The Fire Next Time

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing and use of the n-word. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

This is two essays — or one essay and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew — on the state of being Black in America. In 1962. Short version: It wasn’t easy. And it’s a sign of my privilege that I am just now realizing two things: 1) that life for a Black person in the early 1960s was not an easy or enjoyable one and 2) that it’s not changed very much for very many people in nearly 60 years. That’s the thing that stood out to me most about this book: it’s still relevant. And it shouldn’t be. This book should never have had to be written. This book shouldn’t have to be still relevant. And yet, it was and is. And it’s a sign that I am a privileged person that I am just NOW realizing this.

I think I enjoyed this more than If Beale Street Could Talk, because I think Baldwin’s style is more suited to essays and rumination than fiction. He has a very thoughtful, lyrical prose style which I thought suited both the impassioned letter to his nephew (which brought to mind Between the World and Me) and his essay about his youth and experiences with the Nation of Islam.

It’s definitely an excellent book.

Dragondrums

by Anne McCaffrey
First sentence: “The rumble-thud-boom of the big drums answering a message from the east roused Piemur.”
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Others in the series: Dragonsong, Dragonsinger
Content: There is some bullying and one very off-screen sex scene. It would be in the YA section of the bookstore if we had it.

Piemur — who was a minor character in Menolly’s story of the first two books — takes front and center in this one. A few turns have passed since we last heard from our friends in the Harper Hall, and Piemur, known for his clear boy soprano has had the worst thing happen: he’s started to go through puberty and his voice is changing. That means, he’s no longer the center of all the choruses, and Master Robinton needs to find something to do with him. That something is learning the message drums. Except precocious Piemur does it too well and he’s bullied. One thing leads to another and Piemur finds himself stranded on Southern lands, without a hold, but with a stolen fire lizard egg. Will he ever find a place again?

In some ways, I felt this was just “Dragonsong: part 2”. I guess McCaffrey felt like Piemer needed an arc ‘like Menolly’s: he was bullied, and pushed out of a place he thought he loved, he went holdless, he found joy in a new place. There are some Pern politics in the backdrop that give it a bit more depth than Dragonsong — the tension between the new dragon riders and the Oldtimers in the south, for instance. But, it was mostly just a reprise. Except that Piemur is a delightful character, and Menolly’s in the background giving him support. So: it’s really a better Dragonsong than Dragonsong is. In fact, this might be my favorite of the trilogy, as much as I want to wholly love Menolly’s books.

It holds up as a triolgy, though.

You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh
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Content: There is some kissing and some bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Jake has always had a dream to study the ocean. Except, he lives in New Mexico with his mom — his dad disappeared when Jake as born — and no way of getting out.

It doesn’t help that he feels different: not just because he’s not sure if he’s gay (spoiler: he is), but because he’s always had these weird “birthmarks” on his body. It doesn’t help that his best friend, Maria, wants to take their relationship to the next level, either.

It’s less a book about superheroes, though it is set in the DC universe, and more about one kid coming to own his own truth. He comes out, he finds out who his dad is and what his marks mean. All of this, while falling into a relationship with Kenny.

It’s nice that the adults are fully formed; you understand Jake’s mom’s paranoia, and Maria’s parents are incredibly supportive. Kenny’s disabled father had the biggest arc: he starts out seeming unacceptng and homophobic but turns out to be supportive of his son.

It’s an incomplete story: I thought Jake would have a chance to face his father or at least move forward, but no: this book is about Jake fully becoming who we was meant to be.

And that’s a good thing.

Monthly Round-Up: June 2020

So my reading kind of tanked there ar the end of the month. I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it is being busy, but part of it is that I just haven’t felt like reading. I watched the most recent season of Queer Eye and am working my way through the seasons of Great British Bake Off that I never watched. I’m sure I’ll get back to reading. Probably.

My favorite this month:

It really was a delight watching Taika Waititi and friends read this.

As for the rest:

YA:

Aurora Burning
I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

Adult Fiction

Beach Read
The Chicken Sisters
If Beale Street Could Talk

Graphic Novels:

Dragon Hoops

Non-Fiction:

Over the Top (audio)
Me and White Supremacy (audio)
The End of Policing (audio)

What was your favorite this month?

Audio book: The End of Policing

by Alex S. Vitale
Read by Michael Butler Murray
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some description, none graphic, of abuses by police officers over the history of policing in the United States. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

When all the protests started happening around the death of George Floyd, one of the things I heard and saw was a call to defund the police. I had no idea what that meant, and so (as I do), I found a book — the author was in a story on NPR — to explain it to me.

Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, collects data in various areas, from homelessness to the war on drugs to protest policing, about how effective the police force and criminal justice system is in the United States. The short answer: the police are completely and utterly ineffective in dealing with problems in communities. They are there to protect those who have property (usually white people) from those who don’t (usually poor, non-white people). And the methods they use are, to be frank, racist and ineffective.

The data in the book is a bit old; the most recent is from 2014-2015, but I don’t think much has gotten better. Vitale asserts that without real reform — and not just more “diversity training” — to communities and the way they tackle things like poverty, joblessness, mental illness, and immigration then searching for “criminals” and arresting Black and brown youth are not going to solve the problems. In short: defund the police and send the money into the social programs that we have been starving for 40 years.

The thing is: this isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing. Vitale reminds readers that Clinton and Obama were as bad promoting policing as the answer to being “tough on crime” as Reagan and the Bushes were. It’s a policy thing. Which reminds me of something else I’ve seen: the system isn’t broken. This IS the system. The way policing has developed in this country is inevitably skewed against the poor and the non-white. And to change it will take an overhaul of not just policing, but the whole system. It’s not going to be fixed with short-term, “look at us we’re doing ‘reforms'” bills, but a constant holding politicians and elected leaders accountable for the money that is going into the policing system.

And I think Vitale has convinced me that we really do need to #defundthepolice.

Dragon Hoops

by Gene Luen Yang
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are swear words, but there are all bleeped out. It’s a bit thick, which might be intimidating for younger readers. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve read a lot of what Yang has written, but even so, I didn’t expect this to be a graphic novelization of his last year teaching at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California, and the year the high school men’s basketball team had.

Yang himself admits it up front: he never thought he’d be writing a graphic novel about basketball. He’s more of a superhero guy. And I get that. But, Yang does a fantastic job of letting his readers into the world of an elite high school basketball team. He introduces us to several of the main players, getting to know them and the dynamics they have with the coaches. As a parallel story, Yang explores the transition from teaching full time and writing part time to writing full time. It was an interesting story, one in which I found myself invested in the outcome: would the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons win the State Championship?

I found myself fascinating by the book. Not only because Yang does a superb job humanizing the people in the game, he does a superb job portraying the games themselves. I think he really does capture the athleticism and the intensity in each basketball game. All of which made this graphic novel very enjoyable.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

Audio Book (sort of): James and the Giant Peach

by Roald Dahl
Read by Taika Waititi and friends
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s silly, but much like most of Roald Dahl books, mostly harmless.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon Taika Waititi (and friends) reading James and the Giant Peach, but it has been something that has utterly delighted me these past few weeks. It’s a silly story, one I’ve read maybe once (there’s a bit about the wicked aunts killing spiders I think about every time I deep clean, though), one I have usually dismissed as “lesser” Dahl.

But in Waititi’s hands, it was magical. He’s a gifted storyteller, and the people he’s assembled to help him are wonderful as well. Some are more memorable than others: Meryl Streep and Benedict Cumbertbatch as the aunts in Episode 2 were hilarious, Cate Blanchett as the Centipede in Episode 3 was absolutely perfect, and YoYo Ma as the grasshopper was simultaneously incredibly earnest and utterly endearing. I listened to three episodes every Friday, which was about an hour, and I was always charmed.

It’s still a silly story, with an utterly pedantic ending, but Waititi made it wonderful.

State of the TBR Pile: June 2020

I have thought the past few weeks about what I can do to make a change in my life to support BIPOC. Yes, I can vote (and I’m toying with getting more involved in helping people get to the polls or something like that). But, I read a lot, and I have decided to be more purposeful in both my reading and my book buying. I have decided that at minimum of 50% of my reading pile at any time will be by BIPOC authors. And at least 50% of my book buying will be books by BIPOC authors. It’s not a lot, but it’s a start.

Black is the Body by Emily Bernard
Dragondrums by Anne McCaffrey
Dear Universe by Florence Gonsalves
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
Muse Squad by Chantel Acevedo
10 Things I Hate About Pinky by Sandhya Menon
The Blossom and the Firefly by Sherri L. Smith
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

What’s on your TBR pile?