Monthly Round-Up: September 2020

I read an awful lot of non-fiction this month, so I suppose it’s fitting that my favorite is, well, a work of non-fiction.

Thoughtful, smart, and definitely worth reading. As for the rest:

Non-Fiction

Women Who Run With the Wolves
The Color of Compromise (audio)
Dear Fahrenheit 451

YA

If You Could Be Mine
Dear Universe
Igniting Darkness

Adult Fiction

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor
Giovanni’s Room
Such a Fun Age (audio)

What was your favorite this month?

Dear Fahrenheit 451

by Annie Spence
First sentence: “Dear Reader, Welcome to Dear Fahrenheit 451.
Support your local indpendent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some mild swearing and about a half-dozen f-bombs. It’s in the Literary Reference section of the bookstore.

This is really exactly what the cover says it is: a series of letters that Spence, a librarian in a suburb of Detroit, wrote to a bunch of different books. Some are to ones she loves, some to ones she’s weeded from the library (“The One-Hour Orgasm” is the best one of these), some about books she’d recommend to people (like her husband, a non-reader). I can tell, from reading the book, that she and I absolutely do not have the same taste in books. That said, it was still entertaining reading her little notes to the books. (That said, I skipped all the reading lists in the back for that exact reason.)

It’s not deep, but it is fun. And especially good for bookish readers.

Igniting Darkness

by Robin LaFevers
First sentence “Maraud awoke to the sound of retching — a retching so violent his own stomach clenched into a fist and tried to punch its way out of his throat.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Grave Mercy, Dark TriumphMortal Heart, Courting Darkness
Content: There is a lot of violence and abuse. It’s in the YA section of the bookstore.

I am thinking that LaFevers needed to write this duology because, while Mortal Heart ended on a positive note, there were many threads left hanging open. And it’s just nice to tie everything up.

Picking up where Courting Darkness left off, this one is more political intrigue (beause Genevieve has the ear of the French King and is trying to sway him away from being advised by his sister, the regent), machinations (Sybella vs. her horrible brother), love (which is always quite satisfying) and war (Sybella, Genevieve, Beast, and Maurad manage to spectacularly put down a rebellion).

At this point, it’s safe to say that if you liked the rest of the series, you will like this one. It’s a bit overlong, and I was truly losing patience with the king who was petulant and super dense, but I suppose LaFevers needed to keep it a little bit historically accurate.

In the end, though, it tied up all the loose ends and gave everyone if not a happy, then a hopeful, ending.

Hood Feminism

by Mikki Kendall
First sentence: “My grandmother would not have described herself as a feminist.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some mild swearing. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I’ve had this one on my pile for several months; probably since soon after George Floyd was murdered and I became more invested in reading books by Black (and other POC) authors. I also consider myself a feminist, so I figured this was a good merging of the two interests.

What it is is a series of essays by Kendall, where she reminds feminists — specifically (mainstream) White Feminists — that while the issues they’re fighting for — equal pay, reproductive rights, misogyny etc — are all fine and good, if they don’t think about the issues that are affecting women of color, then they’re not *truly* being feminists. Issues like housing and food availability, gun violence and single parenting. Things like making sure Black (and other POC) women are included in the conversation, and reminding White women that just because they’re oppressed by men doesn’t mean they can’t turn around and be oppressors as well.

No, it’s not an easy read. Kendall admits up front that she’s not out to be nice or polite. She’s is out to speak her truth (she grew up in the inner city, her first marriage was abusive and she admits that she had privileges that allowed her to get out of both situations and achieve a middle class-adjacent life, in her words) but also the truth for women, specifically Black women, who are not given the opportunity to speak.

But it’s an important read. It’s important to remember that the charity work we do is good but not enough if the government is taking away housing opportunities and punishing poor people for being poor. It’s a reminder that, as a White woman, I need to listen the voices of my BIPOC sisters and not just barge in there thinking I have the answers.

It’s definitely a book I will go back to and would love to discuss with others.

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Birthday Reflections

I realized this week that I didn’t do one of these last year. Breaking a huge streak, actually. Granted, I had just had knee surgery 12 days before, and I probably was hopped up on drugs and just didn’t think about it. Which happens, sometimes.

And this year? I have spent a good part of this year anxious and angry about the state of the world. I have discovered that listening to the sound of the ocean helps me fall asleep when everything else (and I have a long list of “tricks”) does’t work. I have enjoyed getting to know my adult children as individuals rather than as “my children” and think they’re pretty awesome women. (You know what? The teenagers are pretty awesome, too.)

We bought a new-to-us sectional for the basement. K, who is 14 now, has been making a huge case for not buying new things because of the damage to the environment. So, we’re trying to do consignment and thrift stores for clothes and furniture. It’s been working well.

I re-discovered puzzles were fun to put together.

Like everyone, I’ve been weathering the pandemic with moderate success. The bookstore managed to stay open, and I managed to be one of the people who they kept employed. I have boxed up so many books to be mailed out I can’t even count. There were days when that was all I did for six hours. Now, I’m on the unpacking end, and with the fall season coming on, that means lots and lots of boxes of books.

I still find time to dance at Zumba and now Sh’bam (the classes at the gym are small and spread apart, and so far that seems to be working), because no one laughs at me when I look dumb. Mostly because everyone else looks like one too. But I enjoy throwing my body around to music too much to not go.

[Imagine a picture of me dancing here]

But, I’ve made it to 48, mostly in one piece, with only a moderate amount of aches and pains. I’m going to bake a cake, make some pulled pork, go to work and unpack however many boxes come in, dance a bit, and have a good day.

Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.

Sate of the TBR Pile: September 2020

Ah, September. When it should be fall, but never is. School has finally started for us, which means maybe we’ll be reading more now? Maybe, anyway.

Here’s what’s currently on my pile:

Shine by Jessica Jung
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris
Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi
Cooking Gene by Michael W Twitty
Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence
We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Igniting Darkness by Robin LaFever

What’s on your TBR pile?

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

by Hank Green
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

April has died in a fire, Carl has disappeared, and the world is trying to recover. Mostly April’s friends — Maya, Miranda, and Andy — are trying to move on. And they each do in their way. That is, until they start getting a mysterious book that is telling them what to do. And from there, the plot gets really really complicated and it’s so much better not knowing too much.

And, much like the first book, this one is about more than just humans vs. alien robots. It’s about collective action, and free-will. It’s about whether or not we can stop ourselves from destroying the earth. It’s about friendship and trust and forgiveness.

And, much like the first book, it’s a delight to read. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s pretentious but not overly-so, and I think Green knows (and has thought long and hard) what he’s talking about. It’s a fun romp, and a good conclusion to the story, but it’s also a thoughtful book with a lot to discuss.

Or maybe I just really like the Green brothers. Either way: it’s a good read.

Dear Universe

by Florence Gonsalves
First sentence: “You know that moment when it happens?”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, teen drinking, and talk of teen sex (though none actual). It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Chamomile (call her Cham, please) is a senior at the Gill School, a private school she transferred to after she got kicked out of public school in 8th grade for fighting. She has friends, she has a boyfriend — Gene Wolf, track star and super cute — and everything is Perfect.

Except it’s not, because her father is in denial about his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis and doesn’t want anyone to know. So Cham is trying to keep her worlds separate. Of course, that doesn’t work terribly well. Which puts her two worlds on a collision course.

I didn’t dislike this book; I thought Gonsalves balanced the “sick parent” (and “stressed parent” — Cham’s mother is the sole wage earner and is also trying to take care of Cham’s dad mostly alone) with “high school ending” pretty well. I even kind of liked Cham and her attempts to be “normal” by obsessing about sex and prom and spending time with her friends.

But. (And you knew there was a but.) I don’t know. None of the characters had hardly any physical descriptions – Cham had “frizzy” hair, her friend Abigail was a bit overweight and could dance, Brandon had a “man bun” — but I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone what white. I’m not sure I would have noticed that a few months ago, but I did now. And it bugged me. (I get that authors do this so that people could see themselves, but my default is white, so there you go.) It bugged me that she wouldn’t tell her friends about her dad’s illness. Are they really your friends, then? It was little things like that (like school ended in April for seniors. Really?) that pulled me out of the story.

I guess I just wanted to like it more than I did, and was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as good as I hoped.