Monday, June 7, 2010

#BookReview: jenniemae & james: A Memoir in Black & White - Brooke Newman

I'm not sure what I expected this book to be about.  Billed as the story of interracial friendship, it is really a love letter to the memory of the author's father and their maid.  The James of which Brooke Newman speaks is James Newman, the mathematician who coined the term googol (later used by the creators of Google).

While James may have been a brilliant mathematician, he was sorely lacking in the husband and father department.  It seems that his third wife, Ruth, recognized this early on, but low self-esteem led her to believe that it was the best she could do.  James' transgressions were so acceptable that often his girlfriends resided in the house with the family.

Observing all of this madness is Jenniemae Harrington, the family maid.  Up from the south, Jenniemae begins working for the Harringtons shortly after she arrives in Washington, DC.  An uneducated woman, she seems to have the most sense of anyone passing through the doors of the Newman house.  She and James form what the author considers a friendship, I don't know that I would go as far as to call it that.  More often than not, Jenniemae is called upon to dish out words of wisdom and heal wounds within the family.  When James' wife finally decides to leave him, it is Jenniemae that puts them back together.

Though the author can seem to remember in great detail conversations she and her family had with Jenniemae, with few exceptions, none of those conversations are about her life outside of their house.  It's almost as if she ceases to exist when not in their presence.  In one instance Jenniemae is called home to care for her daughter who has just been burned.  James drives her home and seems at a loss as to what to do next.  Before he enters the house to see if he can be of assistance, he sits in the car wondering if she'll come back to tell him or if, perhaps she'll remember he's out there and come to dismiss him.  Really? Her child has burns all over her body, but you're so self-absorbed that you really think she has time to come tell you what to do with your grown self?

I'm also somewhat confused as to how someone that has been a constant in your life for over 20 years does not rate a picture in your book, though there are several of everyone else.  My great disappoint with this books lies in the fact that I thought memoir would truly be about a friendship.  Perhaps the author is confused about what friendship is.  In my opinion, this is the story of a man that refuses to take responsibility for his actions and the woman that works for him.  I didn't need another magical Negro story.  If I were looking for that, I would have re-read Saving CeeCee Honeycutt or The Secret Lives of Bees.

What did you like about this book?
I enjoyed the brief glimpse into Jenniemae's life outside of the Newman home.

What did you dislike about this book?
I get that her father was a famous, sought after mathematician.  If the author really wanted to discuss his work and include lengthy letters and articles written by him, then perhaps she should have written a separate book.

What could the author do to improve this book?
It would have been a more interesting read if the author's brother and mother were given voices instead of being treated as a minor characters.

320pp
Published March 2010





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