Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago.”
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Content: There is some use of the n-word. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is one of Baldwin’s earliest books, a series of essays reflecting on his life, thus far. I was published in the 1950s, and is really a product of its time, with the use of Negro and just the language in general.

Which means, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I think the two best essays in the book are “The Harlem Getto”, a series of reflections after Baldwin’s father passed away, and “Equal in Paris” which is Baldwin’s experience on being arrested in Paris (for being an accomplice to steeling a sheet). Both are introspective and interesting. The rest, if I’m completely honest, I mostly skimmed.

Read The Fire Next Time. It’s the better book.

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.

Audio Book: The Witches are Coming

by Lindy West
Read by the author.
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s swearing, including lots of f-bombs, plus frank talk about sex. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

This book of essays, written in past couple of years and spurred on by the election of Donald Trump, is not just a feminist skewering of the alt-right and those attacking progress in all its forms. It’s also a reminder — especially for me, as a white, middle class, educated woman — that there are causes worth fighting for, that all sides (at least on the national scale) are not equal, and that it’s okay to be outspoken on things you believe in (and, to be fair: believing in things is a Good Thing).

It’s a reminder that “political correctness” is really just respecting other people and their identities and boundaries. A call that fat people deserve respect too, especially in this thin- and diet-obsessed culture. And maybe West is a White Woman, but (I thought, but I’m no BIPOC) she made sure she was trying to be inclusive and reminding those of us who are White Women that there are people out there who are marginalized and disadvantaged. And that there are people suffering while we’re sitting in our nice suburban households.

No, she’s not kind to the alt-right (but should she be?) or to the men who have abused their power for their own personal profit. And that’s part of what I liked about this. It was unapologetic and brazen and I loved that. It’s not going to resonate with all readers, but I think West knows that but she’s not trying to be palatable to all readers. She has Beliefs and she stands by them, and I can respect that.

And West is a good reader as well. She was entertaining and one of those readers I’d happily listen to for a long time.

Audiobook: The Book of Delights

by Ross Gay
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s irreverent and sweary, including multiple f-bombs.

I was having a week where I was angry at everything. Did not matter what it was, I was just in a constant state of pissed-off-ness. I was scrolling through my audio books, and I landed on this one. “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe I need this one.”

I vaguely knew about Gay going in because he visited the store, and a lot of the staff really loved him. (A lot of the customers, too.) But I wasn’t ready for this book back in April, when it came out. I did, however, need it now.

The basic premise is that Gay, a black poet, spent a year — from his 42nd birthday to his 43rd — writing small essays on the things that delight him. Sometimes they wander into memories, sometimes into ruminations on race or the nature of Joy. Sometimes it was just him expressing delight in a simple touch, or the sharing of a flower, or conversation.

Whatever it was, it was all particularly delightful, especially as read by Gay. His reading, for me, was everything. He made me think, he made me laugh, and he made me look for the delights in my own life. (If you want a sample of him reading, check out his poem To the Fig Tree on the Corner of 9th and Christian.)

This book is, simply, a delight.

Audiobook: The View From the Cheap Seats

viewfromcheapseatsby Neil Gaiman
Read by the author.
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Content: There’s a handful of f-bombs scattered throughout the book. It’s in the creative nonfiction section of the bookstore.

I’ve often said (many times) that Neil Gaiman can come to my house and read my grocery list and I’ll be happy to listen to it. That is still true. I will listen to Gaiman read anything, including works of short non-fiction, from articles and interviews to book introductions and speeches. He has a fantastic reading voice, and I love that it gives depth to his words.

That said, this was more of a dip-in, dip-out book rather than a read straight through one. Even though I love Gaiman on audio, I found myself kind of impatient with the sections (like the one on comics) that didn’t interest me. If I had actually read this one (and many of the pieces are worth reading), I would have picked and chosen the ones (like “What the Very Bad Swear Word is a Children’s Book, Anyway?” or “Make Good Art”) that I was interested in, and left the rest alone.

But, like anything Gaiman writes, when he was good, he was interesting, and the observations were thoughtful and thought-provoking. Though audio maybe wasn’t the best choice for this one.

Audiobook: Furiously Happy

furiouslyhappyby Jenny Lawson
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Lots of swearing. Lots. And lots. You’ve been warned. It’s in the adult biography section of the bookstore.

I’m late to this party. I knew who Jenny Lawson was (I do work in a bookstore, after all) and I was aware of her book. I’d just never picked it up. I have so much else to read, that I figured a small book about a weird upbringing as the daughter of a taxidermist never really appealed to me.

But, when I was looking for a new audiobook, this one jumped out at me. Ann Kingman talked about it on Books on the Nightstand a while back, and so I picked it up.

I had no idea I was missing THIS.

In a series of short, random, wandering essays, Lawson tackles her mental illnesses (ADHD, anxiety, and depression), her crazy life and marriage, therapy, the ways she copes, and her adventures in, well, everything. It’s really random  and often super hilarious. I laughed a TON. Possibly because she’s super deadpan in her reading of the book, which just helped make it that more often. But, I also appreciated her being so candid about things I struggle with. She’s right: it does help to know that there are other people out there talking about struggling with depression, who have ways of dealing with it (or not), to put in perspective your own struggles. It’s wonderful. And the fact she does it with a sense of humor is that much better, too.

I probably should backtrack and get her first book, just to be complete.

Bad Feminist

badfeministby Roxane Gay
First sentence: “The world changes faster than we can fathom in ways that are complicated.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s fewer than 6 f-bombs, and some other mild swearing. And there’s a whole chapter on 50 Shades of Gray which is frank, but not explicit. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I really don’t know what compelled me to pick this up. It’s been on my radar for a while, and I always figured I’d get to it, but why now?  No idea.

I’m glad I did, though.

In this series of essays, Gay takes on not only feminism (the Establishment) but race relations, sexism, culture, and Scrabble. (Well, there’s only one essay on Scrabble.) She’s insightful about relationships, critical about the State of Culture, but most of all, open and honest about the fact that she’s conflicted. She laments the lack of people of color on TV but is critical of the idea of diversity for Diversity’s Sake. (She’s not all that impressed with Orange is the New Black. It’s still a white woman’s story and the diverse characters are often stereotypes.) She admits to finding Blurred Lines catchy, while being disgusted at the content. There’s a whole chapter about the disturbing nature of 50 Shades of Grey while addressing the fact that its popularity shouldn’t be dismissed.

And it was this conflict I found I connected with. Because I’m a conflicted feminist. I don’t live up to Establishment Ideals. And it’s so refreshing to hear the voice of someone outside the establishment — in this case, a first-generation Haitian woman — stand up and say that there’s room in feminism for those of us who don’t fit the mold.

I borrowed my copy from the library, but I need to get this one. There’s an awful lot I need to underline and mark up, and it’s definitely one I want all my girls to read.