What If We Had Lost the Civil War, Convos Amongst Trees, and A Meditation On Solitude: Winter Book Reviews

Behold the DreamersBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars4-stars

An easy-to-read, enjoyable story that left in me with resounding empathy for the immigrant experience. Jende and Neni are Cameroonian immigrants living and working in New York City during the advent of the recent economic crisis. Mbue is not writing a fairytale and her characters are flawed and human – often painfully so. Cameroon’s male-dominant culture nods at us through the seams of this tapestry. Jende, who we spend the whole book getting to know and love, hits his wife. Neni, his wife, blackmails a former employer with unexpected and devastating consequences. Throughout the book I was at once rooting for them to stay, despite all the setbacks, and wondering at the fierceness of their determination. Many times I caught myself thinking they should just do this or do that, and then realizing that they can’t because these privileges are not available to people without American citizenship. This is a snapshot of a world I could never occupy, and as such, occupies the league good literature. I would like this to be on Trump’s required reading list.

Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

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

This is a fierce and captivating book; I couldn’t put it down. The underground airlines are not airlines, just as the Underground Railroad was not a railroad; rather it is a symbolic term for a collection of independent cells working to free enslaved people in the ‘four’ – AKA the four states in which slavery is still legal. Winters does a marvelous job at imagining what America would look like if slavery had not been abolished. Not ‘how shitty the world would be if barbarians ran it still’, but really: what would modern-day human enslavement look like? How would it be justified? How would it be seen by the rest of the world? And he keeps these contextual details on the sidelines, giving just enough to construct a very believable world. The real heart of this book, though, is the main character, Victor, who is layers and layers of human: flawed, lovable, and immensely talented. Victor who painfully dishonest. Victor who, throughout the story, is shedding the lies he tells himself in order to survive. Winters’ prose is sound and his imagination is magnificent and, more importantly, he is a keen observer of human nature in all its intricacy.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate-Discoveries from a Secret WorldThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate-Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 3-stars

Did you know trees communicate? Neither did I. The content of this book is fascinating and pretty easy to understand for a lay person. I found the science a little tedious so unless you enjoy science reading, I recommend you skip the book and read Maria Popova’s delightful breakdown, The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate in which she quotes the most important bits, the bits that will give wings to your heart and open your eyes to the magnificent community of forest-dwelling, living-being trees.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of LivingBecoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett

4-stars

I listened to this podcast, but since it has been made into a book, I thought I’d give it a review. Becoming Wise takes the best snippets if wisdom from Krista Tippett’s On Being conversations and squishes them together into twenty, bite-sized parts. It’s a great way to wade into On Being if you, like me, feel somewhat intimidated by the sheer volume of episodes and don’t know where to start. My favorites were Maria Popova, Matthew Sanford, Bessel van der Kolk, and John O’Donohue – but there were none that I didn’t enjoy. If you’re looking for something to remind you of what is important in the most fundamental way, and if that something needs to be accessible to you while you wash dishes or take a dump, this is your jam. Follow it up with more On Being, possibly the best podcast in the world.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

5-stars-smallbest-of-favorite

It took me a long time to start this book, and once I did, a long time to finish it. First of all, the subject sounded boring. Second: the size of this tome and its sequel are frankly intimidating. Then I cracked it and it was amazing. It begins with Thomas Cromwell being beat within an inch of his life by his father, staring at the lacings on his boot as he lays on the cobblestones in a pool of his own blood. And then Cromwell does what all survivors of abuse do: he survives. He runs away from England and learns a three-card trick and makes friends and becomes a soldier and eventually finds his way back to England where he marries and becomes lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (fancy!) and then adviser to the king. What kept him alive on the cobblestones, the resourcefulness that he learned surviving on his own as a young man on the continent, alone and without familial support, make him a source of intrigue to those who know him – able to speak confidently with a king but with no title or claim to power, other than the knowledge of his own heart. Mantel’s rendering of him is masterful and intimate. I feel close to the man, I feel I know him, I feel some how that he is me.

NOTE: I have not finished all 531 glorious pages of this book yet, but I feel like it is time to put it down for a while as I explore other rich narratives.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being AloneThe Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

5-stars-smallbest-of-16-35

This is easily my favorite book of 2016; I can’t wait for it to be old so that I can afford to buy it and underline everything. Olivia Laing is a genre-bending beast of artistry. Her own journey of post-breakup loneliness evolves into an exploration of the subject itself, its taboo a source of intrigue, a gravity she organizes herself around. She compassionately explores the lives of a handful of visual artists who have been deeply touched – perhaps even scarred – by loneliness. These biographies serve to illuminate the social factors that create isolation; they are platforms from which to leap into discussion about how marginalized people survive, what isolates populations, and how important connection is. This is a work of deep celebration of human resourcefulness and resiliency, grounded in the struggles of real people who made in order to survive. You do not need to have an interest in visual art or art history in order to be moved deeply by these portraits.

Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino

4-stars

This is a weird and wonderful little book of experimental fiction that reads like poetry. In it, Marco Polo is telling Kaublai Khan, an emperor, about the cities he has visited. At some point it becomes clear to Kublai that he is, in fact, describing the same city over and over again. the book consists of tiny, poetic “chapters” that are the descriptions of this city. The context seems a fairly obvious literary device, similar to the walls of a home: it allows life to be contained within. Each chapter is delightful adventure of the senses. This line, above all, encapsulates the enchanting quality of this book: “There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain, and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres”.

Journal of a SolitudeJournal of a Solitude by May Sarton

My rating: 3-stars

May Sarton’s journals should be consumed as a series meditations on the inner life of an artist – and by artists, I mean any human in relentless pursuit of their own authentic life. I could have done without the detailed descriptions of flowers, but then again, they seemed to be sources of awe and inspiration for Sarton. Not so much for me. More than anything else, what I got from this book was validation that my own deep desire for solitude is wholesome and that I am not alone in that need. My favorite quote:

“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange- that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations’.”

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What I’m Reading | Fall 2016 Reviews

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars4-5-starsbest-of-16-35

Genre: Historical Fiction

Gyasi’s sweeping narrative traces forward the lineage of a fictional family in Africa from the beginning of the slave trade to their descendants in modern day America. I still can’t fathom the width and breadth of racism in this country, or the damage done to the very real people that were enslaved. Within the pages of this book, as in real life, it is the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of staggering abuse that inspires me to fill my lungs again: to trust a little more in my humanity, to scream louder on behalf of my peers. Homegoing is a story of how we got to where we are. It’s an astonishing work of art that reels your heart in and then breaks it with reality, over and over again. And yet, somehow, this book still felt warm and inviting in my hands. I made friends, if only to loose them – I made good, good friends.

Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But HereRiverine: A Memoir from Anywhere But Here by Angela Palm

My rating: 4 of 5 stars4-stars

Genre: Non-fiction, Autobiography, Memoir

The palpable attraction – shit, the painfully obvious love – between the author and her incarcerated childhood neighbor, Corey, continues to tear at my heart days after I have put down this refreshingly honest memoir. This relationship is the heartbeat of the book. It pulses through Palm’s description the Kankakee’s dirty water, it wafts above the cheesesteak fries she serves. How can someone you love do something terrible and why doesn’t this make your love disappear? This is a question with which I am acutely familiar. I have rarely seen this internal conflict rendered well, if at all, in literature and this has often made me feel very alone. The sensitive display of such utterly unsolvable conflict is the crowning achievement of this book.

Then there is the drought that is the middle of this narrative, in which I slogged through page after Corey-less page, bored and yearning. Perhaps this is a reflection of the author’s own life. Or perhaps the things we silently year for and grieve come alive on the page in a way that alive things do not. It’s an excusable offense for a first book. And because Palm’s voice is searching and authentic, and because her writing is good, I persevered. And I was rewarded by rich, lightening-veined descriptions of her prison visit at long last. These pages haunt me still, as does the cognitive dissonance within them. I will eagerly consume whatever Palm writes next.

Bad FeministBad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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

Genre: Essay, Feminism, Gender, Race

You should know before you read this review: I’m fairly obsessed with Roxane Gay. I read everything she writes, listen to all the podcasts on which she appears. Basically, I would like to be her when I grow up. Her essays are intelligent, insightful, funny, bold. But more than that, she illuminates concepts in a way I have never experienced before; she puts words to things that occupy a wordless space in my heart. These essays are jam-packed with cultural criticisms and they are motherf*cking magic.

No, not magic. Human. These essays are intellectual AND deeply personal. They’re observing but they’re also participatory. Gay scathingly criticizes immature, one-dimensional pop-culture sensations like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Help” while baring her humanity: Fifty Shades turned her on at times, she cried multiple times during “The Help”. She cops to her own [understandable] bias against white people writing black characters. She writes about the sexual assault that preceded her own weight gain and her desire to occupy more space with the same frankness which which she calls out the elitism of “Girls” (and no, you don’t need to be familiar with pop-culture to understand her work). The valence of both her strength and vulnerability startle, inspire and challenge and, as you might have gathered, I am star-struck silly with delight.

All the Birds in the SkyAll the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars3-stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy

This is not a life-changing book, but it’s fun. It’s really fun. It reads like YA lit to me, and if I were Anders’ editor, I would have advised her to strike the sex scene, shaved balls and all, and sell it as such. I loved how easy this was to read and, in equal measure, hated its simplicity (I felt similarly about Station Eleven, minus the love – and fully excused it in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender precisely because it was sold as Young Adult). While it’s fun to read about hipsters at parties, dialog that begins with “She was like…” makes me want to rip my nails out one by one. That said, Anders’ creativity is mesmerizing and I kept coming back for more. Please make this into a movie so I can actually finish it.

bonebone by Yrsa Daley-Ward

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

Genre: Poetry

Bone cleaved my heart in two halves and I let it, only to discover ripe fruit inside, dripping with exquisite sensitivity; that which I thought was was my heart was a brown and shriveled walnut-matte shell. Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry and prose is a courageous, bold, feminine, authentic to distraction – equal in power only to the work of nayirrah waheed and Warsan Shire. Her words burst with pain, with joy, with that thing in yourself you have neglected, with Yes (and also with no). I feel like I know her intimately. More than that, I feel like she knows me.

Nejma

Nejma by Nayyirah Waheed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-smallbest-of-favorite

Genre: Poetry

Like salt, these poems will invite you to your core. Be afraid. Be courageous. Dive.

every poem. here.
is an unwrite.
of everything that has been written in me without. permission.
-nayyirah waheed, nejma

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or NeverHigh Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars4-stars

Genre: Essay, Nature , Memoir

Rich with earth and hot like a desert wind, High Tide In Tuscon emerges – to my surprise – as one of my favorite Kingsolver books. Packed, as usual, with delightful observations about the natural world, it feels like Kingsolver is in her natural habitat in these essays – or, at least, can’t wait to get back to it: her cowboy boots, her inquisitive toddler, the post-divorce smattering of reliable, workaday friends. With intriguing personal inquiry on why she chose to move to the desert and oft-painful personal realizations about how to be a good parent to an small but emerging human, this collection of essays felt like a portal to my true home, nestled in the dry-sage earth. If you like Kingsolver’s fiction, this will make you feel like she’s your friend.

The Art of MemoirThe Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

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

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir, Writing

This is a memoir about the finding of one’s own voice; an uncomfortable and necessary task if one wants to be free from the narratives thrust upon her. I do. And this book spoke deeply to those still-bound parts of me. I had not read any of Karr’s memoirs when I read this book, but it stood on its own. Karr is ruthlessly honest (but measured); articulate (but playful). I will read this again and again.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars3-stars

Genre: Non-fiction, Creativity, Self-help

I feel exactly the same about this book as I did about The Signature of All Things: bored. I didn’t learn anything new, I wasn’t moved or changed or challenged. I just went on a comfortable ride through a comfortable climate and was reminded, comfortably, to keep at it – but only if I want to. The only useful part of this book was Gilbert’s policy of greeting rejection letters by sending them back out into the world. Her childhood fearfulness was interesting, but as usual, she shies away from difficult subjects (also her parents are perfectly supportive, yawn). It was mildly validating in its encouragement of creativity and for someone balanced on the ledge of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-create, this book could be a balm for teetering legs. Big Magic can be summarized in one clause: Everyone who wants to create should create.

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10 Reasons To Stop Policing Our Anger (And What You Can Do Instead)

Since Trump’s election, my social media feeds are full of people from traditionally oppressed groups (women, LGBTQ, people of color, religious minorities) posting about their anger at current events and people from traditionally privileged groups (white men, often Christian) shaming them for their anger. The policing of our emotions perpetuates a culture of silencing that allows racism and misogyny to thrive. I wrote an article for Bust Magazine about this; you can read it here.

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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
so.
what does that say about me
besides
i live through
wars.
-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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How To Not Be A Racist Asshole

How To Not Be A Racist Asshole
If you live within a racist system, then you participate in the racism of that system unless you consciously do something to change your point of view. Living in the rural Northwest, I cross paths with very few people of color and yet I encounter racist thinking on a daily basis. I see enraging memes go by on my Facebook feed. I hear assumptions about [white] cops being right – cuz, you know, they’re cops.

What do you do to combat this kind of ignorance?

For Colored Nerds has an excellent podcast episode called Dear White People on this topic. To paraphrase very roughly: start the conversation with whomever you’re around. Chances are you run in circles that include a myriad of humans, from the delightfully lit to the painfully ignorant. You are in a unique position to expand the thinking of the people around you who have not been motivated or privileged  enough to learn a truer way. 

Want to get lit but don’t know where to start? I compiled a list of resources that have expanded my own thinking on the subject of race in America.

Articles:

Videos:

  • Democracy Now interview with Marc Lamont Hill and Mychal Denzel Smith: Part 1 (58:59 mins) &  Part 2 (58:59 mins)

Audio:

Books:

Cover photo: Pubic Lynching, August 30, 1930, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

What I’m Reading | Spring 2016 Reviews

Men Explain Things to MeMen Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

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

Genre: Essays, Feminism

THIS is Solnit’s genre: the critical, feminist essay; this is where she absolutely soars. This thin tome was a ecstatic and sobering journey for me: ecstatic because this particular marriage of style and content is exactly what I want to write and sobering because these essays brought home frightening and painful it can be to be a female in this world. I left this book feeling immense gratitude to Solnit for its writing. In it she knits together concepts, facts, and feelings about feminism that had eluded me until now. I felt somehow validated, as if she had said to me personally, “Hey, this thing you feel? It’s real.” If you’re a woman, you should read this. If you know a woman, you should read this. If your mother was a woman, if you’re attracted to women, if you are repulsed by women, if women frighten you: you should read this book. But only if it calls you. Solnit’s writing style is incredibly unique. I’ve found I either consume it like living water or I can’t drink it at all.
Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars4-stars

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir, Race

Composed as a letter to his son, Coates speaks with maturity and tenderness about the treatment of black bodies in America, both when he was growing up and in the world his son is growing into now. This is a rich and painful peak into the realities of racism as experienced by black boys and men. I have painfully little personal knowledge of this subject; this book is a gift for those of us so buffered by privilege, a glimpse into a world I only read about on the news. Coates’ self-awareness and self-inquiry draws the reader into discussion, as if he is having this conversation with you, personally. This is a beautiful, important book that everyone should read.
The Shell CollectorThe Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars5-stars-small

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Short Stories

It seems unfair to all other writers than anyone could possess as much talent as Anthony Doerr. Every story in this collection is an unfathomable work of art. I cannot remember the specifics of the stories so much as their colors, textures, and scents. I tried hard to find something to criticize about this book and failed, obviously.

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Yong Adult

This is a fun book. Not great literature, but very enjoyable. Playful and unexpectedly intricate, Cline takes you for a ride like no other. Dystopian fiction holds a special place in my heart. Someone should make this into a TV series.

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