Flocks

by L. Nichols
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing and two f-bombs, plus some drinking and self harm and illusions to sex. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ll be up front: Nichols is a transgender man who was assigned female at birth in Louisiana and raised in a very religious Southern Baptist family.This is his story.

It’s not just a story of feeling out of place in a religious society — he tried very very hard to pray the gay away from the time he was young — but also feeling out of place in his own body. The only place he felt at home and at peace was in nature. He graduated from high school and went to MIT (the first in his family to go to college) where the sense of displacement both increased and decreased. Decreased because he was among friends who accepted him and cared about him for who he was; increased because he loathed his body — he began cutting himself — and couldn’t figure out why (that is, until he had a realization that it was because he wasn’t male enough). It’s a very personal story, as one would expect from a memoir, but one that raises some interesting questions about religion and community.

I loved Nichols’ art as well. Everyone is drawn fairly realistically except him, and he’s in this doll-esque shape, which I loved because it allowed him to not only be the gender he was assigned at birth (while simultaneously demonstrating his obvious discomfort with himself) but it allows the reader to empathize more with him as a character. It’s quite clever, and I loved it.

I also loved that this made me think, not just about trans people, but about how communities include and exclude others and the benefits and disadvantages of that. I appreciated his (inadvertent) critique of religion vs. God and it made me want to be more open and kind to others. We’re all struggling here, why add hate to the pile?

Excellent.

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March (Book Two and Three)

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
First sentence: “Brother John — Good to see you.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there (book 2, book 3).
Others in the series: March (Book One)
Content: There is a lot of violence, and use of the n-word. It’s in the non-fiction area of the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This picks up where March (Book One) leaves off. Lewis is part of student non-violent protests in Nashville in the early 1960s, but soon leaves that to join the Freedom Riders: a group of African Americans who, in 1961-1962, put supposed desegregation to the test. They rode Greyhound buses though the south, stopping at cities in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, with — as you would guess — pretty disastrous results. They were yelled at, beaten, arrested, thrown in jail, loaded up in cars and left in Klan territory, and the buses were blown up… let’s just say that, in short, white people in the south were TERRIBLE people.

All through this, Lewis (and others) preached the gospel of non-violence (which just makes white people look like terrorists. Really.): they didn’t fight back, they didn’t talk back, they just exercised their right (!) to do what they feel they had a right to do.

The book also follows Lewis through the March on Washington in 1963. (I didn’t know he was there, or even that he spoke! In fact, there’s a side note by him that out of everyone who spoke, he was the only one still living.) It was fascinating, learning about the politics behind that march, and about Robert Kennedy’s change of heart as well.

It’s a well-done graphic novel, one that is still very timely to read. As a white person, it definitely made me more aware of what people went through in the 1960s to get just basic rights, and I’m more aware now of how those rights aren’t still completely equal

March (Book Three) picks up after the church bombing the beginning of 1964 and goes through the march from Selma to Birmingham. My thoughts are pretty much the same as after reading book two: white people are so entrenched in their “way of life” that they can’t abide by change at all. And the thing I kept coming back to was that, in the intervening 54 years, that white people are still entrenched in their “way of life”, we just call it by different things now. It’s still racism. And it still is wrong. This one was difficult to read, and made me think, over and over, that an eye for an eye just makes everyone blind. I hope I’d have the courage to stand up to those who use their power to make others “less than”, those who call others “animals” or “dirty” or “from s-hole countries”, those who want to abuse their power to keep themselves in power… even if it means sacrificing my life. John Lewis and all those who stood by him are true heroes, and I wish there were more people like them now.

Excellent.

Shine

by Lauren Myracle
First sentence: “Patrick’s house was a ghost.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: This one has drug use and drinking by teenagers and a pretty graphic rape scene. It would be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore if we had it.

Cat’s former best friend, Patrick, has been found at the local convenience mart beaten and tied up to a gas pump, left for dead. The local sheriff is calling it a hate crime, since Patrick is gay, and that it was probably some out of towners who did it. He was right about the hate crime part, but Cat’s convinced it’s someone in the small, southern town of Black Creek, North Carolina. So, she sets out to find out who, which means facing her brother’s friends and her past.

Oh, this was a hard book. It’s a mystery — sort of — but more, it’s a portrayal of what poverty and toxic masculinity can do to people. It turns them to meth, makes them suspicious of each other, makes them feel like they can just take things without any sort of consequences. There’s rape in this — and that was SUCH a difficult scene to get through — and just plain hopelessness. I think Myracle gave it a happy-ish ending in order to alleviate a lot of the general bleak feel of the novel (I certainly was expecting a different ending). I did figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through, and I even figured out why, but I kept reading because I wanted to see how it all would play out. Myracle did an excellent job with Cat’s character development — she went from a hurt, scared girl into a more confident one, facing down the boy who raped her and her brother’s friends for their various “boys will be boys” infractions.

It’s just a very hard read, emotionally.

Audiobook: Sing Unburied Sing

by Jesmyn Ward
Read by Kevin Harrison Jr, Chris Chalk, and Rutina Wesley
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, drug use, and violence. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s not often I end up reading the National Book Award winner for fiction, and to be honest, I was surprised that I did. (I started listening to it before the awards…) I picked it up because people were talking about it, because I’ve never read Jesmyn Ward before, and because I was curious.

It’s basically a slice of life portrait of Mississippi. A black woman, Leonie, takes her two children — Jojo, whose story this is, and Kayla — on a road trip from the Gulf to Parchman, where their dad is getting out of jail after serving time for drug charges. It’s a hot mess of a road trip, partially because Leonie is a drug addict, and partially because she just can’t parent, interspersed with reflections from Jojo, his grandfather (Leonie’s father), and Leonie. It’s about relationships — Leonie’s brother was killed in a race-related shooting by her boyfriend’s (and baby daddy’s) cousin — and surviving and growing up and expectations.

I enjoyed the narration; there were three different narrators, one each for Jojo (I liked him best), Leonie and a ghost who shows up halfway through, but I wonder if this was a book that would have gone down easier read than listened to. It’s not that I didn’t like it; I just felt like I missed things — connections, imagery, story — and I could have taken it slower in print than in audio.

Still, a worthwhile read.

The Secret Grave

by Lois Ruby
First sentence: “Lots of people don’t realize that some nightshade plants are poisonous.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some scary moments… but it is a ghost story, so that’s pretty par for the course. It’s in the middle gradeĀ (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Hannah is the middle child of a big Irish family, who has just moved into a large, old mansion in northern Georgia. She finally gets her own room. She’s turning 12. And even though her best friends are leaving for camp and London and her older sister is a bit of a bear, she’s determined to have the best summer. And when she meets the mysterious Cady in the forest, she knows it’s bound to be great.

But then Cady gets possessive and controlling. And mysterious things start happening at the house. And Hannah’s brother, Scooter’s asthma gets worse. What, really, is going on here?

You know it’s a ghost story going in (because it’s part of the Hauntings series), which is fine. There’s a couple of ghosts, one which is spelled out, and the other which is obvious (at least to me), but the big reveal is held until later in the book, which annoyed me as an adult reader (though I wonder if more observant kids would mind). The characters grated on me; then again, I’m the oldest and it’s been a long while since I was a kid, so I don’t know how I would have felt, had I been in Hannah’s place. That said, I liked that there was a good family surrounding Hannah (don’t often get that), and that the conflict took place in spite of her parents, not because of them. While I found the ending to be a bit, well, cheesy, I did appreciate that there were consequences and that Hannah and Scooter tried to solve the problem, rather than just letting it be.

Not a bad book, just not for me.

Audiobook: Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s a LOT of swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

J. D. Vance didn’t have the best upbringing. That’s putting it mildly. The grandson of Kentucky to Ohio transplants, people who moved to work in factories to find a better life, he grew up in a small manufacturing town in southern Ohio. His mom, one of three kids, was a drug addict who bounced between guys, and so J. D. ended up with his grandma, whom he called Mamaw. He eventually found his way out of the poverty and abuse cycles, joining the Marines, going to Ohio State and Yale Law. But, as he points out in his memoir, his story is atypical.

It’s mostly Vance’s memoir of his childhood (insane as it is) and his family. But he also ties it into the larger issue of rural poverty. It’s something I’ve thought since the year we lived in Mississippi: it’s not (just) about race, it’s about class. And if we don’t do something about the working poor — and I don’t have the answers here — things will just get worse.

J. D. doesn’t have the answers either; just a lot of first-hand observations. The most striking of which is that interventions that happen in high school often come too late. They need to sooner. (Honestly, I saw a lot of our foster daughter in this story. And he’s right: if someone had intervened when she was younger, it would have saved her a world of hurt and trauma.) But it’s also complex: the politicians and agencies don’t always know or understand or assume things about the poor.

A fascinating book. And listening to him read it (he has a slight Southern twang) was a great way to experience this book.

Highly recommended.

Unbound

unboundby Ann E. Berg
First sentence: “When Mama tells me
I’m goin
to the Big House,
she makes me promise
to always be good,
to listen to the Missus
n never talk back,
to lower my eyes
n say, Yes, ma’am
no, ma’am,
n to not speak
less spoken to first.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some tough subjects dealt with here, but there’s nothing graphic. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: I’m uncomfortable with this book. Not because of the subject matter (though I do have to admit that I’m tired of Civil War slave narratives. Not because they’re not important, but because it seems to be the only African American story publishers want to tell.) but because it’s a white woman telling the story. I’m not going to say she shouldn’t be telling this story, but rather because I think this story would have been better served being told by a person of color.

That’s not to say it was a bad story; it was okay, as far as slave narratives go. Berg was trying to tell the story of a community of runaway slaves in North Carolina who settled in the Great Dismal Swamp (where native peoples had settled for thousands of years), living there in order to be free from slavery. But that’s not really the story she ended up telling. It was more of the disgruntled slave who couldn’t keep their place and so they had to leave narrative. Which is fine, but not exactly the narrative of the people in the Great Dismal Swamp.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It does tell a story at a level that children can understand. It does haveĀ non-white characters. It does talk about the less desirable things in American history.

I just wish it were, well, More.