Category Archives: Books

Big Machine: A Q&A With Author Victor LaValle.

from random house

from random house

Ricky Rice is a former dope fiend and a surviving member of a suicide cult. And when he gets a mysterious letter to uphold a promise he made long ago, Ricky becomes a member of a secret society of paranormal investigators called the Unlikely Scholars. When the society is threatened, Ricky is teamed up with Adele, a Scholar with a past maybe even sketchier than as his own.

I sat with the author, Victor LaValle, who also wrote Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, to talk with him about his new novel Big Machine. It’s well-written, fiilled with mystery and adventure. Also, it’s just damn funny. I tried my best not to reveal too much about the plot. We talked about the story, the writing and the process. An excerpt:

BelleIsa: You also said that “I view writing fiction as a lifelong pursuit toward self-awareness.” What if anything were you attempting to work through?
Victor LaValle: In the novel, I was working through choice. The after effects of making choices. There was a woman I had been dating. I got her pregnant and she had an abortion. We went through it together in the sense that I was with her while she went through it. Then we broke up, really badly. And I thought the abortion was only supposed to matter to her. Like it’s something that only the woman continues to think about after the fact. It wasn’t supposed to leave a lasting feeling of responsibility, guilt, and questioning in me. That’s what I thought, but I was wrong. So I wanted to write about that. To understand it.

But I also wanted it to be a kick ass-story about a secret society with black people acting as crazy as people in a Bruce Willis movie.


Book of the Month: Things Fall Apart.



It’s the story of pre-colonial Nigeria, groundbreaking because it was originally written in English by a black African writer. The title was taken from a William Butler Yeats poem. It features the story of Okonkwo, a young man struggling to maintain the old customs with the ones brought by white Christian missionaries.

Gods and Soldiers, briefly reviewed at, is a new collection of contemporary African writing that features established and up-in-coming writers presented by geographic location. In the introduction to the collection, editor Rob Spillman writes:

“It has been fifty years since Nigerian Chinua Achebe published his novel Things Fall Apart, a classic work of anti-colonialism that became a worldwide literary sensation, its commercial and critical success opening the door for many other black Africans.”

Achebe is considered a literary father to widely-read contemporary African writers like Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958. We will be discussing the novel on August 15th.

Happy Reading.

Your Monday Random-Ass Roundup: Acting Stupidly

Because of technical difficulties and an unusually busy work day, this almost became Your Tuesday Random-Ass Roundup. Sorry I’m late again.

DougJ at Balloon Juice: “We’re a country where a uniform and a badge entitles you to arrest people for speaking loudly on their porches.”

DougJ at Balloon Juice: “We’re a country where a uniform and a badge entitles you to arrest people for speaking loudly on their porches.”

Your PostBourgie-approved weekend reading material:

First things first, Stacia, one of our co-bloggers, is writing a novel and posting a chapter a day at her personal blog. What is this space for, if not for a show of pride in our blog fam?

Neither Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, or Jeff Sessions of Alabama will join their Republican colleague Lindsey Graham in voting for Sonia Sotomayor’s SCOTUS confirmation. Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the other two Republicans on the judiciary committee, haven’t said what they plan to do yet. (GD)

Also, Sessions outlined his opposition to the Sotomayor nomination in a USA Today column. “I don’t believe that Judge Sotomayor has the deep-rooted convictions necessary to resist the siren call of judicial activism. She has evoked its mantra too often. As someone who cares deeply about our great heritage of law, I must withhold my consent.” Of course. It’s always about heritage with these guys. (Bi)

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates is also the man behind The Root, which saw an uptick in racist commenters in the aftermath of his run-in with Cambridge police two weeks ago. Also, some must-reads on the Gates mess: Rich Ford’s typically smart macro take, as well as TNR’s John McWhorter and the NYT’s Charles Blow wrestling with being black men on the receiving end of touchy encounters with the police. (GD)

Ezra Klein on why President Obama should review the playbook from Clinton’s health-care reform efforts in the early ’90s. “Clinton got the politics of reform wrong, but in important ways, he got the policy right. He just got it right too soon.” I also had no idea that before the ’90s, most people had something other than managed care. (Bi)

Nate Silver offers thoughtful analysis about the “healthcare timeout” to keep everyone from taking a dive off the cliff. In short, don’t read too much into breathless media reports about momentum or a lack thereof: “I don’t think the media has a liberal bias or a conservative bias so much as it has a bias toward overreacting to short-term trends and a tendency toward groupthink. The fact is that there have been some pretty decent signals on health care.” (Bi)

After writing a feature story about MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” Amy Benfer pondered the difficulties involved in telling the stories of the many, many pregnant teenagers who choose to have abortions. (GD)

Jamison Foser at Media Matters raises an interesting question: why is it a given that abortions should not be covered under any health insurance reform? “The idea that taxpayers shouldn’t pay for insurance that covers medical services they don’t support is fundamentally incompatible with the very concept of insurance. If every interest group wields veto power over the medical care insurance can cover, insurance simply can’t work.” Yes. Though I might quibble a bit with Foser’s implication that Chris Matthews is a reporter of any sort. He’s not. He’s a commentator. (Bi)

Russ Feingold and John Conyers have introduced a bill that would, among other things, restore felons’ right to vote in federal elections. (GD)

On Friday, the federal minimum wage went up 70 cents to $7.25 an hour. It still isn’t nearly enough to climb over the poverty line. (Bi)

The White House and lawmakers on the Hill from both parties are moving toward ending the disparity in sentencing for crimes involving crack and powdered cocaine, which disproportionately punish black people. (Does anyone, anywhere, still support those guidelines?) (GD)

Poor people in the U.S. are living live in a virtual “law-free zone,” according to a new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy. The study finds that the legal needs of the U.S. poor are unmet more than 80 percent of the time. Ian Millhiser at The Wonk Room: “As the report explains, the United States invests far less in legal services for the poor than other Western industrialized nations. At the low end, Germany and Finland spent three times as much of their gross domestic product as we do on civil legal services for the poor. At the high end, England outspends the United States twelve times.” (Bi)

More mundane Republican racism. Stay classy, guys. (GD)

Few places in the world are as dangerous for women as South Africa, where 1 in 4 men say they have committed rape. (Bi)

Can the legalization and taxation of marijuana save California from its unparalleled budget woes? (Bi)

It’s easy to forget how far the Internet has come in a relatively short amount of time. A photo gallery from The Daily Beast takes us back through those dark, unappealing pioneer days on the Web. (Bi)

Before she was a famous chef, Julia Childs was a spy. (GD)

In case you missed it last month, Toure visited Martha’s Vineyard to learn about vacation, the Obamas and the peculiar racial dynamics of Oak Bluffs – “one of the most demographically unusual towns in America.” (Bi)

Angela at ProperTalks takes issue with that commercial for KGBKGB commercial with the black women in a hair salon discussing the origins of their hair weaves. “White people giving two black women who’ve presumably gotten weaves before information about the process is a bit condescending. What if the answer-givers had been black as well? I think that would have made the commercial easier to stomach. …Why’d homegirl have to do the neckroll and the finger wave at the end?? And all of a sudden her English is broken, with the “bet not be putting no yak up in my weave” retort. Her eyes bulged out a little too.” (GD)

For a YA novel called Liar about a short-haired black girl, Bloomsbury chose a cover with a white woman’s face because “black covers don’t sell.” (GD)

President Obama might not have been looking at any ass overseas. But that doesn’t mean Joe Biden wasn’t. (Bi)

More and more atheists are going through a sort of mock ceremony known as “de-baptism” in an effort to renounce their childhood faith. (Bi)

What if robots took over the world? (GD)

A cool – but sad – Google map showing the cluster of foreclosures around the country. (Bi)

The college freshman that lives inside of me just rolled off my futon in excitement: Method Man, Ghostface and Raekwon are planning a joint album. Now if only they invite along Inspectah Deck and the GZA. (Bi)

“…a casualty of abnormal normality.” Vernon Forrest, a former welterweight champion who did a lot of charity work around Atlanta, was gunned down during an attempted robbery. He was 38. His hometown newspaper also offers a fitting, final tribute. Also, SI has more about Forrest here and here.

In the future, we’ll all be using HGH and hitting 40 homers a season. Or maybe we should. Don’t worry about that bacne. (Bi)

Wilt Chamberlain, George Clooney and Frank Sinatra all wear Tim Tebow pajamas. (Bi)

Back when Mark Madsen was a benchwarming Laker, Shaq used his clout to get him a deal on a car and bought him a grip of clothes to welcome him to the team. “After that he drove us up to Beverly Hills and we went to a Big and Tall clothing store. I found a pair of jeans that fit and Shaq said to the store worker, ‘He’ll take eight of each color!’ I said, ‘All I need is one of each color.’ When Shaq kept piling on Italian sweaters, I told him I didn’t need all the stuff, but he told me it was a welcome gift and to relax while he paid the $2,500 bill.” (GD)

And finally, the Huffington Post asks: Is this the stupidest person in the world? Judge for yourself.

Also, I meant to ask this question a couple weeks ago: Did anyone here ever go see “Bruno”?


Book of the Month Discussion: Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to our discussion of Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes, this month’s reading/discussion group pick. The book follows the efforts of Geoffrey Canada and his audacious Harlem Children’s Zone program, a formidable array of proactive social programs that Canada hopes will lift every child in Harlem into college and out of poverty. The scale of that undertaking is mind-bending, but Canada is undaunted, maybe even obdurate, in the pursuit of that end. More…

MJ: The Reader.

After a walk by the Apollo theatre or a visit to the local music or book store, it’s clear that Michael Jackson is going to make people a ton of money posthumously. And as the media stories speculate on how he died, and people start barking for who owns what of his estate, the rights to his children, MJ’s music catalog and The Beatles catalog, juxtaposed with all that other noise, the story below on MJ’s 10,000 book library was surprisingly refreshing.

From Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times:

“He loved the poetry section,” Dave Dutton said as Dirk [California bookstore owners] chimed in that Ralph Waldo Emerson was Jackson’s favorite. “I think you would find a great deal of the transcendental, all-accepting philosophy in his lyrics.”

Largely an autodidact, Jackson was quite well read, according to Jackson’s longtime lawyer. “We talked about psychology, Freud and Jung, Hawthorne, sociology, black history and sociology dealing with race issues,” Bob Sanger told the LA Weekly after the singer’s death. “But he was very well read in the classics of psychology and history and literature . . . “

The article originally came across as a wonderment of MJ’s normalcy like a segment in a celebrity magazine picturing stars shopping for groceries or walking their dogs. There’s no doubt that the naming of Freud and Jung in particular drums up support for the thesis that MJ was a child in a man’s body.

Putting that aside, I thought about the type of person who reads, psychology, sociology in wide abundance is a person dealing with emotional pain. The type of person searching for something. Identity perhaps?

I wonder how much of what he was reading was reflected in his music. I wonder what the rest of his library reveals about him. And if people were left to rifle with your own belongings, in particular, your books, what would those things which narrowly define us all reveal about you?

Book of the Month: Whatever It Takes.



Whatever It Takes is the story of Geoffrey Canada, the president and mastermind of  the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) an audacious social experiment that hopes to reduce poverty and raise education achievement  in a 97-block area in Harlem. (Coincidentally,  the program was mentioned today in a post  here.) Paul Tough, the book’s author, reported on one of HCZ’s most discussed programs, called Baby College, in a recent episode of This American Life. The program is typical of HCZ’s ambition:  it aims to teach poorer parents child-rearing techniques that are more conducive to learning, and is the first step on a “conveyor belt” of comprehensive programs meant to carry those children all the way into college.

You can find information on Paul Tough and check out reviews of the book  here and here. We’ll be discussing the book on the 15th of July.

From a Q&A on Tough’s website about HCZ:

The people running [other education reform organizations] share a set of beliefs with Geoff: that the achievement gap between poor minority kids and middle-class white kids is the most important civil rights issue of our time; that despite the disadvantages they face, every poor child can succeed; that in order to overcome those disadvantages, those kids often need an extraordinary amount of support; and that finding a way to get them that support is a shared national responsibility.

But there are some important differences too. Those education reformers tend to focus on schools alone. And they have produced many excellent schools and teachers. But Geoff’s project is based on the idea that schools alone can’t solve all the problems facing poor children. Which is why he runs not just a charter school but also a parenting program and an all-day prekindergarten and an after-school tutoring program and family-support centers. He thinks that in order to succeed with big numbers of kids, you need to do it all.

Happy Reading.

Book of the Month Discussion*: Sag Harbor.

*Note: We’re making this discussion a sticky post, and it’ll be at the top of the page all this week. Scroll down for newer posts.

From Random House

From Random House

Benji, Reggie, Nick, Clive, Bobby, Randy, Marcus & NP (“Nigga Please”). Back when summers were idle, the coming of September meant reinvention and, in the meantime, there were a ton of “firsts” to be had. First car, first job, first kiss, first (insert your summer story here). More…