March went by so fast, how did that happen?! I had a great month. I had some articles published; I went to AWP and saw Kristin Stewart *and* got a selfie with Melissa Febos (bless her gracious heart for dealing with my fangirling), both of which made my gay life; I heard T Kira Madden read 3 separate times; I heard approximately 300 other mind-blowing writers read too, including Melissa Febos, Genevieve Hudson (whose Pretend We Live Here was one of my top 3 reads last year), Ali Liebegott (whose new collection The Summer of Dead Birds is one of my favorite reads this year), Jaquira Diaz, Michelle Tea, Sarah Schulman, Chen Chen, Alicia Mountain, Kimberly King Parsons, Chelsea Bieker, and so many more (google them); I bought my first crystal; I continue to fill notebooks with scrawl that needs to be typed up; and hey, I still managed to read 11 books! (Because audio is a thing.) Here’s the stats breakdown:
- Authors of color: 5
- Women/nonbinary: 9
- LGBTQIA+ writers and/or content: 5
- Mental or physical illness: 1
- White: 2 (both men??? who am I) (one was assigned to me for a project and I hated it)
- Poetry: 1
Reading Women prompts fulfilled:
- Mystery or thriller by a woman of color: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Memoir March, in which I read memoirs in March and have the best luck ever:
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
I wrote a love letter to this debut memoir already; I’m calling it now that this is my favorite read of the year. (Which is saying something.)
Educated by Tara Westover
It’s hard to go into a book as hyped as this one with an open mind. I felt like I was already saturated with it before I started. But while I did know the basic structure and content of the book beforehand, I still really enjoyed it. Westover’s story is pretty unique and very gripping. She’s very good at immersing the reader in her world, both her physical world and her interior world.
The gaslighting that went on in her family, especially with her brother and father, is so extreme and violent, but the author manages to maintain deep empathy for them and for herself. That gives the story depth and humanity that as a reader I found extremely compelling. On top of that, I was also struck by the fact of her family’s survival, because so many things happened to them that could have killed them. Like, so many things.
I definitely recommend this book for a look at how an extremist family can live in this country. However, be warned that part of this extremism is potent racism and gun culture. It’s disturbing, to say the least. And while Westover herself manages to broaden her view of the world and gain a sense of social justice, most of her family doesn’t.
Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia
This book is so delightful. I really love Tobia’s ‘gender-chill’ approach to discussing identity. They’re very funny, for one thing, and I found myself laughing a lot. But although obviously not everything is light-hearted when it comes to gender in society, this memoir feels just as liberating to listen to as it does for the author, whose liberation is the scaffolding of the book. It functions as a traditional memoir, I might actually call it an autobiography because it’s chronological, but it’s also a really cool story about a person whose gender exploration was and is all the things: fun, confusing, strange, comfortable and uncomfortable, difficult, and most importantly, joyful. It’s definitely accessible to people who aren’t gender geeks, but it isn’t so Gender 101 that it felt dumbed down for a cishet audience (mostly). I would recommend this book to just about everyone, it’s a quick read with a totally engaging narrator and a fantastic mix of humor and some of the tougher aspects of growing up in general.
This is a really nice, quick read, especially if you’re a Broad City fan. I really like Abbi Jacobsen and relate to a lot of aspects of this story, specifically to her inner turmoil around love, identity, and self-worth. She is very funny and also very earnest, which works for me. Also her illustrations are great! I super enjoyed this little memoir, and would absolutely recommend it to Broad City obsessives like me!
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli
This essay about children migrating/fleeing to the US from the Northern Triangle countries is as powerful as everyone says. Luiselli is a great writer, and her sharp insight into, and incisive criticism of, the US immigration ‘system’ and the human rights violations that swirl around these kids, and around refugees and immigrants in general, from all sides, is powerful, clear, and really well written. I’m looking forward to reading more from her.
This book is unlike any I’ve ever read. It’s part biography, part friendship story, part cultural history, part job profile. Sandra is a trauma cleaner, working in living spaces where there are hazardous and unusual cleanup jobs: extreme infestations of mold/bugs/etc, houses where people have been hoarding, where people have lived alone without being able to take care of themselves or their homes, or where people have died. How she became an expert in this field is only a part of Sandra’s engrossing life story, which I won’t spoil. She is a fascinating and complicated human being who I loved reading about. But the thing I loved most about this book is how much empathy both the author and Sandra have for the clients of the cleaning business. As a reader I felt this empathy and respect too. A lot of times, hoarders or other people who may need this kind of service for whatever reason (usually having to do with isolation) are sensationalized and portrayed as subjects to either be despised or pitied. I didn’t find that here which is really refreshing. I feel like I learned a lot from this book and got a really good story too. Highly recommend!
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore
I read this book as a buddy read with some bookstagram friends, which totally enriched my experience. It definitely fits into the category of ‘epic.’ Beginning with the parents of the three gifted characters who will become important in Moore’s magical realism-tinged story based on the founding of Liberia, the book then moves to The Three’s brief intersection before they orbit away from each other again, coming back together in the final pages. I found this book really compelling in its exploration of how parable, recorded history, legend/myth, gender, language, and magic can intersect in life. I found myself spending a lot of time with it because the sentences are constructed in such a way that they are dense and a little circumspect, like a lot of parables or religious texts are. I’m sure this was intentional and although it was slow at times, I actually liked being pushed into a place of focus.
It seems that the magical realism shows up in opposition to oppression, which is something someone in my buddy read group pointed out that I found really interesting and a great subversion technique. I’m not much of a genre reader but from what I understand, this is common thing to employ in genre fiction and particularly afrofuturism. I also found the intersection of language and colonialism to be well-rendered in this story, which is something I think gets overlooked a lot.
The other thing that struck me was the homoeroticism, which may not be the best word, but there are a couple of same-gender friendships that seemed to blur the line into intimate partner love. Part of me wishes it was more explicit, but I’m not sure if my blind spots as a white American keep me from seeing those scenes as indicative of a less rigid society re: sexuality. There’s a lot I still don’t know about the founding of Liberia but it’s definitely complex and unique, and there’s a list of further reading in the back of the book that I will be looking into.
I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it, especially if you’re in the mood for an epic tale involving multiple characters, places, and timelines.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
This tiny little thriller-esque book has been making the rounds every which way on the bookternet, and since it fulfills a Reading Women prompt and also everyone seems to at least like it, I decided to get the audio from the library. I am not usually a thriller person. I have very low threshold for violence and gore. But this book is an easy read (and the audio is fantastic), and it’s not too gory at all. It’s kind of just silly, but like in a fun way. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and that’s a real strength. I like how it deals with a sister relationship, fortified through shared trauma but also just through that alchemy that makes sisters love each other no matter what. That relationship grounded this book that otherwise would not be my first choice (due to much murder and heteros). Also, I like the setting of this book a lot, it gives a good sense of place in Lagos with brief detailed descriptions that convey a solid sense place. Overall I recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick, entertaining read that centers non-western women of color.
The Far Field by Vijay Madhuri
I have very mixed feelings about this book. There are a lot of things I really like about it, not least that Vijay is extremely skilled at creating atmosphere and a vivid sense of place. There are a lot of characters in this story that I was invested in, and I liked getting to know them. The relationship between the protagonist, Shalini, and her mother was really well written and nuanced, painful but felt very real. And the setting and plot, which illustrate some of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, bring a perspective not often seen in mainstream literature in the West, so in that sense I’m glad this book is doing well and also that I read it.
At a certain point though, the plot got too unwieldy. I was still in for most of it until the end, when one scene in particular really made me angry and kind of ruined the book for me. Shalini’s character was flawed from the start, which is not a bad thing because she was also sympathetic and seemed to be growing and learning, but in the end she made a decision with such obvious, horrible consequences that proved she hadn’t learned anything at all. Also [spoiler] when she hooks up with her dad’s friend?!?! Like why??? That scene was so unnecessary and it really disgusted me because I hate when super powerful men are portrayed as having effortless power over young women. I’m over that shit, I want better stories than that. This book had the potential to be a 4-star read but the ending really disappointed me.
Here Is What You Do: Stories by Chris Dennis
First 1-star read of the year for me. I almost never dislike a book as much as I disliked this one. It is not for me. I finished it for an assignment but really struggled despite the fact that it’s a fast read. This is the kind of lit I don’t like at all- it’s too dark, too misogynistic, too violent for me. The female characters are one-dimensional at best, and literally every single character is unredemptively awful. I hated all of them. Reading this felt like fingernails on a chalkboard. The violence- which comes through in cringey af sex scenes, sexual and emotional abuse, self-destructive thought patterns and suicide, a *lot* of dead animals- felt unbearable to me. It disappoints me that this is from a queer writer, with a lot of queer content, but imo it fits stereotypes of queer ‘deviance’ and tragedy that I’m not at all interested in. Plus, one of the stories is told from the POV of Coretta Scott King about her husband’s affairs, and I’m very uneasy about a white cis man writing a Black woman’s pain. Overall this reads like a teenage boy’s attempt to deal with existential angst through writing the most disturbing and unlikeable stories ever. Which is fine, but I don’t want to read it. If you like Catcher in the Rye you might like this. But I do not.
Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky
I reviewed this one for the Seattle Times, but here’s my Goodreads review:
This is a one-sitting read, a book of poetry both infinitely layered and accessible for prose-favorers. Kaminsky does an excellent job of using very specific images and words to ground the reader and attaches clear meaning to them. The concept of collective silence, of deafness imposed and as insurgency, as a response to war is so so good and extremely relevant. The ‘peacetime’ poems show the reader exactly how we are not at peace, not even when we think we are. A really engrossing and scary and beautiful page-turner of a poetry collection.
That’s it, friends! I hope you’re having a great April so far 🙂
And for a bonus, here’s some pictures from AWP:
Clockwise from left: entry into the Awkward Selfie Archive (I’m the awkward one); one of my best writing friends and all-around magical human Katie who you can and should follow on Instagram + Twitter; Mother Foucault’s bookshop, run by Sophia Shalmiyev and her partner, which is actually exactly like the bookstore from A Neverending Story.
Note: I received copies of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls and Deaf Republic from the publishers- Bloomsbury and Graywolf Press respectively- in exchange for an honest review. Opinions are my own.
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