Winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award
At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains for Johnny.
What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are rather sad, but superpowers nonetheless. For example, Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he’s been there or not.
In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves The Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.
Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he’s stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother’s daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.
Inspired by W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Melville House (August 8, 2017)
Publisher: Melville House (August 8, 2017)
I was immediately caught up in The Talented Ribkins, liking what at first seemed to be almost like a comic book come to life with the family's unusual "super powers" or talents which included things like being able talk to fish, the ability to nimbly scale walls, catching objects at a high rate of speed, and being able to mimic voices--but this book has hidden depths and defies a single genre or even a too-detailed description without spoiling the treasures within. It's an original mix of strange road trip, coming of age story, multi-generational family drama, magical realism, and American and black history lessons. (The book was inspired by the famous W.E.B. DuBois essay "The Talented Tenth" an 1903 essay arguing for the higher education of African Americans. You can read the essay online here.) The book touches on aging, class, race and discrimination, and the challenges and problems of being different. I found myself in turns smiling, turning pages worrying for Johnny and Eloise, shaking my head at some of the family antics, and nodding with appreciation at the small nuggets of wisdom that were tucked into the story.
"We're not bad men Johnny." "No, we're not. But you know as well as I do that there's a lot of room between being a bad man and being a good one. We're just men is all."
You can't live your life worried about people being scared of you just for being just who you are. Because what you are is beautiful.It's not your job to try and compensate other people's lack of vision. You've got enough to do just trying to be true to your own."
As Johnny and Eloise travel throughout Florida (this was fun for me to read about, having spent time there in some of the same cities for work several years ago), Johnny teaches Eloise about the Ribkins family, their talent, and their past--but he learns as much, if not more than he teaches about his family and mostly about himself. The Ribkins's gifts may be different from the norm, but there is a message in the pages that we all have gifts and it is up to us to use them. Warm, poignant, humorous, illuminating, and unique, The Talented Ribkins is a special book and one of my favorites of the year so far.
Author Notes: Laddee Hubbard is the winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for the Short Story. She holds a BA from Princeton University, an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin, and a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Talented Ribkins is her first novel.
There is food to be found in The Talented Ribkins and not just from the Ribkins grandfather--the original "Rib King" and inventor of the "best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast." Other food mentioned included, shrimp, canned corn, snow cones and popsicles, Popeye's chicken, Grape Fanta, Funyuns, lemonade, fries with ketchup, coffee, beer and iced tea, a cheeseburger and a chocolate milk shake, continental breakfast including a muffin, fruit loops, and a English muffin, pizza and orange soda, frozen lemonade, salads, soup, pie, pickled eggs, Hubig's packaged pies, cotton candy, Jamba Juice and TCBY, and whiskey.
Ribs or barbecue sauce are the obvious book-inspired dish pairing here but since I don't eat meat and I'm not particularly fond of barbecue flavor and sauce, I decided to go another way. As part of Johnny and Eloise travel through Florida to dig up the loot he has buried/hidden, they stop at a botanical garden that features "history you can taste"--with "a wide variety of herbs and vegetables that predated the Civil War, species you could no longer find in any store." In the main pavilion they are giving samples of heirloom tomatoes seasoned with a marinade prepared with the herbs inside. Johnny buys Eloise a cob of corn and one of the tomatoes. I decided to do a riff on the herby tomatoes
I bought some local Ho Farm cherry tomatoes and decided to cook them in locally-made basil macadamia nut oil, garlic and an assortment of herbs. For fun and because tomatoes and basil make me think of pizza or Caprese salad, I decided to add some mozzarella and let it get soft from the heat of the tomatoes and serve it on grilled bread. (The red and white go well with the book cover too!)
Baby Tomatoes with Herbs and Mozzarella
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen
(Serves 4 as Starter)
2 Tbsp good olive oil (I used a basil macadamia nut oil)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pint, or more baby tomatoes--cherry or grape tomatoes
1/3 cup mixed chopped herbs--I used thyme, basil, oregano & Italian parsley
1/2 tsp celery salt
sea salt & black pepper to taste
1/2 cup Mozzarella pearls or small cubes of fresh mozzarella
grilled baguette slices to serve, if desired (you can also serve alone, on top of romaine or other greens, or mix into cooked pasta)
Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for about a minute. Add tomatoes, 1/4 cup of the herbs, celery salt and sea salt and black pepper to taste, lower heat and cook on low for about 10 minutes, or until tomatoes begin to soften and split.
Remove pan from the heat and allow to sit for 2 minutes. Stir in the mozzarella pearls and remaining fresh herbs--incorporating them throughout the warm tomatoes. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if needed.
Serve warm with grilled bread, alone or as a topping for salad or cooked pasta.
Notes/Results: This dish is like a bowl full of summer with the sweet baby tomatoes bursting with flavor and the fresh and vibrant herbs. The softened mozzarella bits add a chewy, cheesy decadence--although the tomatoes and herbs would still be delicious without the cheese. Make sure you save the pan liquids that the tomatoes release and that mix with the olive oil. They are wonderful for dipping the grilled bread into, or would make a good sauce if you wanted to serve these tomatoes on salad or pasta. I confess to eating the whole bowl of these tomatoes for dinner--they were so good. I will happily make them again.
I'm linking this post up to the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.
Note: A review copy of "The Talented Ribkins" was provided to me by the author and the publisher via TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.
The publisher is generously providing a copy of The Talented Ribkins to give away (U.S. & Canada addresses only, sorry) here at Kahakai Kitchen.
To enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway below, leave a comment (Because I like to read them!) ;-) telling me what your secret talent (or super power/special gift) is and/or why you'd like to win a copy of "The Talented Ribkins"
There are a couple of other optional ways to get more entries to win: 1) Tweet about this giveaway or 2) follow me on Twitter (@DebinHawaii) and/or Publisher Melville House (@melvillehouse) (Note: You can still get extra entries even if you already follow me and the publisher on Twitter.)
Deadline for entry is midnight (EST) on Monday, Sept. 11th.
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