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Fire Shut Up in My Bones

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A gorgeous, moving memoir of how one of America's most innovative and respected journalists found his voice by coming to terms with a painful past New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow mines the compelling poetry of the out-of-time African-American Louisiana town where he grew up -- a place where slavery's legacy felt astonishingly close, reverberating in the elders' A gorgeous, moving memoir of how one of America's most innovative and respected journalists found his voice by coming to terms with a painful past New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow mines the compelling poetry of the out-of-time African-American Louisiana town where he grew up -- a place where slavery's legacy felt astonishingly close, reverberating in the elders' stories and in the near-constant wash of violence. Blow's attachment to his mother -- a fiercely driven woman with five sons, brass knuckles in her glove box, a job plucking poultry at a nearby factory, a soon-to-be-ex husband, and a love of newspapers and learning -- cannot protect him from secret abuse at the hands of an older cousin. It's damage that triggers years of anger and searing self-questioning. Finally, Blow escapes to a nearby state university, where he joins a black fraternity after a passage of brutal hazing, and then enters a world of racial and sexual privilege that feels like everything he's ever needed and wanted, until he's called upon, himself, to become the one perpetuating the shocking abuse. A powerfully redemptive memoir that both fits the tradition of African-American storytelling from the South, and gives it an indelible new slant.


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A gorgeous, moving memoir of how one of America's most innovative and respected journalists found his voice by coming to terms with a painful past New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow mines the compelling poetry of the out-of-time African-American Louisiana town where he grew up -- a place where slavery's legacy felt astonishingly close, reverberating in the elders' A gorgeous, moving memoir of how one of America's most innovative and respected journalists found his voice by coming to terms with a painful past New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow mines the compelling poetry of the out-of-time African-American Louisiana town where he grew up -- a place where slavery's legacy felt astonishingly close, reverberating in the elders' stories and in the near-constant wash of violence. Blow's attachment to his mother -- a fiercely driven woman with five sons, brass knuckles in her glove box, a job plucking poultry at a nearby factory, a soon-to-be-ex husband, and a love of newspapers and learning -- cannot protect him from secret abuse at the hands of an older cousin. It's damage that triggers years of anger and searing self-questioning. Finally, Blow escapes to a nearby state university, where he joins a black fraternity after a passage of brutal hazing, and then enters a world of racial and sexual privilege that feels like everything he's ever needed and wanted, until he's called upon, himself, to become the one perpetuating the shocking abuse. A powerfully redemptive memoir that both fits the tradition of African-American storytelling from the South, and gives it an indelible new slant.

30 review for Fire Shut Up in My Bones

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    The debut memoir from longtime New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Fire Shut Up In My Bones examines the author’s coming of age in rural Louisiana. Early chapters focus on Blow’s impoverished childhood and his strong bond with his mother, whereas later ones detail his college years at Grambling State University; his ambivalence about his sexuality and his relentless ambition tie the two parts together. The language is polished, the characterization solid, the pacing measured. The memoir is The debut memoir from longtime New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Fire Shut Up In My Bones examines the author’s coming of age in rural Louisiana. Early chapters focus on Blow’s impoverished childhood and his strong bond with his mother, whereas later ones detail his college years at Grambling State University; his ambivalence about his sexuality and his relentless ambition tie the two parts together. The language is polished, the characterization solid, the pacing measured. The memoir is well written, if conventional, but Blow rarely lets his guard down and the commentary on gender and sexuality feels underdeveloped.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Greer

    It always amazes me how, when a really great book comes on the scene, everybody in NYC seems to be reading it all at the same time. It's as if the city subway becomes its own little Book Club; everybody reading the same book in the same car. I KNOW in my heart of hearts that this is going to happen with this absolutely phenomenal, exquisite memoir. Charles Blow tells the truth, and he does it in a way that both stuns and inspires. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Betsy Robinson

    I read an Advanced Reading Copy. Exquisite writing. Electric from the start. Since this is an uncorrected proof, I'm assuming it's still being worked on and will say no more. * * * Many weeks later now, and I just want to add to my not-very-specific praise: I gave my galley to a neighbor, an older black man who lives a very idiosyncratic life, and it (the book) seems to have rocked his soul. This is powerful stuff and will help both people who can identify with it and those are just general I read an Advanced Reading Copy. Exquisite writing. Electric from the start. Since this is an uncorrected proof, I'm assuming it's still being worked on and will say no more. * * * Many weeks later now, and I just want to add to my not-very-specific praise: I gave my galley to a neighbor, an older black man who lives a very idiosyncratic life, and it (the book) seems to have rocked his soul. This is powerful stuff and will help both people who can identify with it and those are just general readers with no personal affiliation. It is that powerful.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    Some of the most brilliant, creative writing you'll ever experience. The sort of writing you grieve when it's finished. I had never heard of Charles M. Blow before my husband brought this advance copy home, but I am committed to reading anything of his that may come my way. Even when I couldn't relate to or agree with what he was saying, I languished in the way that he said it. Stellar.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Shannon

    4.5 I learned while attending his author event that Blow credits his “literary fathers,” James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Ernest Gaines (to name a few), for allowing him to see himself. He emphasized the importance of diversity in literature, and all arts, because “you come to know yourself through reflection.” He also disclosed that the Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor lives on his nightstand. He didn’t have much growing up, so he became used to reading the same stories multiple times 4.5 I learned while attending his author event that Blow credits his “literary fathers,” James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Ernest Gaines (to name a few), for allowing him to see himself. He emphasized the importance of diversity in literature, and all arts, because “you come to know yourself through reflection.” He also disclosed that the Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor lives on his nightstand. He didn’t have much growing up, so he became used to reading the same stories multiple times and still does! So I had high hopes for the memoir after the invigorating discussion. And it delivered. I melted right into this book. Blow’s writing is lyrical; it has a soothing effect. There were passages that I read over, and over, and over again. So many things about this book made me smile. Starting with the way Blow got his name... His brother wanted him named Ray Charles, after the singer. His mother’s compromise was Charles McRay. His brother also convinced their mother to let them call their dog Son of a Bitch- its literal name. Ha! But as much as parts of this book are funny, it is equally somber and, at times, disturbing. From recounting the days of being a boy so poor that he and his brothers ate dirt, to becoming head of the New York Times graphics department just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, Blow entwines details from the great loves and three great betrayals of his life. He also reveals shocking and uncomfortable details about fraternal hazing at Grambling State University, but stresses the importance and the impact of his HBCU (Historically Black College and University) experience. If you watch CNN, you know know that he's often the featured analyst for discussions about race related events. His analysis took on a new meaning to me after reading about his tragic and humiliating encounter with the police. The final chapter of this book is by far one of the most profound, compelling, and revelatory closings I’ve read. We’ve all heard someone say that our experiences make us who we are, but many struggle with what to do or how to deal with the bad. Blow totally gets it. I have a list of authors that I hope are writing another book. Charles Blow is definitely on it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Martinez

    I was fortunate to get my hands on an advanced copy of Fire Shut Up In My Bones by New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow. From the very first sentences of Charles Blow’s memoir, I was captivated. So much difference between our lives and, yet, so much sameness. His story telling perfectly exemplifies the connection Maya Angelou spoke of when she said, “I am human, therefore, nothing human can be alien to me.” However, the ability to capture the depth of this connection is a gift that few I was fortunate to get my hands on an advanced copy of Fire Shut Up In My Bones by New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow. From the very first sentences of Charles Blow’s memoir, I was captivated. So much difference between our lives and, yet, so much sameness. His story telling perfectly exemplifies the connection Maya Angelou spoke of when she said, “I am human, therefore, nothing human can be alien to me.” However, the ability to capture the depth of this connection is a gift that few writers have actually given me. I feel like he pulled thoughts right out of my head and channeled them through his fingers and onto his keyboard. Charles’s memoir can be succinctly described an account of growing up in the South, but as a person from such a very distinct geography from “The South” as Southern California, I don’t think that captures the connections, the bridges of human experience that his story provides. As a Chicana (Mexican-American woman) who grew up in poverty in Southern California, my experiences resonate with those of a Black man who grew up in poverty in Louisiana. And that is the mark of truly breadth-reaching and breath-taking writing. When he speaks of growing up in the South, there is little of that physical location that I can relate to, but his descriptions of his surroundings bring me there. My senses captured sights and sounds through his words…from descriptions of the landscape that I could see in my mind’s eye to the packed earth that I could smell, feel, and taste with the keen appreciation that children possess. It was the emotion palpitating from each sentence that carried me lyrically from one to the next. Many passages sang out so beautifully that I read them over and over, like I was playing my favorite song. I savored each word and lingered on each one. His memoir also speaks of pain with an incredible bravery. Those of us who are survivors of childhood abuse will feel a strong connection. He makes you feel not so alone... The anger, pain, and healing are all palpable. He describes the complexity of psychological, social and emotional formation from childhood into adulthood with a clarity that is intensely relatable. I found myself thinking a number of times, “I was like that as a kid” or “I did that when I was a kid.” And when I read about the kittens…well, my heart filled with a warmth of knowing, “I knew that’s what he’d do.” I’ll leave it at that… ☺ Not only will you know about Charles’ life and character after reading his memoir, but you may very well know yourself more profoundly as well. It’s writing that emanates from the soul and made my heart both ache and sing. That’s what great writing does…leaves us mesmerized, fulfilled, and yet, contradictorily wanting more, and, in the end, we don’t quite know exactly how all of that was accomplished. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available September 23rd. You can pre-order it now: http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Shut-Up-My...

  7. 4 out of 5

    Walter

    Charles M. Blow, the renowned New York Times Op-Ed columnist, is a unique person with a singular path, but most good biographies have this: a great story of a remarkable person. What this one has that make it different and better than all the rest is, simply put, some of if not the most beautiful, lyrical and amazing writing, which takes it from being a good biography to being a great read. As my elders used to say, Charles Blow can "turn a phrase." I have read hundreds of books in my life - and Charles M. Blow, the renowned New York Times Op-Ed columnist, is a unique person with a singular path, but most good biographies have this: a great story of a remarkable person. What this one has that make it different and better than all the rest is, simply put, some of if not the most beautiful, lyrical and amazing writing, which takes it from being a good biography to being a great read. As my elders used to say, Charles Blow can "turn a phrase." I have read hundreds of books in my life - and profiled almost a hundred and a half on this very site - and yet I can say with confidence that none of them was as beautifully written as this memoir. The author's command and use of the English language are singular and awe-inspiring, hauntingly so. I can't number the times that I read a paragraph, sentence or phrase in this book, was so astonished that I'd immediately re-read it and then just sit amazed and a bit shaken by the lyricism therein. Yes, Mr. Blow's life story is an interesting and intriguing one, but his description of it is soaring and transcendent, profoundly so in fact. To illustrate my point I was going to attempt to share, say, five or so of my favorites in this review and then I decided against it: I couldn't narrow the list to five. I could probably get it down to fifty - with great effort, I assure you - but five? No. I hope that this 'negative space', this absence where his words should have been, tells you something about how profoundly his words touched me. And then I hope that this motivates you to have your own experience of them.... Charles M, Blow's life story is at turns heroic and pathetic, as most Horatio Alger-/poor-country-boy-makes-good-in-the-biggest-of-cities stories are. There were many times when my heart ached for him and what he experienced, and, because he's reasonably self-aware and -critical, many times when his humanity disappointed me (as it did him). What lingers and haunts with respect to his life story is the indelible impression of unflinching honesty. I'm not sure that he had to reveal as much as he does for his story to be so compelling, but, having done so, I can say that I am all the more impressed with how he has become the man and societal thought leader that he is. And his writing, well, suffice it to say that I bought the book because I've been illumined, inspired and mobilized by his Times opinion pieces over the years, by both their content and the memorable ways in which they've been relayed. But this didn't prepare me for the virtuosity in this tour de force: it is, simply put, some of the most poetic and pathos-inducing writing that I've ever encountered. (Actually, it's probably the most so, but I tend to try to avoid absolutes out of caution, unnecessarily so in this case.) So, to draw this exercise to a close - as I reflect on this 'review', it's almost depressing me that my words can't even hint accurately at how incredible Mr. Blow's are - I'll suggest two options: 1) Read this book for the compelling life story of its author and emerge blown away by his artistry with the written word. Or, 2) Read this book for the transcendent, hauntingly profound writing and emerge impressed with Mr. Blow's character and example (while being amazed at his gift for written elocution and alliteration). I will never write as beautifully as Charles M. Blow ... but I appreciate his example, as it gives me an oh so delicious and inspiring example to attempt to emulate....

  8. 4 out of 5

    Kristina

    I just cannot get interested in this memoir. It's so damn boring. Great title, but I suggest he release the fire from his bones and pour it into his writing. Once in a while he has a good line: "And he had the smile of a scoundrel--the kind of smile that disarmed men and undressed women" (7, describing his ne'er do well father) but mostly the book so far (up to page 35 when I gave up) is comprised of not-very-exciting descriptions of his rough, poverty-stricken life in rural Louisiana. Despite I just cannot get interested in this memoir. It's so damn boring. Great title, but I suggest he release the fire from his bones and pour it into his writing. Once in a while he has a good line: "And he had the smile of a scoundrel--the kind of smile that disarmed men and undressed women" (7, describing his ne'er do well father) but mostly the book so far (up to page 35 when I gave up) is comprised of not-very-exciting descriptions of his rough, poverty-stricken life in rural Louisiana. Despite the title, there's just no "fire" in the book. Which is too bad because he had a colorful life but I don't feel anything for the narrator or his family. Lots of descriptions, but no real feeling. Other (professional) reviews call the book "poetic" and I can see that. The problem is, it reads as very carefully constructed poetry. The author was so concerned in writing pretty sentences that he took all the feeling and urgency and desperation of his childhood out of the words. That's why I'm giving up. Too many other books to read and life is too short.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mocha Girl

    Memoirs and autobiographies are without a doubt a difficult undertaking for anyone to tackle - to revisit one's childhood, recall periods of highs and lows (and all that's in between), and share secrets (that not even his mother knew) takes guts and confidence. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is written by a man who is finally comfortable with himself and opts to share his journey from the violent backwoods of Louisiana (where folks worked hard and loved harder) to the coveted New York Times Newsroom. Memoirs and autobiographies are without a doubt a difficult undertaking for anyone to tackle - to revisit one's childhood, recall periods of highs and lows (and all that's in between), and share secrets (that not even his mother knew) takes guts and confidence. Fire Shut Up In My Bones is written by a man who is finally comfortable with himself and opts to share his journey from the violent backwoods of Louisiana (where folks worked hard and loved harder) to the coveted New York Times Newsroom. It is a journey that includes childhood sexual abuse from a family member that causes years of confusion and self-doubt, robbing his confidence, questioning his faith and sexuality in a community with very little tolerance for anything outside of the mainstream. I loved his hometown folks and relatives and marveled at his innate survival skills -- he realized, at a fairly young age, the need to reinvent himself to mask and suppress his true self -- this new persona increased his popularity, boosted his confidence, and opened doors that launch a stellar career. This is an extremely personal and moving body of work which is sure to prompt discussions and hopefully promote healing in many circles.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Joshunda Sanders

    This is a truly wonderful read. It contains all the lovely hallmarks of memoir: It is evocative, moving and sometimes funny. The way Blow captures his coming of age as a black man who is sexually fluid, or "technically Bisexual" is admirable and courageous in part because he writes about his difference with such elegance. In addition to being groundbreaking without being self-congratulatory, Fire Shut Up In My Bones is also deft and poetic.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jack Terry

    In trying to figure out what it was about this book that didn't captivate me, I finally realized that at no point did I actually get a sense of the fire that is supposedly shut up in his bones. He ends the book by talking about the passion that he is going to live his life with, but the majority of the book he talks about how he has no connection to any emotion. If there is fire shut up in his bones, isn't that when it would have been formed? Make no mistake he certainly had a turbulent In trying to figure out what it was about this book that didn't captivate me, I finally realized that at no point did I actually get a sense of the fire that is supposedly shut up in his bones. He ends the book by talking about the passion that he is going to live his life with, but the majority of the book he talks about how he has no connection to any emotion. If there is fire shut up in his bones, isn't that when it would have been formed? Make no mistake he certainly had a turbulent childhood, but the book is written like he is reporting it and not experiencing it, and ultimately I'm not sure what the book is about. Is it to document how he came to define his sexuality? Is it to explore the effects of being molested, which - and I'm not saying this to diminish the effects or make light of it - happened one and a half times total? Is it to talk about demoralizing it felt when he was in his fraternity? There is a lot that goes on but very little substance, and it seems like he does that on purpose, like he doesn't want to get too close to his own life. There are countless stories he begins but abandons after a page with no resolution. He describes a person who is a best friend, but the friend is gone almost as quickly. He talks about an uncle who goes crazy, but instead of explaining the circumstances tells two quick anecdotes about other crazy people from his life and then moves on, without ever coming back to his uncle. There are many great books in here - his childhood, his sexuality, his professional career - all that would be very interesting reads if fully fleshed out, but this book is a two dimensional overview of an entire life that that failed to harness the captivating power of the title.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Germaine Cherry

    Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow. The courage of Mr. Charles M. Blow to articulate his childhood abuse of his family member is astounding and has earned my utmost respect. Charles’ memoir has erased my first impression of him being an ‘Egotistic Moron ~ Writer of a News Column.’ This book: ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ is well written, precise, truth felt and hard on the heart strings. I found myself crying for the child in Charles as he had no recourse to fight this abusive family member Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow. The courage of Mr. Charles M. Blow to articulate his childhood abuse of his family member is astounding and has earned my utmost respect. Charles’ memoir has erased my first impression of him being an ‘Egotistic Moron ~ Writer of a News Column.’ This book: ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ is well written, precise, truth felt and hard on the heart strings. I found myself crying for the child in Charles as he had no recourse to fight this abusive family member without killing the family strength as it existed without destroying his mothers spirit. The book depicts many estranged obstacles that are hard to accept even in today’s manifestations for easement. Charles, I am proud of you for writing such a heart felt book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary

    Also read an advance copy. A great read. Beautifully written. His life has been an extraordinary journey so far.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Melissa Stacy

    "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is an insightful, absorbing memoir. The author, Charles M. Blow, is a black man who grew up poor in Louisiana. He went to college in Louisiana and has been a columnist at "The New York Times" since 2008. He has appeared on TV, but I have yet to watch one of his TV clips online. If you're a regular viewer of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc., you may have seen him already. The first part of this book recounts his early childhood. His prose is beautiful, engaging, and easy to "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" is an insightful, absorbing memoir. The author, Charles M. Blow, is a black man who grew up poor in Louisiana. He went to college in Louisiana and has been a columnist at "The New York Times" since 2008. He has appeared on TV, but I have yet to watch one of his TV clips online. If you're a regular viewer of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc., you may have seen him already. The first part of this book recounts his early childhood. His prose is beautiful, engaging, and easy to read. After a little over half of the book, he reaches the seventh grade. I started to worry that the entire book would be taken up with childhood matters. There is nothing wrong with memoirs that do that, but I prefer reading about adolescence and adulthood in memoir, rather than childhood. Since this book doesn't have the wisecracking grit in the prose that "The Liars' Club" made use of, it took me a *very* long time to read this memoir because so much of it is concerned with the author's childhood. But by Chapter 8 (after roughly the first two-thirds of the book), the author arrives at college. And then I tore through the rest of this book. The last five chapters (Chapters 8-12) were a phenomenal read. I didn't want to put the book down. I highly recommend this book, especially for those last five chapters. Those chapters were everything I love most in memoir. Below, I will share some thoughts as to why the beginning of this book was such a struggle for me, but those thoughts contain spoilers, and I really don't want to spoil this book. It deserves to be read without preconceived notions of what is or is not in this memoir. **spoilers** When the author was a young boy (age 6 or 8), a male cousin close to his own age touched him inappropriately. This cousin sexually molested the author. There was no oral or anal penetration involved, but the event was emotionally scarring and a source of great trauma well into the author's adulthood. The author grew up among girls who were being raped by their family members, and he also listened to audio recordings of these family rapes as a child. At no point does the author state that these girls were in fact being raped, or state that he was very fortunate that no adults in his immediate family ever raped him. The male cousin was not someone the author interacted with in his immediate household. This cousin did not live in the same home with the author. But a number of girls the author grew up with were clearly being raped by their immediate family members. The author's depression as a young adult was certainly linked to the molestation he suffered as a child, and he makes that clear in his narrative. One source of comfort he continually returned to was the fact that no penetration had occurred, with the understanding that his moral degradation and sense of worthlessness (manifestations of his emotional trauma) would have been far greater if he had been penetrated as well as sexually touched against his will. As a female reader who was raped as a child near the same age that the author was molested by his cousin (for me, it was age seven), I was painfully aware of how much male privilege Charles Blow expressed in his narrative. The penetrated bodies of the women and girls around him were often just set decoration around his own narrative. The point that he keeps returning to in order to rescue himself out of the worst depths of his trauma -- that he wasn't penetrated -- served to keep reinforcing how much I could never, as a child or adolescent or young adult -- use that same safety valve to ease off the pressure of my own sense of being turned into total garbage, a whore, a filthy person, a stain on the earth, completely worthless, etc. etc., because my body had been permanently tainted by rape. For other readers, the author's account will read, or could read, as blistering honesty surrounding a traumatic event, rather than a constant reminder that the author had the good fortune to escape something that many of the girls and women around him did not escape, and that their rapists were fathers and uncles as well as cousins and neighborhood boys. I know that the author did not mean to do this on purpose. He is dealing with homophobia and his own journey to accept his body and his infrequent erotic desires for other men. I respect that and honor him for writing this memoir. But this is not a memoir I will want to reread simply because, as a reader, I felt like I was left behind by the narrative. The homophobia that the author found aimed at him so frequently is all rooted in misogyny; men lose their status as men when they "act like pussies" or "act like women," and the author makes that clear in his text. To be raped and molested as a woman or as a man comes with equally damning emotional consequences -- but I never had the sense that Charles Blow understood that. His fear of public shame and internal worthlessness was always male-focused and rooted in his perceptions of masculinity. Nowhere does he extend the heights of his own trauma into the emotional lives of the female rape victims around him. Some readers will believe this is not his job, and that it his right to keep his book solely focused on his own male-centered trauma. But for me personally, all I could keep thinking as I read was, "I'm glad you were lucky, Charles Blow. Those girls you grew up with weren't that lucky at all." I still award this book five full stars. The last five chapters are absolutely gorgeous and I loved them. I felt deeply rewarded by the author's account of pledging his fraternity, and everything he did to earn a job at "The New York Times." I will certainly read those last five chapters again.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andre

    "I would harness the truths that had been trapped in me like a fire shut up in my bones." This is the second to last sentence in this book, and it sums up what Charles Blow has attempted to do here." "Harness the truths" is not always an easy task, especially when you reveal some unflattering truths about yourself. The writing is proficient and there are quite a few memorable lines in this memoir. In describing his mother shooting at his fleeing father, not really wanting to hit her target, "A "I would harness the truths that had been trapped in me like a fire shut up in my bones." This is the second to last sentence in this book, and it sums up what Charles Blow has attempted to do here." "Harness the truths" is not always an easy task, especially when you reveal some unflattering truths about yourself. The writing is proficient and there are quite a few memorable lines in this memoir. In describing his mother shooting at his fleeing father, not really wanting to hit her target, "A heart still works even when it's broken." And when in a nightclub thinking of a clever approach, to the woman who would become his wife, "The attributes I was most confident about-smarts, resourcefulness, resilience, proper etiquette-didn't register in a noisy nightclub." It is sentences like these that keep the memoir flowing with ease, as we witness his story growing up in Gibsland, LA., and journeying from small time south to become a NY Times columnist. Along the way, we'll learn about his very determined mother, his loving great grandparents and his fraternity pledging and the resulting psychic impairment. In discussing his fraternity days, "My longings had numbed me to my wrongs. It would only be in the cold gaze of hindsight that I would be able to comprehend that while in flight from pain, I became an agent of it." The "abuse" at the hands of a cousin, seems to be an act, that made him question everything about his world and how he fit into it. This event has constantly haunted his interactions with women and men, and not just in a sexual way. No matter what the reader thinks, the Author has assigned a great deal of importance and weight to this abuse, and its impact on his life is evident throughout this memoir. The only quibble I have and it is a minor one, is he ended the memoir too soon. We don't learn much of his wife and 3 children. It would have been wonderful if he would have included these details right up to present day, still doesn't stop this memoir from being a 5 star effort.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Weathersby

    Charles M. Blow is a New York Times columnist who tells his coming-of-age memoir of growing up in rural Louisiana. It was a hardscrabble existence living with an assortment of relatives in various houses, including The House with no Steps (capitalized that way). He had brothers, cousins, uncles coming and going in his life, a mother who tried to hold it all together, and a philandering father who was mostly absent from his life. Charles as the youngest of the brothers, often questioned how he Charles M. Blow is a New York Times columnist who tells his coming-of-age memoir of growing up in rural Louisiana. It was a hardscrabble existence living with an assortment of relatives in various houses, including The House with no Steps (capitalized that way). He had brothers, cousins, uncles coming and going in his life, a mother who tried to hold it all together, and a philandering father who was mostly absent from his life. Charles as the youngest of the brothers, often questioned how he was seen by others, and found himself victimized by a cousin when he was seven years old. The incident caused him to sink into depression at times, making him wonder what it was in him that made the cousin see him as easy prey. Over the years Charles was able to remake himself, with visions of becoming a politician. He excelled academically in high school and went on to Grambling University on a scholarship. With the idea of politics on his mind, he ran for president of the freshman class and won easily. He pledged a fraternity as a freshman, and after "crossing over" he was elected president of the chapter during a time when University Administration sought to eliminate hazing in Greek organizations. Charles was able to get his foot in the door at the New York Times through persistence, and his natural ability for writing. His columns often reflect the challenges of his life and family, including an arrest of his son as a college freshman who "fit the description," of someone else who had committed a crime. I found the writing to be very literary at the start, but as I settled into the story it became a natural expression for someone as gifted as Charles M. Blow.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    I did not find the the writing exquisite and "lyrical" - yes, perhaps a few sentences were but too many were just overwrought and purple, striving for beauty. Also, as memoir it was structurally very linear and repetitive. I wish he'd included more perspectives from his life today - the immersion in his family world as a 5-year old (for example) with its perfectly memorized dialogue and overly wise interpretations of the child's mind just showed me he was interpreting his situation from an I did not find the the writing exquisite and "lyrical" - yes, perhaps a few sentences were but too many were just overwrought and purple, striving for beauty. Also, as memoir it was structurally very linear and repetitive. I wish he'd included more perspectives from his life today - the immersion in his family world as a 5-year old (for example) with its perfectly memorized dialogue and overly wise interpretations of the child's mind just showed me he was interpreting his situation from an outside perspective, but he rarely steps back and admits that to the reader. I had to skim some of the college hazing rituals for the graphic violence - but still, they were all of the same tone with what came before and after. Lastly, the exploration of sexuality was lacking cohesion, only half-written - with some blather regurgitating stereotypes about bisexuality. I just didn't like this.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nakia

    Blow's prose meanders a bit, and takes more time than needed to get to the point, especially near the end, but he is a very talented writer. I loved how he was able to build his world through words and invite the reader into the lives of his diverse family and small town. Though much of it was heartbreaking, his words were soft and storytelling skills very moving. Glad he shared his stumbles and triumphs along the way to becoming successful columnist.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jolene

    This is Charles Blow's coming of age story. In lyrical prose, he relates the confusion and harm that sexual abuse does to a young child's psyche. Despite the poverty and bleakness of his early years, Charles has a love of learning and when he is encouraged by a teacher, his studying and ambition help him to make it to college and he ultimately lands a coveted internship (made just for him!) at The New York Times.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Scott

    Hurtling down the highway with a gun on the passenger seat, Charles Blow is intent on murder and self-destruction. Blow seeks revenge on the person who upended his life and made him question his identity. It is this moment that leads to an epiphany. This memoir is an unpacking of that moment. There is sometimes a need to unearth our own story. A need to probe our depths to make sense of our own past, even though we aren’t sure where it leads or what it means. Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut up Hurtling down the highway with a gun on the passenger seat, Charles Blow is intent on murder and self-destruction. Blow seeks revenge on the person who upended his life and made him question his identity. It is this moment that leads to an epiphany. This memoir is an unpacking of that moment. There is sometimes a need to unearth our own story. A need to probe our depths to make sense of our own past, even though we aren’t sure where it leads or what it means. Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut up in my Bones is that kind of memoir. Told in short snippets, he pieces together his childhood in Gibsland, Louisiana. Growing up impoverished in rural Louisiana, Blow is isolated from the rest of the world. We read about his experiences feeling different from other children. Instead of the hustle and bustle of his brothers, he prefers the company of the older generation and the company of his mother. Fiercely loyal, he must make sense of his world through observation without explanation. He is confused by his mother and father’s off again/on again relationship. He notices the small sly grin on his father’s face, as his mother is shooting after him when she realizes he is having an affair. He will still hunger for the attention of his father who never really follows through. He can only remember one fond memory of going around town with his father as he introduced him to everyone as “my boy.” A somewhat loner, he is hungry for attention, and that makes him a target for his cousin. One night he sexually abuses him. It only happens once, but he tells no one and harbors the secret for his entire life. He starts to wonder about his sexuality, since the incident happens when he is only seven. He fears the look his mother gives him as he runs across the basketball court. It is a worry that indicates something is wrong, something he cannot see. Even though he doesn’t expressly say it early on, he worries if he might be gay. He feels that these desires are something to be overcome. It explores different aspects of himself as a way to combat these feelings. He becomes very religious for a time, but eventually drifts to sports and girls. When he goes to college, he succeeds in every way, becoming the president of his freshman class at Grambling, as well as pledging a fraternity. It is the hazing there to join the fraternity that makes him confront his past, and leads us back to the hurtling car bent on destruction. This memoir is powerful, as the reader can feel the raw emotion and the searching narrative. While the story focuses on the aftermath of abuse, he has poignant observations about race. He covers everything from growing up and learning about race, to the difference in how race is portrayed in the 70s vs. the 80s on TV. Shows went from Good Times to Different Strokes, “…they were surrounded by all-white casts, like bubble wrap, I assumed to cushion the impact of their presence.” Anyone can relate to Charles Blow, growing up feeling different. He discovers more about himself and reveals that to the reader. It is a visceral narrative for anyone dealing with a history of abuse. Favorite Passages: Paul and I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting and talking with the old folks in the neighborhood on their porches. For me it was transcendent. I was a quiet, introspective boy, and these folks helped me to appreciate that part of myself. They taught me how to be patient and kind — that there was beauty in all things. I picked up their skill for slowing time to a crawl, a skill that people whose time on earth was coming to an end had learned to master. They taught me that you only live once, but for a life well lived, one turn is enough. They baptized me in their sea of stillness, and I emerged more like them than not.p.16 Hunger isn't only the great motivator; it's the great stealer of joy. p 28 …a heart still works even when it is broken p.34 His spirit was present there, as were the spirits of Papa Joe and Mam'Grace. Like the boy's grave, I was lost too. But there, surrounded by them, I found the remnants of myself. There my soul could again be quiet, still and untroubled. It was the way I'd felt at the skating ring before I'd reached for the aspirin, except then it had felt more like surrendering to weakness. This felt more like gathering strength. In that moment in the graveyard I saw my own life and trials through the prism of past lives. In that moment the weight of my shame and separation was lifted. There, among the sleeping souls of old folks and in the company of a dead boy, I came back to life. But a boy still walking can't stay in a graveyard, even a boy so recently broken and dead on the inside. I had to find a place to heal myself among the living. p. 60 I had never before spent time alone with my father. It felt great. We drove north to Arcadia, where we spent the afternoon selling watermelons to his friends. I got to see a small slice of his life—poolrooms, liquor stores, and loose women’s houses. People smiled when he drove up. They made jokes, many at his expense. He smiled and laughed and repeatedly introduced me as “my boy”, a phrase he relayed with a palpable sense of pride. We didn’t get back home until dark. It was one of the best days of my life. Although my father had never told me that he loved me, I would cling to this day as the greatest evidence of that fact. P. 65 And I began to suffer a common social climber's delusion: feeling that I was from poverty but not of it, that I had been born out of sorts with my ambitions, that my struggle to correct the imbalance was a righteous pursuit--that I was not moving out of my element, but into it. P120 The cultural currency of skin tone had shifted. The pendulum had swung back from the black-is-beautiful 1970s. "Bright" skin. Light eyes. "Good" hair. Having any one of those was now a plus. Having two was better. Having all three was the color-struck trifecta. Black, as I knew it, and as I was, no longer seemed beautiful I had mostly dodged the racial war, but now found myself in an intraracial one. No one wanted sugar from Chocolate anymore. This was a new day, an age of more lightening cream and less Afrosheen. The Black Power of the 1960s and '70s was being crushed into a beige powder. Whenever dark-skinned blacks appeared on television, they were assimilators, cast in fish-out-of-water sitcoms as back-talking butlers and maids (Benson and Gimme a Break!), irascible orphans (Diff'rent Strokes and Webster), and new-money up-from-nothings (The Jeffersons). And they were surrounded by all-white casts, like bubble wrap, I assumed to cushion the impact of their presence. p. 70 There is nothing like the presence of a gun, and an earnest intent to use it, to draw the totality of a life into sharp relief. That was a lesson I would learn early and often. But even more important was the idea that, at any moment, we all had the awesome and underutilized power to simply let go of our past and step beyond it. P. 30 I could easily have followed these racial cues: that white people were to be feared, to be kept at a distance, to be fed with a long-handled spoon. I began to internalize this fear. I sometimes felt like the monkey in the cage at the potato farm familiar, but strangely different, constrained as a lesser being to a small world within the greater white one. And when white people looked at me, I often felt they were doing so with jack-o'-lantern smiles — frozen and hollow with a dim light behind the eyes. I could have quietly taken my place in the covert racial warfare playing out all around me. P. 45

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rayne

    4.5 stars “There is nothing like the presence of a gun, and an earnest intent to use it, to draw the totality of a life into sharp relief. That was a lesson I would learn early and often. But even more important was the idea that, at any moment, we all had the awesome and underutilized power to simply let go of our past and step beyond it.” This was a fascinating memoir to me, not only because of the author's personal history, but because of his familial history too. He discusses his family 4.5 stars “There is nothing like the presence of a gun, and an earnest intent to use it, to draw the totality of a life into sharp relief. That was a lesson I would learn early and often. But even more important was the idea that, at any moment, we all had the awesome and underutilized power to simply let go of our past and step beyond it.” This was a fascinating memoir to me, not only because of the author's personal history, but because of his familial history too. He discusses his family history all the way back to "slavery times" from Virginia to Alabama to his tiny segregated town of Gibsland, Louisiana. There are short, concise stories about the Blows dating back to the 1800s. However, that is only a small part of the memoir. Most of it revolves around his struggle to accept himself after sexual abuse by family members and how it affects him in a myriad of ways. In a way, FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES is a condensed history lesson wrapped in a man's journey to find himself in his young life, and a well-written, captivating one at that. Blow is introspective, at times painfully so, and can tell a good story. I'm not going to lie, around 40% of this memoir is probably descriptions... but they are colorful, rich descriptions that nourish the story, not detract from it.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Amsterdamman

    Fascinating story or stories but not well written or focused. I liked how he reproduced certain bits of dialogue to show how his relatives spoke...but it almost becomes ridicule...and when did he stop talking that way? I found the stories of Blow's youth interesting but his editor should have trimmed the rambling tales that had no point to his story or were used for yet another turgid metaphor. The poverty, abuse, racism and ignorance under which he lived are shocking in that they happened in Fascinating story or stories but not well written or focused. I liked how he reproduced certain bits of dialogue to show how his relatives spoke...but it almost becomes ridicule...and when did he stop talking that way? I found the stories of Blow's youth interesting but his editor should have trimmed the rambling tales that had no point to his story or were used for yet another turgid metaphor. The poverty, abuse, racism and ignorance under which he lived are shocking in that they happened in the 1970s to 1990s and not the nineteenth century. The book seemed more of a chronological list than a well thought out literary work. It seems rushed...I wish he would have waited another 20 years to write a much more thoughtful, mature and interesting work. He kept referring to family legends he had heard, but were they all true?...why didn't he do a bit of family research? He wonders about his uncle's criminal record? He works for the New York Times...doesn't he know how to do a background search? Why didn't he contrast the facts and socio-politcal climate with what he was experiencing and hearing. The book repeated the same points over and over again...always telling and never showing. THe book is also quite earnest and humourless and irony free...he even sets up a few funny stories by spoiling it by introducing them as funny stories. Clunk. He brags about his many heterosexual escapades but has trouble with his gay ones. It still comes across that he is uptight and ashamed that he is bisexual. It's a shame he didn't bring his graphic and drawing talents into the story more....like making an interesting cover.....illustrating a much needed family tree for his large and interesting family. He is very prudish sexually practically using biblical terms to describe what had happened to him...leaving the reader not exactly sure. He's a naive poor little boy for so much of the book that it is a shock that suddenly he's driving his own car around his college campus and quoting from The New Yorker magazine...no transition whatsoever. There are many stories here....while his struggle with his sexuality is interesting it has been told many times before and much better. He only briefly mentions the teacher who finally gives him encouragment at school but neglects to mention her at the end. What happened to her? Is he still in touch with her?

  23. 5 out of 5

    Spider the Doof Warrior

    This book is harrowing and a must read to understand various black issues. It goes well with Black Boy. It's like a modern version of that. Very painful and sad in parts and the writing is beautiful.

  24. 4 out of 5

    C.E. G

    4.5 stars. Memoirs of this caliber are the reason I love the genre. Charles Blow writes exquisitely about growing up in small town Louisiana, struggling with sexuality after being sexually abused by a cousin, and undergoing harrowing hazing in pledging to a fraternity. But it's passages like this one, about his grandmother's partner's eyes, that really made me love it: It was those eyes that struck you - brown, maple-syrup sweet, a hint of gray around the edges, sunrise yellow where the whites 4.5 stars. Memoirs of this caliber are the reason I love the genre. Charles Blow writes exquisitely about growing up in small town Louisiana, struggling with sexuality after being sexually abused by a cousin, and undergoing harrowing hazing in pledging to a fraternity. But it's passages like this one, about his grandmother's partner's eyes, that really made me love it: It was those eyes that struck you - brown, maple-syrup sweet, a hint of gray around the edges, sunrise yellow where the whites should be; deep enough to get lost in, bottomless like Martin's Pond; damp like the beginning of a good cry or the end of a good laugh. They were the kind of eyes that saw down into the dark of you and drew up the light; the kind that melted worry like a stick of butter near a warm stove; the kind that forgave secret shame before it scarred the throat on the way out. And this, about that same person's affect on his grandmother: She was different now. Jed had made her different because he was more powerful than she was. He drew his power from a different source - not from hollowness but from wholeness. It was a grand, simple kind of power. It came from the knowing and accepting and loving of self that made the knowing and accepting and loving of everything else possible. It didn't crush, but accommodated. He hadn't taken away Big Mama's power but had given her a peaceful place to harness and transform it, to calm down and grow up, to move out of the woman she had been and into the woman she could be. She was like a river - always running, never still, wanting to be somewhere other than where it was - that had finally reached the ocean - vast and deep and exactly where it was always meant to be.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

    Over the last year or so of reading the opinion section of the New York Times, I’ve often come across the writing of Charles Blow. At first I was unfamiliar with him but the more I read him and his impassioned writings on injustice and bigotry, I became intrigued about who he was and where this fire sprung from. This book goes a long way toward an explanation. Born into a small, impoverished town in Louisiana filled with colorful characters, a strong mom and often emotionally absent father (the Over the last year or so of reading the opinion section of the New York Times, I’ve often come across the writing of Charles Blow. At first I was unfamiliar with him but the more I read him and his impassioned writings on injustice and bigotry, I became intrigued about who he was and where this fire sprung from. This book goes a long way toward an explanation. Born into a small, impoverished town in Louisiana filled with colorful characters, a strong mom and often emotionally absent father (the multiple scenes of his mom taking off in her car with a gun to chase one of her husband’s lovers are both horrifying and humorous), and always the looming threat of violence and death, Blow describes his upbringing in emotionally charged and often beautiful language. Further complicating the violence and poverty are two events in his childhood when he was molested by close family friends. Contemplating overdosing on sleeping pills when he was only 7 years old, I couldn’t help but wonder how he possibility made it to where he is today. But rather than this being a story of his hardships, of which there are no shortage, Blow chooses to illustrate what he learned from these traumatic events and how he transcended them by essentially learning to recognise who he is and not allow anyone to force an identity onto himself he is unwilling to assume. This is a very inspirational story that at times harrowing, at times filled with self effacing humor, but also at its heart inspirational and beautifully, beautifully written.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rashaun

    Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow reads like a conversation between two friends. Charles’ writing ability has the reader easily imagine his life. Growing up in Gibsland, Louisiana, he shares memories – important memories - that shape him. Some of these memories are painful; a male cousin who makes a sexual advance. Some of these memories are powerful; an unwavering commitment to land a NYT time interview. And some are memories that help us understand his family; a tale about his Mom Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow reads like a conversation between two friends. Charles’ writing ability has the reader easily imagine his life. Growing up in Gibsland, Louisiana, he shares memories – important memories - that shape him. Some of these memories are painful; a male cousin who makes a sexual advance. Some of these memories are powerful; an unwavering commitment to land a NYT time interview. And some are memories that help us understand his family; a tale about his Mom shooting her gun. Each is piece of him that makes up the sum of who he is today, a man who is more than his NY times opinion platform. Charles took the time to describe memorable places and he wrote phrases to coin the experience. For example, “the house with no steps,” was the first home Charles lived with his Mom and Dad. In a simple phrase the reader understands his economic upbringing and his father and mother’s juxtaposed relationship. A moment that didn’t fulfill my curiosity was when Charles describes grabbing his mother’s gun to shoot the cousin who scared him. He writes about how his best friend, Weezy, talked him out of murder. But I would of liked to have read a line or two of her “rambling” that helped save the life of a man she did not know. Writing this book appears to have given Charles the space to face his past enabling him to move toward his future with more clarity. I thoroughly enjoyed it. #booklovers

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mary Blye Kramer

    Blow started this book with a quick intro about a childhood molestation followed by an encounter with his molester in which he, Blow, is on his way to shoot him. But the book really isn’t about that story at all and I found it offputting that he felt he needed to reel us in with one story, only to veer off to something much more general. RE: this book isn’t about sexual molestation or recovery - which is a good thing. Also you know if he’s writing this book and has worked for The NY Times, he Blow started this book with a quick intro about a childhood molestation followed by an encounter with his molester in which he, Blow, is on his way to shoot him. But the book really isn’t about that story at all and I found it offputting that he felt he needed to reel us in with one story, only to veer off to something much more general. RE: this book isn’t about sexual molestation or recovery - which is a good thing. Also you know if he’s writing this book and has worked for The NY Times, he didn’t shoot the guy. So... The next 2/3 of the book is excellent. Gorgeous writing. Fascinating stories. I was captivated. Blow is a great writer and a good story teller. Then he lost me with his long chapters about college and girlfriends and fraternities. Boring stuff. The only thing that made me sit up was his story about the police pulling him over. Black people have dealt with so much bigotry that it makes my head spin. But then Blow discusses his sexuality - which we pretty much guessed from the outset - but he doesn’t seem comfortable writing about it and it comes off as dry and confusing and dull, as if he’s still trying to figure himself out. I’m thinking he should have waited a bit longer to write this book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Apismellifera

    Please read my comment in the discussion section below., and my one star review on Amazon. The "Chester" "incident" is rife with incongruities and backpedaling in my opinion. Now Blow is stressing the NON "physicality" of the "incident," and its "psychic" nature. He's unsure of Chester's age, and admits he, Chester, was a "boy" and "child" at the time. More in my Amazon review. The uncle "incident" is even more ludicrous. This is a man whose bedroom Blow visited often, in whose bed he often slept, Please read my comment in the discussion section below., and my one star review on Amazon. The "Chester" "incident" is rife with incongruities and backpedaling in my opinion. Now Blow is stressing the NON "physicality" of the "incident," and its "psychic" nature. He's unsure of Chester's age, and admits he, Chester, was a "boy" and "child" at the time. More in my Amazon review. The uncle "incident" is even more ludicrous. This is a man whose bedroom Blow visited often, in whose bed he often slept, and one night he "feels his hand moving across my hip." Blow makes clear he immediately got up and left the room and never visited again. THE END!!! And we're to believe THIS affected Blow so horribly for so many years subsequently? Baloney. What vaporous "evidence" indeed to indict a man so many decades later. These two, and only two, "incidents" of "sexual abuse" are the underpinnings of Blow's "memoir" and without them the book collapses. In my opinion these "incidents" are ludicrous and invented. They do not even constitute abuse. For shame.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Booktart

    A beautifully written memoir by NYTimes columnist Charles Blow focusing on themes of race (and racism), sexuality (and homophobia), family and forming an identity. Blow's prose when describing his Louisiana upbringing evokes a Southern atmosphere. Moreover, his writing on slavery and its impact on his family, along with his experiences of racism, are both timely and impactful. His writing on becoming comfortable with his bisexuality, and on what his bisexuality means to him, is some of the best A beautifully written memoir by NYTimes columnist Charles Blow focusing on themes of race (and racism), sexuality (and homophobia), family and forming an identity. Blow's prose when describing his Louisiana upbringing evokes a Southern atmosphere. Moreover, his writing on slavery and its impact on his family, along with his experiences of racism, are both timely and impactful. His writing on becoming comfortable with his bisexuality, and on what his bisexuality means to him, is some of the best writing I've seen on the subject. Ultimately though, this is not a memoir about just bisexuality or race but also about coming into one's own and being comfortable with being different. As Blow says, "I would have to learn to accept myself joyfully, fully, as the amalgamation of both the gifts and the tragedies of fate, as the person destiny had chosen me to be -- gloriously rendered, deeply scarred, magnificently made, naturally flawed -- a human being, my own man."

  30. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This is one of the most naked and transparent memoirs I've ever read, and I've read lots. The writing is absolutely brilliant. The capturing of Louisiana black informal dialect is outstanding. The anecdotes are often heart-wrenching. The description of the grinding poverty that the author grew up with in small-town Louisiana was worse than I had imagined. The scenes of fraternity hazing at Grambling reminded me of the gratuitous cruelty of the electrified carpet scene in Ralph Ellison's This is one of the most naked and transparent memoirs I've ever read, and I've read lots. The writing is absolutely brilliant. The capturing of Louisiana black informal dialect is outstanding. The anecdotes are often heart-wrenching. The description of the grinding poverty that the author grew up with in small-town Louisiana was worse than I had imagined. The scenes of fraternity hazing at Grambling reminded me of the gratuitous cruelty of the electrified carpet scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. The events, attitudes, racism, and examples of bad behavior that Blow has overcome in his life is just incredible. I got a real sense that this was what it was like for a highly intelligent, highly sensitive black man to grow up in the South of the 1970s. There is not a false word in this book. It is among the most honest and most memorable books that I have read in my life.

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