood. Her complaints that Precious is "dull" and the taunting of schoolmates about her being "coloured" leave Precious floating aimlessly between two worlds. One world sees her as Nigerian though she has no connection with this side of herself and the other world is the one she lives in surrounded by white caretakers and school children. She feels thoroughly British but longs to have a sense of blackness. 

Color Blind is a fascinating, though often heartbreaking, memoir of a girl navigating race in that she not only wants to find her identity as a person of color, but also who she is beyond the color of her skin.

Disclosure: This book was supplied by the publisher.

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About the author
Precious Williams was first published aged eight when her poem took first prize in a poetry competition (she won £2).

Since then she has been a Contributing Editor at Elle, Cosmopolitan and the Mail on Sunday. Precious' work has also been published in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, Glamour, Korean Vogue, New York magazine, Wallpaper and several other publications. Her journalism focuses on health and lifestyle features and celebrity interviews. Notable interviewees include Nina Simone, Yoko Ono, Jon Bon Jovi, P Diddy, Bryan Ferry, Lenny Kravitz and Naomi Campbell.

Born in the UK, Precious is of Sierra Leonean and Nigerian descent and she has lived in London and in New York. She studied Periodical Journalism at the London College of Printing and English Language & Literature at Oxford.

Her first book, Precious: A True Story is a memoir about her childhood in foster care. The book is titled Color Blind in the US. Both editions will be published by Bloomsbury in August 2010.
www.preciouswilliams.com

Giveaway
Now I'd like to extend a chance to my readers to win a copy of this amazing memoir. In keeping with a central theme of Color Blind, I'd like the comments to respond to this question: What defines you? This does not have to be a dissertation but a simple statement on how you self-identify. Entries will be accepted through 11:59 pm (CST) Sunday, July 18 and a winner announced Monday, July 19.  Open to U.S. residents.
 
 
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Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion
Gregory Boyle
Author: Gregory Boyle
Free Press, March 2010
Hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN-10: 1439153027
ISBN-13: 9781439153024


About the Book
How do you fight despair and learn to meet the world with a loving heart? How do you overcome shame? Stay faithful in spite of failure? No matter where people live or what their circumstances may be, everyone needs boundless, restorative love. Gorgeous and uplifting, Tattoos on the Heart amply demonstrates the impact unconditional love can have on your life.As a pastor working in a neighborhood with the highest concentration of murderous gang activity in Los Angeles, Gregory Boyle created an organization to provide jobs, job training, and encouragement so that young people could work together and learn the mutual respect that comes from collaboration. Tattoos on the Heart is a breathtaking series of parables distilled from his twenty years in the barrio. Arranged by theme and filled with sparkling humor and glowing generosity, these essays offer a stirring look at how full our lives could be if we could find the joy in loving others and in being loved unconditionally. Tattoos on the Heart reminds us that no life is less valuable than another.

Review
Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle initially began patrolling what he called "the gang capitol of L.A." via bike instigating peace treaties and truces among rival gangs. He decided to go in another direction as he felt his treaties and truces still perpetuated gang activity. Boyle's initiative of getting gang members employment, counseling, and tattoo removal services became Homeboy Industries.

Boyle seems to have found an easy rapport with many of the gang members who come to him when they are ready to change their lifestyles. His faith has allowed him to be giving of his time and resources and receptive to these young people who often have dangerous criminal backgrounds. Each essay reveals the humanity of various men and women involved in gang activity. Their stories are insightful, encouraging, and often heartbreaking. Boyle not only tells of triumphs like former rival gang members coming together and building a child care center, but those of tragedy like a young mother gunned down after sharing with Boyle an inexplicable dream of a dove flying from a coffin that was either an epiphany or an omen. This is the beauty of his story that is obviously meant to uplift and inspire, for success cannot be achieved without disappointments. You cannot package such a tale in a neat bow and disregard the fact that changed behavior may not eliminate consequences for past erratic behavior. What Tattoos on the Heart does right is show that change is always possible and that, with the right people and tools facilitating change, a lost person can find themselves and discover that "nothing of [their] humanity is to be discarded."

About the author
Father Gregory Boyle was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1982. He received his Master of Divinity from the Weston School of Theology; and a Sacred Theology Masters degree from the Jesuit School of Theology. In 1988, Father Boyle began what would become Homeboy Industries, now located in downtown Los Angeles. Fr. Greg received the California Peace Prize, the “Humanitarian of the Year” Award from Bon Appétit; the Caring Institute’s 2007 Most Caring People Award; and received the 2008 Civic Medal of Honor from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

Since 1986, Father Gregory has been the pastor of Dolores Mission in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. The church sits between two large public housing projects, Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, known for decades as the gang capital of the world. There are 1,100 gangs encompassing 86,000 members in Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights has the highest concentration of murderous gang activity in the city. Since Father Greg—also known affectionately as G-dog, started Homeboy Industries nearly twenty years ago, it has served members of more than half of the gangs in Los Angeles. In Homeboy Industries’ various businesses—baking, silkscreening, landscaping—gang affiliations are left outside as young people work together, side by side, learning the mutual respect that comes from building something together.

About Homeboy Industries
Homeboy Industries traces its roots to “Jobs For A Future” (JFF), a program created in 1988 by Father Gregory Boyle while he was serving as pastor of Dolores Mission parish in Boyle Heights. Begun as a jobs program in 1988, offering alternatives to gang violence in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, the program soon grew beyond the parish.

With the addition of a small bakery in a run-down warehouse across the street from Dolores Mission, JFF had its own business, one where it could hire the most challenging, difficult to place young people in a safe environment. The hope was that they could learn both concrete and soft job skills, to make them stronger, better prepared candidates for permanent employment. A tortilla stand in Grand Central Market downtown solidified the evolution of JFF into Homeboy Industries.

In only a few years, Homeboy Industries has had an important impact on the Los Angeles gang problem, with young people from over half of the region’s 1,100 known gangs seeking a way out through Homeboy. Thousands of young people have walked through the doors of Homeboy Industries looking for a second chance, and finding community. Gang affiliations are left outside as these young people work together, side by side, learning the mutual respect that comes from shared tasks and challenges.

Homeboy became an independent nonprofit in August of 2001, and has since grown into a national model. This year, we will celebrate our 20th anniversary as an organization in our new headquarters located in downtown Los Angeles, just two blocks from Union Station. Homeboy serves as a beacon of hope and opportunity for those seeking to leave gang life, for whom the barriers and challenges are great, and for whom there is virtually no other avenue to enter the mainstream.

In addition to providing job training and placement assistance and other free programs, a distinctive feature of Homeboy Industries continues to be its small businesses, where the most difficult to place individuals are hired in transitional jobs, thus giving them a safe, supportive environment in which to learn both concrete and soft job skills, while simultaneously building their resume and work experience. Former rivals find themselves working side by side, finding true community and friendship in place of the limited community of gang life. Homeboy’s businesses now include the Homeboy Bakery, newly re-opened in our new Headquarters downtown, Homeboy Silkscreen, which prints logos on apparel and provides embroidery services; Homeboy Maintenance, which provides landscaping and maintenance services; Homeboy Merchandise, which sells t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and mouse pads with the Homeboy logo, now with a retail storefront in the new Headquarters, as well as online ordering; Homegirl Café, newly expanded in the new building with 86 seats, plus a dedicated Catering kitchen provides a training ground dedicated to female clients in all aspects of the restaurant and service industry.  Homeboy Press has been publishing a literary magazine since 2008.

100% profits from book sales of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion go directly to Homeboy Industries.  In this difficult economy, Homeboy Industries has had to lay off some of their staff.  Your purchase of this book helps support a much needed organization in our country today.


100% commissions generated through book sales through Condor Books, at our Products page, will be donated to the Homeboy Industries Review, a yearly publication of poetry and essays written and published by the young men and women involved in Homeboy Industries' writing and publishing skills program.  Please support by purchasing a book.


Disclosure: This book was provided by Condor Book Tours.
 
 
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Shoneyin's debut novel of a modern Nigerian polygamist family is refreshing. Though some may be turned off by the idea of polygamy, it is a revelation to read of the dynamics of such a relationship. Baba Segi has four wives, Iya Segi, Iya Tope, and Iya Femi, and the newest, Bolanle. Bolanle is college educated unlike the other three wives and this brings her much jealousy and animosity. All the while the first and third wives, Iya Segi and Iya Femi, respectively, are plotting Bolanle's demise,  their own secrets are about to be exposed. Things start to unravel for the first three wives when after years of trying, Bolanle does not get pregnant. Bearing offspring is a great source of pride for Baba Segi and Bolanle's supposed barrenness is hurting it.

How the story unfolds is in chapters that reveal back story on each wife before and after she married Baba Segi. Each of these women were filled with various desires like learning to read and being educated, the affections of a young man, and even wealth. The wives are the important characters here and that's fine because a tale involving polygamy does bear more implications on the status of women.  It's pleasing that the female characters are fully realized and even the two most vindictive are shown to have some humanity. Baba Segi was probably the type of characterization you'd expect of a wealthy polygamist-- demanding and unattractive. Shoneyin has written this novel with great honesty and realism and it was a joy to read.  The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives is a fabulous piece of literature from a fantastic writer poised to have a brilliant career.

disclosure: I received this book from the publisher.

 
 
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In 2006 Alice Walker, working with Women for Women International, visited Rwanda and the eastern Congo to witness the aftermath of the genocide in Kigali. Invited by the antiwar group CODEPINK, Walker traveled to Palestine/Israel three years later to view the devastation on the Gaza Strip.

While those of us who sit comfortably in front of our televisions to learn of the devastation occurring in the areas of focus in Overcoming Speechlessness, Walker was on the front lines sharing in the pain and the healing of those affected. She believes "whatever is currently happening to humanity, it is happening o all of us." This is the essence of this very brief work. But its brevity reveals the real meaning of humanity. Walker allows her voice to be that of the survivors of these tragedies. Overcoming Speechlessness also gives us glimpses of humanity in persons like the woman she meets in Kigali who was a sex slave and claims that Women for Women International "saved" her or the sacrifice of life made by a young woman attempting to save the home of her Palestinian friends from demolish. It's a moving piece that should force any reader to re-think remaining silent about atrocities committed against our global mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children.

 
 
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McFadden's sixth novel, Glorious, opens with the historical win of boxing legend Jack Johnson against James Jeffries on July 4, 1910. Though seen as a victory for blacks as a whole, this event set off a series of unfortunate events in the life Easter Bartlett. Family tragedy sends her literally walking away from her hometown of Waycross, Georgia. Her journey from the rural Georgia to Harlem includes a stint living with her aunt and her being eyewitness to one of the most horrific acts of violence of the time. A very bright and well read young woman, Easter finds solace in writing. A chance encounter with a childhood friend brings her to Harlem just as its black arts scene is blossoming. Easter falls right into place with the literary notables of the time and their patronage by white benefactors. An ill-fated writing contest brings Easter more misfortune but an unlikely discovery decades later brings her redemption and peace.

This novel spanning four decades was so captivating from the onset. I could not put it down. I found myself tearing through the pages and fearing I was reading it too fast. Glorious is a master's course in writing narrative. Every character is fully realized and relevant. The story moved gracefully and without trepidation as McFadden unabashedly explores the realities of the Jim Crow era South and the status of women. Bernice McFadden broke and healed my heart in 235 pages and when I closed the book, I felt changed.

 
 
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Bernardo and the Virgin
Silvio Sirias
(Northwestern University Press)ISBN-10: 0810122405ISBN-13: 978-0810122406


Review

Bernardo Martinez is a devout Catholic and sacristan in his church in Cuapa, Nicaraugua. Based on actual events, Bernardo and the Virgin is a sweeping tale that juxtaposes the spirituality of Catholicism against the revolution occurring as the socialist Sandinistas overthrow the Somoza regime.  In 1980, Bernardo is visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary and she instructs him to encourage everyone to pray the rosary daily and to "work for peace." He's well aware that he's not in a position where anyone would take him seriously, but his strong faith gives him the courage to be obedient. Not only do we learn how the title character is affected by the presence of the Virgin, but also that of others who all share some sort of connection with Bernardo. While interspersing Spanish throughout the novel, Sirias paints a vivid picture of village life in Cuapa. The overall tone is more spiritual than religious and exposes such humanity through Bernardo's complete surrender to his beliefs.  This in spite of his being denied the priesthood in his youth because he was deemed to poor. Just as in Meet Me Under the Ceiba, Sirias has given us another beautifully written novel revealing the intricacies of Central America. Bernardo and the Virgin was a great reminder of why I love historical fiction.

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Support the author and an indie bookstore. Purchase your copy of Bernardo and the Virgin at Dulce Bread & Bookshop.





Giveaway

We're also hosting a unique giveaway on this book tour. Leave a question to be answered in Friday's live chat with author Silvio Sirias and you may be selected to win one of each: a change-purse and a decoration made by the Kuna artisans in Panama, called Molas.

Tour Hosts

Mon June 7 Latino Book Examiner
Tues June 8 Regular Rumination and La Bloga
Wed June 9  When I Was in 'nam
Thurs June 10 Sandra's Book Club
Fri June 11 Sententia Vera

Mon June 14 The Tranquilo Traveler
Tues June 15 BrownGirl BookSpeak
Wed June 16 The Book Nook
Thur June 17 Pisti Totol-Black Bird
Fri June 18 Musings

Live chat is Friday, June 18 at 7 pm EST at Condor Book Tours.

 
 
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This quietly engaging tale set in Morocco sheds light on the many levels of corruption in government and that even the most honest of men can fall privy to its pull. Mourad is an engineer whose job at the Ministry of Development is to grant his signed approval to contracts for new construction projects. While his co-workers accept bribes for Mourad's golden signature, he vehemently remains honest. His loveless marriage to a woman who does nothing but spew verbal venom at him on a regular basis and the desire to do more for his two children leave him feeling he has no other option. Mourad uncomfortably navigates this world involving thick, money filled envelopes that open doors to luxuries that he's still timid about indulging in and we see troubling psychological repercussions descend upon him.  This short novel is a well written fictional exploration of morality, social class, and bureaucracy.

Challenges:
Reading Africa
POC Reading


 
 
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Synopsis
A race of women have lived in relative peace for centuries. But strange forces have come through the ages to finish what was started.

Review
"She was a memory. She was a warning. She was everything they never wanted to remember, everything they worked hard to forget. Yet, she was their sister, and a part of their world."

The synopsis of this short but thoughtful piece of speculative fiction is simple but doesn't quite do it justice. I came across When We Were One after RAWSISTAZ tweeted that they were having a live chat with the author, Zaji.

I thought the book had a unique premise. I just had to know how such a place could exist that only women inhabited. It's through a scientific phenomenon known as parthenogenesis (a type of asexual reproduction found in females) and a derivative of the term, Parthos, is the name of the land they inhabit. The most fascinating part of this story was the dynamics of how these women related to each other and their environment. They had managed to harness a beautiful balance between themselves and nature through characteristics like "mind-talk" and being almost completely uninhibited by time. They maintain a Hall of Words which houses remaining books mostly of laws that the "sisters" find ridiculous and exemplify how humans of centuries past were intellectually bereft. An inevitable change ushered in by the late gestation of an elder is one that will put the sisters to an unimaginable test. A test that reveals the essence of their existence.

Zaji's writing is very poetic and accessible. When We Were One has definitely kept my interest piqued in speculative fiction as this genre often offers up some interesting social and political commentary. While I found its social criticism lacking in a certain cleverness, it still makes for an insightful read.

When We Were One is available as a download or paperback from LuLu.