Camille A. Collins: Winter Reflections on Gratitude

photo courtesy Camille A. Collins

I’ve known Camille A. Collins for ages in her capacity as a book publicist, but I hadn’t realized she was also a writer until she told me about her debut YA novel, The Exene Chronicles. It’s a story about growing up in the suburbs of San Diego in the 1980s that reveals a lot of the emotional truths about being a teenage punk rock fan in those days (yes, the titular “Exene” is the lead singer of X), wrapped up in a drama about child kidnapping, adolescent frustration, and the currents of racial hatred that have been bubbling on America’s surface for decades. Camille’s sent along “a small grouping of texts perfect for leisurely winter weekend reads,” as she describes them: “While reveling in the amazing writing, each novel, poem, or short story serves as a catalyst for reflection and gratitude, on things (such freedoms, privileges, or simple material comforts) which we sometimes take for granted.”

  • “Those Winter Sundays,” Robert Hayden; “Kitchenette Building,” Gwendolyn Brooks

    Listening to a poem on YouTube isn’t cheating if you read along with, right? Search for “Those Winter Sundays” and enjoy the treat of hearing Robert Hayden read in his distinguished timbre. Read the poem a second time on your own and marvel at how Hayden captures the tension, drudgery, and love to be found in a working-class household in winter in just three masterful stanzas. The winter theme is timely, as is Hayden’s ever inspiring and impeccable story telling. Compare and contrast it with the equally brilliant “Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks, a cousin in theme, to enrich the experience.

  • If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin

    This superb novel didn’t make the list because of the new film adaptation by Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (although by all accounts he’s done a fantastic job bringing Baldwin’s story to the screen). If anything, it’s the existence of the film that begs a visitation to the text that inspired it. If Beale Street Could Talk has long been a favorite novel. The young love depicted between twenty-two-year-old sculptor Fonny and nineteen-year-old Tish is rendered so deeply, believably and intensely by Baldwin, the oxytocin intoxicating the two seems to rise off the page. The depiction of such deep and unfettered love between the young characters is fairly rare in classic African American literature. I first read the book when I was in high school myself, and was immediately taken by the accessibility of two young characters who were just enough older to be cool and aspirational. The tough and sometimes bleak setting of the inner city felt foreign, (the setting of The Exene Chronicles mirrors my own upbringing in a San Diego suburb) as were the startlingly prescient plot turns involving race, gender and the justice system (in the story, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape)—so timely they could have happened yesterday. Don’t deny yourself the beauty of this humanizing and insightful look at a black man in love and in trouble, wrought by no less a master than Baldwin.

  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

    The famed 1880 novel about the resilient and persevering March sisters is a refreshing little chunk of wholesomeness. If your initial thought conjures a visage of captive young women in corsets and long dresses braving their first New England Christmas without their father, you might be sleeping on the March girls. The talented fictional family boasts a writer, artist, and pianist. The endearing tale of Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy offers inspiration and reprieve from the increasingly chaotic headlines of our time, and in its own gentle way an inspiring blueprint for shifting the practice of art from the ancillary to the integral. The ease with which they sacrifice their Christmas breakfast for a poor family is inspiring, as is the easy joy they find in being gifted one of Professor Bhaer’s oranges. These moments, rendered honest but not saccharine, are the perfect, subtle reminder of all we take for granted. With Ladybird director Greta Gerwig currently working on a film adaptation, Little Women is another timeless novel to refresh in the memory before the latest on-screen re-telling gets hyped.

  • “Not Today, Marjorie,” Nafissa Thompson-Spires

    One of many acclaimed short story collections released in 2018, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ The Heads of Colored People skillfully tackles topics ranging from narcissistic personality types and rivalries among women to cyber bullying and the impact of the white gaze—all against the backdrop of racial complexities that make American life so challenging. The Harvard Review hails one particular story, “Not Today, Marjorie,” as a tale rendered with “Flannery O’Connor-esque mastery.” Read it, along with an O’Connor classic such as the chilling crime caper “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or the heartrending “Parker’s Back,” about a Godless man seeking redemption, and find inspiration in the craftmanship of these stories, and the fun of traversing era and location with the turn of a page.

20 January 2019 | guest authors |