The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson is a truly great book I should have read before now. Last year, my book club read the author’s more recent book, Caste, but this one is the work that made her reputation. It’s about the great migration of Black Americans from the South to the North, focusing on three individuals from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida, who are representative of the migrants. Their stories are fascinating, and the way Wilkerson tells them—glimpsing each of them in turn, decade by decade as they begin their journeys and settle into their new homes—makes the book very readable and suspenseful. Along the way, the author details many of the atrocities faced by Blacks in the South that fueled the migration, but also the discrimination they faced at their destinations. The three migrants were very different in their origins (Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida) and their destinations (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York), but had other similarities. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff is a biography of the founding father and statesman from Massachusetts. I found it difficult to get through, to be honest. I’ve heard mixed reactions from other readers also (it was my book club’s selection for April). Maybe it’s because, as Schiff tells us early on, not much of Adams’s own writing survives and what we know of him we get from other sources. But the way she told the story didn’t help and at times was difficult to follow. Still, I learned things about Adams and his relationship with other founding fathers, so it wasn’t a waste of time.
Apparitions by Sybil Baker is a book I was asked to blurb (Signal 8 Press, May 2023). It’s a short novel in which the narrator Simone travels with her friend Agnes to Cyprus for a memorial service for her ex-husband who has died there. Her plan is to disrupt the service by exposing the guy for having cheated on her and for generally being a manipulative narcissist. In this she will be aided by other former lovers of the man as well as former friends. But her ex was only 50, and she begins to think that his “heart attack” might have been murder, a poisoning by any of several suspects. In the meantime, Simone is haunted by people from her past—a brother who died in Vietnam, a former Korean student who drowned in a ferry sinking, and of course Guy, her ex. All are warning her about something, but she isn’t quite sure what it all means. Here’s the blurb I gave it: “In spare and emotionally heightened prose that calls to mind the work of Annie Ernaux, Sybil Baker’s new novel, Apparitions, is an intense psychological portrait of Simone, a woman haunted by her past. On a trip to Cyprus for her ex-husband’s funeral and bent on revenge, she is visited by a parade of ghosts who warn her not to be misled, paralyzing her with indecision. The book is a story of betrayal, but also one of disappointment and strangling regret. It’s a deeply satisfying mystery, too, as Simone seeks to understand what really happened to the man she once loved.”
The Smugglers of the Sulu Islands: A Travel Memoir by Ken Jackson is a collection of short travel essays by a friend of mine. I knew Ken when I lived in Singapore and he lived in Hong Kong, working as in-house counsel for a client of my law firm. We hit it off and usually went out for drinks and dinner when he came to Singapore and on the fewer occasions when work took me to Hong Kong. An intrepid traveler, we even took a few trips together—to Cambodia, to Bangladesh, to Vietnam. Those jaunts must have been too tame, though, because they didn’t make it into the book. The stories that are there are mostly hilarious tales of misadventures at some of the most obscure and difficult to reach destinations.
Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia Ulysse is a story about a Haitian woman in Baltimore married to an American man. A teacher and painter, she is drawn back to her culture when Haiti is hit by a devastating earthquake. Although she isn’t close to her parents, she worries because she can’t get in touch with them. Her parents are wealthy and contrast with the prevailing ideas of poverty in the country, but the mother, in particular, is vile—so vile as to be nearly unbelievable as a character. Eventually, the main character returns to Haiti to visit, and the novel turns on the events during that visit. I thought the plot was too forced and the climax too melodramatic for my taste, but other readers might find it engaging because of those things.
In it Together: The Beautiful Struggle Uniting Us All by Eckhart Aurelius Hughes is a book I reviewed for the Online Book Club, which is a book review exchange. The philosophy of life offered by the author is admirable but derivative. Much of it is similar to the guidance Buddhism offers (see the Eightfold Path), but the author also quotes philosophers and theologians from other religions and traditions. Maybe it can all be summed up in one quotation it cites from Ram Dass: “Our journey is about being more involved in life, and yet less attached to it.”