Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Black voices Book reviews LGBTQIA+ Monthly wrap-up Nonfiction Reading challenge

February/Black History Month Reading Wrap-Up

Hello readers! It’s been a minute since I posted something, for which I blame my poor time management skills and erratic schedule, but I’m finally here with my February wrap-up! I mainly read Black authors this month in honor of Black History Month, and was inspired by @reggiereads to read pre-21st century Black lit. I have a lot of it on my shelves and it was long overdue anyway. I also participated in Blackathon, and fulfilled most of the prompts, though I didn’t get to all of them. I was able to finish most of the books on my TBR for the month so I’m pretty happy about that! And more importantly, they were all amazing. Every single one. (Well, with caveats for Giovanni’s Room.)

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Here’s the breakdown of the stats for the month:

  • Authors of color: 10, including 7 Black, 1 Iranian-American, 1 of South Asian descent and a diverse array of writers from varying backgrounds in an anthology
  • Women: 8
  • LGBTQIA+ writers and/or content: 9
  • Mental or physical illness: Depends on how you count this; at least 2
  • White: 0
  • Pre-21st century: 5

Blackathon prompts fulfilled:

  1. Feel the Love- a romance between 2 Black people (Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole)
  2. Hear Us: Any work by a Black/African author (multiple)
  3. More than a color: read a book with an intersectional Black character (multiple)
  4. Read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (I read this last year, didn’t re-read it, so I only sort of fulfilled this prompt)

Reading Women prompts fulfilled:

  1. Any book in a series (Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, Once Ghosted Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole)

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker

“Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind, water, a big rock.

But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.”

It’s hard to express in words how much I love this book. It has some of my favorite quotes and passages in literature. Reading it feels like being among all the trees and stars and rivers and songs of the universe. I cried and laughed so many times, often while on the same page, that I feel like I’m having an emotional hangover. But like, the world’s best hangover.

“First time I got the full sight of Shug Avery long black body with it black plum nipples, look like her mouth, I thought I had turned into a man.

What you staring at? she ast. Hateful. She weak as a kitten. But her mouth just pack with claws.”

This is the story of Celie and Nettie, two sisters whose childhood was marred by circumstance, patriarchy, white supremacy, and poverty. But they are both deep, gorgeously rendered characters, and the connection they share carries the book even as they part as teenagers and don’t see each other again until they are old women. In between, we get perspectives from both of them via letters they write to each other and/or God. Celie is more of the protagonist, though Nettie’s story is fairly fleshed out too.

This is also the story of Celie and Shug, two women with one of the best love stories I’ve ever read. Both are such deep characters, with equal parts wit and determination and desire and individuality. Celie’s relationships with the women in this book, chiefly Nettie and Shug but also several others, crushed my heart in the best way.Love is a huge theme of this book: the different forms it takes, its destructive powers, its fortifying powers, its metamorphosis over time. Celie is also probably my favorite queer character I have *ever* read, which is wild because I read so much queer stuff. I love her and will love her forever.

There are so many characters in this novel that are all so compelling, even the ones who are deeply, deeply flawed. I was invested in all of them. But a deep feminine energy lifts this book, and the female characters are by far the most interesting. Luckily there’s a lot of them.

There is some tough stuff in this book, especially around sexual abuse. But there is pure joy here too. It’s also so much more of a page-turner than I expected; it almost reads like an epic, with a perfect balance of plot and internality. It paints a gorgeous picture of family in a world so vast and troubling and beautiful. Highly, highly recommend. Can’t wait to read literally everything else Alice Walker has written, including the other two books in this series?! (Not a true series but there are two other books in this world/with these characters.)

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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

“Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me-so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins. Another meeting.”

This quote from the epilogue of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is a perfect encapsulation of the story. It revolves around women (broadly defined): Her mother, her childhood friends, adolescent friends, her adult friends and lovers, her ancestors, and herself. Audre Lorde (whose name used to be Audrey, but she didn’t like the ‘y’ because it has a tail, or a phallic look; hence the subtitle of this book) was such a wonderful writer. She thought so critically and beautifully about everything, not least race, class, sexuality, gender, and love, and she wrote powerfully about all of these things.

This is a memoir (and an autobiography, because it’s chronological) that covers Lorde’s early childhood, her experiences as a student at Hunter College, the formation of her group The Branded, her time in Mexico during the McCarthy era, her return to New York City, and a lot of other moments in between. The beginning of the book introduces the reader to Carriacou, a West Indian island where her mother was from and which could not be found on a map. That’s a serious metaphor right there. Lorde writes about language and the way her mother talked, and creates a kind of mythical island in her mind that she calls ‘home’ based on her mother. It’s such a perfect frame to start this journey. (The title is also part of that frame, because of what Zami means, but I’ll let you read it to figure that out.)

I could go on about this book forever, but instead I’ll just say, go read it if you haven’t. I’m so glad I finally picked this up. Also, it’s one of the queerest things I’ve ever read, which is high praise.

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Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia Butler

This book is so gripping and action-packed. I listened to the audio and followed along a bit on print, and the audio narration by Lynne Thigpen is fantastic.

I love Octavia Butler. She was amazing at world building and plot, and her writing is always a little unsettling beneath the surface, which makes for really compelling stories. Parable of the Sower is no exception. It’s my favorite book I’ve read by her actually, out of Kindred, Fledgling and Dawn.

The story takes place over the course of several years and follows Lauren, who is kind of a Joan of Arc archetype; she has Hyperempathy, which makes her able to feel the pain of others in a visceral way. It takes place in a dystopian near-future on the west coast (southern CA at first, stretching to just below the Oregon border later). There are elements of modern American life that are recognizable, yet are rapidly falling apart as resources, government and society collapse. It feels very predictive of end-stage capitalism.

Lauren’s father is a preacher, and after her family is killed, she sets out with a fellow community member and heads north. Along the way they pick up more refugees, until they’ve got a tenuous but bonded motley traveling community of their own. Lauren writes all the time, and the book is told from her first-person POV, but as she goes on this journey she is also writing the Book of the Living for Earthseed, a religion she’s forming.

I am *very* dubious about religion in general. I think it can be far too prescriptive, controlling, exclusive, hateful, and does more harm that good. But even though I don’t really buy into Lauren’s parables, I was definitely invested in her character and her journey and found it really compelling to think about human desperation and what that drives people to do, as well as the urgent search for meaning driven by that desperation.

This book is so good and there’s so much going on in it, so I’ll just say I highly recommend it. It’s so potent in story and craft, and super readable.

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Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

My final read of February, and one fitting for Black history month. Like many American high schoolers, I read A Raisin In The Sun in school, but that’s all I really knew about Lorraine Hansberry until this book was released last year. And wow, did I learn a lot from this incredibly comprehensive, gorgeous biography.

It’s a serious shame that Hansberry isn’t talked or written about more. She was such a fascinating human being, with so much depth, and she contributed a TON to the civil rights movement, the movement for global Black liberation, and to the thought and discourse of the time (though she was very ahead of her time in a lot of ways). She was a writer, a radical, a devoted friend, an activist. She was someone I not only wish I had learned more about growing up, but someone I wish I could’ve known. I’m grateful to Imani Perry for bringing her to life in these pages.

Perry spent years looking through Hansberry’s papers, which are archived in Harlem, thanks to her husband who worked hard to preserve her legacy. Despite very little besides Raisin being published, Hansberry was prolific and Perry is able to craft a detailed biography of her from her own writings and the writings of people who loved her, which was a lot of people. She was very close with James Baldwin and Nina Simone (there’s a great chapter on the three of them called The Trinity), Langston Hughes, W.E.B Dubois, Ossie Davis, and a slew of others. She was even in a serious relationship with Molly Malone Cook y’all!! And Cook took the photo on the cover! That just delights me.

This book is a loving biography, a history of progressive Black movements of the 50s and 60s, a queer love story, a writer’s mentor. Reading it literally got me to write again after a real slump, because even though Hansberry also had her bouts with depression, she wrote a lot. She wrote things she hated, she wrote things she kept secret, she wrote mundane things. I want to read all of it, which made me think, maybe that stuff is worth writing, even if it seems useless. So I have Perry and Hansberry to thank for creative inspiration and some vital education about a person and a time period that are part of my inheritance as a queer person in the US.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Excuse me while I go re-read Raisin and plan my trip to NYC so I can look at some of these archives myself.

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Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

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.

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Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

I wrote a whole post on this, you can find it here!

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What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha

This is a page-turner of a true crime story, where the crime is ethnic cleansing and manslaughter of an entire population, mainly children. The author isn’t afraid to call it that, which is really important. The water crisis in Flint continues to be one of the most incensing of many examples of the government of this white supremacist country not only failing, but actively harming its citizens. But despite how hopeless this can seem, the optimism, drive, and humanity of the author and the myriad of people who helped fight the cover up and apathy of many officials is truly heartening. Also, Dr. Mona is a fantastic storyteller. I definitely recommend the audio!

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The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman (editors)

Almost every essay in this collection worked for me on a craft and content level. There are so many stories here, and so many ways of telling them. And so many amazing writers! I came for Alexander Chee, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Jenny Zhang, Rahawa Haile, Porochista Khakpour, and Maeve Higgins. I loved all of their essays, and discovered some new favorite writers along the way, especially Tejal Rao, Fatima Farheen Mirza, Susanne Ramírez de Allerano, and Jade Chang. ‘Swimmer,’ ‘Chooey-Booey and Brown,’ ‘Your Father’s Country,’ ‘Skittles’ and ‘Return to Macondo’ are definite standouts for me. I will be seeking out the writing of the writers I didn’t know before whose essays moved the hell out of me. I highly recommend this book to every human. If nothing else, I’m sure you’ll find a writer you like here. I also want to check out the UK version now! It came out in 2016, same editors.

I received an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review, opinions are my own.

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Once Ghosted, Twice Shy by Alyssa Cole

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.

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

I’ve been meaning to read this book since it came out last year, and when my hold on the audiobook (read engagingly by the author) came through from the library I was psyched. It’s really short (I’m really winning with the sort books so far this year!) but it’s potent. I love Shraya’s spot-on observations and analysis of masculinity and society. She does an excellent job of pinpointing the ways in which misogyny eats away at humanity, and the ways it affects people of all genders. Super quick listen that will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommend!

That’s it for this wrap-up, thanks for reading! I hope you’ve found some reading inspiration here. Have you read any of these books? Tell me about it in the comments! Thanks for reading!

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Sarah Neilson
<p>Reading mainly own voices books, usually in the genres of memoir, literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry. I love reading and hope you'll find some great reviews here!</p>

2 thoughts on “February/Black History Month Reading Wrap-Up

  1. I think Parable of the Sower is going to be my next book by Butler – I read Kindred last year and was wondering what to tackle next, so thank you!

    If you’d like to try another ace spectrum romance you may want to look at Syncopation by Anna Zabo. It’s the first in a series of books about a queer rock band and features an m/m relationship with an aromantic hero, and Zabo is nonbinary and bi. 🙂

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