Is anyone else happy it’s February? I’ve been noticing sunset creep to the other side of 5pm and honestly, it’s making a big difference in my mood. Winter in Seattle is really mild compared to everywhere else I’ve lived, and it’s not even as dark as Copenhagen (where I lived for 2 years in grad school). And while I don’t always hate the hibernation mode of this season, I do feel like I’m waking up a little when the days grow longer, which is a nice feeling.
The month of January was a great reading month for me; I completed 16 books and DNF’d 2. I fulfilled several of the Reading Women Challenge prompts, and all of these titles fall under the 2019 Diversity Reads Challenge. Four of them are from indie publishers (Graywolf, Feminist Press and Alice James Books). Here’s a breakdown of the diversity in these reads:
- Authors of color: 9, including 4 Black, 1 Indigenous, 3 of Asian descent (Taiwan, Korea and India)
- Women: all
- LGBTQIA+ writers and/or content: 12
- Mental or physical illness: 2
- White: 6
I’m pretty happy with this. One thing I want to do this year is not read more white authors than authors of color; so far I’m on the right track.
Many of the books I read were very short, hence the high number, and many were audiobooks. I’m here to sing the praises of audiobooks. They are a great way to read more books, but not every audiobook will work for a listener/reader. So it’s a matter of figuring out whether the combination of narrator, subject matter, and writing style can hold your attention. That said, I think listening to audiobooks is a skill you can work on, just like reading print. It gets easier the more you do it, and the breadth of what you read or listen to can grow over time. And some audiobooks are downright amazing, perhaps even better than their print counterparts.
That said, print books are my first and truest love when it comes to format, and I’ll always be reading at least one print book, at least as long as my eyes can see.
Anyway, I’m here to bring you a wrap-up of what I read in January, which I hope will offer some new reads to your TBR, or inspire you to offer your own opinion if it’s a book you’ve read. I’d love to hear from you in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ok, here’s the list, roughly organized into categories: Literary Canon/Pre-21st Century, Books on Books/Language, Fiction, Nonfiction, Memoir and DNF. A word on DNF’s: I never want to trash talk an author. There’s no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ book, just books that don’t work with some readers. I’m not going to like everything I read, I might be disappointed in something, I might straight-up disagree with everything a writer seems to be about. But in the end, it’s a hell of a lot of work to write a book. So props to those that do it.
On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
Passing by Nella Larsen
Originally published 1929
Wow, this short book packs a powerful punch. I read this for the Reading Women Challenge prompt to read a novella, and listened to the audio narrated by Robin Miles, one of the few voice actors I love.
The narrative revolves around two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. The former is the narrator, and the two were childhood friends. It’s 1929. Both women ‘pass’ as white in certain contexts, but Clare outright hides her Black identity, including from her racist white husband, who has a disgusting nickname for her that makes fun of her skin color, which he thinks is hilarious precisely because he thinks she is white.
The homoerotic subtext was extremely clear to me throughout this book and I feel validated in this interpretation after a cursory google search turned up a ton of think pieces on this very subject. Irene is obsessed with Clare, jealous of her, resentful of her, and clearly in love with her. It’s implied that ‘everything has happened’ between them. But in the short period of time in which this book takes place, Irene’s confusing and fraught fixation on Clare is framed as jealousy and resentment based mostly around the idea and reality of passing. The narrative builds to an exciting but disturbing conclusion that left me a little breathless.
I’m really glad I finally read this. Larsen explores the concept of passing so deftly in such a short piece of fiction. Also, I heard there’s a movie adaptation with Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga and I’m so ready for that.
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
Originally published 1935
Zora is one of my favorite writers. Mules and Men recounts the time she went to a few spots in the South with some funding from Charlotte Mason and transcribed the folklore/stories/‘lies’ Black people told there, added a little exposition about her own role in collecting the stories, and produced this wonderful book. She went to her hometown of Eatonville, FL as well as farther south to some communities with a lot of people from the Haitian diaspora to learn about hoodoo/voodoo. (Go Tell My Horse has more about that which I’m excited to read next.) As always she brings her own curiosity, respect, wit and love into this writing. She was so great y’all.
Books on books/language:
The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri
Vintage (Knopf), 2016
Wrote a post on this, spoiler alert I *loved* it!
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
I listened to the audio of this (read by the author) very soon after listening to The Clothing of Books, which I adored, and found In Other Words to be a great follow-up read. The book explores language as a concept, as a living being, as a manifestation of humanity, and as meaning. Upon moving to Italy, Lahiri decided she would only write and speak in Italian until it became a natural part of her. In pursuing this lofty goal, she muses on the languages she already speaks (Bengali and English), what they mean to her and how they shape and are shaped by her identity and concept of home. She relates those musings to the frustrating and endless commitment to the Italian language. She also touches on race and how that plays into perceptions of her language abilities and proclivities.
I related to a lot of what she had to say re: being really good at a language, able to carry on conversations and read and understand a lot, but still feeling like such an outsider in that language. It’s like you never have that one word or phrase you need, the one that really conveys what you mean, and you end up saying something similar but different. That’s how I feel with my mom’s native language, one that I can certainly get by in but I will never know its nuances the way I do English. Lahiri does a great job of conveying this feeling.
It’s also pretty meta because obviously one writes using language, and this book was written in Italian first. In fact, for the audio, she reads it twice: once in English, and once in Italian. That in itself made me think a lot about the art of translation and how wild it is to be able to translate not just words, but a mood, an atmosphere, a theme, whether in text or in speech.
While it got a little navel-gaze-y at times, overall I found this to be a super enjoyable and thought-provoking read and would definitely recommend it, especially if you’re at all interested in language.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Simon Schuster, 2018
I have mixed feelings about this book. Mostly I found this expansive history of the Los Angeles library, and the huge 1986 fire that was a both a result of and influence to the existence of American libraries in general, to be really interesting. It’s mostly a love letter to libraries in all of their essential, complicated glory. Libraries are so unique and important, and Orlean writes a lot about why and how this is the case, using the LA central library as a lens. There were a couple of things that annoyed me a little though: first, too much time is spent on Harry Peak, the main suspect in the case. It seems very well established that Peak was mentally ill and an incredibly unreliable witness, so the fact that the case against him dragged out 5ever seems ridiculous. But I didn’t like how much Orlean herself was obsessed with figuring out if he did it or not. At this point I can’t see how it matters. He was made into a spectacle and anyway he’s dead. On top of that, Orlean has an entire section about how notoriously hard it is to tell if a fire is arson or not so i don’t see how it’s productive to harp on Peak over and over. The more interesting story is how the community dealt with it, and everyone involved in the library, who are very interesting people (if not always exactly good people, especially those early dudes). The other thing that irked me was how ableist the narrative seemed at certain points when describing people living with mental illness or poverty. At times it felt like mentally ill people were there as spectacles to laugh at, which is not cool. But overall I liked this book a lot, though I would recommend the print version because this is one of those rare instances where the author isn’t actually a very engaging narrator for the audiobook. I recommend this book for anyone who’s curious about the LA library fire (you will get lots of great description and information about it) and about libraries in general, and their pay and present place in communities.
Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2015
This was a bit hit or miss for me. I listened to the audio, read by the author (whose voice I find lovely and endearing), but that maybe wasn’t the best format because I found my mind drifting during some of the stories. I really enjoyed the little pieces interwoven between the stories in which Smith recounts what her peers (writers/literary folk) have said in response to her questions about the importance of public libraries. They really are an invaluable resource and one of the only true public services and community centers in the western world. The massive library closures across the UK is something we only hear about intermittently in the US, but this book contains many personal stories tied to UK libraries- their existence and their closure- and I was very interested in that. Some of the short stories did keep my attention, especially The Art of Elsewhere, and overall the writing was nuanced and layered. I can see why people like Ali Smith, and I can also see why not everyone loves her. She has a unique voice that feels very introspective, and I think it might be more suited to print. Next I’m going to try How To Be Both. Already have the ebook from the library 😉
Fiction (¾ queer!)
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn
Liveright (W.W. Norton), 2016
This is one of those books I picked up on the queer lit shelf at my local indie bookstore because I had a feeling I’d like it, but then it got buried in my TBR. I actually ended up listening to the audio from the library just so I could fit it in, since I have lots of time to fill with listening where I can’t be reading (aka I drive a lot). Turns out the audio is AMAZING, probably the best audiobook I’ve ever heard that wasn’t read by the author. Bahni Turpin reads it and does a fantastic job with the voices.
The story in this novel is kind of sprawling. It follows Margot, a 30-something (I think) woman living with her mother Delores and younger sister Thandi (who is supposed to be the prodigal daughter but has issues of her own) in Jamaica. Margot works at a tourist resort which includes a lot of sex work. Sex work is well represented in this book in my opinion. It’s a reality for many characters that isn’t portrayed too heavy-handedly; though it isn’t something most of them necessarily like doing, the characters who are sex workers in this story are multi-dimensional.
Margot also happens to be in love with a woman, Verdene, and we see the extreme homophobia of Jamaica play out in the narrative. I’ve heard that Jamaica is one of the most homophobic countries in the world and it seems that way in this story for sure. The way Verdene is treated is horrific but feels very real. Margot and Verdene’s relationship is compelling in and of itself, because of their shared and unshared histories and clashing personalities. It made me cry a few times.
Nicole Dennis-Benn is really good at world building, immersing the reader in a sense of place and a cast of characters that’s pretty big, yet even with the audio I never lost track of who was who. There’s a lot of plot in this story, and a lot of epic family drama, which can feel a bit overwhelming, but it’s SO well written and the dialogue is sharp and engrossing. Each character is painfully flawed and yet I found myself rooting for the three women of the central family despite the fact that they could be cruel and make harmful decisions (mainly fueled by a drive to survive in a capitalist world). Hell yeah complex female characters!!
I love this book, it’s amazing and I plan to re-read it in print at some point. Can’t wait to read Patsy!
Willa and Hesper by Amy Feltman
Grand Central (Hachette), 2019
I wrote a review of this here!
Living on the Borderlines by Melissa Michal (out Feb 12)
Feminist Press, 2019
This short story collection centers on people of Seneca descent living mostly in what is called upstate New York, but also in New York City mansions, on Nebraska footpaths, BC islands, and rural Tennessee. The stories and characters vary widely in point of view, and as the title implies, they dance along the borderlines between white and indigenous, a constant reckoning with a colonialist and racist society. But in addition to their broad experiences and world views, the characters all deal with themes of family, history, tradition, and intergenerational trauma.
The familial relationships here are so strong and tender, no matter who they bond: long-lost siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, spouses and friends, the dead and the living. Many of the indigenous characters live off of but close to reservations, some white people live in indigenous communities, and some of the indigenous characters are surrounded by whiteness. Melissa Michal has created such potent stories around all of them, with disturbing and beautiful elements all at once. All of the characters, even in the shortest stories, are full of depth and nuance, and that is everything, especially in a short story collection.
In the acknowledgments at the end of this collection, Michal writes that she deliberately attempted to ‘think about that orality in story, although imperfect in execution. It’s a process breaking the rules and expectations about Western language and sentence structures so set into our minds through education systems. But here we are, moving forward, sliding through syllables, around the commas, and into the voice.’ This comes across so well, and makes for a reading experience outside the rigid western structures she writes of. That’s not to say this isn’t readable- it absolutely is, and it’s gorgeous and immersive.
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.
Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole
Avon Impulse, 2019
This book is such a joy. I saw it on Jesse’s (Bowties and Books) Instagram stories at a perfect time, when I was really needing something uplifting. I normally don’t read a lot of romance because I’m a queer ace spectrum human. I don’t usually love the genre. But this one has two really compelling characters with enough depth and backstory to make them interesting and attractive, and have me invested in them individually and together. It’s also so refreshing to read something fun with characters who vary in gender presentation, are from different countries, and are not white. It’s also refreshing that there is no strife whatsoever, internally or externally, about their queer identities. No anguish about the fact that they’re queer. I live for stuff like that. Plus, to quote the book itself, parts of this are hot as hell. But it’s mostly just so cute and heartwarming. That said, it’s very much grounded in the real world, with a B plot involving US immigration and economic and social realities of living in this country. That serves to deepen the narrative enough to keep a story- and character-driven reader like me invested.Overall I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for a short, happy, well-written, beautifully queer little romance story that centers POC. So actually, everyone.
Real Queer America by Samantha Allen (out March 5, but like, you should preorder it. Seriously.)
Little, Brown, 2019
The story of an endlessly endearing queer trans journalist who sets out on a road trip to prove that middle America is not just as queer, but queerer, than the coastal havens? Yes please!
To start with, Samantha Allen’s unique voice comes through so strongly in this book, turning what could be a dry list of statistics and anecdotes into an engrossing journey full of humor, vulnerability, insightfulness and joy. Her voice is joined by the voices of her road brother Billy and everyone they meet along the way. What results is a beautiful tapestry of, well, the real queer america.
Allen does an excellent job of blending interviews and research with her personal experience to paint an eye-opening picture of what it’s really like to be queer in ‘red’ states. She makes a compelling case for the idea that America is incredibly queer, and that queerness is more potent, more inclusive, and even more important in the southern/midwestern oases she visits. She doesn’t have much love for ostensibly queer-friendly places like New York and San Francisco, for some good reasons. She loves the south and the people she interviews love it too, fiercely. It’s a perspective not often present in the media and I found it very moving and thought-provoking. It made me question my own queer haven of Seattle, and how queer it really is. Tbh most of my friends are straight, and even though I love them dearly I don’t feel like I have the same kind of queer family found in the places Allen describes.
To be clear, Allen doesn’t brush off the very real discrimination and lack of rights faced by LGBTQIA+ people in these states, especially those who are POC. She includes a lot of discussion about these realities, but makes the important point that places known for being queer friendly can be just as discriminatory. I know this to be true in Seattle and in other big ‘gay’ cities.
Ultimately it’s the sense of community and family among all the people of the LGBTQIA+ umbrella in these southern oases that I found to be the most vital heart of the story. This book is well-written and well-researched, and it’s a blast to read, but the thing I appreciate most about it is that it made me question my own role in getting too comfortable with sitting in my safe bubble and dismissing red states as scary places for queers. The whole world is scary, for queers and for everyone, and the stories in this book made me want to be more involved in fighting discrimination everywhere. I highly recommend this read to everybody, especially if you’re a coastal queer.
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, opinions are my own.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
One of the areas in which I am underread is first-person, own voices mental illness narratives. Part of the reason for that is how few of those narratives there are in the world, especially that don’t focus purely on depression. It’s not that depression isn’t a serious and important illness (one with which I myself grapple), but the brain, the mind, is the most complicated space in the universe, and there’s more to its health and illness than one disease.
Esmé Weijun Wang is someone I’ve followed a bit here and there online, and have wanted to take her courses for a while. But I didn’t know much of her story, or anyone’s who carries a diagnosis of one or more of the schizophrenias.
This book is incredible. With a combination of deep research and detailed, equally deep insight into the nuances of experiencing psychosis first hand, Wang brings the reader into a totally immersive and gripping memoir. There are so many things I haven’t thought about or heard about in regards to severe mental illness like schizophrenia. One of the many things that struck me most was Wang’s ability to recount how vividly she hallucinated or knew things that weren’t ‘true.’ Another little thing that really stuck on me was one doctor’s comment that eventually all mental illness will be traced to autoimmune disorders. That idea seems like it would make a lot of sense. But there are many facets of this work that really opened and expanded my thinking about severe mental illness, and mental illness in general. It’s beautifully written and Wang’s voice is like your smartest and most empathetic friend. Reading this has transformed my thinking in important ways.
I highly recommend this book to literally every human being, no matter what diagnoses you do or don’t carry.
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review, opinions are my own.
When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan), 2017
This is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Patrisse Khan-Cullors is an incredible writer. Her language uses both beautiful imagery and direct, authoritative, and dynamic prose to weave her personal story with the larger Black Lives Matter movement that she co-founded. She is generous with her story, sharing many vulnerable moments about her family and her personal life, but that vulnerability is not inspiration porn. It’s reality, and that reality is one of white supremacy. The police and other white authorities treat Khan-Cullors and her loved ones, especially her mentally ill brother Monty, so horrifically. In sharing her personal story, she adds her voice to those who have been calling for justice, and more than justice, respect. Humanity. Love.
Khan-Cullors’ empathy and love for her family and community; her commitment to community resilience and care; her understanding of how important community is; and the relentlessness with which she works toward a vision of a better world through organizing and activism even in the face of real and imminent threats to her life and the lives of those around her from American institutions like police, is written here with clarity and precision. Her own voice comes through and it is holding her heart and her rage and her drive, and we all need to listen.
Another thing I LOVE about this book is how *queer* it is. Queerness informs so much of Khan-Cullors’ approach to life and her worldview, which is truly the best thing, because it inherently involves inclusiveness and love alongside a refusal to take shit. I am so thankful that she included so much about her own queerness and gender and the queerness and gender of her friends and lovers. It’s so important to talk about those things openly and in intersectional contexts.
This book is a must read.
The Summer of Dead Birds by Ali Liebegott (out March 12. You should also preorder this one.)
Feminist Press, 2019
This is my first Ali Liebegott but won’t be my last. This potent little meditation on grief is gorgeous and raw. Whether losing a person, pet, or relationship, the graceful and the ugly dovetail in imagery and metaphor for which birds provide the perfect symbol. Birds are delicate, majestic, elegant, reckless, easily broken by this world and yet soar high above it. Such a great book to start off 2019 with! First of at least 4 poetry collections by queer poets I’m reading this year.
Stay tuned for a FP spotlight on the blog later this year; they are such a great publisher!
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review; opinions are my own.
Soft Science by Franny Choi (out April 2)
Alice James Books, 2019
I am a cautious poetry reader. I sometimes find it inaccessible or difficult to understand. But I’m committed to broadening my poetry canon, and anyway I’m a huge fan of the VS podcast, which Franny Choi co-hosts with Danez Smith, so I wanted to read her work. (The podcast is wonderful and you don’t have to identify as a ‘poetry person’ to fully enjoy it.)
Alice James Books was kind enough to send me a digital ARC of this collection, and I read it over the course of a busy day, in chunks between appointments and workouts and jobs. In a way that’s a fitting way to consume it, because the book itself felt a little chaotic, like life in this tech-y age. As the title implies, the themes here are very much centered on the blur around the organic and inorganic, the futuristic and the literal earth. Choi repeats many words throughout, including compost, slug, bacteria, chicken, thumb; and cyborg, please, human, monster. Each section starts with a different Turing test, and cyborgs are coded as womxn.
Some of the poems were difficult for this poetry noob to decipher, I think because of their structure and punctuation on the page which (I’m sure purposefully) was disjointed at times. As someone who mainly reads prose, this is where I struggle. But it just means I have to work a little harder, nothing wrong with that! Other poems were breathtakingly lyrical, and that kept me engaged. I especially loved Bad Daughter and the Perihelion: A History Of Touch series. (I had to google perihelion- it’s the point in orbit when a planet is closest to the sun, and it’s a perfect title for what follows it.)
There are definite themes of outsiderness around race and gender, of fear and resilience. Overall I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking to read more poetry and challenge themselves a little bit (if they’re not already into poetry).
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Opinions are my own.
Coffee will Make You Black by April Sinclair
Welp, my first DNF of the year. This is classified as queer but halfway through and I’m not seeing it. In fact it seems aggressively hetero, but that’s not why I’m abandoning it. I am not here for the tired, oversimplified narrative of a preteen/early teens girl and the boring writing common to YA novels that basically just says girls are as good as boys. Not to hate on the author; I can see this being a good read for a very young person, and I appreciate the perspective of a Black female protagonist, but I can get that in adult lit, and I am not feeling this book either in plot or style so I’m out. This is why I don’t read YA.
Besotted by Melissa Duclos
DNF number 2 of 2019. I’m halfway through this book, which the author was kind enough to send me, but it’s not working for me. First, the things I appreciate about it: queer protagonists, detailed setting descriptions that give a sense of place, some pretty great lesbian sex scenes, and a lovely opening passage about a pearl necklace in a box. I thought I’d be *really* into this book based on the first few pages, but I’m not feeling it.
One of my major struggles is the first person omniscient narrator. I keep finding myself wondering how this person could know every action and feeling in the other characters’ lives, and all that wondering takes me out of the story. Another thing that bothers me is how white this Shanghai-based story is. To be clear, this is a story about American expats teaching English in China. But the few (so far only two) Chinese characters who have actual parts to play are one-dimensional and feel stereotyped.
Finally, I can’t empathize with any of the characters. The narrator is shockingly selfish and manipulative, I would even say predatory. Liz, the newcomer/love interest, could not care less about her students who she’s there to teach, which really just makes her seem awful. And Dorian, the resident Dudebro, is, well, a dudebro.
I don’t want to slam this book too much, especially since I want to support queer authors and the writer of this particular book has a wonderful newsletter that highlights small press books and indie publishers (which I highly recommend subscribing to!) I admire her work and I know it’s no small feat to publish a novel. But this one is not for me. I do appreciate the opportunity to read it and thank her for the copy.
Thanks for reading! I hope this list has inspired you, and that you have a wonderful start to your February!
Note: I am an IndieBound affiliate, so if you feel like purchasing any of the books mentioned, you can support this blog at the same time! Just click through the title links provided 🙂 Thanks, and happy reading!