Father Knows Best

By Nora Krug
Sunday, February 8, 2009

THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood By Ta-Nehisi Coates Spiegel & Grau. 227 pp. $14

In the rough stretches of Baltimore where Ta-Nehisi Coates spent his youth, peril was everywhere: "a Timberland boot to the dome, the talking end of a three-eighty, a cop looking to make his night," he writes in his memoir The Beautiful Struggle. But for Coates, the most daunting force was much closer to home: his father. Paul Coates, a Vietnam veteran and Black Panther who runs Black Classic Press, a publisher of obscure works by black authors, ruled his home with an iron fist. "He outlawed eating on Thanksgiving, under pain of lecture. He disavowed air-conditioning, VCRs, and Atari," Coates explains. "His word was the difference between pancakes and oatmeal, between Speed Racer and yard work." He employed his young son (the sixth of his seven children by four different women) to help with his business, hoping his son would crack open one of those books and find meaning. Ta-Nehisi found it instead in the rapper Chuck D. He plotted his way out from "under the rule of this enlightened despot," all the while succeeding, fitfully and despite himself, in school. Coates, now a blogger and contributing editor for the Atlantic, offers a strange kind of homage to his father in this fevered, meandering memoir; the result is a vivid, street-wise depiction of father-son tensions played out against a backdrop of urban blight.

NO WAY HOME A Dancer's Journey from the Streets Of Havana to the Stages of the World By Carlos Acosta Scribner. 292 pp. $16

Carlos Acosta's first dance trophy -- a photograph of Lenin he earned in a Havana break-dancing contest -- sent his stern father around the bend. Fearful of losing his son to the streets, Pedro Acosta gave an unequivocal response: "Ballet!" Never mind that to the elder Acosta, ballet meant "the dance of the parasol ladies"; if it was going to save his son, so be it. Though he fantasized about becoming the next Pele, Carlos reluctantly signed on to his father's plan and in 1998 became the first black principal dancer with the Royal Ballet in London.

In his memoir No Way Home, Acosta looks back with candor on his career and with affection on his early years in the humble Los Pinos enclave near Havana. "The smell of ripe fruit that was characteristic of our neighborhood was so strong," he recalls, that "the inhabitants of Los Pinos smelled of guava in April, of custard apple in May, and of mango in June." These opening chapters are evocative and moving, as Acosta writes without self-pity about the many difficulties his family faced: a sick mother, little money and tight living quarters among them. Though the book gets bogged down in minutiae about auditions and performances, it is nonetheless a testament to the joys of fulfilling a dream, even one that initially isn't your own.

From Our Previous Reviews

· "A piercing story about the Unabomber," Susan Choi's A Person of Interest (Penguin, $15) is "one of the most remarkable novels to have emerged from our age of terror," wrote Ron Charles.

· In Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon (Hill & Wang, $16), Scott E. Casper uses the story of a slave who helped maintain George Washington's property after emancipation to illuminate "the invisible men and women who worked the 8,000-acre riverfront estate for generations," wrote W. Ralph Eubanks.

· Dam-builders face off against the founder of the Belize zoo, an eccentric crusader bent on saving exotic wildlife, in Bruce Barcott's The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw (Random House, $15), a book that brings "a fresh, urgent view" to an old story, noted Gregory McNamee.

· Dennis Drabelle called David Hajdu's The Ten-Cent Plague (Picador, $16), a chronicle of the post-World War II censorship of comic books, "a stylish, informed account" that "evokes the era colorfully and wittily."

· Daoud Hari, a native Darfuri translator, "lays open the Darfur genocide more intimately and powerfully than do a dozen books by journalists or academic experts," David Chanoff said of Hari's memoir, The Translator (Random House, $13).

Nora Krug is Book World's paperbacks columnist.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company