Go Tell it On the Mountain

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Everyone had always said that John wold be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
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Content: There is violence, some talk of sex, a liberal use of the n-word, and some swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is difficult to describe plot-wise. It takes place over one night, as John, the son of a preacher in New York in 1935, goes to the church to clean and pray with his parents and other church-goers. Over the course of the prayers, we learn that John is not the biological son of his father, who resents his mother for not being more repentant for her sin of bearing John out of wedlock. We learn that John is conflicted about his stepfather, and the idea of church. We learn that John’s mother is just doing what she needs to do, and that his aunt — his stepfather’s sister — has held a lifelong grudge against her brother.

There isn’t much of a plot, it’s more of an exploration of the ways in which racism, enslavement, and patriarchy have affected the lives of these characters and the way they use religion to justify or explain or hide from the world. I’m not entirely sure it comes off as favorable to religious people; religion seems like a crutch to escape and a means of punishment rather than a means of worship and service. But that’s my white privilege talking; I have never been enslaved and I don’t know how religion works in that world. It was a fascinating read (possibly not one that I would recommend while on painkillers) and a complex one, even if it lacked plot.

Unsettled

by Reem Faruqi
First sentence: “I grab Asna’s hand, palm to palm.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s a novel in verse, so even though it looks long, it goes quickly. There is some talk of bullying and dementia. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Nurah is happy with her life in Pakistan: she has friends at school, she lives near her grandparents, and loves her home. But then, her father gets a job offer in Peachtree City, Georgia, and relocates the family there. Nurah finds it hard to adapt: she is out of place at school and her brother, whom she used to have a good relationship with, is increasingly distant. The one place Nurah feels at home is the rec center swim team; she’s not the best, but she feels at home in the water.

This was a very sweet and heartfelt story. I thought it worked really well as a novel in verse; it was simple without being simplistic. And Nurah’s challenges with fitting in at school, getting along with her increasingly distant brother, a grandmother with dementia, and just experiencing a new country are presented in a way to make them incredibly relatable.

It was a charming book, but one with a deeply felt heart.

Parable of the Talents

by Octavia Butler
First sentence: “They’ll make a god of her.”
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Others in the series: Parable of the Sower
Content: It’s rough, violence-wise and emotionally. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

This book picks up five years after Parable of the Sower: Acorn is a settled community, not large but flourishing and prosperous. Earthseed is growing as a movement and Oamina and Bankole are expecting a baby. But, in the wider world, the United States has elected a Christian American minister and facist as a president — someone who believes that all vagrants, homeless, and heathens should be “reeducated” and their children taken away and raised by Good Christian families. Once he’s elected, he backs off, but there is a movement –Jarrett’s Crusaders — that takes it upon itself (without consequences) to follow Jarrett’s philosophies. They attack Acorn, take away the children (including Olamina’s 2 month old baby) and enslave the rest of the adults. It’s a pretty horrific section, reminiscent of the Nazi Concentration camps (and made me ashamed to identify as a Christian though I understand these people were Not Really Christian.) Eventually, Olamina escapes and then spends the rest of the book looking for her child and restarting her Earthseed movement.

The most interesting thing about this book was that Olamina’s daughter, Asha Vere (which was the name her – admittedly not great — Christian adoptive parents gave her), narrated it as well. Every chapter began with an Earthseed verse and then some narrative by Asha. At first, this bothered me — Asha blamed her mother for starting Earthseed, not finding her soon enough, and for decisions she made, none of which really sat well with me; her mother did the best she could given the circumstances — but eventually, I came to understand Asha’s resentment, and her bitterness toward her mother. Butler had to create conflict — because novels are not life — and she did that brilliantly by creating a division between mother and daughter (as well as between Olamina and her brother, who embraced Jarrett’s Christian American movement). Butler is an excellent writer and a consummate storyteller, and, much like Handmaid’s Tale, is quite prophetic. She pulled from history and put together a tale that is a warning as much as it is an engrossing story. I did find myself skimming toward the end, when things settle down and Earthseed becomes moderately successfull, eventually sending ships into outer space, but really: this duology deserves the accolades it has gotten.

Audio book: The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood
Read by: Pej Vahdat & Hend Ayoub
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There was some swearing and references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Anvar Faris was a child in Karachi, Pakistan, but when unrest started to affect his city, his parents decided to immigrate to the US. They landed in the San Francisco area, where Anvar met the love of his life (Zuha, at least I’m hoping I spelled that right), and realized that no matter how much his mother tried, he was not going to be the kind of Muslim that she wanted him to be.

Safwa grew up in war-torn Baghdad, with a conservative father who was taken and tortured by the US soldiers. She fled, leaving her ailing brother to die alone, something her father could not forgive. They ended up in Afghanistan, where they meet a opportunistic young man who gets Safwa and her father passports to Mexico, and from there they come to the US, ending up in San Francsico.

This book is less about the plot — though there is some tension between Safwa and her father and the young man (whose name I don’t think I could spell, having only heard the audio) and Anvar and Zuha help, in the end. It’s much more an exploration of how people live their religion (or don’t) and the reasons behind what they do and why the do it. Safwa’s father is strict and abusive, but how much of that is his beliefs and how much of that is the abuse he suffered at the hands of the US? The young man is angry and manipulative, and how much of that is his religion, or is it the circumstances of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan? Anvar is lax in his religion, but how much of that is laziness and how much of that is a serious questioning of religion His other brother is strictly faithful, but how much of that is because he believes and how much of that is putting on appearances? It’s an interesting exploration.

It’s also a good look at the variety that Islam has. I think too often, especially here in the US, we tend to paint Muslims as all one thing, when in reality (um, much like every other religion) there is a spectrum.

At any rate, the writing is good, and the narration was thoroughly enjoyable. I liked this one a lot.

Audio book: The Color of Compromise

by Jemar Tisby
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is descriptions of violence done to Black people and use of the n-word. It would be in either the Sociology section or Religion section if the bookstore carried it.

This book is the history of chattel slavery in the United States, but as seen through the lens of Christianity. So, on the one hand: there wasn’t much new for me to learn about slavery that I hadn’t already learned from Stamped from the Beginning. But the part about Christianity was fascinating. See, white Christians have always bee complicit in slavery, in Jim Crow laws, in racism. There’s no way around it. If we consider the United States a Christian nation, if there were God-fearing people who owned slaves; who owned people; who discriminated against Blacks; who, say, in the example of my own church, refused to give them equal standing as white men and women; then, Christians have always been complicit in the oppression of Black people.

And that’s a hard realization. It’s so easy to think of the oppressors as “other”, but as Tisby points out, even if Christians were not actively acting as slave-owners or KKK members (and some were) the Silence of the church as a whole (and many, many members) gave tacit approval to the systemic oppression. By not speaking out against it, by not working to fight against it, they were, by default, for it.

Although Tisby gives suggestions on how to fix the problem of Christianity’s complicit behavior in anti-Black racism, I’m not sure what I can do systemically. I do know I am working on the racism – both implicit and explicit — in my life, working to enlarge my circle and my point of view. And to remember that we are all God’s children, even if the system doesn’t behave like we are.

If You Could be Mine

by Sara Farizan
First sentence: “Nasrin pulled my hair when I told her I didn’t want to play with her dolls.”
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Content: There is some all of sex and drug use. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve had this one on my backup TBR shelf for nearly six years. I’m just impressed it didn’t get given away in one of my purges!

Sahar has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for as long as she could remember. She is the only person Sahar wants to be with. Except they live in Iran and being gay — not to mention marrying someone of the same gender — is not only illegal, it’s punishable by death.

Sahar and Nasrin know this so they try to keep their deepening romance secret. That is, until Nasrin’s parents arrange a marriage for her. To someone nearly twice her age (which is mid-30s, but still). This sends Sahar into a tailspin, and she discovers that while being gay is illegal in Iran, gender reassignment surgeries are not. So, she decides that the best way to be with Nasrin is to become a man.

While I enjoyed learning about Farizan’s take on Iranian culture and life, it was all a bit, well, convoluted. Sahar didn’t ever ask Nasrin whether she wanted her to change her gender. Sahar just assumed that’s what it would take to stop Nasrin’s wedding, and was bullheaded about going forward with it, in spite of objections from people who have gone through the reassignment surgery.

Maybe it was the lack of communication between Nasrin and Sahar that bothered me. Or the way Nasrin treated Sahar. It really wasn’t a healthy relationship. And I’m glad (kind of spoilers) that Sahar was finally able to let Nasrin go while staying true to who she really is.

It wasn’t a great book, but I finished it. So it wasn’t horrible either.

Kiss Number 8

by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw
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Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus depictions of teenage drinking and smoking. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Mandy has been best friends with Cat for forever; through all of Cat’s ups and downs, and dates, both good and bad. Though Cat hasn’t had much luck in the dating arena. Most of her kisses happened when she was younger, and most of them were really kind of lame. Though, as they are in their junior year at Catholic school, things are beginning to change. Not the least a mysterious phone call that makes her dad angry, and sets off a chain of events that reveals a deep family secret.

This was an interesting graphic novel. I don’t want to spoil everything (though the tag kind of gives things away), but it’s dealing with the LGBT community and religion, or at the very least, religious people. But the story was a bit of a mess. As were Mandy and Cat (and I felt really bad for the third wheel, Laura). I kind of get why Venable and Crenshaw were framing this story through kisses, but I’m not entirely sure it worked really well. I did enjoy it when Crenshaw’s art told more than the words, bringing more depth to the story, the way graphic novels should.

It wasn’t my favorite I’ve read, but it was an interesting story.

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood
First sentence: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive.”
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Others in the series: The Handmaid’s Tale
Content: There is an instance of sexual assault, some violence (some of which is pretty graphic), and instances of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to preface this with a couple of caveats: I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in about 10 years, though I have kids who have read it more recently and have talked to me about it. I remember basic plot points of the book, but not specifics. And, I have not (yet; I’m kind of curious now that I’ve finished this one) watched the series on Hulu. I think having watched the series and/or having read the book more recently may have an impact on your opinion of this one.

The Testaments follows three women: Aunt Lydia, who was there at the beginning of Gilead, and chose to become part of the founding structure of the regime; Agnes Jemima, who was born in Gilead and was raised to believe in its teachings; and Daisy, who was born in Gilead, but whose mother, a Handmaid, escaped north to Canada and who was raised by a couple there. The narratives intertwine and go back and forth through time; we find out through Aunt Lydia what happened when Giliead was formed, and the choices she made to become in the position of power she is currently in. We find out through Agnes what is being taught to the generation of girls that has since been born. and the challenges they face. And from Daisy, we find out not only what the rest of the world thinks of Gilead, but the future of it.

It’s a fascinating book to read, though I’m not entirely sure it’s 1) coherent with the world Atwood put out in the Handmaid’s Tale (see above caveat) and 2) necessary. It’s really all about the downfall of Gilead, because in Atwood’s view, no matter how “pure” or “righteous” your intent setting out, we are all human and, therefore, corrupt, and any system of government built upon anything but basic human rights for all is bound to fall. I’m not sure how I feel about that — it seems easy to believe that the Commander in charge of Gilead, Commander Judd, was inherently corrupt from the start and just did all this as a power grab and because he’d like any excuse to “marry” and kill off a series of increasingly younger brides. It’s disgusting, but I’m not sure it serves a purpose except to prove that all men who crave power are disgusting and corrupt. (Which may or may not be the case.)

But it’s Atwood, and her writing is engaging, and the storytelling interesting, and while it’s not as harrowing as Handmaid’s Tale was when I first read it, it’s definitely got a bit of a warning: dismiss the power of women at your own peril.

And maybe this is the book we need for this time in history.

Love, Hate, & Other Filters

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “Destiny sucks.”
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Content: There’s some talk of sex, but none actual. There is also swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Senior Maya Aziz has one goal in life: to go to NYU (she’s been accepted!) and get a degree in filmmaking. However, her parents — even though they’re on the liberal end of the Indian Muslim scale — would rather she go close to home — University of Chicago or Northwestern — and get a degree in something practical. It also doesn’t help that they’re trying to set her up with a nice Indian Muslim boy… even if they don’t want her to get married just yet.

Maya just wants to live her life the way she wants to, and she was starting to make headway (even with the super popular white football player who’s interested in her!) when there’s a hate crime in a nearby city, and suddenly her small town isn’t safe — for her — anymore. And things just escalate when her parents’ dental practice building is vandalized Now her parents are refusing to let her go anywhere, let alone to New York to go to school.

Oh this was SUCH a good debut! Ahmed tackles conflict in a religious family, not with just culture but with belief, and she tackles the differences between parents and children — Maya’s parents aren’t bad or controlling; they just feel they know what’s best — and tackles the differences between immigrants and their first-generation American children. But she also addresses racism and prejudice all while wrapped up in a very sweet love story.

She’s definitely a writer to watch.

The Poet X

by Elizabeth Acevedo
First sentence: “The summer is made for stoop-sitting and since it’s the last week before school starts, Harlem is opening its eyes to September.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, a tasteful almost-sex scene, and some talk of smoking weed. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Xiomara is many things: a daughter, a poet, a twin. But she feels like she doesn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that her parents — both from the Dominican Republic — don’t really get along, or that her mother is super religious. Or that her twin, Xavier, is super smart, and goes to a magnet school, while Xiomara is stuck going to the not-really-great neighborhood one. And on top of everything, as she starts her sophomore year, her mother is insisting that she go to classes so that she can be confirmed (I think that’s how it is in Catholic churches?). But Xiomara has questions about God, and religion, and the way her parents treat her.

On the one hand, I can see where Xiomara’s mother is coming from. She wants her daughter to have all the things she didn’t have. She wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps, and to have the faith she did. What she doesn’t take into consideration — and this is the conflict at the heart of this elegant novel in verse — is that Xiomara’s feelings and desires might be different than her own. It’s often the conflict at the heart of young adult books: parents who believe they know better and don’t stop to listen to the desires of their kids. I loved getting to know Xiomara through her poetry, to understand her feelings and the tensions she perceived in her family. And I’m glad that, in the end, there was a resolution that didn’t involve someone dying. That Xiomara realized her parents loved her, even if they didn’t always show it in a way she could understand it.

Acevedo’s writing is gorgeous and her storytelling exquisite. This is definitely worth the hype.