I live in a place where all our stories are told in the park, in the truck, in the yard, on the porch, at the baseball diamond, or in the bar. Every year, I balance those hundreds of daily stories, of the hundreds of people in my life, here where I have lived since birth in the part of inland Southern California that Joan Didion wrote of as doomed and overlooked, strafed by Santa Ana winds, with the hundred or more books I read when I am finally alone.
I have done this since I was a child. Listened to narratives wild and devious, tender and violent, about the great-aunt who shot a man between the eyes and then with her friend dragged his body away, about my brother and his friend fishing by throwing dynamite into a lake, about my father-in-law and his brothers putting their bodies to the plow in Oklahoma after their father and their mule died; then read novels and memoirs and poetry by strangers from far away, across America and the world. But this year, on the road for my memoir, In the Country of Women, I met a lot of new writers, bought or traded for their books, and was captivated by the different incarnations of family in their pages, which I consumed at night, finally alone.
I met Laurie Frankel in Seattle, at Elliot Bay Books, and her novel This Is How It Always Is was among my favorites of the decade. So funny I laughed on planes and in hotel rooms and then on my porch back home, the love story of two parents who have four sons, and the youngest son is a daughter, a character like I had never read before, a singular human moving through existence with plumed grace and sharp observance, and the whole world limned through the eyes of the family as tribe.
I met Faith Sullivan in Minneapolis, at a book festival, and her novels The Cape Ann and Ruby and Roland took me to rural Minnesota, her fictional town of Harvester so much like the place Sullivan’s grandmother was raised, during the early part of the century and the Depression. The girls and women of these novels witness violence and alcoholism and mental illness, they bake cakes and pies and wash clothes and try to find home in railroad stations and tiny farmhouses, and always, they help other women who are losing babies, losing love, losing their sanity, and finding their way back to hope.
I met Steph Cha in Los Angeles at another book festival, and read her amazing literary thriller Your House Will Pay in two days. Few writers know southern California like Cha, whose characters live in Granada Hills, Palmdale, South Los Angeles, Pacoima and Silver Lake; based on a shooting at a convenience store in LA, when a Korean-born woman killed a young black woman born in the neighborhood over a container of juice, this novel traces two families trying to survive the reverberations and losses after a death, and then another death, for revenge.
Also in Los Angeles, I met Bridgett Davis and bought her memoir The World According to Fannie Davis, a book countless visitors saw on my porch in April, touching the cover, as Fannie Davis, the author’s mother, who worked in the Detroit number business, looked so much like the women in my family, whose stories I had just written for my own book. Davis writes of her mother’s desire to make sure her daughter knew she was valuable, with yellow patent leather shoes and a sense of pride; I was writing about my mother-in-law and her three sisters, whose beauty and hard work are legendary here. Davis’s book sat on a small white wrought-iron table my neighbors had given me, found on the street, with a bouquet of yellow roses, and when another friend or relative saw me sitting outside, reading after work, and pulled up in a car to visit, Fannie Davis seemed part of our family, too. One of the central women in my book, Jennie Stevenson, ran numbers from her house in Los Angeles, even in her 80s, and so we told those stories again.
I have not met Tupelo Hassman yet, but cannot get over her novel Gods with a Little G, which I have read twice this year, which is about a group of teenagers in a repressive Northern California city, girls and boys who take shelter in a tire yard with beer and each other, a novel for which I have read sections aloud to countless people, especially this chapter—The Golden Rule: Beat others as you would wish to be beaten.
Last week, in Mexico City, I met my former student Gabriela Jauregui, a writer/mother/activist, and she gave me her new book, La Memoria de las Cosas, so I am reading this on the porch now, a great line: Escondidos in Escondido, California. Hidden, in Hidden, California.
For me, this year
of reading is forever captured by the words of our literary genius Toni
Morrison. Upon hearing of her death, I clung to her now famous quote: “We
die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the
measure of our lives.”
And then I did what I’m sure millions of other readers did: pulled a Morrison classic from the bookshelf—for me it was Sula—and devoured it anew, hungry for the language that only she could do. That slim perfect novel entered my life at a critical moment, when I was searching for a way to understand what I might uniquely say, as a young black woman writer. Sula, in its astonishing portrayal of a black woman like none we’d seen before, liberated my understanding of what was possible.
Weeks ago, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I participated in a continuous reading of Beloved for ‘Til Victory Is Won, a teach-in examining freedom movements from the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter. Reciting Morrison’s work out loud reminded me of its power and urgency and beauty, because sometimes we must be reminded of what we already know to be true. After that experience, I felt compelled to listen to Beloved on audiobook, to remain awash in the language, this time gifted to me in Morrison’s own arresting voice.
During Morrison’s memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Oprah Winfrey chose as part of her tribute to read a favorite passage from Song of Solomon. (“If I got a home, you got one too…Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on – can you hear me? Pass it on!”). Given her masterful delivery, Oprah reminded us all of the singular and stunning gut-punch of Morrison’s writing. Again, it sent me back to the text, and I went home and re-read Song of Solomon, consuming its pages the way you do a favorite meal cooked by a favorite aunt, one you haven’t eaten in years, yet brings back with each mouthful a deep sense memory. It had been decades since I first read each of those iconic novels; I now understood I’d been bereft without knowing it, had missed the intimacy I once had with those characters and that narrator, the way you realize how much you’ve missed a dear friend only when you actually see her again.
Before the world shifted on August 5, I was busily reading newly released books while traveling on book tour for my own memoir that came out this year, The World According to Fannie Davis. I love reading while I travel, as there’s so many undisturbed snatches of time that I don’t manage to get at home: waiting at airport gates, flying on planes for hours, resting in hotel rooms before events… In those cherished moments, I read five original and compelling memoirs.
Sarah M. Broom’s National Book Award-winning The Yellow House has some of the most tactile and redolent writing I’ve ever read, is beautiful in so many ways. And it is, among other things, a breathtaking story of Broom’s own quest for both nest and adventure. Imani Perry’s Breathe was for me, as the mother of a 20-year-old black son, both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. That’s how apt and searing and moving is this love letter of a book that Perry writes to her own two African-American sons. Claudia E. Hernandez’s Knitting the Fog, winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize (full disclosure: I was a judge), is a lyrically fresh account of her life as a Guatemalan immigrant, and a story we simply haven’t seen before, not like this. Good Talk, Mira Jacob’s illustrated conversations with her son about race, manages to be both visually inviting and a captivating read, thanks to both her candor and craft. The book is so fantastic, it ups the ante for what graphic memoir can be. Serial memoirist Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance moved me for its naked honesty and deft rendering of a huge family secret, that her beloved Jewish father was not her biological father. As I’ve written my own story of a family secret, I appreciated how Shapiro shared her personal story all the while examining larger cultural implications of that revelation.
Speaking of cultural implications, I crave stories about black women’s lives that situate them within historical context, which is still so often a rarity. That’s why I was intrigued by Josh Levin’s book about the original “welfare queen” demonized by the media and politicians in the ’70s and ’80s. The Queen is a rich character-study of a complicated black woman that Levin rescues from simplistic stereotyping. It’s also an apt study of the ways black women have been demonized in society; the entire time I was reading its exhaustively researched pages, I kept saying to myself both “Of course!” and “Who knew?”
As palate cleansers, I also read two refreshing narratives that took me away from my usual choice of genres. The first is the fun thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Set in Nigeria, it’s so sly and charming that I turned the pages greedily and couldn’t stop smiling. In stark contrast, DaMaris B. Hill’s A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is a “narrative-in-verse” bearing witness to incarcerated black women across American history. That description does not do justice to the imaginative, sweeping account that Hill renders of black women she reclaims from history—some we’ve heard of, many we haven’t—who were bound in myriad ways, having lost their freedom at the hands of America’s cruelty. That she does so vis-à-vis tribute poems to each woman is a marvel. It’s a heart-wrenching read, but also a soul-stirring one.
Speaking again of Oprah, I recently re-watched her riveting performance in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as I begin to think about a film adaptation of my own mother’s story. This led me back to the source, Rebecca Skloot’s book of the same name, which remains an astonishing story of two women—Lacks herself, who’d been all but lost to history despite her own cells’ seismic contribution to science, and her daughter Deborah whose mission in life was to right that wrong. It’s a powerful corrective.
I see clearly the theme that has emerged from my reading list this year: women’s lives revealed, reclaimed, reimagined. Feels right. As does ending with our beloved Toni Morrison’s adage:
Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile.
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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Louise Meriwether’s 1970 novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, is an unflinching portrait of life in Harlem in the starkest year of the Great Depression. Seen through the eyes of a remarkably buoyant 12-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, it’s a world of violence and tenderness, indignities and joys, where despair lives alongside the dream of a big score. In a foreword, James Baldwin, a son of Harlem, wrote that the black-owned daily numbers game that animates the novel “contains the possibility of making a ‘hit’—the American dream in blackface, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!”
Weird words. Yet weirdly apt, I realized while reading Bridgett M. Davis’s scintillating new memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s mother from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cauldron of Detroit, where she arrived in the mid-1950s with an ailing husband and an iron determination to figure out “how to make a way out of no way.” While her husband got erratic work in the city’s auto plants, including a hellish stint as a furnace tender at a General Motors factory, Fannie charted her own course. In 1958, after a harsh introduction to the frigid and unforgiving city, she borrowed $100 from her younger brother to start her own numbers operation, the underground three-digit daily lottery that had spread from Harlem to black communities nationwide, fueled by the Great Migration. That same year, a Detroiter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label that would become Motown.
The World According to Fannie Davis is partly a love letter to a larger-than-life woman and partly an explanation and defense of the “lucrative shadow economy” of the numbers game, which was an ingenious way for African Americans to circumvent the economic barriers white society had placed in their path. Black Detroiters were the last hired and the first fired from the city’s factories, and they were often forced into ratty housing with exorbitant rents. “It’s impossible to overstate the role of Numbers in black culture,” Davis writes, adding that the money generated by these black-controlled enterprises stayed in the black community to help launch “insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college, and more.” Fannie Davis was known to her loyal customers not only for her honesty—she always paid winners, even when the hits were big—but also for her generosity. She was, in her daughter’s words, “consumer, lender, employer, philanthropist.” She was also a big believer in the importance of dreams, always a rich source of inspiration for players of the numbers.
But the numbers were illegal, and running an operation came with stress. There was the perpetual fear of big hits, of police raids, and, since it was an all-cash and no-tax business, the fear of robbery. Fannie owned two guns, and since secrecy was vital to survival, she drummed an edict into her children: “Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.” Ultimately the biggest fear came to pass when the state of Michigan decided it wanted in on this lucrative action and, in 1972, created a legal lottery. It’s a testimony to the loyalty of Fannie Davis’s customers that they continued to bet numbers with her, and her operation survived this monster hit. It also offered Fannie an opportunity to philosophize: “Well, we already knew that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it.” Amen.
The proceeds from Fannie’s flourishing numbers operations allowed her family to live in a rambling house full of fine furnishings and friends and good times. Fannie and her husband John drove nice cars—Buicks, because flashy Cadillacs would have drawn the wrong kind of attention. Bridgett M. Davis describes herself as “a very privileged and spoiled little girl,” a member of what she calls “the blue-collar black-bourgeoisie.” Their west side neighborhood was solid. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes owned houses just around the corner.
But trouble was in the air, and Davis doesn’t try to sugarcoat her hometown’s exhaustively documented ills. She witnessed the ravages of a declining population and job base, white flight, vandalism, arson, drugs, and violent crime. In the decade after the bloody rebellion of 1967, which left 43 people dead and much of the city in ruins, the murder rate quadrupled to more than 800 a year. The Motor City became known worldwide as Murder City. One of Davis’s brothers slid into heroin addiction, and the entire family felt the “pervasive sense of danger” pulsing in the streets.
This book, for all its abundant strengths, does have flaws. Davis writes that her mother drove a Pontiac Riviera, while GM’s Buick division produced the elegant Riviera. And she describes trips across the Ambassador Bridge to eat at Chinese restaurants in Quebec, while the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A competent copy editor would have caught such slips, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage they do to a writer’s authority. I’m speaking from experience. In my first novel, a work of realism, I placed the University of Notre Dame in Terre Haute, Indiana, while I’ve known since boyhood that the school is actually located in unincorporated Notre Dame, near South Bend. Nearly 30 years later, the gaffe still rankles.
Davis makes a more serious misstep when she describes “booster” shops, where Detroiters sold shoplifted clothing and accessories in makeshift stores in their basements. “In a city of hustlers,” Davis writes, “where the lines of legality and illegality stayed smudged, these boosters—all women—made good livings, with numbers folks as their key clients. (One booster named her store Jackie’s Finer Designs and she had guards watching customers, to make sure no one stole the merchandise that she had stolen.) I visited a booster’s shop with Mama at least once, but she preferred store-bought clothes.” This passage unsettled on several levels. Yes, Detroit is a city of hustlers where the line separating legality from illegality has always been smudged, but this story seems to elevate booster shops to the level of the numbers game, which fed its wealth back into the black community. Sorry, but boosters were petty thieves looking to line their own pockets. And Davis misses the opportunity to explain why her mother preferred store-bought clothes over boosters’ offerings. Was it a moral stand? Merely a matter of taste and class? Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t say.
But such slips do nothing to dull the luster of this important book. It’s worth noting that Davis’s achievement isn’t arriving in a vacuum. It’s part of a recent crescendo of inspired writing by African Americans about African-American life in Detroit, including Herb Boyd’s superb blend of memoir and reportage, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, Stephen Mack Jones’s bracing debut crime novel, August Snow, Angela Flournoy’s decorated debut novel, The Turner House, and the revelatory plays of recently minted MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau. With her new book, Bridgett M. Davis has started running with some very fast company.