What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

by Pearl Cleage


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After a decade of elegant pleasures and luxe living with the Atlanta brothers and sisters with the best clothes and biggest dreams, Ava Johnson has temporarily returned home to Idlewild—her fabulous career and power plans smashed to bits by cold reality. But what she imagines to be the end is, instead, a beginning. Because, in the ten-plus years since Ava left, all the problems of the big city have come to roost in the sleepy North Michigan community whose ordinariness once drove her away; and she cannot turn her back on friends and family who sorely need her in the face of impending trouble and tragedy. Besides which, that one unthinkable, unmistakable thing is now happening to her: Ava Johnson is falling in love.

Acclaimed playwright, essayist, New York Times bestselling author, and columnist Pearl Cleage has created a world rich in character, human drama, and deep, compassionate understanding, in a remarkable novel that sizzles with sensuality, hums with gritty truth, and sings and crackles with life-affirming energy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061710384
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/27/2009
Series: Idlewild Series , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 220,456
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Pearl Cleage is the author of Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth and Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot. An accomplished Playwright, she teaches playwriting at Spelman College, is a cofounder of the literary magazine Catalyst and writes a column for the Atlanta Tribune. Ms. Cleage lives in Atlanta with her husband. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day...is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I'm sitting at the bar in the airport, minding my own business, trying to get psyched up for my flight, and I made the mistake of listening to one of those TV talk shows. They were interviewing some women with what the host kept calling full blown AIDS. As opposed to half-blown AIDS, I guess. There they were, weeping and wailing and wringing their hands, wearing their prissy little Laura Ashley dresses and telling their edited-for-TV life stories.

The audience was eating it up, but it got on my last nerve. The thing is, half these women are lying. More than half. They get diagnosed and all of a sudden they're Mother Teresa. I can't be positive! It's impossible! I_m practically a Virgin! Bull.... They got it just like I got it f...... men.

That's not male bashing either. That's the truth. Most of us got it from the boys. Which is, when you think about it, a pretty good argument for cutting men loose, but if I could work up a strong physical reaction to women, I would already be having sex with them. I'm not knocking it. I'm just saying I can't be a witness. Too many breasts in one place to suit me.

I try to tune out the almost-a-virgins, but they're going on and on and now one is really sobbing and all of a sudden I get it. They're just going through the purification ritual. This is how it goes: First, you have to confess that you did nasty, disgusting sex stuff with multiple partners who may even have been of your same gender. Or you have to confess that you like to shoot illegal drugs into your veins and sometimes you use other people's works when you want to get high and you came unprepared. Then you have to describe the sin you haveconfessed in as much detail as you can remember. Names, dates, places, faces. Specific sexual acts. Quantity and quality of orgasms. What kind of dope you shot. What park you bought it in. All the down and dirty. Then, once your listeners have been totally freaked out by what you've told them, they get to decide how much sympathy, attention help, money, and understanding you're entitled to based on how disgusted they are.

I'm not buying into that. I don't think anything I did was bad enough for me to earn this as the payback, but it gets rough out here sometimes. If you're not a little kid, or a heterosexual movie star's doomed but devoted wife, or a hemophiliac who got it from a tainted transfusion, or a straight white woman who can prove she's a virgin with a dirty dentist, you're not eligible for any no-strings sympathy.

The truth is, people are usually relieved. It always makes them feel better when they know the specifics of your story. You can see their faces brighten up when your path is one they haven't traveled. That's why people keep asking me if I know who I got it from. Like all they'd have to do to ensure their safety is cross this specific guy's name off their list of acceptable sexual partners the same way you do when somebody starts smoking crack no future here. But I always tell them the truth I have no idea. That's when they frown and give me one last chance to redeem myself. If I don't know who, do I at least know how many?

By that time I can't decide if I'm supposed to be sorry about having had a lot of sex or sorry I got sick from it. And what difference does it make at this point anyway? It's like lying about how much you loved the rush of the nicotine just because now you have lung cancer.

I'm babbling. I must be higher than I thought. Good. I hate to fly. I used to dread it so much I'd have to be falling down drunk to get on a plane. For years I started every vacation with a hangover. That's actually how I started drinking vodka, trying to get up the nerve to go to Jamaica for a reggae festival. Worked like a charm, too, and worth a little headache the first day out and the first day back.

I know I drink too much, but I'm trying to cut back. When I first got diagnosed, I stayed drunk for about three months until I realized it was going to be a lot harder to drink myself to death then it might be to wait it out and see what happens. Some people live a long time with HIV. Maybe I'll be one of those, grinning like a maniac on the front of Parade magazine, talking about how I did it.

I never used to read those survivor testimonials, but now I do, for obvious reasons. The first thing they all say they had to do was learn how to calm down, which is exactly why I was drinking so much, trying to cool out. The problem was, after a while I couldn't tell if it was the vodka or the HIV making me sick, and I wanted to know the difference.

But I figure a little lightweight backsliding at thirty thousand feet doesn't really count, so by the time we boarded, I had polished of two doubles and was waiting for the flight attendant to smile that first-class-only smile and bring me two more. That's why I pay all that extra money to sit up here, so they'll bring me what I want before I have to ring the bell and ask for it.

The man sitting next to me is wearing a beautiful suit that cost him a couple of grand easy and he's spread out calculators, calendars, and legal pads across his tray table like the plane is now his personal office in the air. I think all that is for show. I don't believe anybody can really concentrate on business when they're hurtling through the air at six hundred miles an hour. Besides, ain't nobody that damn busy.

He was surprised as hell when I sat down next to him White men in expensive suits are always a little pissed to find themselves seated next to me in first class, especially since I started wearing my hair so short. They seem to take it as some kind of personal affront that of all the seats on the airplane, the bald headed black woman showed up next to them. It used to make me uncomfortable. Now I think of it as helping them take a small step toward higher consciousness. Discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment.

For the first time in a long time, I didn't grip and pray during takeoff. It wasn't that I was drunk. I've been a lot drunker on a lot of other airplanes. It's just that at this point, a plane crash might be just what the doctor ordered.

Copyright ) 1997 by Pearl Cleage

What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day. Copyright © by Pearl Cleage. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide


After a decade of living it up in Atlanta, getting it on with lots of men, ending up with HIV and a whopping case of remorse, Ava Johnson has decided there's at least one thing left worth doing, and doing well-telling the truth. So does Pearl Cleage in her award-winning first novel which puts a witty, wise spin on contemporary women's issues, hard choices, harder good-byes, and brave new beginnings.

Ava Johnson is returning home to Idlewild, Michigan on her way to someplace better, like San Francisco. Her overt reason for the trip is to spend some bonding time with her sister Joyce. In the bad luck department, Joyce has been given her share of no refund, no return items. But if Ava is thinking gloom and doom on her arrival, she has another think coming...when Joyce sends wild Eddie Jefferson, a handsome Rastafarian brother with a head full of beautiful dreadlocks, to pick her up at the airport. And what is waiting in Idlewild is a small town filled with big-city problems, a life-lesson in becoming a "free woman," and an unexpected miracle called love.

Discussion Questions
  • Both Ava and Joyce are at crisis points in their lives. Compare the two women. How does each cope with her heartaches? What works...and what doesn't.

  • Ava and Joyce aren't the only women facing tough challenges in this novel. Joyce says of the girls in the Sewing Circus, "These girls haven't got a chance. There aren't jobs and there aren't going to be any. They're stuck up here in the middle of the damn woods, watching talk shows, smoking crack, collecting welfare, and having babies. What kind of life is that?" (p. 39) Ava's answer is "City life." Do you agreethat the same problems confront urban and rural young women? What do you think are the greatest ones? Whose responsibility is it to help young people overcome them?

  • In the chapter called "August," Joyce makes up a list of "Ten Things Every Free Woman Should Know." First define "free woman" -- then make up your own list.

  • The church in this novel shows both its sides: the good it can do; the harm it can do. How do you feel about the church's handling of the Reverend's sexual abuse? What do you feel should be the response of a church organization-whether a black church or the Roman Catholic Church-to this problem?

  • At the center of this novel, however, is the tragedy of HIV. Discuss the community's reaction to Ava. Then discuss her own response to a new relationship. How would you interpret her dream in Chapter 18...and the very last line of the book? About the Author: "The purpose of my writing, often, is to express the point where racism and sexism meet." An accomplished playwright, journalist, poet, and novelist, Pearl Cleage probes issues of race, sex, and love in a growing body of literary work while she reveals poignant truths about brave black women.

    Born on December 7, 1948 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Pearl Michelle Cleage grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Her father was a prominent minister who ran for governor of Michigan in 1962 on the Freedom Ticket; her mother was an elementary school teacher.

    Since the early 1980s, Cleage has drawn national attention with her dramatic works, which include Flyin' West, an extraordinary play about pioneer black women at the turn of the century, and Blues for an Alabama Sky. Her first novel What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, was an Oprah's Book Club selection, a New York Times bestseller, and a BCALA Literary Award winner. She is also the author of I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Mad at Miles, and Deals with the Devil. A contributing editor to Essence magazine, Pearl Cleage frequently performs her work on college campuses. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Zaron W. Burnett, Jr.

  • Customer Reviews

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    What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 101 reviews.
    Aristian1908 More than 1 year ago
    At first I was not attached to the story. The first few pages give the illusion that it will be fiesty and wild. But then it settles down considersbly. The story then becomes predictable...or so I thought. The slow movement is just enough time to set a great build up. The story then gives a great twist and turn that fits perfectly into the storyline! Not a surprise ending but definitely some good twists and turns. A bit romantic in nature but deals with real life issues as well.
    whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A touching and humorous book, this is one of those novels that reminds you to look at even the most serious situations with a bit of humor and optimism. The book's characters are believable and perfectly written, and Cleage's writing is graceful and smart. So much is covered in this fast read, and it is covered beautifully. My one criticism is that it ends too quickly, and perhaps a bit too easily, but the read is wonderful and well worth the while regardless. Absolutely recommended.
    drizzlegirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I love this book, definately amoung my all-time favorites!! Beautifully written, this book is a page turner from beginning to end! I laughed and cried, but by then end it just felt whole.
    readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A well-written novel about a woman learning to live with the fact of being HIV positive.
    MrsMariaUWG on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The main character runs to a small town after being outcast because of her HIV status. She soon learns to accept herself and allows others to love and accept her too.
    ThatsFresh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    ! I recently finished ¿What Looks Like Crazy¿On An Ordinary Day¿ by Pearl Cleage. It was about an African-American woman who has HIV and decided to spend the summer with her sister in the country before moving to San Francisco. She quickly falls in love with the overly sensitive/calm/perfect Eddie. Her sister Joyce runs a sex education group for girls (all of which have babies of their own), but it gets shut down by the crazed Reverend¿s wife. Though the story is written from a different point of view and brings insight into the world of having HIV, the story seems to drift from it¿s original intention half way through the book. It gets to be less about her battle with HIV and educating young girls, and more about her perfect love life with Eddie. The author must¿ve been deep in love when she wrote this book since you can¿t get through a page without hearing about love love love, for a spouse, a boyfriend or a baby. This book is an Oprah Book Club Book from back in the early 90¿s. Nowadays, I don¿t believe it would even be mentioned by Oprah, but I¿m sure back in the 90¿s this was much more controversial and brought a lot of new light on to a subject that was so taboo. If you were to read this book now, you could find it a little annoying and unrealistic, but if you don¿t mind one dimensional characters and non-stop love, then go pick up your very own copy, located in the bargain bin.
    Jaylabelle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A short, fun read, with genuine characters, and some insight into what it is like to be a young successful female entrepreneur who's tested positive for HIV, and has the opportunity to re-examine her priorities.
    libmhleigh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This is a different book from others I nave read (it is only this year that I began reading many contemporary novels). I found it to be an interesting, mostly fast moving and enjoyable book. I came to be interested in the issues the different characters had and their ways of handling the situations they found themselves confronted with.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This was a blind reading for me. I had no knowledge or history of this book. I purchased it on a whim and was surprisingly very satisfied! The characters were engaging and the story was well written. After I got over the initial shock of what the main character, Ava Johnson was faced with, regarding her mortality at such a young age, I was pulled in and hooked until the very end. 
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    Life challeges
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Much left unsaid and perfectly written in this book
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I read this book when it was first released (not long after it became an Oprah's Book Club selection). I've reread it a couple of times since then, and each time is just as enjoyable as the first. I love this book. The characters are well-developed, and it will make you laugh out loud, as well as feel like shedding a tear or two. I definitely recommend this book. (I've also read a couple of her other works, and while good, none compare to this debut novel.)
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    From the first to last page I was moved by the main character's struggles and desire to fight. This book was an emotional journey, in a good way. It proves that all happy endings are not the American dream but can still be just as happy.
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