Raj Bhatt is a happily married Indian-American with the holy trifecta–job, kids, mortgage. He’s happy but hasn’t always felt like he fits in. When he says absolutely the wrong thing to an African American couple applying for membership to the tennis club where he and his family belong, he begins the worst week of his life. In his quest for connection, he’s accused of racism from both left and right. Pandya hits upon issues of identity and profiling without getting heavy handed. Members Only is a fun, easily digestible tale of one man’s search for belonging.
Yet another way Shakespeare has infiltrated his way into our contemporary realities comes in the form of Maggie O’Farrell’s newest novel, Hamnet. While O’Farrell could not have predicted the current pandemic in which we find ourselves, the novel, with its universal themes of grief, growth, and healing have been joined with those of sudden loss and fear as they relate to a public health crisis. Shakespeare’s was the Black Death, or the “pestilence,” as it was more commonly referred to at the time, and O’Farrell takes us through the lives of the Shakespeare household before and after the death of his son, Hamnet.
O’Farrell, in conversation with author Jen Campbell in early May, says that in the biographies she’s read of perhaps the greatest playwright to ever live, Shakespeare’s only son is mentioned once or twice per volume, often followed by statistics of the likelihood that children would fall ill and die due to the plague or for other reasons. As if they (the parents) should not have been surprised by the death of their child. What is more curious is that, in all the historical and biographical accounts of Shakespeare’s life, no one really knows what he was like. This can also be said of his wife, Anne Hathaway. She, however, has faced much more criticism, often painted as shrewd, cold, or unlovable.
But O’Farrell changes this in her newest novel by doing a few things. First, the name “William Shakespeare” in any iteration is never uttered. No “Will” or “Mr. Shakespeare” touches the narrative. Then, he becomes a marginal character, cast to the side; though, as Campbell aptly comments, he still has presence like a “shadow” looming over the text. He is only referred to as “the husband,” “the father,” “the tutor,” or “the son.” This gives room for those often sidelined or stereotyped to come to the fore: most significantly, Anne Hathaway, or, as O’Farrell suspects is her real name, Agnes (pronounced then like “añ-es”). O’Farrell brilliantly writes Agnes as the novel’s center and guide, where all would be lost without her. She is other-worldly and remarkable, perceptive to a level that leads others to often misunderstand her. Just like Agnes’ husband, the reader is immediately intrigued by and infatuated with her.
The names “Hamnet” and “Hamlet” in Shakespeare’s time were also interchangeable. O’Farrell has said that her mission in writing this novel is to investigate why “the father” was compelled to name his most famous play after his son four years after his death. This story is so poignant because, just as O’Farrell explores the love that blossoms between Agnes and “the tutor,” how it is sweet and sunny and strong, the moments of grief are difficult, dark. The duality between loss and love has the reader aching, feeling both emotions fully throughout their body. And, since this story is based in history, the reader knows what will happen, that the son will die and the play Hamlet will be written some years after. But the ways O’Farrell builds tension and grounds the story in the characters’ reactions is extraordinary. Turning the final page—I’m serious—I gasped.
Many have claimed this is a modern masterpiece. I would even go so far as to say that this is Maggie O’Farrell’s magnum opus. There is much I haven’t touched on that seemed redundant to review, but I will quickly list a couple qualities I thought remarkable as well: O’Farrell’s superb prose, the immersive imagery, and the significance of nature. I will sit with the Shakespeare family in Stratford for a long time. O’Farrell’s characters are delicately drawn and full, made fuller because the story does not shy away from describing what grief does to the body, to the mind, to familial bonds, and how it colors happiness, in memory and future moments. Whether in the context of the Black Death or the current pandemic, O’Farrell has created for us another connection to Shakespeare through themes unbound to time, of tragedy and recovery. Moving and resounding, Hamnet is a triumph.
Now live! Tune in to our podcast “Lines from Loganberry” for a special episode of our Intellect and Inspiration Local Voices series to hear author and professor Ken Schneck interview journalist Robert Fieseler. In honor of Pride Month, Ken asks Robert about his new critically acclaimed nonfiction debut, “Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”
Ken Schneck is an author, radio host, and professor at Baldwin Wallace University, where he teaches courses on antiracism, ethical leadership, and creating community-based change. He authored LGBTQ Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati and Seriously . . . What am I Doing Here? Most recently, he founded “The Buckeye Flame,” a new online magazine for LGBTQ+ Ohioans.
We created the Intellect and Inspiration series to aid, engage, and motivate our listeners during these challenging times through the thought-provoking work of a local author. We hope you enjoy!
Sometimes, a book comes along, and it commands that you dig into it with a pencil, highlighter, or post-its. You’re hungry to eat it up, and your brain enjoys the meal so much that it’s like the best food coma you’ve ever had. This is Billy-Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body.
I was fortunate enough to attend Belcourt’s zoom interview with Hanif Abdurraqib earlier in May, where the esteemed writer asked Belcourt intriguing questions about the book’s content, primarily focusing on Canada (Belcourt’s home country) and identity. A compelling motif throughout the conversation was a meditation on memory, where Abdurraqib said at one point of the United States, “I feel like we are a country obsessed with proof, and a country obsessed with forgetting.” Belcourt agreed, astutely remarking that Canada as well suffers from “cultural, historical amnesia.” In other words, both countries are adamant about preserving history through a perspective that paints their pasts in a certain (positive) light, as showcased in the monuments, statues, and even outdated textbooks they’ve kept that fifth graders learn from in their history classes. Consequently, the two countries are reluctant to remember comprehensively, to recall these significant periods’ or figures’ counterparts (i.e. the whole story). Therefore peoples’ histories, their bodies, are lost. This is what Belcourt, as a queer Canadian “NDN” (Native Indian), incisively demonstrates in his collection of essays: to remember is to look in the mirror, to no longer rest in blissful ignorance, to finally face the horror that has paved the way for their (Canada’s and the United States’) present realities. Because both of the authors write in part to directly address this cultural amnesia, to raise the voices of and breathe life into queer BIPOC stories, they wonder if they, too, will work “a lifetime of reminding due to an eagerness to forget.”
But they persist nonetheless, because they also write for themselves, for healing, for (self) liberation. What Abdurraqib admires about Belcourt’s new collection, I do as well: Belcourt breaks the constraints of linearity, writing in any which way he wants, free to explore the realms of his past, cultural theories, and personal optimisms in whatever order he pleases. There is a section that alphabetically defines key terms relating to being queer and NDN; there are fragments where he recalls forlorn love affairs with strangers; there is even a brief moment where he writes upside-down. It is clear he has read and admired the work of Maggie Nelson and Ocean Vuong (they are honored in the book). Nelson’s prose-poetry style and grappling with theory in The Argonauts and Vuong’s techniques of shifting between poem and action in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous are reminiscent throughout Belcourt’s text. Through this modulating, liquid narrative mode, the reader is also unfettered, as if his words are humming to them, encompassing them, like meditation chants rather than stagnant plot points. Belcourt is, after all, a poet.
Aside from exquisite, propelling prose and a commanding, lovable voice, Belcourt’s sequence of essays are vital to undressing Canada and, ultimately, to understanding oneself as multiplicitous. Endearing questions, and even more endearing answers, are posed. I was taken at every turn, trusting Belcourt to live up to what I knew would be accomplished just from having read the first page, and I was not let down. A remarkable feat, and it will be a long-time favorite.
This February, Loganberry Books hosted a reading “challenge” to encourage our customers to only read books by Black authors in celebration of Black History Month. I twisted it a little this year, in homage to N.K. Jemisin’s compelling essay “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?” and so renamed the month “Black History/FUTURE Month.” While recognizing the work that paved the way for our present realities, I also wanted to emphasize how we can imagine other possible worlds to launch us into the future. The selections I featured in our window display (pictured) and our reading challenge all recall and honor the work of literary giants like Baldwin, Morrison, and Hurston, as well as throw readers into dynamic, exciting, and humbling alternate spaces as a way to unlock our ever-growing potential.
In a similar vein, I kept to the (not-so-challenging) challenge by reading some advanced reader copies of books by Black authors that are coming out in the next few of months, or that have already come out (attempting to publish this post somewhere in between the dates of their publications, so that you don’t forget about the ones to be released!). I thought I’d share my excitement and recommendations with you all here, in carrying on that same agenda of Black History/FUTURE Month.
1: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (out now!!)
This novel, aimed at young adult readers (14+), follows Felix Love, who, ironically, has never been in love. When an anonymous student at their summer art program in New York starts sending Felix transphobic messages after publicly exposing images of him before he transitioned alongside his deadname, Felix plots revenge. Only, of course, to then find himself wrapped up in a quasi-love triangle. Callender’s story-telling strategies set them apart from other writers of the genre, and their in-depth examination of love––particularly loving yourself and how learning to do so affects the other relationships in your life––is uniquely genuine in this novel. What an honest, refreshing, delightful, moving portrait of love and identity. As you will see from the rest of this list as well, we are in the midst of witnessing exciting, vital voices emerge in literature, and we must listen. For how could one turn away, only to risk missing this absolute gem, Callender’s newest novel?
2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (out now!!)
You might’ve seen my previous post about this one about a month ago, and if not, I’d recommend that you check it out so that I keep from sounding like a broken record. Since that review went up at the end of May, this book has hit the number 1 spot on both the Indie and NY Times bestseller lists. I am so excited for the author, Brit Bennett, as (you may have guessed I believe) it is so well-deserved. This novel spans four decades, 1950s-90s, taking place all over the United States, from the Deep South all the way to California, following twins Desiree and Stella Vignes as their lives diverge in ways that could not be more different—in community, family, and racial identity. I came to The Vanishing Half eagerly, knowing only praise for Bennett’s previous writing, and I was not disappointed. Her prose does exactly what it needs to, with a voice reminiscent of Morrison’s, yet staggeringly different at the most crucial moments, which leads you precisely through each page until you’re gutted. Compelling and timely, The Vanishing Half was exactly the right book for me to read at this time, and I know it will be for many others as well.
3: Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey (July 28, 2020)
Words escape me when I think of Trethewey’s writing––what more can be said? Year after year, we’ve witnessed its beauty, commanding presence, and authenticity. This memoir, Memorial Drive, solidifies these praises, tenfold. Natasha Trethewey’s retelling of a daughter’s struggle is brutally honest and painful, yet gripping and insightful, as she recounts her life before and after the murder of her mother at the hands of her stepfather (so, be warned, this is a hard book to read. I cried for a long, long time after turning its final pages). She addresses the shifting, unsteady nature of memory, how hope and ignorance can work together to unravel one’s idea of happiness, and the horrid—still horrid—state of how domestic abuse cases are handled and viewed by society. This proves to be, along with the other books mentioned on this list, another timely work to release this year that challenges our ideas about law enforcement by describing how these structures have worked in the past, and how they are still disproportionally ravaging the same communities today. However, even amidst the brutality and heartache of this memoir, Trethewey also shows us light and love through sharing her mother with us, thus intimately disclosing the story of the poet that came to be. During a time when we all feel isolated, I have felt connected and seen through her words, as they reveal just how powerful, how versatile, and how valid experiences of grief are.
4: The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (August 4, 2020)
Akwaeke Emezi’s new book, The Death of Vivek Oji, their second novel for adults, is now one of my favorite books that I have ever read, which has thus solidified Emezi as one of my all-time favorite writers. I am still floundered by the immersive, fluid, irresistible prose they have perfected in this, their third novel. The epicenter of this tale is the captivating, curious life and death of Vivek Oji, while simultaneously examining the people and relationships closest to Vivek, which give an acute look at Nigerian life. A distant third-person narrator, along with Vivek’s cousin Osita as well as glimpses into Vivek’s own mind, lead the reader through a grounded, lively picture of Nigeria that unravels around family and friendship bonds that are stretched to their breaking points, all which encompass the passing of this unique, gentle, complex young adult. With addictive, multiplicitous characters and, simply, a beautiful story, Emezi inspects masculinity, otherness, and love in one of the most compelling, magical, exciting, thought-provoking, and important books of our time.
I want to finish by saying that all these incredible, incredible reads by Black authors are collected here together only to show you how diverse their contents are (YA, memoir, literary fiction, magical realism; New York, Nigeria, Louisiana, Mississippi; spanning from 1950s-2020s). Work by Black authors is not at all monolithic, and these four are examples of that. Each takes you on a uniquely different, thrilling, heart-wrenching journey, following characters you’ll love, despise, and deeply cherish.
All of these books can be ordered from store.loganberrybooks.com, or they will be available once they are published. You can call ahead to preorder the latter two, and the former two are on our website! (If sold out, call anyway, and we’ll place an order for you right away!)
Now live! Tune in to our podcast “Lines from Loganberry” for our second episode in the “Intellect and Inspiration” series to hear Local Voices manager Miesha Headen interview Prof. Louise Prochaska, a 1964 graduate of Notre Dame and professor of theology and women’s studies at the College, and author of “Ten Keys to a Happier Life: Unlocking the Riches in Positive Psychology, Neuroscience and Ancient Religious Wisdom.” She has uncovered ten practices based in scientific evidence and religious teachings that help students of all ages live happier, healthier lives.
In the interactive workbook, Prochaska has distilled 20 years of study on brain activity and research of individual and social well-being and connected the science with age-old spiritual insight to create common practices that promote positive feelings. She presents the ten components in a weekly journal of reflections and activities that lead to regular routines that free people from stress and anxiety. “This just seems to touch a real nerve and a real need,” Prochaska said. “I just feel happier talking about it, too.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s upcoming novel, Death in Her Hands, has been on countless “Most Anticipated Books of 2020” lists. Intrigued by the author’s reputation and the (campaigned) subject matter of the novel as a thriller, I opened up my advanced reader copy on the plane, not at all knowing what world I was about to step into.
The first page: a woman innocently stumbles upon a note that seems anything but innocent while walking her dog in the woods. It reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But, alas, no body accompanies the suspicious scrap of paper. This is the first ingenious move Moshfegh makes: you, along with the protagonist, immediately begin to wonder what this note could mean, the motivation of the author of the note, and the state of the subject of the note. Then, instantly, you scrutinize the person telling you all this information – the protagonist. It exudes distrust from the opening paragraph, and you are left with that feeling for the remainder of the book, like opening your windows to see a bright orange sky in the middle of the night. Something just doesn’t sit right.
Months after turning the book’s final pages, I still find myself shaking my head as I think about it. This novel is relentlessly unnerving and, at times, even annoying. But, wait! Move your mouse from the “x” in the corner of this browser window. I don’t mean to dissuade you from endeavoring to read this book. In fact, I’ve actually enjoyed what this reading experience has done for me. But before you dive right in, I think it may help for me to relay my take on Moshfegh’s approach to writing. (At least, I think this would have helped my experience reading the book.)
I find this text somehow both claustrophobic and liberating. That is all due to Moshfegh’s particular style. If this novel was written even slightly differently, I would have thrown it across the room (and, still, there were moments where I felt so inclined – though that was predominately due to the extreme unlikability of the protagonist). Her writing spirals, rambles, and often feels confused or trapped, but it is because her protagonist is rambling, easily distracted, and alone. Further, the novel is set in a small neighborhood, where the (widowed) protagonist lives in a secluded house in the woods. Moshfegh births unique, chaotic characters so well that to center and ground them, her writing remains undoubtably clear. There is precision and intention in every single word placement. When the narrative, protagonist, or any other story element becomes “annoying,” this is no accident.
While I cannot speak for the writer herself, to me, Moshfegh writes to unsettle – upset, even – and to experiment. She does not seem interested in pleasing readers; rather, she seems dedicated to completely unpacking a character until that character is so transparent the reader understands her as much as the writer. For instance, the protagonist in Death in Her Hands is so in her head that the book’s suspense reaches its heights when she interacts with other human beings. Moshfegh exercises in character studies, particularly in terms of the forces that push and pull us toward self-preservation or self-destruction – and how closely those two modes circle each other, eventually destined to collide. It is a slow burn that will leave you gaping and staring incredulously at nothing as the book closes in your lap. And that’s exactly what Moshfegh wants.
If you’re a writer, I especially urge you to read this book. Part of why I felt it was freeing to read was because, as a writer, I was shown that I could break the rules, just as Moshfegh does in this novel. She liberates our sense of control as good and chaos as bad, and welcomes both warmly to play with. If you’re a fan of discomfort and unease, I also suggest you read it. While thriller is not a genre I often jump to, Moshfegh defies how we ought to define genre categories in this suspenseful narrative.
Initially set to publish in April, and then pushed back, this one now comes out in nine days, on the 23rd of June, 2020.
Hello, everyone! Tonight on our podcast Lines from Loganberry, Local Voices manager Miesha Headen interviews Dr. Ankur Kalra, who is an interventional cardiologist and clinical researcher at the Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital. His collection of poetry, titled “Ibadah: When love transforms into transcendence, life transforms into servitude,” is a tribute to his spirituality as well as his experiences treating patients’ hearts. The poems bridge feelings of heartache, loss, and beguilement to the concepts of reincarnation and transcending finite pain in order to grow.
The episode is live now! We created the Intellect and Inspiration series to aid, engage, and motivate our listeners during these challenging times through the thought-provoking work by a local author. We hope you enjoy!
You can listen below via Spotify, or through Anchor.
We couldn’t be more thrilled to begin our journey in audio to stay connected with you through these ever-shifting, odd times. Our new podcast series “Lines from Loganberry” will connect you to new books, feature staff picks, reveal niche stories about Loganberry, link you to local authors, ask some interesting questions about the bookish world, and, of course, we will also check in with our friendly bookstore cat, Otis.
The first podcast episode, a recording of the live Facebook event “Books, Big Hats, and Bourbon – A Celebration of Horses” with Local Voices manager Miesha Headen and three local authors is now live:
We are also excited to share that for the remainder of this month, we have a special Local Voices series on “Intellect and Inspiration” that will air every Wednesday night at 7:30 pm starting June 10th. Be sure to tune in! We hope you enjoy, and thank you for listening!
More information on the episode “Local Voices: Books, Big Hats, and Bourbon – A Celebration of Horses” attached:
**This episode originally aired as a Facebook Live event on May 2, 2020.**
Join Loganberry Books as we celebrate the beauty and strength of horses by hosting a free author talk with three horse lovers. Though the 146th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs was postponed, Loganberry Books invites fans to honor the animals and the annual tradition while staying at home and enjoying books, big hats, and bourbon with us. All of the books are available online via Loganberry. The featured authors are:
• Dave Szalay, illustrator of “The True Story of Zippy Chippy The Little Horse That Couldn’t” https://cutt.ly/Ryd3gf0
“Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her. Whatever steps she took, or if she took none at all, something would be crushed. A person or the race. Clare, herself, or the race. Or, it might be, all three. Nothing, she imagined, was ever more completely sardonic.”
Nella Larsen, “Passing,” page 101
Larsen’s words here seem to represent a core theme of what so many authors dating back to the 19th century and into the 21st century wrote and continue to write about: how racism stifles, freezes, kills. Strains of this idea run through Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Baldwin’s Another Country, and recently, through Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. If you are unfamiliar, pick up a copy of Passing by Nella Larsen, which tells the story of two women who run into each other atop a fancy hotel after not seeing each other since their teenage years. Both of these women, Irene (protagonist) and Clare, are very light-skinned, and we find that Clare has committed to passing for white, marrying a white man and abandoning her old life. Irene is horrified by the idea, even though she also occasionally uses her light-skin privilege to do things that Black people were not permitted to do often, like dine at fancy hotels in the 1920s.
As the novel unravels, we see how these two women interact, how Clare, after reuniting with Irene, yearns to be with her “kin” again, and how Irene subsequently becomes somewhat infatuated with Clare. But ultimately, the short novel concentrates on the poison of racism—how it infiltrates, abducts, coerces, stupefies, and destroys the lives of everyone it impacts. Which is to say: everyone. When Larsen mentions at the end of the above passage, “it might be, all three,” this is it: race does not “crush” one or the other, it crushes all.
Brit Bennett’s compelling new novel, The Vanishing Half, examines the same concepts. Identical twins Desiree and Stella, years after witnessing an abhorrent instance of lynching in 1950s Louisiana that serves as the groundwork for characterizing how they will each think about race, leave the small town where they grew up to pursue bigger and better things. But this idea manifests itself in ways that could not be more disparate for each twin: Desiree marries “the darkest man she could find,” thus birthing a similarly dark-skinned daughter, and Stella disappears one day, choosing to pass for white and leave her family behind.
What Bennett does not do is chastise. Upon reading, I admit, I was hesitant that this would be the case, and we would have yet another “tragic mulatto” tale at our disposal. But Bennett, through brilliant, captivating prose is only an observer, and lets her characters become as full as they can be. We follow the twins and their children’s lives, their ups and downs, their happiest and worst days, to witness how penetrative racism is in every facet of people’s lives—no matter what your race is—while, nonetheless, building an incredibly engrossing story. She describes, through each character’s journey, how guilt, fear, trauma, and, inversely, love can make a person and inform their choices. She shows us the gravity of memory, how it is warped by time, how ideas fluctuate generationally, how some things don’t really fade or become easier. She demands that we grapple with ideas of beauty, how overt forms of discrimination based on white beauty standards weigh on public memory and representation, and how covert objectification, fetishization, and exoticization of Black women’s bodies hinder and corrupt everyone’s ideas about Black women’s worth, place, and strength.
To me, this novel was fueled by Stella and Desiree’s gripping relationships to each other, their mother, “the race,” and their hometown, but it is driven by Desiree’s daughter, Jude. Jude is the heart of this novel, and Desiree and Stella’s heart-aching relationship serves as its soul. Jude’s story acts as a counterpoint to both her mother’s and aunt’s, the guiding force that sets the story in motion. And once you reach this point in the novel, you cannot put it down. With The Vanishing Half, Bennett delivers a meditative, intense, fresh examination of Black womanhood in all its unique and diverse forms. Already I can see this text becoming a classic, to be paired well with those aforementioned titles and the ones it will surely inspire.
Coming out this Tuesday, June 2nd––you don’t want to miss this one.
Loganberry Books was established in 1994 as an independent new, used and rare bookshop. Located in Shaker Heights, Ohio, we now feature more than 80,000 volumes and weekly events -- and a loud cat named Otis to greet you. For more information please visit our website www.loganberrybooks.com.