Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup August 17-21, 2020

Book of the Day Roundup for August 17-21, 2020

The Meaning of Soul

Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s

Book Cover
Emily J. Lordi
Duke University Press
Softcover $25.95 (224pp)
978-1-4780-0959-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Nostalgia-fueled interest in retro music and contemporary artists’ expressions of “black resistance, joy, and togetherness” are at the heart of today’s soul music revival, and Emily J. Lordi’s nuanced revisionist history The Meaning of Soul redirects the traditional focus on male artists and civil rights themes, offering a more sophisticated definition of what soul artistry entails.

Lordi writes with scholarly detail and jargon, yet her prose is punchy and peppered with entertaining descriptions of artists, songs, and performances. One of her aims is to challenge existing “gender politics of soul historiography” and highlight the stories of female and queer voices, from musical icons, like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, to lesser-known musicians, like Carla Thomas and Flying Lotus. She authoritatively documents how soul artists reframed the definition of black masculinity to include quieter explorations of male “interiority,” flamboyant fashions, and opulent musical experimentation.

The book also delves into soul artists’ soaring creativity and musical craft. Lordi shows soul music to be much richer and more complex than has been acknowledged in mainstream and academic literature. From the joyful psychedelic trippiness of Rotary Connection’s albums, featuring Minnie Riperton and her five-octave operatic range, to the lengthy songs and lush orchestration of Isaac Hayes’s albums, Lordi persuasively documents soul musicians’ “virtuosic survivorship” and expressions of artistic and personal freedom.

The book also examines how soul is grounded in themes and techniques of black church worship. Many musicians honed their chops in gospel choirs and she examines ad libbing “sermonettes,” falsetto singing, and the use of false or surprise endings in recordings and before live audiences. While there are obvious examples, like James Brown’s well-honed collapse-cape-and-resurrection finales, Lordi provides others to build her case, delving into specific lyrics, recordings, and performances of performers from Mahalia Jackson to Marvin Gaye.

The Meaning of Soul is a thoughtful, lively journey through rich musical archives that expands the definition of what it means to be a soul artist.

RACHEL JAGARESKI (June 27, 2020)

World of Wonders

In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments

Book Cover
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Fumi Nakamura, illustrator
Milkweed Editions
Hardcover $25.00 (184pp)
978-1-57131-365-2
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s shimmering essay collection about fantastic creatures and plants, World of Wonders, is shot through with memories of her peripatetic life and observations about race, motherhood, and environmental issues. Fumi Nakamura’s delicate, elegant illustrations frame these emotive, tender writings.

The essays uncover the astonishing habits of ribbon eels, whale sharks, flamingos, dancing frogs, and other lovelies, while other less popular but no less wondrous flora and fauna also shine. Alluring lines about the Corpse Flower, an Indonesian native that grows large and stinky to attract nocturnal pollinating beetles, are enough to make anyone a fan. Cassowaries with killer claws, the bizarro Vampire Squid, and the Potoo of Central America (a bird with a croaking, retching call) are also described with passion, artful wordsmithing, and reverence.

Natural world subjects are touchstones for heartfelt personal revelations and meditations about social and cultural issues. As a child, Nezhukumatathil moved often; her Filipina mother and Indian father shifted through various medical jobs, and she relates the difficulties she felt as the constant “new girl” and “brown girl.” As an adult, she still pastes on the tight salamander smile of the Axolotl when faced with yet another acquaintance greeting her with an insensitive “Namaste!” (she’s a Methodist).

Ruminations on the marvelous homing instincts of the Red-Spotted Newt are connected to finding her forever home in Mississippi; a comfortable place where she doesn’t have to be the “one brown friend to so many people” anymore. There’s also sly humor: bioluminescent firefly larva band together to hunt earthworms looking “like a macabre, candlelit chase right out of an old B-movie;” Nezhukumatathil’s endearing father calls after a lost pet “in a thick, coconutty Indian accent.”

World of Wonders is a bibliophilic and visual delight that dazzles the senses, much like Nezhukumatathil’s beloved comb jellies. Her entrancing essays are a reminder to spend more time outdoors wondering at and cherishing this “magnificent and wondrous planet.”

RACHEL JAGARESKI (June 27, 2020)

Brass Carriages and Glass Hearts

A Steampunk Cinderella

Book Cover
Nancy Campbell Allen
Shadow Mountain Publishing
Softcover $15.99 (368pp)
978-1-62972-737-0
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Brass Carriages and Glass Hearts relocates a classic fairy tale into an imagined future packed with airships, automated carriages, vampires, and corsets.

Although nominally a Cinderella story, this novel remixes that tale’s familiar elements in creative, unexpected ways. Its lead, Emme, is not a guttersnipe, nor is she a damsel in distress; instead, she’s a titled do-gooder seeking social justice for shapeshifters, whose “compassion and sense of justice [are] formidable.” She’s positioned as gifted and “truly a force. So much love in a tiny frame.”

Emme advocates for magical creatures, pushing back against punitive policies that demonize them. Her work seems bureaucratic, but her clashes with government committees play out in the streets, too. From bloody fights, Molotov cocktails, and sabotage, Emme’s personal convictions take her out of the parlor and into the United Kingdom’s underbelly.

Emme’s contentious relationship with her wicked stepsister begins as emotional abuse and escalates to physical attacks, with Emme accumulating cuts, bruises, and even a broken bone. Her physical vulnerability is compounded by her softheartedness. She is slow to fall for Oliver, the surly detective assigned to shadow her. Their enemies-to-lovers romance is wholesome and passionate, glittering against the imagined landscape of steampunk Edinburgh, where machines and Victorian conventions mingle.

The novel is at its best when it dips into the burgeoning relationship between Emme and Oliver, or into Emme’s dysfunctional family dynamics. Some of its Victorian era conventions around race and gender, though, might have been better left to the ages. Its steampunk elements are somewhat offhand, with nods to Tesla torches and telescribers that are included as one-to-one representations of flashlights and cell phones, respectively.

Nancy Campbell Allen’s lively reimagining of the Cinderella story features an empowered, outspoken heroine who’s driven by a vision of a more equitable, futuristic Britain.

CLAIRE FOSTER (June 27, 2020)

Building Your Tiny House Dream

Create and Build a Tiny House with Your Own Hands

Book Cover
Chris Schapdick
Fox Chapel Publishing
Softcover $19.99 (176pp)
978-1-58011-847-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Chris Schapdick found his passion in tiny house building and made it a second career. With Building Your Tiny House Dream, he turns his attention to mentoring others through the building process.

The book’s warm, openhearted style encourages novices to take the leap. More than a set of building plans, the book makes the tiny house dream accessible to anyone who’s willing, even if they’ve only built IKEA furniture before. Its build is a 50-square-foot, portable house constructed on a tow-behind trailer base. Its construction is broken down into a series of small steps, each prefaced with a list of bare minimum tools, materials, components, costs, and hours of labor.

Concepts and customization are emphasized enough to keep the project from turning into a kit build, and alternate interior layouts are included, designed for turning this tiny house into an office, pool house, yoga studio, or recording studio, in addition to its most obvious use as a camper or guest space. One of the book’s most useful tools is its self-inventory, whose series of statements around planning, building, and tiny living are presented for self-affirmation prior to embarking on a tiny house dream.

The text is clear about declaring that tiny house living involves a series of compromises. It details the pros and cons of various tiny house systems, including electrical, heating, and cooling systems, and is thoughtful in naming the lifestyle changes that are necessary for successful tiny house living.

Suitable for all skill levels though aimed at beginners, Building Your Tiny House Dream is a comprehensive guide, complete with an extensive resource list, that’s guaranteed to turn a daunting project into an achievable dream.

LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (June 27, 2020)

Witchy Things

Cosas de bruja

Book Cover
Mariasole Brusa
Marta Sevilla, illustrator
NubeOCHO
Hardcover $16.95 (40pp)
978-841767360-4
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Concerned that her flowing blue locks don’t look very witchy, a frustrated spellcaster gets an unexpected attitude adjustment from a wise young stylist. She learns to follow her heart and find true happiness, instead of fitting society’s image of an ideal witch. The book is available in both English and Spanish language versions. Its bruja loves spiders, black cats, and hairy rats, and its audience will love its bold, patterned illustrations, humorous commentary, and relatable range of emotions.

PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (June 27, 2020)

Barbara Hodge

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