GLORIOUS by Bernice McFadden [Book 47 of 2010]

Five more books to go after this one. Sadly this will be my last piece of women’s or African-American fiction for the year, but man, are we ending with a winner. Here are my thoughts on GLORIOUS by Bernice McFadden.

Why I Decided To Read It: The better question is why didn’t I read it before now? It’s hard to have a conversation with other black authors/readers without McFadden’s name coming up, and I was getting sick of saying, “She’s on my list!” Then the last time I visited my sister in St. Louis, I noticed GLORIOUS on her shelf, and I was like, “Oh, you like Bernice McFadden?I met her in New York–”  And she was all like, “She’s one of the best writers out there. She’s my favorite writer. I’ve read every book of hers. I love her books.” Now, if you know my sister IRL, you know she’s kind of the opposite of me, in that she doesn’t get fangirly about anyone or anything. So her unusually enthusiastic endorsement did it. I downloaded GLORIOUS as soon as I got home and soon found out that I had only been doing myself a disservice by waiting this long.

What’s It About: Easter Bartlett, a born writer, leaves her racist small town and eventually lands in Renaissance-era Harlem.

What Makes It Different: McFadden is a very literary author who knows how to both write and entertain. Sadly, those two qualities often remain separate in “good” literature.

What I Loved: Now GLORIOUS is probably being marketed as a piece of historical black fiction, because it seriously makes you feel like you are inside are living in Renaissance-era Harlem. But I would argue that this book should also be marketed as a must-read for female writers. For reasons I’ll explain below, I wanted to send this to every unpublished female writer I know. Added to that, McFadden is a consummate and gorgeous writer, and much like with THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, it was nice to sit back and just enjoy good writing — I mean writing so good it felt more like I was eating this delicious book than listening to it. Oh, and did I mention that Alfre Woodward does the ah-mazing narration? If she doesn’t get nominated for an Audie Award in January, the world is truly a criminal place.

What I Didn’t Like: I’m sure Ms. McFadden has received several complaints that this book is too short. I felt bereft when it ended, like I had gotten kicked out of a really good party. But then when I really thought about it, I realized that this is a complete story, it was just that McFadden had done us the favor of not going on and on in a plotless meander as so many other literary writers choose to do. Still, it is a rather skinny book, and I find myself wishing there had been more of it.

Being A Good Writer Lessons Learned:

Go  after what you want. In many ways this is a book about a character who doesn’t know how to pursue the things she most wants, who settles as opposed to pursuing. Lately I’ve been feeling a certain flagging of ambition, a hesitation to try my hand at the things that scare me. Since beginning this book, I’ve not only cut all my hair off, but I’ve also set several plans in motion for 2011, including actually taking that art class that I’ve been wanting to take since college. This book made me realize that the consequences of inaction and/or running away are much worse than the consequences flying too close to the sun. The truth is that I’d rather die in a ball of flames than in a cold tomb of inaction. And you know what, don’t tell me what I can or cannot do.

Don’t hide your light. My dear departed MFA program head said something that would change the way I think about women writers forever. Whenever I told him I was struggling with something, he’d invite me to show him what I was working on. The first time he made this offer, I told him that I didn’t want to show him something half-finished that I felt shy about showing my writing to others. And he said, “Yes, I know so many women writers with half-finished things in drawers because they’re afraid they’re not good enough.” I can’t say why this connects to GLORIOUS w/o giving away major plot points, but I will say that something rage-inducingly bad happens to Easter, and though she is technically a victim, I couldn’t help but think, “This is what happens when you hide your light, when you don’t pursue what you want.” So to all of the women writers I know who currently have half-finished things on their hard drives, because of neglect and/or fear, read this book, and I bet you’ll finish your project in 2011.

Really think about your verbs. I have a problem with passive voice. A lot of my rewrites involve getting rid of all the “was” this and “was” that and replacing them with action verbs. Reading GLORIOUS made me want to pick up a dictionary and just memorize every terrific verb I could before writing my next book. I loved the way she uses verbs in this novel. At one point, Easter didn’t “want” something, she “craved” it — such a simple choice, but it made the sentence so much richer, like adding butter. This whole novel is a friendly reminder about keeping your verbs vibrant and interesting.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: All Unpublished Women Writers, African-American Studies Majors, New Yorkers, and People Who Adore Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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