Thursday, January 26, 2012

book review: What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage

The backstory: I first read Pearl Cleage's debut novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in 1997. I remember the day I picked it up at the library, filled with excitement that my favorite playwright had written a novel. I had ridiculously high expectations, and Pearl exceeded them all. She's my favorite author, yet I haven't read any of her work in the past three years. This year, I'm going back to the beginning to re-read (and then read) her novels in the order they were published.

The basics: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day is the story of Ava, an HIV-positive black woman who sold her hair salon in Atlanta to get a somewhat fresh start in San Francisco, away from the string of men she's slept with. She decides to spend the summer with her sister Joyce in Idlewild, Michigan.

My thoughts: Although I read What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day almost fifteen years ago, I still remember the last line of the novel. It's my favorite last line of a novel. Despite its lingering memory, I realized I remembered little else about the novel. It was magical to read one of my favorite novels again, seemingly for the first time.

Initially, I was struck both by how brilliant Pearl Cleage is and how timeless this novel is. If I didn't know it was written fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have a clue:
"It almost doesn't matter what black community you go in now the problems are exactly the same. The kids are angry. The men are shell-shocked. The women are alone and the drugs are everywhere."
This novel tackles big issues and its focus is on the African-American community in particular. When Ava arrives in Idlewild, she's surprised to hear there's a crack epidemic: "I shouldn't have been surprised. Crack is an epidemic with a life all its own, just like AIDS. Small-town living doesn't save you anymore."

Ava and Joyce are an intriguing pair of sisters. Joyce, who has lost her husband and two children, maintains a realistic optimism about saving people:
"Joyce is good at this kind of stuff. She went into social work in the first place because she really believes that people want to take care of themselves and their children, and if they're allowed to do that with some dignity, everything else will fall into place."
Ava, meanwhile, has a more cynical edge. She's impressed her sister can maintain positivity and optimism to try to effect real change, but she struggles with a desire for vengeance too.

There is an underlying tragedy in this novel that haunts me. The world needs more people like Joyce. The world needs more novels and films to address the issues of our contemporary life. Still, there's hope and, more impressively, joy. Pearl Cleage celebrates life, love and goodness, but she doesn't shy away from the tragic realities of AIDS, crack and violence.

Favorite passage: "Most of the people up here think it's still 1958 and we're dealing with some high-spirited youngsters who are just sowing their wild oats. They can't see that this is something new. This isn't a phase they're going through. This is how they are. They don't know anything. They're selfish and mean and mad all the time."

The verdict: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day shows no signs of age. It's as relevant than when it was first published. It's a brilliant novel and an astonishing debut novel. Whether on stage or page, Pearl Cleage is a master storyteller, and I'm continuously astonished she's not better known, more often read, and heralded as one of the great literary talents. This novel is a contemporary American masterpiece.

Rating: 5 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: December 1, 1997
Source: I bought it for my Kindle 

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

19 comments:

  1. I hadn't actually even heard of this book until recently, but it sounds like something I would really enjoy. Maybe it would be inspiring... I used to have Joyce's positivity but I'm pretty cynical now too!

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    1. Jenny, I hope you read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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  2. Great review! I really want to re-read this now. I love the book's new cover.

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    1. Isn't the new cover gorgeous! I'm so glad to see it getting new life as a trade paperback. I hope you'll re-read it soon so we can discuss!

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  3. Was there a movie based on this book? The title is so familiar to me but I know I haven't read it before.

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    1. No, but it did end up being an Oprah Book Club pick at some point, so it was famous for awhile!

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  4. I also had this out of the library many years ago, and didn't get the chance to read it. It looks like I made a huge mistake! I need to read this one. It sounds very moving and like it deals seriously and respectfully with several important topics. Fantastic review today.

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    1. Zibilee, I hope you do read it. It deals with some difficult issues, but it is so amazing!

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  5. I don't know if I've ever heard of this one before and this sounds like a book I should NOT miss so thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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    1. Amused, I hope you take time to read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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  6. I recall reading this one around 2000 when i was unemployed for a bit and liking it. Happy to have the flashback to the past to job my memory --glad u enjoyed it as well.

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    1. Diane, you're welcome! I, too, enjoy reading reviews of books I read long ago. It takes you back!

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  7. I can't pinpoint the exact reason, but the passages you've quoted have really struck a chord with me. I hadn't heard of this book before, but now I want to read it soon. I need more 5 out of 5 books in my life!

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    1. Jenna, I hope you do read it soon. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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  8. This is the second glowing review for this book that I've read. Must be time to read it! Great review, thanks.

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    1. Emily, I hope you do take time to read it. I'd love this book to get more attention!

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    2. I just read this last week and really enjoyed it. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    3. Hooray! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. There's a sequel: I Wish I Had a Red Dress, which I plan to re-read in March.

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    4. Ooh, really? I'll have to check it out! Thanks for letting me know :)

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!