Every so often, a book review really catches my imagination. Sometimes a review grabs me because it showcases a book on ideas, like How to Live — an engaging romp through the mind of Montaigne (see Montaigne Moonlights). And sometimes a reviewer piques my interest by talking about an author’s fresh, provocative writing style. That’s the case in a NY Times story about Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, the 30-something author of Harlem is Nowhere. Here’s how the reviewer, Dwight Garner, describes the book:
“It reads, in fact, as if Ms. Rhodes-Pitts had taken W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘Souls of Black Folk’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and spliced them together and remixed them, adding bass, Auto-Tuned vocals, acoustic breaks, samples (street sounds, newsreel snippets, her own whispered confessions) and had rapped over the whole flickering collage. It makes a startling and alive sound, one you cock your head at an angle to hear.”
Wow, now that is a spirited and jazzy description of a unique voice! It reminds me of the kind of manic energy that jumped off the page when I read The Brief Wondrous Life of of Oscar Wao, the Pultizer Prize-winning novel by Junot Diaz (see Summoning Beauty for some wonderful advice from Diaz). Although I didn’t totally love the book, I have to admit that Diaz definitely has a voice that makes you sit up and take notice. You may not adore it, but you can’t ignore it!
Dwight’s enthusiasm for Harlem Is Nowhere dampens a bit as his review goes on. He tempers his praise by saying that “the book never coheres or locates its own beating heart.” He also seems to feel that Sharifa overreaches herself and doesn’t quite pull off what she’s trying to do. Still, he has high hopes for the young author’s future. Here’s how he ends his review: “This book’s alive, though. It’s intoxicating, and lighted by the promise of better things to come.” Alive, intoxicating, and lit from within — now that’s the kind of unique voice and energy I’d love to capture in my writing. How about you?