Posts Tagged Jesmyn Ward

book review: Men We Reaped


Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. Publisher: Bloomsbury (2013). Memoir. Hardcover. 272 pages. ISBN 9781608195213

“From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Desmond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

A heartbreaking, honest and gripping memoir in which Jesmyn Ward describes growing up poor and black in Louisiana and its impact on both the deaths of these five black young men as well as on her writing and her life. statistically these black young men have little chance to succeed—to make it much beyond high school, to college, to age 21, to age 25 and beyond, to get past a life of drugs, poverty and living paycheck to paycheck. Ward illuminates the broadening gap between race and class in our country. These struggles and prejudices have long existed in the south for young black man for which this memoir’s a distressing reminder.

Ward’s mother never went to college and worked cleaning houses to take care of her four children—Jesmyn, her brother Joshua and two sisters Charine and Nerissa. My mom didn’t go to college either but secretarial school. My parents also divorced when I was in elementary school. My mom did re-marry, Never did I doubt my future educational path: college and graduate school. White-privilege. I get it. I understand I have it. I was born in Massachusetts. Grew up middle-class in Connecticut and Massachusetts, now live in Boston and that’s my point of reference. Though I’m unemployed, don’t receive unemployment benefits, SSDI or a paycheck, I’ll likely never know the poverty that these men and Ward herself knew growing up in Louisiana.

Ward’s parents didn’t divorce right away but her father wasn’t around often and wasn’t faithful to her mother. A drifter and dreamer, her father moved out. [“He was forever in love with the promise of the horizon: the girls he cheated with, fell in love with, one after another, all corporeal telescopes to another reality.”]

Ward writes: “His leaving felt like a repudiation of the child I was and the young woman I was growing into. I looked at myself and saw a walking embodiment of everything the world around me seemed to despise: an unattractive, poor, Black woman. Undervalued by society regarding her labor and her beauty.” She didn’t have the best grades at school but she fell in love with books and reading. As for many girls, literature proved to be somewhere to escape for Ward. She could engulf herself between the pages and discover new worlds and literary role models “. . . I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home and live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.”

At some point, her mom worked for a wealthy and generous lawyer, a Harvard alumnus, who practiced in New Orleans and offered to pay to send Jesmyn to private school—of course an amazing opportunity for her—allowing her a chance to attend college which she does. She writes: “I knew there was much to hate about home, the racism and inequality and poverty, which is why I’d left, yet I loved it.” Ward earned her undergraduate degree from Stanford and her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. When her brother died she was working in New York at a publishing company.

“Perhaps my father taught my brother what it meant to be a Black man in the South too well: unsteady work, one dead-end job after another, institutions that systematically undervalue him as a work, a citizen, a human being.”

RATING: *****/5

also on my Best Books of 2013 List

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Bloomsbury.

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STEELE Picks: 20 Best Books of 2013

woman upstairs

1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud [Knopf]
–a brilliant novel about anything but that typical woman upstairs. It’s about aspirations present and past, realized and forsaken.


2. The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna [Tin House Books]
–an intense book about squatting, community and political activism in the 90s

ghana must go

3. Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi [Penguin]
–a beautifully written book. haunting and lyrical. family, race, country, belonging.


4. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward [Bloomsbury]
–this memoir. raw. upsetting. the author mediates on the poverty in Louisiana and the black men she lost in its depths.


5. Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat [Knopf]
–another novel in which I’m in awe of the writing style. gorgeous mystical tale about Haiti.


6. FEVER by Mary Beth Keane [Scribner]
-wondrous historical fiction about “Typhoid Mary.” fascinatingly imagined.

inbetween people

7. The Inbetween People by Emma McEvoy [The Permanent Press]
–stunning, powerful novel. Avi Goldberg writes from military prison because he refuses to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF]. He writes about his friend Saleem, an Israeli Arab he met. Their lives intertwine despite cultural differences and past troubles.

in the body of the world

8. In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler [Metropolitan]
–not only a memoir about Ensler’s personal journey with cancer but it’s a call to community, to get involved. so powerful I cried when I finished reading it.

valley of amazement

9. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan [ECCO]
–sweeping story about mothers and daughters set in turn-of-the-century Shanghai

Harvard Square

10. Harvard Square by Andre Aciman [W.W. Norton]
–melancholic, nostalgic autobiographical novel about belonging and assimilation that focuses on immigrants finding their place in America in the 70s.

sister mother husband dog

11. Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.) by Delia Ephron [Blue Rider]
–the this essay collection, Delia tackles the profound to the superficial with wit, perception and charm. She maintains a steady wisdom-filled tone. She’s a woman who’s experienced plenty and shares mistakes, some secrets and reflects upon life-lessons with those willing to listen.

vampires in lemon grove

12. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell [Knopf]
–This collection of stories transports you to places you never imagined going to. Russell writes stories about variations on monsters. Beautiful, peculiar, unusual and tragic monsters. She creates bizarre, macabre and funny settings. Complete with vivid imagery, creepiness and potent emotions without an excess of verbiage. She writes dark, funny and tender.

freuds mistress

13. Freud’s Mistress by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack [Amy Einhorn]
–long rumored to have had an affair with his wife’s sister, Kaufman and Mack vividly imagine this sister’s character and life with the Freuds.


14. Montana by Gwen Florio [The Permanent Press]
–MONTANA drew me in immediately with its stellar page-turning plot, terrific characters and stunning descriptions of Montana scenery. Also Lola’s an independent feminist journalist determined to uncover the truth at any cost.

dirty love

15. Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III [WW Norton]– author interview
–one of my all-time favorite authors writes vignettes about love, sex, relationships and the gritty, sticky, messy aftermath.


16. Lillian and Dash by Sam Toperoff [Other Press]
–What a charming novel that delves into the long affair between playwright Lillian Hellman [Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour] and noir author and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett [The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man].

big brother

17. Big Brother by Lionel Shriver [Harper Collins]
–Lionel Shriver expresses so many thoughts about obesity epidemic, how we indulge, how food is a treat, a central focus for holidays, outings, dates, meetings etc. Dazzling writing, vocabulary and character creation up until the ending.

together tea

18. Together Tea by Marjan Kamali [ECCO]– author interview
–insight into the immigrant experience. Humor, love, respect and mother-daughter bonding make this a book you’ll long remember after finishing the last page. It’s a love story to Persia as well as an acceptance for the United States.

hypothetical girl

19. The Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen [Other Press]– author interview
–in this astute story collection, Elizabeth Cohen writes about dating in the digital age.

nothing serious

20. Nothing Serious by Daniel Klein [The Permanent Press]
–brilliant meditation on print media and its changing format and relevance.

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