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A book celebrating Black American farming historyThe celebration Natalie Baszile refers to in “We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy” is leavened by hard truths and cruelties of efforts to run Black farmers off the land.For decades, the might of the United States Department of Agriculture systematically tried to wreck Black farmers’ livelihoods. Baszile cites figures showing that, for example, the U.S.D.A. lent $1.3 billion to farmers to buy land in 1984 and 1985. Of the about 16,000 farmers who received these loans, just 209 were Black.That’s one reason why, as Baszile writes, Black farmers cultivate less than half of 1 percent of the nation’s farmland today.As the author writes, however, Black farming family ties to the land extend for generations, their origins traced to ancestors who braided seeds of okra, sorrel and black-eyed peas in their hair before they were loaded onto slave ships.The Penniman family of Petersburg, N.Y., grows vegetables, fruits and herbs and also raise poultry on 5 acres using Afro-indigenous regenerative practices that leaves the land with more organic carbon and biodiversity each year.In Sondheimer, La., the Nelson family has been tending the land for four generations, surviving numerous efforts to cheat them out of their land.For those remaining Black American farmers, justice appears finally to have arrived in the form of $4 billion in federal grants and forgivable loans designed to help farmers of color regain their land, pay debts and resume raising crops.Baszile has recruited some strong writers to tell their family farming stories of perseverance and a kinship with the land best understood by people who work the rhythms of soil, plants and weather.Their ancestral farming links from Africa to America are best illustrated on the book’s cover, a picture of two women holding hoes, a farming tool invented in Africa centuries ago.— Jeff Rowe, The Associated PressA new collection of stories by Haruki MurakamiHaruki Murakami has a new collection of stories told in the first person by an unnamed older man obsessed with baseball, music and the porous borders between memory, reality and dreams.He might describe himself as a “bland, run-of-the-mill guy,” as in the story “Cream” — about a young man’s encounter with an aging mystic — but Murakami Man is more like a walking encyclopedia who has a problem with women — mainly, that he can’t seem to get past their physical appearance.Thus, in “On a Stone Pillow,” we have his memories of a melancholy poet and her “shapely round breasts”; in “With the Beatles,” a first girlfriend with “small yet full lips” and a wire bra. (Both, by the way, are suicidal.) In “Carnaval,” the one story where a woman has agency, we are told over and over how ugly she is.
The best story in the collection, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, is “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova.” It is built around the counterfactual premise the legendary inventor of bebop jazz didn’t die in 1955 at age 34 but lived into the 1960s, long enough to collaborate on a bossa nova album — a musical pairing as unlikely as that of the Carpenters and Cardi B.In “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” an unnamed narrator with the same flat affect as all the others befriends the titular monkey at a rural inn. After a long night of drinking beer and eating snacks — another favorite pastime of these loner men — the monkey tells him about the ruse he has used to satisfy his longing for female humans in a species-appropriate way.But if you’re not a fan of Murakami’s dreamy vibe and magical realism, if you think that life is confounding and interesting enough without needing to add fairy dust, then this probably isn’t the book for you.— Ann Levin, The Associated PressNew collection of columns by the late Jenny DiskiA lot of criticism doesn’t age well because it’s tied to ephemeral moments in our cultural life. Jenny Diski’s is likely to stand the test of time because it offers readers a bracing mix of razor-sharp analysis and wrenchingly honest autobiography.“Why Didn’t you Just Do What You Were Told?” brings together 33 of more than 200 columns she wrote for the London Review of Books during a prolific career that included novels, short stories, memoir and travelogues. Most are book reviews, giving her a springboard for wide-ranging reflections on everyone from Jeffrey Dahmer and Denis Thatcher to Anne Frank, Princess Margaret, Martha Freud (wife of Sigmund), Roald Dahl and many more.In the essay on Dahl, she explains why “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and other books by the famously unpleasant author are so wildly popular with kids.Here she is in 2007, reflecting on the “sentimentality and hysteria” that washed over Kensington Palace after Princess Diana died.The most gripping have to do with her own extraordinary life, including a lifelong struggle with depression, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations, and a 2014 diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer that killed her less than two years later at age 68.Diski was born in London in 1947, the daughter of working-class immigrant Jews, who subjected her, together and separately, to neglect and abuse. As a troubled teenager, she was taken in by Doris Lessing, launching a fraught relationship with the celebrated writer she only wrote about after Lessing’s 2013 death.The essay “A Diagnosis” is about finding out she has cancer and realizing despite the cliché of the cancer diary, she knows she’ll have to do one, too — in her own inimitably personal way.It’s as good an account as any for what she’s up to in these mordantly funny and brilliant essays.— Ann Levin, The Associated Press
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