What I’m Reading | Summer 2016 Reviews

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-small

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Roxane Gay is amazing and so is her debut novel; I couldn’t put this book down. A page-turner from start to finish and a sensitive discussion of sexual assault and the long-term consequences of trauma, Gay does not shy away from difficult subjects in her fiction, nor does she tidy them up. The protagonist is messy, even unlikable at times. The supporting characters are dynamic in their limitations. No one is a hero. Even the bad guys evoke empathy. Trigger Warning for graphic depictions of rape. That said, I did not find this book triggering but rather validating and affirming. The effects of trauma are real and Gay knows her way around this subject intimately.

RubyRuby by Cynthia Bond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-smallbest-of-16-35

Genre: Historical Fiction

This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever, ever read. Read it slowly. Savor every word. It’s as if Doerr’s talent with prose collided the grit and brutality of Roxane Gay’s content and then became a bird who birthed an egg and out of that egg hatched something entirely new, something only deep healing could achieve. Reading this book you get the sense that its author has seen the depths of hell and somehow learned to render the beauty of that place, its intricacies. The main characters of this story are layer upon layer of tragically flawed, it physically hurts to see them inch forward into their courage and then retreat into shame, again and again and again – in the way only real humans can do. The barriers between the characters’ internal emotional terrain and their physical reality are as permeable as rain. This kind of writing is the reason I still believe in the irrevocable heal-ability of humanity. This book is the reason I read.

The Faraway NearbyThe Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

My rating: 4 of 5 stars4-stars

Genre: Non-fiction, Essays, Memoir

To enjoy Solnit’s work, you must relinquish your expectations of linear storytelling. This is hard for me, so reading this collection-of-essays-that-is-kind-of-a-memoir was an exercise in exhaling, in allowing someone else to lead me through the dark hallways of her mind. And I loved it; I loved the surprising turns, the hallways of thought Solnit explores. When I wasn’t stressed out by the tangential narrative style that sometimes never returns to itself, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. If I had thought it of a collection of essays instead of a memoir, I would have loved it more. Her honest examination of her relationship with an ungenerous mother now diminished by dementia was easily my favorite part. I wanted more of these personal notes, and if this was the memoir I expected it to be, this would be my critique: not personal enough, not searing, too much veering away from the discomfort of the thing that is most true. I don’t particularly love intellectual tangents if they are not grounded in emotional terrain, and this is where she lost me on some of her meanderings. But even when I started to gloss over, I was drawn back in eventually by the unique quality of her prose.

salt.salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-smallbest-of-favorite

Genre: Poetry

If only there were six stars for the writing of nayirah waheed. Never before has poetry made me weep in this way. That is to say, uncontrollably. With sadness, with joy, trembling with relief, shivering with the terror that comes of being set suddenly and voraciously free. To read her work is to come away fundamentally changed, ignited on behalf of your Self, precisely and tenderly aware of a voice rumbling dangerously through the recesses of your bones.

i fell apart many times
what does that say about me
i live through
-nayyirah waheed, salt

Teaching My Mother How to Give BirthTeaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-smallbest-of-favorite

Genre: Poerty

You may know Warsan Shire as the voice behind Beyonce’s haunting visual album “Lemonade”. Shire’s poetry writhes with imagery. What stays beyond the memory of words is the sensations: the lapping of ocean against skin, the splinted wood of breaking boats, sugar on the tongue, the shame of not belonging, absence. Shire leads us through her world, a white world where refugees are not welcome. And because that map is inherently sensual, I feel my own world in her words: my own father shadow, my own stories of Ugly Self. I treasure this bendable, 34-page book and return to it again and again, as a lamplight into my own felt sense.

Citizen: An American LyricCitizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-smallmust-read-35

Genre: Poetry, Essay, Race

Until I read this book, I did not know, had not bothered to imagine, what racism really feels like. It has, heretofore, been an abstraction to me, this thing that permeates the everyday life of people of color and doesn’t touch me at all. I had categorized white privilege in headlines like Not Getting Killed By Cops or Not Having To Worry That My Brother Will Be Shot For Wearing A Hoodie. I had never considered the daily, insidious ways that racism plays out: the comments, insinuations, the sheer invisibility. The realness of my privilege disoriented me.

Rankine invites us to join her experience by sharing it nakedly, without analysis, judgement, or blame. She writes in micro-fiction snippets, like you just dropped into her story for a minute or fifteen. There you are, in the drug store with her, in a diner, at her therapist’s house. Speaking about her experiences of racial micro-aggressions is very, very brave in part because they are often proffered by well-meaning individuals and are thus subject to minimization. But she takes that risk, entrusts her vulnerability to our gaze.

I found this way of writing richly accessible and deeply inspiring. I wondered what micro-aggressions I have graced and glossed over, normalized, buried in my bones. I wondered what it would feel like to put them on the page. Not the deconstruction of abusive behavior, not the labeling of each traumatic event – just the experience, raw and vulnerable. The words, the sensation in the chest.

This is poetry. Or micro-fiction. Or memoir. Or Rankine has started a new genre that is now my favorite genre. She packs a lot of gravity into 169 half-pages. Buy it, check it out at the library. Let her voice sink in, by which I mean accept her invitation, share in her experience of life. Let the visual art encircle your throat. Sit with all these things. Observe what is born in your heart.

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