“On the Rooftop” by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton 

Genre: Historical/Domestic-African American FictionOn the Rooftop
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pub. Date: September 6, 2022

The Fillmore District, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco during the 1950s, is the setting for the book. An African American musical family and their tight nit neighborhood are central to the narrative. The novel has a sincere attitude but is a tad lackluster. Vivian is a widow who fled the racial cruelty of segregated Louisiana for San Francisco. She lives in a community where she and everyone are close friends with the barber, the butcher, the pastor, and many other neighbors. While working as a nurse, Vivian raises her three daughters, all talented singers. She wants to turn them into celebrities. Consider a Gypsy Rose Lee dynamic that is less jarring. The sisters are very close and firm believers in the power of prayer. As adults, they will not all share their mother’s preferences. The tensions in the family are predictable, making their scenes read sluggish.

Many leading jazz performers, including Louis ArmstrongJohn ColtraneElla FitzgeraldBillie Holiday, and Charlie Parker, visited the district. The nightclubs were bouncing and overflowing. Reading about the sight and sounds of jazz and blues music was fun and exciting. Still, the main narrative is the community’s gentrification and the impending decline of the jazz scene in the area. The bookstore owner informs the beauty salon owner, “Pretty soon, you’ll go around these streets, and you won’t see yourself reflected back in it.” (Spoiler: Once again, racism forces Vivian out of a home she loves.) The author captures the anguish felt by all black people who fought but lost the battle of ethnic cleansing in their neighborhood. The book’s conclusion is factually correct but written in a corny way that reads more like women’s fiction than historical fiction. Considering the Fillmore District had an energy and life of its own, I expected a more memorable tale. The story would have had more punch if it had less syrup. That is me. If you enjoy women’s domestic fiction, you will enjoy “On the Rooftop.”

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“Babysitter” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre: Literary Fiction/Mystery & ThrillersBabysitter
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: August 23, 2022

One of America’s greatest writers, Joyce Carol Oates, revisits her usual themes of class struggle, the vulnerability of girls, and racism in her latest novel. Following a white, privileged female protagonist, she leads the reader through a labyrinth of horrors: sexual re-victimization, violent marriages, ruthless lovers, pedophile priests, serial child murders, incest, and rape. As only a master can, she writes as if you can see into the souls of her characters. Her carefully constructed sentences render her protagonist simultaneously sympathetic and repellent. Some parts of the story are so cringe-worthy that I needed to take a break from the book. At 84 years of age, no one writes about violence with a deeper awareness than she does. Still, I feel that this novel is only for JCO fans. She even throws in a childhood terminal illness. It is just a bit too much to cram into one story.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of sexual re-victimization, you won’t be after reading “Babysitter.” The term refers to the increased risk of adult sexual assault faced by women with a history of childhood sexual assault. In 1977, Hannah Jarrett, “an attractive white woman in her late 30s, is living the American dream: a wealthy husband, two kids, a home in the Michigan suburbs, and a Filipina nanny. She spends her days at country clubs and community relations forums.” She believes that she hides her insecurities behind her expensive and sophisticated wardrobe. But, due to abuse experienced in her childhood, Hannah cannot recognize the warning signs exhibited by people around her. She meets a man at a party and starts what she considers an affair. The man drugs, beats, and brutally rapes her. Despite the severe abuse, she calls him her lover.

In addition to exploring the patriarchal marriage dynamics, Oates also uses “Hannah’s marriage to explore the deeply embedded racism of 1970s suburban America.” The author nails white supremacy. When Hannah is discovered in the hotel lobby, battered and bruised by her so-called lover, a young black parking attendant is immediately accused of rape. Confused, she never denies that this young man is her rapist. The police shot and killed him, stating that he was resisting arrest.

The book’s title refers not to Hannah’s nanny but to a serial killer who sexually molests and tortures children before killing them. Unsurprisingly, Hannah’s husband is convinced that he must be a black man from Detroit. Sadly, JCO takes her horror stories from real life. What makes the “Babysitter” even viler is that the plot is based on a true story. In the 1970s, a real-life serial killer called the Babysitter Killer, also known as the Oakland County Child Killer, abducted and murdered children around Detroit. Per the Boston Globe, “he left their bodies on display in public places a few weeks after they disappeared. Several suspects, including the son of a prominent man who later committed suicide [also in the book], were identified, and the investigation led to a child pornography ring, but the case was never solved.” Spoiler alert: Nor is it in the novel. If you are looking for answers, the author gives none.

Oates has never shied away from taking her readers on dark journeys. It cannot be denied that her stories will leave you with a better understanding of the psyches of both perpetrators and victims. I am a loyal JCO fan and am glad I read her latest. I hesitate to recommend the book, as it is not for the faint of heart. However, if you are already a fan, you know that her work can get grisly. It appears that she just keeps getting better at what she does.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” by Joyce Carol Oates

Genre:  Literary Fiction/Family Saga Night. Sleep. Death
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pub. Date:  June 9, 2020

Joyce Carol Oates has long been a favorite literary author of mine. Just when I think that she can’t do it again—write another gripping family saga—she does. The book’s title comes from the closing lines of Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight.” The poem “refers to the moment of transition that happens from one day to the next. The moment is used as a metaphor from changing corporeal existence to the spiritual existence.” The interruption of the poem is from PoetAndPoem.com. Yes, I needed to look up its meaning. Once I got it, I could easily see how its message is used repeatedly throughout this weighty novel of 800 pages.

The theme of “Night” is familiar to fans of Oates. Once again, she is writing about love and loss, which most would agree are preoccupations in our lives as well as in our literature. Oates has lost two husbands, one after forty-seven years of marriage, and the other after ten. I read her 2011 memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” which she wrote after the death of her first husband. There she suggests that to get through the agonizing grief, “the widow should think I kept myself alive.” In this novel, the author holds nothing back when writing on the psychological effects of grief on Jessalyn, who is one of the main characters, and a grieving widow. The novel is filled with her emotions of shock, loss, feelings of unreality, and thoughts of never loving again. Oates didn’t write personally after the loss of her second husband. I can’t help but wonder if she chose to tell any of that story here. The author has said no such thing, to be sure.

In this big, sprawling tale, Oates takes her readers to a small town located in upstate New York. Along with examining grief, healing and a family coming undone, the author takes on race and class issues. The story revolves around John Earle “Whitey” McClaren, a successful 67-year-old husband and father with a big personality. He is the anchor of the family as well as the respected former mayor of the town. When he sees two cops beating a defenseless, nonwhite man, he stops his car to intervene. The police do not recognize him and they use their taser guns on him repeatedly. Consequently, he has a stroke. And that is it for Whitey. Oates has him die in the hospital soon afterward.

The rest of the tale centers around Whitey’s widow and five adult children, all with very different personalities.  All the kids lose their footing after their father’s death. Their fragile mental states are not immediately noticeable as with their mother, but they all experience life-altering changes. Oates writes the family’s pecking order at a pace that begins slow and controlled, but builds up angrily. Out of all of the kids, the youngest son is the most sympathetic character. He is the black sheep of the family and at the bottom of the pecking order. The author portrays him with bone-deep loneliness. The middle daughter is a high school principal. She transfers her anger onto her students. She actually (spoiler) sabotages some kids by editing their transcripts so they will not get into their first choice colleges. The author has never shied away from writing on the dark side of human nature.

“Night” has been compared to Oates’ 1996 “We Were the Mulvaneys,” which is a saga about another family living in a small, rural upstate New York town, which happens to be where she grew up. “Mulvaneys” is one of my favorite novels by the author. I believe that it is superior to “Night.” An argument can be made that “Night” takes on too many characters with too many details. It can leave the reader thinking that each character’s story should be a novel in itself, making the story feel bloated. Indeed, the master storyteller’s latest novel (according to her website, this is her 59th) is long. Whether it’s too long is debatable—at times yes, at times no. Still, the poetic quality of the author’s prose is worth your time. When all is said and done, the thing about Oates, is after reading her work, it becomes impossible not to notice when you are reading a mediocre novel. That is the power of Joyce Carol Oates.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Copperhead” by Alexi Zentner 

Genre:  Adult FictionCopperhead
Publisher:  Viking Press
Publication Date:  July 9, 2019

Mini-Review

“Copperhead” has a “Sins of the Father” theme. The novel reads like YA, but it is an adult story about racism that asks the question:  Can you ever out-run your family history? We meet a17-year-old high school football player who has a good chance of getting into an Ivy League school on a scholarship.  He is the star of the team and his grades are good. He desperately needs this scholarship to be able to attend college.  He lives paycheck-to-paycheck in a trailer and takes care of his mom and his 12-year-old sister.  His brother and stepfather are in jail for the murder of two black college students.  However, the students attacked his brother, not the other way around.  The stepfather was only given a four-year sentence since he arrived after the murder.  His crime was just wiping the murder weapon clean.  His family, but not himself, belongs to a white supremacist church.   Many in his town call him white-trash, even though he has shown himself to be a decent and hard-working young man. The book begins with his stepfather’s release from prison on the same day of the school’s big game.  Throughout the story, we watch the teenage linebacker struggle simply to avoid trouble while remaining loyal to his family and friends.  Zentner’s prose is taut and powerful. You can almost hear the music of Johnny Cash playing in the teen’s pick-up truck.  But the author never shares how this boy was able to see beyond his family’s beliefs.  Most of us can not accomplish this while still living in the family system. Still, this is a heck of a good coming of age story for our times.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Purchase “Copperhead”

on Amazon https://amzn.to/2NyOmwp

 

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