Tag Archives: African American fiction

Read Harder: Vol. 2


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

This year, I plan on chronicling my adventures with Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder Challenge.

In Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, are heading to Oakland, California to spend a month with the mother they barely know. Cecile left them seven years ago for a new life as an artist and poet on the West Coast.

Oakland in 1968 is nothing like their California dreams of Disneyland, movie stars and days at the beach. Cecile has no interest in showing them the sights — her work with the printing press in the kitchen is far more important. Instead, every day Cecile sends the girls to a summer camp held at the community center run by the Black Panther Party. Delphine’s ordered world view is altered by the time spent learning about the fight for justice and her mother’s role in the Party.

This quick read sent me on a quest for more information about the Black Panther Party, and I can recommend Stanley Nelson‘s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

For those following along with the Read Harder challenge, One Crazy Summer will help you cover the “Read a middle grade novel” and “Read the first book in a series by a person of color.” You can follow more of Delphine’s adventures with P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama.

– Jess

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Double Stuff


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

oreoI love novels that break all the rules, and that become something even more awesome than they would have been if they’d just quietly followed the conventions of the modern novel (which, of course, was developed mostly by white men). Fran Ross’s 1974 classic Oreo definitely falls into this category.

It follows the journey of Christine Clark—a half Jewish, half black teenager nicknamed Oreo—as she tries to “discover the secret of her birth,” i.e. track down her father using a very obtuse set of clues (“sow” is one, as well as “the sword and the slippers,” which turns out to be a mezuzah necklace and a pair of socks). This, as you may have guessed from the clues, is not a serious novel. Ross uses hyperbole, crazy metaphors, improbable circumstances, and actions bordering on the fantastic to create what has rightly been called a “hilarious” novel by Paul Beatty, whose novel White Boy Shuffle is one of our Black History Month book list picks.

Terrance Hayes, a pretty famous local black poet who picked both White Boy Shuffle and Oreo for us, had this to say about the two novels:

The book that comes to mind as a provocative Black History Month work is, White Boy Shuffle, the 1996 debut novel of Paul Beatty. I read it in one fevered sitting twenty years ago. The protagonist, Gunnar Kaufmann, is an irreverent, poetry writing, basketball playing, black kid. In the novel Beatty satirizes Race, America, education, Blacks and Black history with a radical mix of ridicule and ridiculousness. It’s very much in conversation with Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, another bildungsromanic book about a smart and smart aleck young black protagonist—a half black half Jewish teen girl. Ross was one of Richard Pryor’s comedy writers so you can imagine the book’s hilarity. In fact, Beatty and Ross take cues from Pryor’s style: scathing, self critical, unapologetically funny and smart. Both books celebrate creative freedom; both celebrate Black History by freely satirizing Black History.

The novel doesn’t start with Oreo’s journey, however. It starts way back with her family history, and slowly works up to Oreo, who is sort of like an every-day superhero. Ross doesn’t rely only on straight prose or text to give the reader a glimpse into the minds of her characters. She uses equations, menus, dialogues, logos, and other textual and non-textual ephemera.

The effect, in whole, is to create a novel that destroys (and in doing so comments on) traditional novel structures and rebuilds them in a new way. Considering the time period in which the book was written, this makes sense. From the afterword:

Under the banner of the Black Arts movement that emerged as the cultural component of Black Power politics of the 1960s and 1970s, African American writers and artists struggled to define and practice a distinctive black aesthetic that departed from traditions based in the history and values of European cultures. The Black Arts movement was fueled by the desire to use art to recover—or, if necessary, to create or reinvent—an authentic black culture based in the particular historical experience of Americans of African descent.

Oreo isn’t just based in black culture or the Black Arts movement, though. It’s also firmly rooted in Jewish culture and tradition. Although Oreo’s parents got divorced when she was too young to remember anything about her Jewish father, her mother adapted some Yiddish into her everyday speech. And then there’s her grandfather, who made it his life’s mission to get rich from creating products meant to trick Jews. (I assure you, though, this is handled in a hilarious way, not an offensive way. The grandfather is portrayed as being ridiculous and maybe a little crazy.) If you don’t know a lot of Yiddish, some of the book’s subtler points might be lost, but not knowing doesn’t detract from the book’s enjoyment.

Although I didn’t really get into this book until Oreo has embarked on her journey to find her father and gets tangled up in all sorts of adventures, the beginning is still, objectively speaking, hilarious.

If you’d like to give Oreo a try, reserve a copy and join us on Thursday, February 18 from 1 to 2 p.m. in the Large Print Room at CLP – Main for a lively discussion.



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Thick As A Brick

Nothing says “summer reading” to me like a giant doorstop of a book that requires two hands to read and a huge tote bag to carry. This may not be the reading experience you want to have, and I can’t say I blame you: those suckers can get pretty heavy, which is why I’m always happy to help people find less hefty alternatives in our e-book collection. Nobody should have to throw out their back or shoulder to enjoy a book!

But, under the correct circumstances–a warm (yet breezy) day, a comfy shady spot, a refreshing cold beverage nearby–curling up with one of those text-monsters sends a definite signal: I am not at all kidding around about reading this giant book here; think twice before dragging me away from it, because I am enjoying myself immensely. It’s an incredibly pleasurable, self-indulgent reading experience, the kind I think everyone should treat themselves to from time to time.


Image spotted at LetterMidst

However, if you’re going to do this, you have to make sure you pick the right book. There’s nothing worse than lugging what one book blogger calls “chunksters” all the way home only to find yourself flailing with disappointment by page three. No matter what you’re in the mood for, though, there’s bound to be a “thick as a brick” pick for you to while away a cool summer night with. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

ozeki A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (422 pages). Ruth, an author suffering from writers’ block, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach. The contents? The diary of a Japanese teen called Nao. Despite her conviction that suicide is the only answer to her problems, Nao is determined to write down the story of her grandmother, a Buddhist nun, before checking out permanently. Fascinated by Nao’s tale, Ruth drops her own project to solve the literary mystery that has magically landed in her lap. A lovely, layered tale with a fair share of heartbreak, but also equal parts wonder and joy.

NOS4A2, Joe Hill (692 pages). Beat the summer sun with Hill’s bone-chilling novel about the madman of Christmasland, and the Hillone woman who’s managed to outsmart him. Victoria escaped the clutches of the preternatural Charlie Manx as a teen, but evil always comes back, and this time Victoria’s son is in danger. Can she find her way back to Christmasland and save her boy before it’s too late? A page-turner with a number of wickedly clever “Wait, what???” surprises.

AdichieAmericanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (477 pages). Ifemelu does, and does not, want to go home to Nigeria. A scholarship to an American college has opened doors for her, and her blog about racism in America has earned her a fellowship at Princeton. Still, Ifemelu can’t forget the country–and the man–she left behind, even though returning to both will prove difficult. A sweeping novel that travels back and forth in time, explores life on three continents, and pulls no punches in its examination of race and culture.

 The Eye of the World , Robert Jordan (670 pages). If you’ve been meaning to try out the epic fantasy genre, the long, lazy days of summer jordanare the perfect time. Also, now that the Wheel of Time series is finally complete, you have no excuse not to dive in. There’s an evil power seeking to hasten the end of the world (isn’t there always?), and it falls to three unremarkable boys from a small backwater village to take up the hero’s mantle and try to save the day. Jordan’s saga, which rambles over fourteen volumes, begins with The Eye of the World, in which we meet our heroes, a mysterious priestess, the knight who is bound to her honor, and the big bad who just wants to break things. Good fun for anyone relishing an old-school tale of fantasy adventure.

krantzMistral’s Daughter, Judith Krantz (531 pages). This is not a romance novel to be tossed aside lightly. This is a romance novel meant to be heaved across the room with great force at anyone who makes fun of you for reading romance novels. Krantz’s tale spans three generations in the life of passionate painter Julien Mistral, and the three women who mean the most to him: Maggy (his lover), Teddy (his best beloved), and Fauve (his daughter). From the bohemian arts circles of Paris in the 1920s up to the ritzy glitz of New York in the 1980s, Krantz spins a tale of passion, fashion, exotic locales, heartbreak, jealousy, deceit, art, and haute couture. It’s a delicious romp through the social circles of the wealthy and talented, with just enough sex and scandal to keep you hooked until the end. A classic masterpiece to discover–or rediscover–on a steamy summer night (or three!).

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, eds. (676 pages). Non-fiction and literature lovers cathertake note: Jewell and Stout’s volume is a treasure trove of living history. Cather, who wanted to be judged by her work and not her personal life, specifically stated in her will that her letters were not to be published. The editors went ahead and produced the volume anyway–presumably with permission from Cather’s literary executor!–on the grounds that enough time had passed to soften any objections Cather might have had to the letters being exposed. Arranged chronologically, the correspondence includes missives from Cather’s years living in Pittsburgh, as well as the only known letter from Cather to her partner, Edith Lewis. There are no scandals or secrets here, but the letters are rich with details of Cather’s ordinary life, filled with joy and love of nature and travel, and, of course, many thoughts on writing.

What say you, constant readers? Will you be giving the chunksters some love this summer? Or do you prefer to put in your weight training time at the gym? What’s the biggest book you’ve ever hauled around just for the love of it?

–Leigh Anne

with apologies to Jethro Tull


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