Saturday, December 29, 2007

Julius Lester (plus a few)

I do love books by Julius Lester.

Day of Tears? Fantastic! I had to read it for a lit conference and was extremely disappointed by the discussion we had on it. No one could get beyond "Gee, Slavery really sucked" to discuss why Lester's tale of it was such a powerful stand out in a sea of stories about the same general subject. No one brought up that it was one of the few stories to really explore the emotional impact instead of the physical one... powerful stuff.

In the hands of a lesser storyteller, The Old African would have been absolutely dreadful instead of being as wonderful as it is.

Most recently, I read Cupid: A Tale of Love and Desire. This is classic Greek Myth, but told in a vernacular, Southern African American story telling style.

Because of Lester's great skill, it totally worked and I loved it.

Psyche is beautiful to the point of it being a burden. Cupid is the son of Venus and a total mama's boy. When Venus (who is aging) is jealous of Pysche's incredible beauty, she orders Cupid to poison her with destructive love. (I have to say I was reminded of that exchange in Love Actually "I have say I'm a bit relieved, I thought it was something worse." "Worse than the total agony of being in love?!")

Anyway, of course, Cupid falls in love with her. He enlists Apollo's help. Apollo is not a fan of Cupid, so tells Psyche's father that she will marry a great monster.

In the end, Venus attempts to seek revenge and true love--both Psyche's love for Venus and various other deities' love for Psyche is put to the test.

I know some readers will (and are) annoyed by the storyteller's voice and his meditations on story, beauty, love, and lust, but I really really enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed the comments on how much work love is. You don't get that truth a lot in YA literature.

Shout out to Bookshelves of Doom for bringing it to my attention.

Now, to catch up on something I read last year, I didn't like Time's Memory nearly as much.

And here's where Lester's genius is more of a burden than a blessing-- I simply expected more from him.

The nyama spirit embodies Nat, a young man who is a slave on a Virginia plantation. He's in love with the Ellen, the plantation owner's daughter. Nat's father is the leader of a bloody slave revolt.

Highly mystical and spiritual, it just didn't work as well as it should have and ultimately left me dissatisfied. However, there is a lot going on in the book, so I would highly recommend it for book discussions.

Another I read at the same time, which won the Coretta Scott King Award is Sharon Draper's Copper Sun.

This is another fantastically written story about slavery. There isn't as much under the surface, but it tells the story of Amari, from her time in Africa through the middle passage and slavery. It also tells of her friendship with Polly, an indentured servant. The two run away--but instead of going North, they go South, to Spanish controlled Florida.

What I really liked about this book was the unflinching look at many things we usually don't see. We usually don't read of the coastal slave castle before being put on the boats, or how other Africans helped round people up to be sold.

We know of, but usually don't see in fiction, the rape of women by lonely sailors every night.

I also really appreciated how nuanced the characters were--there were good people and and bad people and people who were good and bad. Some of the good people where white, some of the bad people were black. Many authors, when telling a story of slavery, go the understandable route of making all white people bad. Or really, really good. Draper writes people as she knows them. No one's all good or all bad. And goodness doesn't fall on color lines.

By doing so, she writes a very accurate and incredible tale of slavery that covers what we learned in history class, and a whole lot more.

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