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Bebe Moore Campbell, the author of Brothers and Sisters and Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, has done an extraordinary thing with her new novel, Singing in the Comeback Choir -- she's crafted a smooth, deeply witty novel that will appeal to fans of both Terry McMillan and Dorothy Allison. Her eye for detail and ear for colloquial black language -- from No'th Ca'lina to South Central -- brings her fiction alive. Best of all, beneath Campbell's easygoing style lies an intelligent, heartfelt story that packs a surprising emotional punch.
Campbell's protagonist, Maxine McCoy, has made it from the streets of Philadelphia, where she was raised by her flamboyant jazz-singer grandmother, Lindy, to the flowering hills of Hollywood, where she produces a talk show that tries (and sometimes fails) not to be sleazy. Ignoring the twinges of a spiritual conflict that stems from wanting to help less-fortunate blacks -- like the hopeless ghetto teens she taught while trying to break into television -- and wanting to make it in the soulless world of television, Maxine knows she'd "come too far and fought too hard to take [her] title for granted." She and her handsome, successful, dishwashing(!) husband are trying to heal the wounds of a miscarriage and infidelity when Maxine is told she has to pull the show out of a ratings slump or look for another job and find a new caretaker for 76-year-old Lindy, who is consoling herself after a stroke with scotch, Kools and heavy doses of Carmen McRae. Putting her job on the line, Maxine returns to her childhood home, where she tries to get Lindy to straighten up and fly right and leave her now-dangerous neighborhood. In the graffiti-covered house, Maxine's "Harriet-Tubman-Mary-McLeod-Bethune-Lift- Every-Voice-And-We-Shall-Overcome complex" kicks in, and soon she's trying to bring both the neighborhood and her once-fiery grandmother back to life.
Music plays an important part in this book's language and metaphors, as well as its plot. Campbell's gift for rhythm and melody keep the pages flying, with sentences like, "Lindy's voice was a skater, dipping, leaping, twirling, cool as the ice it floated across. Cool. Cool. Cool." Divas like Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday are invoked to set Lindy's mood. Characters and settings are vividly constructed, all representative of the different worlds Maxine has fought to exist in and moves so easily between. Especially funny (and scary) are her glimpses into the world of talk shows.
The unfortunate question asked of most books written by popular female African-American writers is, "Is it literature?" In Campbell's case, the answer is, "Not exactly, but who the hell cares?" I devoured this book in an evening and went to bed wet with tears. Singing in the Comeback Choir speaks to readers of all races, and it carries Campbell's signal message: With love, laughter, hope and hard work, women can turn shit around. -- Salon
the pillow seemed to be calling her name. Lying in bed, she felt casual and unrushed, and it took her a few moments to remember that she was right in the middle of a workweek. She had to get up soon, but she wanted to enjoy the moment. Besides, there was no way she could move without waking her husband. Her back was pressing against his chest, his arms were crisscrossing her breasts and resting against her belly, and his legs, wrapped around hers, were holding her tight. The closeness of his body was soothing to her, like a slow song just getting into the groove.
could best extricate herself from. She wasn't a small woman, but Satchel's body was a human tree trunk. She wriggled a bit, but his arms didn't give. Then she glanced over her shoulder at him. His eyes were shut. His face was serene. His lips were twitching. Maxine started to laugh.
her stomach, and she knew she was going to throw up. It was a feeling she'd become accustomed to over the last three months. "Satchel, let me up. Quick."
kept his hand on the back of her neck, and even while she vomited, the comfort of his fingers stroking her wasn't entirely lost. Only a little came up, and when she was finished she felt better, as though a too tight collar had been loosened. Her doctor had told her she'd stop feeling sick soon; it was the first time she'd vomited all week. Satchel rinsed a washcloth and began wiping her face. The coolness against her skin, the effortless transition from sickness to health, sharpened her senses, making her conscious of the happiness and gratitude that filled her, even though she wasn't looking forward to the day ahead. She opened the window next to the sink. The early-April air that floated inside was chilly and a little sweet.
edge of the tub, next to Satchel. The porcelain was cold against her bare bottom. He took her hands in his.
fiber, the works."
back to extenuating circumstances which were out of your control."
on his own. She'd come to depend upon his insight and to respect his survival politics. "What are you going to be doing?"
East Hell. They take living through and off a child to another level. Very ugly. Ten years from now she'll be hiring me to sue them."
rest of the money. They're both her `managers.' Please let our child be a nerd with yearnings for the hallowed halls of ivy," Satchel said. He was looking at her breasts. Maxine folded her arms across her chest and lowered her head.
for nine, yet the fullness of her soon-to-be-maternal breasts excited him and made her shy.
work yet?" he asked.
She didn't move. Satchel slid closer to her and kept stroking her fingers as though he had all the time in the world. She rested her head against his shoulder. "Almost forgot," she said, then stood abruptly, and her relaxed feeling evaporated as fast as music when the band goes home.
tilt of her head, became businesslike. Professional. The synapses in her brain turned into computer keys, clicking, clicking. Without even putting on her suit, she was transformed into a woman with a comma and a title after her name. Executive Producer. Her second skin.
the television on. "It's a short segment. Two or three minutes," Maxine said.
very tall. Television made him appear larger than life. What they didn't realize was that it wasn't his body but his personality that loomed beyond the confines of the screen. Ted's megawatt smile--equal parts good cheer and good teeth--seemed to leap out and pull people to him. Today he wore a bright multicolored sweater over a tie and shirt. The bright hues complemented his ruddy, boyish face. His expression said: I'm the party; let's have a ball.
his three minutes in front of a camera.
that men are drooling in their oatmeal every morning as they watch you." His voice was friendly and easygoing. "Don't ask me how I'm privileged with such information," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, a long, exaggerated movement, "but just take it from me, Kim: you're making the cereal soggy all over southern California." He flashed his sunny smile, and the anchor giggled.
but I understand that you have another interest, that the world isn't aware of yet. You're the chair of this year's Special Olympics."
caring person. His riveted stare paid silent homage to her beauty, her intellect. Kim shifted in her seat and moved a little closer to him.
of the needs of the handicapped,
touch Ted's wrist very quickly. "What's changed in the world of talk shows since you started?"
are close to people's hearts." His eyes were wide open, guileless.
what's bothering us as a nation. For example, we recently taped a story, which will air soon, about a woman who gave her baby up for adoption and now wants her back."
for years and are struggling to reenter their children's lives."
to talk with a convicted killer on death row, as we discuss the pros and cons of the death penalty."
a hard run. Seeing him interviewed made her anxious, but now she could relax. When he did well, it was a testimony to her judgment and guidance. Ted had the raw talent, but she had shaped his malleable charisma and charm into a more marketable product. His success underscored her own and reminded her how far she'd come from a scarred brick row house in North Philadelphia.
that Maxine lived with Lindy, her grandmother, after her mother died. For the first seven years, Lindy raised her in between singing for their supper in nightclubs, at concerts and revues, up and down the East Coast. She'd appeared on television too. Maxine could remember pieces of her earlier life, with her mother. But her real growing up took place with Lindy. They had years of feast and others of famine. Yet even during the bad times, her grandmother managed to instill in Maxine hope for the future and enough drive and ambition to go after more than North Philly could give her.
the warm spray and the soapy lather and the feel of the washcloth against her skin more since she'd become pregnant. She liked looking at her body, especially when she was wet, and rubbing her hands across her belly, touching her breasts. It was true: they were fuller, overflowing her A cups when she put on her bra, and her stomach looked rounder too. Even though this pregnancy seemed to be progressing normally, all she had to do was think about how the first had ended unexpectedly, in pain, blood, and tears, to realize that there were no guarantees. Please don't let me miscarry, she prayed.
in the bedroom they used for working out. She stood in the open doorway and watched as his tall body flowed into the slow, sinewy patterns of tai chi. Maxine could tell that he'd gone into his "zone." His dark eyes were closed; his wide mouth was relaxed and open. His elegant movements seemed incongruous for such a big, rough-looking man. His neck was too thick for her to circle with her hands. He had a full head of coarse hair, and his face was more friendly than handsome; but there was something besides friendliness that made most women look twice.
She sensed immediately that his solidity was more than physical. Men appeared to like him, and he had a lot of "play" sisters, who wanted to check her out and make sure she wasn't going to break their brother's heart. She learned to trust them and came to admire Satchel because women who weren't in love with him cared about his heart. It was one of his "girlfriends" who'd told her that he'd worked at night and on weekends during high school to help support his mother and two sisters after his father became ill. Maxine was impressed but not surprised. She could tell that there had been at least one Goliath in his past and that he had never backed down from any giant.
hanging on the back of the door and tell me if that tie goes."
"Looks good. Do you have a meeting tonight?"
her friends. He ironed his own clothes, cleaned a kitchen better than she could, and didn't mind cooking. "I'll fix something," she said.
Why don't I get us some?"
soon be the baby's room, trying to envision the transformation. They had agreed that the workout room was the best choice for the nursery, since it got plenty of light and faced the backyard. The only other bedroom would be put to use, as well.
she'll be in the guest room for at least a few weeks," Maxine said.
nuts, but Maxine couldn't imagine having a baby without Lindy's being there to help her; she'd be so happy when she heard the news. Her grandmother would want to be with her. "Of course she'll come."
an old Ojays song in his loud, decidedly off-key voice. She poked her head into the bathroom. "See you," she called.
newly remodeled kitchen. Looking around, she felt pleased. In five years they'd converted their large Spanish stucco house, from the dark "needs a little TLC" fixer-upper that the broker had sold them, into an elegant home. Satchel had set a place for her at the table in the adjacent breakfast room, with a bowl, a package of instant oatmeal, a banana, and a glass of skim milk. Her vitamins were on a paper napkin. Maxine mixed water with the oatmeal and put it in the microwave. She ate quickly, drank the milk, swallowed the vitamins, and slipped the banana into her purse. On her way out, she stopped to gaze through the picture window, admiring her rose- and azalea-filled garden, the pool, and the panoramic view of the city below. The sight from her hilltop home always made her think she was about to take flight. It was exhilarating, a good start to a hard day.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I am on the beginning of my book tour, and I am gratified by the responses of my readers. Thanks for continuing to support me.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I don't think it is necessary or even possible for black people to live only in black communities. I do think it is important that all of us remain connected to these communities, if only emotionally so. Where there are businesses there, we should support them. I think to disengage emotionally from the communities that nurtured us is a mistake.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I wanted to create a character who is conflicted about being in a profession that gave her a great deal of status. We are such a media-conscious society that anyone working in the upper levels of TV production is deemed a success. I wanted a character who questioned the meaning of such success and yearned for work that would give her emotional gratification.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I like the poetry of rap and the fact that so many young people who aspire to be rappers have to be writers and poets. Rap is encouraging young people to be creative and to read. I don't like the impact of gangsta' rap. I think it has sometimes created violence among our youth. On the other hand, I do like the realness of some of the rappers. This music has created an open, honest forum that allows young people to express their feelings. It has given society a new kind of freedom of expression.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I think in order to earn much-needed revenue, NPR and public TV are going to be forced to take on more and more sponsorship from various businesses and foundations. I hope most will be satisfied with a mere mention of their product as opposed to full-blown commercials. To privatize these entities will mean they will become more profit-driven. I think that would ruin the chances for the types of programs that have become their specialties.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I send the woman who wrote that a check every month. Seriously, I think I am still aspiring to live up to her words.
Bebe Moore Campbell: Lindy wasn't a churchgoer. She was a "backslider." I think churches can be relevant and influential if they have the proper leadership. I am sure Lindy and any other thinking person wouldn't remain part of a church that doesn't serve her needs.
Bebe Moore Campbell: Both my daughter and my stepson saw my husband and me working hard to be productive adults. We were good role models for going after what we wanted. I also made them learn about black history even when they didn't want to. I remember locking them in the bedroom and making them watch African American history specials while they wailed in protest. So I think they are balanced in both respects.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I hope my book becomes a film. Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Williams come to mind for the role of Maxine.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I think such portrayals probably are not balanced. There is a tendency to view such families as in trouble, when in fact they may be providing a healthy environment for children. I do, however, believe that the two-parent family gives the most support to a child. Still, single parents do manage to rear successful children. I know my mother did...
Bebe Moore Campbell: I don't mind being called what I am. I do mind the implication that because I am a black female writer, my work is only to be read by other black women. My books are for everyone.
Bebe Moore Campbell: I don't have favorite books. Lindy from SINGING IN THE COMEBACK CHOIR and Lily from YOUR BLUES AIN'T LIKE MINE are my favorite characters.
Bebe Moore Campbell: The catalyst for my first book, SUCCESSFUL WOMEN, ANGRY MEN was a magazine article of the same title that I wrote for SAVVY magazine. At the time I wanted to write a novel, but after ten years of getting rejected, I decided to write a book based on the article to see if I could get my foot in the door. The book did well, and then I was able to write my next book, and after that one I finally began writing novels. I was rejected for five years before I was able to get anything in print.
Bebe Moore Campbell: Hi Robin! How is everything going? My characters are a blending of real people and a lot of imagination. My character Lindy, for example, is a combination of my own grandmother and the blues singer Alberta Hunter. There is also a piece of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar's subject Malindy from the poem WHEN MALINDY SINGS. Her attitude and take on life come from my mind. Before I create characters they start talking to me, in my mind. And after a while they tell me who they are, how they speak, and what they look like. Say hi to Craig and give Rebecca a kiss. See you when I get to Philly.
Bebe Moore Campbell: Mrs. Kelly probably changed because of her loneliness. When her own family abandoned her, she had to reach out to the people around her. The older people remembered her as a racist, and so she befriended the children. In the process she revised her own personal history so that she was able to see herself as a good person. She needs to continue growing.
Bebe Moore Campbell: It is really hard to separate the two. Some days I feel real black and other days I feel real female. It depends on the hormones.
Bebe Moore Campbell: My neighborhood was like the one Maxine grew up in. It was a prosperous street of row houses. Inside those houses were lower-middle-class black people who were searching for better lives for their children. When I return to that neighborhood, I don't find the same pride that once was there, but I do find that the core values haven't changed.
Bebe Moore Campbell: PARADISE by Toni Morrison. I certainly do read the classics and other older works.
Bebe Moore Campbell: Thanks for all the great questions. It is wonderful to hear from my readers.
Posted February 9, 2007
Posted November 12, 2003
thrilling abuse. Bebe Moore Campbell is an excellent writer of rough lifes gone smooth. This book was no exception and worth every turn of the page. Her writing style is fantastic and intriguing. Her characters bounce into reality with details that keep you reading for more. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 19, 2001
I had barely spread the pages in this book nearly two - maybe three - years ago when my grandmother, who raised me, had congestive heart failure. This just wasn't the book for me at that time; I was so afraid Lindy would die on Maxine, and I'd flee the hospital, leaving Mother (that's what I call my grandma) wondering where I had gone. I couldn't put us through that. Now Mother's fine, and I'm ready to read <I>Singing In the Comeback Choir.</I> I was impressed with what I had read before I chickened out. I loved Campbell's previous books, and like her style so much I'm sure <I>SITCC</I> will make it to the top of my list.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 27, 2000
I checked out Mrs. Campbell's book from the public library, and I was told that the book is good. When I began to read the story, it did not excite me well. However, I kept on reading anyway because of the character, Maxine who has the most concern for her dear grandmother. It was my greatest focus on two of them. The story has some humor, some brief tragedies, and touching-to-hearts. Maxine's grandma is the one who sings in the comeback choir that she has been longing for to hear again. In the most of this story, I admire Maxine because of doing her own best interesting for her hometown-community and grandmother. I was looking forward to read some events about Maxine's first child whom her grandma's willing to take care, but it never wrote in some details that Mrs. Campbell should even though her grandma promised to Maxine once. However, it is not enough. Besides, I wish it does not have to be ended that way, but I do understand the story is actually based on Maxine's grandmother only.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 27, 1999
There were too many minor details and not enough interesting story lines in this novel. After about the fisrt 100 pages it still had not caught my interest but I felt compelled to finish it anyway. This book does not come highly recommended from me.
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Posted January 16, 2010
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Posted April 19, 2011
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