For anyone who has read X, the recent YA biography of Malcolm X, there is some exciting news out of Boston. Boston’s City Archaeology Lab – yes, the city has its own archaeology department – just started an excavation of the Roxbury home of Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm X’s half-sister with whom he lived as a teen. The dig is open to the public March 29-April 8, but if you aren’t in the Boston area, you can see pictures of what they find on the City of Boston Archaeology Program Facebook page. They’ve already posted quite a few finds.
Malcolm X is a historical icon of the civil rights movement, but how much does your average person know about his young life that led him there? In X, Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, with co-writer Kekla Magoon, presents a fictionalized telling of her father’s young, fast life and illegal escapades starting in Lansing, Michigan when he is 15, and ending in a Massachusetts prison complex by way of Boston and Harlem. It’s not all jazz bars and zoot suits, though there is a lot of those. Malcolm Little, as he was known then, is also in a lot of emotional pain over his father’s death, his mother’s institutionalization, the killing and oppression of black people in America, and the disappointments and betrayals that seem to meet him at every turn. The story is told first-person by Malcolm, who despite some of the illegal and immoral things he does, comes across as a very sympathetic character, someone to root for in spite of his choices. The Harlem and Roxbury settings come alive with music and dance halls and dodgy characters. The back matter is extensive with several notes about the time period, Malcolm X’s life after the book ends, a timeline, a family tree, and further reading.
Rosalind went from having two moms to none at all due to a car accident involving a truck full of “foodstuffs” – turduckens, specifically. Now she has Sean, college friend of her moms and the sperm donor that made Rosalind possible. They have never met, and Sean, single and working as a lawyer who sues schools for a living, has no idea how to take care of a teenager, especially when Rosalind, in her grief, becomes a vegetarian and starts drinking, sneaking out in the middle of the night, starting fights as school, and other things one might expect of a grieving teen. Told entirely through computer journal entries, emails, recording transcripts, instant messenger conversations, and other documents (summed up in one of my favorite words – epistolary fiction), Rosalind and Sean’s relationship warms and grows at a believable pace and not without setbacks, and Rosalind’s movement through grief is heartbreaking at times but not overly heavy or angsty. The peripheral characters – Sean’s weed-smoking father, Rosalind’s “Aunt” Karen, Rosalind’s changing friends at school – add depth to Rosalind and Sean’s personal stories and provide welcome side plots and episodes that keep the entire book from being only about the loss of two parents.
I have to admit this isn’t a book I would have normally picked up. I didn’t like the cover much when I got it and I like it even less after having read the book. However, I met Brendan Halpin while I was staffing a library table at a farmer’s market here in Boston and later, after he volunteered to do some free programming at one of our branches, learned that he is a published YA author. So of course I had to check his stuff out, and I’m glad I did! He actually has quite a few books; How Ya Like Me Now? and Forever Changes are next on my list (and currently sitting on my desk at work). He has a blog, and as someone who is thinking of including his books in book talks on my outreach visits to underserved and typically diverse populations, I especially appreciate his post examining his own books for their diversity, or lack thereof. All authors would be well served to be so self-critical.
Jamaica Plain, the Boston neighborhood where I happen to live, has been proclaimed Boston’s literary district by a write-up on Book Riot.
— Book Riot (@BookRiot) November 30, 2014
This is a pretty bold claim in a city that is rich in book culture and literary history, but the writer makes a good argument for JP with her many suggestions of places and programs to check out. However, some glaring omissions sell the neighborhood slightly short. I intend to fix that here.
While there is a brief shout out to the JP branch of the Boston Public Library, the article fails to mention that JP actually has two library branches – the Jamaica Plain branch and the Connolly Branch – with a third right on the border with Roxbury in Egleston Square. It also left out Tres Gatos, a tapas restaurant on Centre Street that also has a book and record store inside. And there is also a second Little Free Library in JP on South Street across from the JP branch library. The coffee shop in my part of the neighborhood, Cafe Bartlett Square at the corner of Amory and Green Streets, also has their own little library where you can give and take books, though they haven’t officially designated it a Little Free Library.
If you are going to be in Boston or JP long term, you can also learn book binding and other book-related crafts at the Eliot School, a community fine arts school whose classes are open to the public.
Yes, it is truly a great thing to be a book nerd in Jamaica Plain.
Despite how much I complain about riding the T to and from work, there are times that I actually really enjoy the novelty and public-ness of the bus and the train. It makes me feel very of-the-people, even after I have spent all day sitting at the desk of a public library. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it is a bad thing. Occasionally I do have a serendipitous run-in with a fellow passenger who is not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger…but who also is not on drugs or trying to scope out the electronics in my purse and calculate their possible street value. One such happy accident happened to me last week when I was reading an amazing book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.
I was on the crowded, after-work bus, unashamedly flashing the cover of Aristotle and Dante (a YA cover not to be ashamed of, as you can see to the right, though mine didn’t have all those impressive award seals on it) when a guy interrupted me: “Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt you, but I noticed the author of the book your reading and I know him!” Well, now I was intrigued, especially because I was reading Aristotle and Dante for the Boston Public Library Children’s Librarians book club and this interaction might make an amazing story for the meeting (0r a blog post)! Turns out this friendly gentleman, who will from here on out be referred to as “bus guy,” had worked with Benny, as he called him, at some sort of organization for transitional youth in El Paso, Texas. Benjamin Saenz had been bus guy’s supervisor and apparently a good one because bus guy had the best things to say about him. Benny had taken bus guy to meet his mother, a Mexican immigrant who lived in a tiny town in New Mexico, spoke no English and made some bomb chile rellenos. Benny would also often host his coworkers at his authentically (stereotypically?) Southwestern adobe-style house for parties and dinners. Bus guy remembered him as having “a lot of angst” but that he wrote beautiful poetry and was also an artist. After this amazing little biographical insight, I let the guy take my copy of the book long enough to read the synopsis and Benjamin Saenz’s bio on the back flap, and quickly type the book’s name into his iPhone so he could go buy it later. He was clearly very excited to talk about his old friend and just kept sharing little tidbits with me until his stop.
When all this happened, I had just started the book and was in a mad rush to finish it for book club. But after speaking with bus guy about Benny, I couldn’t help but slow down and look for pieces of him in the book based on what had been described to me. Everything from the setting in El Paso to the inner turmoil of the main character, an extremely lonely and self-tormenting Mexican-American teenage boy growing up in the 80s, seemed to corroborate bus guy’s memories of Benjamin Saenz. I was not at all surprised to learn that he is also a poet because the writing in Aristotle and Dante is emotional, precise, and uses repetition for emphasis in all the right places. Between reading the book and listening to the bus guy’s stories, I wanted to be friends with Benny too! I suppose I’ll just have to settle for befriending Aristotle and Dante. You should too.