Wednesday, May 31, 2023

BOOKS! (Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart + Will to Love)

I started these two books in March, and now I'm ready to review them! I have accepted the reality that I've been in a reading slump as a result of dealing with my mom's health issues in the fall and winter, and I have also accepted the reality that I'm still feeling greatly fatigued and uninspired this spring. However, I am choosing to honor the fact that I have read what I can, little by little, and that I'm still managing to write a new review before May is over. That's still a win! Today's review is about two books written by Black women in the early 2000s. First up, a novel about a queer woman whose midlife crisis sends her on a spiritual journey that acquaints her with the "Grandmother" spirit of ayahuasca. Then, a romance novel about an obsessively commitment-averse doctor who meets his match when a corporate finance phenom agrees to date him for only one month. And lastly, an honorable mention that celebrates the intimacies of cuddling.
Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart by Alice Walker
When I reviewed In Love & Trouble, I mentioned that I hadn't read any other Alice Walker besides The Color Purple, and that I had a novel of hers that's been tucked away ever since I bought it at my local library. Well, In Love & Trouble put me in the mood to read more Walker, so I figured, Now Is the Time to Open This Book!
At 57 years old, Kate suddenly realizes that too many things in her life aren't doing it for her anymore. Her Buddhism practice, once a refuge from her COGIC upbringing, gives way to a new faith crisis. Her body feels like it's falling apart in more ways than one. She's just about ready to dump her painter boyfriend Yolo, who now seems too young and too male to understand her needs and the changes she's going through. And she's having dreams about frozen anacondas and the river of her life running dry. Sensing (and being told by her friends) that she must get close to a river to start finding answers, Kate disassembles the altar room in her house, leaves the house in Yolo's care, and joins a three-week boat trip down the Colorado River with a group of other women. During that trip, she learns about the Hopi people and purges some of the trauma of her failed familial and romantic relationships. 
Following her return, Kate starts visiting a local shaman, a Black woman named Anunu who administers ayahuasca to her. (This is not Kate's first time drinking the "Grandmother medicine", also called yagé.) Kate then joins a two-week ayahuasca retreat near a jungle river in an unspecified Latin American country, under the guidance of an indigenous Latino shaman named Armando (Anunu's past mentor). Here, participants spend most of their time fasting, tripping off of ayahuasca, and engaging with whatever lessons the Grandmother spirit has to teach each of them, but the ayahuasca stops working on Kate fairly early in the retreat. So she instead journals about her dreams, reflects on slavery and colonialism in Latin America and the American South, and listens mindfully as her fellow participants confide in her about their breakthroughs, which are liberating but unpretty. While Kate is on her ayahuasca retreat, Yolo has his own revelations in Hawaii, where a touristy vacation evolves into a careful meditation on Pacific Islanders' despair after he's invited to help memorialize a former girlfriend's dead son. By the end of the book, Kate and Yolo have returned to her house spiritually reinvigorated, at greater ease with each other, and inspired to make changes in their lives together that they are hopeful about seeing through.

Despite seeing the online backlash Alice Walker received in March for defending J.K. Rowling's TERF views, I continued reading Now Is The Time to Open Your Heart anyway because I'd already decided I wanted to know what this novel has to say. So imagine how astounded I was to discover its laudatory representation of Mahu, healers and traditional hula teachers in Polynesian culture who are born male but live as women as an expression of the divine. Walker does not describe them as "trans", "nonbinary", "gender non-conforming", or "genderfluid" in the book, but basic googling today offers multiple descriptions of Mahu as "third gender", so it can be argued that transness is a core part of their calling and the spiritual, educational, and caretaking roles they fulfill within their communities. In other words, Walker may not have employed the word when writing NITTTOYH, but the concept of people being trans is clearly not new to her at all. So to see this transphobic turn in 2023 confuses the heck out of me, especially knowing what I now know about what she went out of her way to write in this book (and presumably do the research for) nearly 20 years ago. You use a Mahu character (Aunty Pearlua) to depict how living beyond the gender binary has proved vital in fighting against colonization's efforts to destroy Polynesian culture and subjugate women. You give multiple examples of how global suffering from colonialism is enduring and interconnected amongst Black Americans, Native Americans in the continental U.S., Native Hawaiians, indigenous people in Latin America, and Aboriginal people in Australia. Just to turn around two decades later and align with this white British woman on the idea that real women are being erased and replaced? Unacceptable!

On a less controversial note, I know some people keep a journal of their dreams in real life just like Kate does, and I wish I'd had the foresight to do the same for the dreams and visions described in NITTTOYH. I wish I would've kept track of the specific moments they come up in the novel and what they mean. There are so many of them, recounted by multiple characters, and they're all so vivid and dripping with symbolism. For example, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Kate's enslaved ancestor Remus, whose bloody-mouthed spirit she feels haunted by for a long time. During the ayahuasca retreat Kate has a dream where she walks and talks with Remus about being tortured due to white obsession and jealousy toward his physical beauty. And in that dream, she finally realizes that all her nth-great uncle wanted was for her to listen to his story, take in what he's learned since becoming an ancestor, acknowledge how pretty he used to be, and give him new "teeth" (made of corn because the dream is set in the countryside), so he could feel pleased with himself again. Lalika, a Black woman from Mississippi who also attends the ayahuasca retreat, has her own story of objectification to tell, revealing to Kate how Saartjie Bartmann became her patron saint because she and her friend Gloria would each have visions of Saartjie while being sexually exploited in jail. Those visions gave Lalika and Gloria someone to believe in, someone to identify with and help them dissociate during those perilous months. But belief in "Saint Saartjie" wasn't enough to counter the harm of putting their trauma on display after they were released and had to go on a press run to raise legal funds.

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart is something special, but I think readers need to be open to the abstract in order to fully appreciate it. There's so much yearning for maternal love and guidance in it. So much reverence for indigenous ways and wisdom from multiple continents. So much growth in Kate and others' awareness of how alive nature is, always moving and communicating with those who dare to pay attention. The book has an overall plot but plays with not telling every facet of its story (stories) linearly. It's way more philosophical than I was anticipating yet still manages to be accessible and grounded, constantly grappling with how existential, spiritual, and environmental principles can be applied in the real world that people have to return to once their retreats are over. If you are in a transitional period in your life, concerned about aging and times changing, curious about psychoactive plants, interested in decolonizing your imagination, due for a healing journey of your own, and not set against reading any more Alice Walker (which is your prerogative), then read this book!
Favorite quotes:
"She was a baby again; she realized how much she must have enjoyed being one. She seemed to remember, feeling the diapers on her bottom, that when she was a baby people were always kissing her. Um, she thought. Happy... When was the last time someone had stood outside the toilet waiting for her? Kate asked herself... She liked it. Oh, she thought to herself, I am someone who enjoys being pampered! Usually, raising her children, she'd received no such pampering, though always giving it to others. She had forgotten her own need" (70). 

"It was clear to Kate, sitting across the room from Missy, that she had every intention of being healed, but lacked the courage to let it happen. Her body grew as tight as a ripe tomato, and every orifice seemed closed: eyes, mouth, ears. She crossed her legs and became rigid. Nothing is coming into me, she seemed to say, and nothing is going out" (153).

"It is hard to believe, but there is something inside of you, no matter how sick and fed up with your sickness you are, that does not want you to heal. It will actually fight you. Sometimes I think of it as a small boy... He is there having a good time at your expense and if you get well he worries there will be nothing left to do. No games to pay with your sick body, no games to play with your mind... He will have to be negotiated, just like you would talk to a lawyer. If I am well, you must tell him, there will actually be lots more for you to do. More games for you to play, because we will be much stronger. If we are much stronger, we can go more places. We can have more fun. He is an odd little boy, this part of yourself that wants to control you while you are sick. And sometimes we are all charmed by him" (153-54).

"The land does not like being sold. It haunts me... It is offended by my disrespect. It wasn't meant to be bought and sold, you know. It was meant to be loved and sung to; it was meant to be appreciated for its wonderfulness. And admired. Shared, yes. Bought and sold and abandoned over and over, no" (176).

Will to Love by Doreen Rainey
I found a beaten-up copy of this book while browsing through a deceptively low-key indie bookstore called Carol's Paperbacks Plus, which specializes in used paperbacks and has a surprisingly massive layout. This book's condition almost made me set it back down on the shelf, but then I looked it over and realized it was a Black romance novel of the 2000s variety that my mom used to read, and with some further internet sleuthing I learned that the author doesn't even write anymore. (She's a life coach now.) So in a way, this find was one of a kind! I was actually surprised to see that this book was published in 2007, because the illustrated cover design—which I love, don't get me wrong—is giving me Black Expressions circa 1998, or the opening credits of 'The Nanny' if 'The Nanny' were a Black dating sitcom. But that only adds to Will to Love's nostalgic charm.

The titular Will is a doctor in DC who co-owns a private practice with three other doctors, including his best friend Derek. He also owns an adorable big-footed German Shepherd named Apollo. Romantically, Will is a bachelor who takes pride in showing women a good time, but he's also infamous for wielding a five-point list of rules to keep things strictly casual: Don't assume exclusivity, There's no need to talk every day or know everything about each other, His medical practice comes first, Don't expect commitment (including marriage or cohabitation) from him because it ain't gonna happen, and The relationship is over if the woman breaks any of the rules (because he's never the one to break them). On every first date, he gives "The Speech" to clearly communicates these rules, what he's willing and unwilling to do for his lovers, and what the result will be for crossing his boundaries. And even though many women seem to understand and agree to his terms at first, without fail they all eventually start believing that they can be the exception, only to get dumped for trying to convince Will of the same. As a result, none of Will's relationships last longer than four months, which he's consistently unbothered by. Until he meets Caryn.

Caryn, a DC native, has had her mind set on climbing the corporate ladder ever since she left home for college in Boston, where she's now based. For a decade she's busted her behind facilitating mergers and acquisitions between companies all over the world, and she doesn't even have time to decorate the condo she bought two years ago, much less be in a real relationship. Her professional and financial goals have always been more important to her than dating. (Will has his rules, and Caryn has her master plan.) But she has enough self-awareness to know she's overdue for a break and has neglected her family and friends for too long, so she goes on a one-month vacation back to her hometown, staying at her parents' house in Alexandria. When Caryn goes to meet her best friend Sherisse at Sherisse's office, she also meets Will, because Sherisse and Will are colleagues; Sherisse is one of Will's business partners and the only female doctor at the private practice. And despite vehemently disapproving of Will's dating style and fiercely warning him against trying to seduce her friend, Sherisse gives him Caryn's number at Caryn's request. Because Caryn doesn't want anything serious from him either; she simply wants to be spoiled and taken on dates around DC for a few weeks, and is curious if Will can live up to his own hype.
So their fling begins, and Will unexpectedly falls for Caryn. Hard. While she's ignoring her feelings and shutting him down when moments between them get too intense, he's breaking his own rules left and right: meeting her parents, attending her family cookout, talking about him and Caryn as "we", and wanting more from their relationship than Caryn is willing to give. After they realize, mid-coitus, that they truly are in love with each other, Caryn panics and skips town back to Boston in the middle of the night, cutting her vacation short before Will has the chance to verbally tell her he loves her. They then spend the next month agonizing over whether to call the other person first; Will refuses because his pride has been wounded and he's experiencing heartbreak for the first time, and Caryn uses work to distract herself from how terrible she feels about leaving him the way she did. However, with some prodding from Caryn's dad and an impromptu reunion in Paris, Caryn and Will officially become a couple, assuring each other that they're in it for the long haul. That is, if a huge promotion that moves Caryn to San Francisco doesn't strain their relationship beyond repair.
First let me declare that Will is not wrong about his pre-Caryn dating rules! Now, far be it from me to stand in the gap for a man (God forbid). And perhaps I am biased in favor of his non-commitment policy due to my introversion, my vigilance against disappointment, my as-yet lifelong disinterest in romantic relationships, and the fact that I'm viewing aughts 30-something Black professional dating culture from a 2023 perspective. But I truly can't remember the last time I was on a male character's side as much as I was on Will's, and I truly do not agree that pre-Caryn Will is as wrong as his previous lovers and his bestie Derek argue that he is. (Although I can make an exception for Sherisse's behavior, because she was just trying to protect her friend.) He may be blunt and a little full of himself, and he could stand to be less cold-blooded when dumping people, but Will is upfront about his intentions at all times. He does not lie to women or lead them on, and it's not his fault that his previous lovers broke their own hearts by claiming they could handle a no-strings arrangement when they actually couldn't. I'm not trying to cut Will some slack in that lazy "well at least he's honest" sort of way that lets men off the hook way too often. But how is he a villain for knowing what he wants, meaning what he says, and sticking to the agreed-upon terms of his relationships?
As for our female lead, I applaud Doreen Rainey for being smart enough to not have Caryn need Will to be her savior. When we meet Caryn, she is cognizant of the sacrifices she's made and what she's missed out on interpersonally while excelling in her career. But she regards Will as someone who can temporarily make her feel special and knock the cobwebs off that thang, not someone to save her from herself or even be her man. Granted, after he becomes her man, their love does give Caryn the courage to quit her job of her own accord once she gets promoted and realizes for herself that: a) finally reaching the career goal that she's strived so hard for is making her miserable, and b) her priorities in life have shifted and she wants to be closer to Will again. But Will is not the one to demand or create that change for her, and I found that to be very progressive on Rainey's part. The only place that Will to Love significantly falters is its ending, which feels entirely too rushed. Considering that Caryn and Will don't officially become a couple until chapter 23 (of 25), I was initially impressed by how Rainey laid out the next phases of their relationship—including long distance troubles, and how swiftly those troubles change them as people and hinder their compatibility—in so few pages. But come on now. Will very heavily implies that that they should break up, like it's on the very tip of his tongue and Caryn doesn't even fully clock that that's what he's both saying and trying not to say at the same time... but then he's asking her to be his wife three pages later? Rainey gave me the ending I wanted, but the abruptness of it made it not feel right.

Sure, some of the book's phrasing gets repetitive at times, the early part of it spends a little too long on characters arguing with Will about how terrible he is (even though he's not!), and the ending reconciliation/proposal feels rushed, but overall I think Will to Love is really solid. I was thoroughly entertained. It hits all the customary romance novel beats while still offering some delightful surprises, Caryn's family feels like a real everyday Black family, Caryn and Will are intriguing and worth rooting for, and I'm realizing that I do greatly enjoy the Gentle Giant Dog As Wingman trope (shout-out to Apollo in this book, and Otis the Great Dane from Before I Let Go). If you're in the mood for a love story but also don't care about being in a traditional relationship, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"The moment I met you, I knew you were special... because of the light that shines from your heart and your soul. I promise to nurture that light. To protect that light. To love that light. It is what makes you special and I want to spend the rest of my life shining with you" (56).
"Please, mom... I can only defend myself against one imaginary person at a time. Why don't we stick to my invisible husband before moving on to the yet-to-be-born children?" (109).
"...but there were times when not only was arrogance necessary, it was critical to getting what you wanted out of life. 'Arrogance is overconfidence, audaciousness, boldness, daring and having pride in what you do. I find it impossible to believe that you didn't have some of those traits to break through that glass ceiling... A woman? A black woman? You must have had daggers coming at you form several angles... Without a healthy does of arrogance, you'd be stuck somewhere in middle management, trying to break into six figures and wondering when you were going to get a break. Now, I'm not saying you use all of that to put somebody else down or destroy others, but you do use it to pull yourself up'" (179).

"I want more than moments, Caryn. More than memories" (237).

Honorable Mention: The Cuddle Sutra by Rob Grader
(Illustrated by Leela Corman)

During this past winter, in the thick of handling my mom's health stuff, I felt the loneliest that I've ever felt. I was so lonely that I found myself longing for something I've literally never longed for before: a good, lengthy, strong but gentle cuddle. (I am a hugger but I also generally don't like people touching me. It's complicated.) If only I had a shoulder to cry on. If only I had someone who could be the big spoon and hold me as I tried to asleep, then maybe I wouldn't be so exhausted all the time right now. I remember thinking those thoughts for the very first time in my life. Even though I never received the kind of physical support that I needed back then, I also never forgot what it felt like to be desperate for that support. I was able to go without, but back then it seemed essential.

So when I popped into the dollar store on Mother's Day to get a couple cards for Ma and then happened to spot The Cuddle Sutra in the book section, I knew that this title was coming home with me. By now I have pretty comprehensively reverted back to "don't touch me" mode, but The Cuddle Sutra seemed like it'd be a cute read so I figured why not. Maybe I could use it as inspiration the next time I feel an urge to be the little spoon. Plus it has pictures! There are 50 or so cuddling positions described and illustrated in this book, divided between private and public displays of affection. And even though some of them sound made up—walking side by side while doing the "Cross My Heart" or the "Promenade", for instance, seems too awkward to be real—I was still amused by Grader's creativity and sense of humor. If any of that sounds up your alley and ordering online isn't adventurous enough for you, then see if you can find this little gem at a dollar store near you.

No comments:

Post a Comment