Category Archives: Nonfiction

Through a Father’s Eyes: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

cover image of Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a long essay written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, which won the National Book Award last year.

It’s as moving as you’ve probably already heard it is. Next, I need to read the author’s earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, about his relationship with his father and growing up in West Baltimore.

I marked so many passages as I read, I can’t quote them all. The author has written this short book in a style that is both mythic and realistic. He makes sweeping statements about history, society, religion, etc.  in one passage and addresses his son specifically in the next. Throughout the book, he calls Howard University “Mecca”, and refers to “the Dream” (i.e. the life he used to see depicted on TV, growing up) and “the Dreamers” (those who don’t recognize the roots of their privilege).

Throughout the book, he uses the phrase “people who believe themselves to be white” to encompass all who are not considered “white” (by the census takers? by the majority? by the “one-drop” rule?) and he frequently refers to “possession” of his “body” to get at the idea that for people without religious faith, this life – this body, brain, heart, soul, mind, spirit — is all we each have, and every “body” should matter as much as the others.

The author uses this unusual language to underscore the fact that “race” is a human construct, not a law of nature. We are one race – the human race; dividing lines exist only in our minds. Ideally, those lines will become so fluid in the future as to be nonexistent, even there.

“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. The new people were something else before they were white — Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish — and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again. Perhaps they will truly become American and create a nobler basis for their myths. I cannot call it. As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” — Between the World and Me, pp. 9–10

The author’s mixed feelings of hope and despair about the future are evident in this book, this letter to his 15-year-old son who responded with anguished disbelief to the 2014 grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Despair outweighs hope by a landslide. But there is a section describing the author’s first visit to Paris and the sense of freedom he experienced there, and, in fact, the author is living with his family in France, since writing this book.

Here’s a passage about the author’s time in “Mecca” (Howard University) where he fell in love, and fell in love with the school, if not with his classes:

I would take breaks from my reading, walk out to the vendors who lined the streets, eat lunch on the Yard. I would imagine Malcolm [X], his body bound in a cell, studying the books, trading his human eyes for the power of flight. And I too felt bound by my ignorance, by the questions that I had not yet understood to be more than just means, by my lack of understanding, and by Howard itself. It was still a school, after all. I wanted to pursue things, to know things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself. The best parts of Malcolm pointed the way. Malcolm, always changing, always evolving toward some truth that was ultimately outside the boundaries of his life, of his body. I felt myself in motion, still directed toward the total possession of my body, but by some other route which I could not before then have imagined. — Between the World and Me, p. 48

Between the World and Me
Coates, Ta-Nehisi
Spiegel & Grau, July 2015
176 pp.
$24.00, U.S.

Disclosure: I read a public library copy of this book. I think the author would approve.

Other opinions:
Book Journey
The Book Wheel
Estella’s Revenge (mini review)
Lovely Bookshelf

Dining Out in Rome with Author Roland Merullo #weekendcooking @BethFishReads

cover image

I wrote briefly about Taking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo in my list of memoirs about traveling with family members, but I didn’t mention the author’s love of Italian food. He spends most of this family trip (so problematic that it’s funny, at least in retrospect) hoping for either a memorable Italian meal or a decent golf course — or, preferably, both  — but mostly finds only bad luck and disaster.

You feel bad for the family while reading about this ill-fated escape from the New England winter of 2003, but the author assures readers at the start that this trip with his wife, two young daughters, and his (sainted) mother was followed by a later trip to Italy (when the girls were a little older) that turned out great.

They travel to various spots in Italy — all much colder than they expected them to be — but eventually drive into Rome, where they take their youngest daughter, who can’t keep any food down, to be seen by a pediatrician. After a long day at the hospital, they head to a restaurant the author and his wife remember fondly from an earlier trip.

“To comfort ourselves after what might be described as a moderately successful day, we decide we will have a meal in one of our favorite Roman restaurants, a place mentioned in passing here already a couple of times. This place (which no longer exists) is called Il Sardo al Angolo in Trastevere, and specializes in Sardinian food.”

When they get to the restaurant, the waiter recognizes them right away, although it’s been two years since their last visit.

“We step through the door and see Angelo, the diminutive, mustachioed, white-haired waiter at Il Sardo who recognizes us immediately though he’s no doubt served a thousand or ten thousand customers since the last time we saw him. Angelo stands close by the table and chats for a while, moustache drooping, eyes sparkling, short thick fingers gently pinching Alexandra’s cheeks and resting on Amanda’s shoulder. ‘The little one is feeling not so good,’ he says, touching the side of Juliana’s arm. ‘Not so very good.'”

As is his style, Angelo takes our order without writing anything down, then brings us the wonderful unleavened Sardinian bread and clean-tasting white wine we’d had here on more than one occasion during our Rome visit. In a few minutes my mother is served a lasagna she describes as, “soft as silk. Delicious. The best yet.” I have a succulent roast piglet and a salad. Amanda goes with the eggplant parmesan. Alexandra likes the pasta. For the girl who is feeling not so good, the kind people at Il Sardo cook up a dish of plain rice (senza niente ‘without nothing’ is the way you say it in Italian) but Juliana sits in a sorrowful curl in her mother’s lap, refusing all food and drink.”

“Food heals. Nowhere is that true more than in Italy. I keep hoping to see Juliana accept one spoonful of rice, but she is buried in her illness, walled off from us. Still, the meal makes us hopeful — she’s taking medicine now. It’s a stomach flu. Whoever heard of a stomach flu lasting longer than a few days?”

Daughter Juliana gets better, but the author catches the flu, and the trip goes on…

On our own trip to Rome in October, my husband and I had two of our most memorable meals at Sapori Sardi, a small restaurant near our hotel that specialized in Sardinian cuisine, and the bread they served to us was incredibly good. It’s flat, thin, crispy, and seasoned with rosemary and salt and drizzled with olive oil — the first time we had it, we broke off a piece to taste it and quickly devoured the whole basket while it was still hot, even though we had been told that Italians don’t eat bread that’s brought at the beginning of the meal until the end.

I can’t find a photo of the flatbread  — pane carasau or “sheet music bread” in Italian — at Sapori Sardi, but I found one on Trip Advisor here.

We returned to this neighborhood restaurant for our final meal in Italy after a long day of sightseeing. Here are some photos from Sarpori Sardi:

Me with my first course and that "Have you taken the picture yet?" look on my face.
Me with my first course and that “Have you taken the picture yet?” look on my face.


Second course -- "Secondi"
Second course — “Secondi”
Dessert! I think I ordered panna cotta.
Dessert! I think I ordered panna cotta.
Steve had the tiramisu.
Steve had the tiramisu.
Choose your own digestif...
Choose your own digestif…limoncello or amari.

I read Taking the Kids to Italy after we returned from our trip to Rome — which is probably a good thing — but I like to think now that our own friendly waiter at Sapori Sardi, just around the corner from the Hotel Veneto, could have been the Merullo family’s angelic Angelo, or a relative, at a new restaurant in a different Roman neighborhood.

Taking the Kids to Italy: A Memoir
Merullo, Roland
PFP Publishing, 2013
$13.83, US

Happy Weekend Cooking!

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Celebrating Lunar New Year Vietnamese-Style #weekendcooking @BethFishReads

It’s the Year of the Monkey!Picture with text Happy New Year in VietnameseI went along as a driver to the Tet in Boston celebration (which was actually held in a town near us, not in Boston) recently with my husband and his lovely group of students from Vietnam (and one from Haiti!) to learn English and attend college. He is a volunteer tutor at the nearby convent where they live while they’re here.

stage performance

There were speeches, dancing, martial arts performances, and ceremonies, but our little group of sisters attracted a lot of attention from the Vietnamese-American crowd and became minor celebrities for the morning. Everyone wanted to have a picture taken with them, and sometimes wanted a picture of our whole group. Maybe because my husband dressed up in his Chinese jacket!


Most of the sisters don’t mind posing for pictures, anyway!

My favorite performance was the Lion Dancers. All young men in pairs, they made the giant dragons dance and leap into the air.

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When I saw a few of the Lion Dancers relaxing after their performance, they agreed to let me snap their picture.IMG_4178

There were a lot of vendors and displays.

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And, of course, a lot of tables where you could buy food!

I bought a Vietnamese sandwich, bánh mì, to take home and we sliced it and had it for dinner.

banh mi sandwich slices

When our group of lovely ladies learned that morning that I had not yet tried phở (Vietnamese noodle soup) they decided to treat us to lunch at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant, where they showed me how to eat phở correctly. I made a valiant attempt with chopsticks, but soon gave in and used a spoon.

I ordered the tofu-vegetable phở but accidentally was given plain vegetable phở, which was still delicious. When the apologetic waiter brought me a dish of sauteed tofu, I just added it in!

The Tet in Boston was held before Lunar New Year, so my husband made banh chung to give to his students for their own New Year’s dinner the following week.

I wrote about banh chung in an earlier Weekend Cooking post, if you would like more details on what it is!

These are the two Vietnamese cookbooks my husband has been given. I hope to try a recipe from one or both of them soon!

cover image of Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table Vietnamese Home Cooking

Happy Lunar New Year and Happy Weekend Cooking!

Weekend Cooking badgeLinked to Weekend Cooking, a weekly feature on Beth Fish Reads. Click/tap image for Weekend Cooking posts from other bloggers.