Summer Reads: Book Reviews Part 2

Despite all of my summer reading, my Goodreads queue is only growing longer. But I’m ok with that. I’m discovering authors I wouldn’t have previously encountered through my push to not read two white authors in a row this summer.

Also, the news and social media are so damn depressing that my new favorite activity is trolling my friends on Goodreads and finding new books to read.

So, without further adieu, here’s Part 2 of my Summer Reads Book Reviews:

5 Stars

Five Stars

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown: Working on better educating myself and this was a great start. Having grown up in an evangelical setting myself, Austin Channing Brown’s essays on trying to prove her worth in white Christian settings is both heartbreaking and unsurprising. Everything from being labeled confrontational for being uncomfortable in having a coworker reach out to touch her hair to being told how she could have de-escalated a situation with an aggressive, racist white man to being asked if God had really called her to work at that organization. And watching her story as she realizes the fault doesn’t lie with her. That assimilation doesn’t mean equality, it means erasing the uniqueness of black culture.

A sentiment that I think all white people need to understand: “I am not impressed that slavery was abolished or that Jim Crow ended. I feel no need to pat America on its back for these ‘achievements.’ This is how it always should have been. Many call it progress, but I do not consider it praiseworthy that only within the last generation did America reach the baseline for human decency.” I think all white Christians should read this book.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: It just so happened that I was able to get my hands on the audiobook before the print version. And I’m so glad that I did. Not just because Ibram Kendi’s voice is poetic, but also because it meant my husband and I could listen to the book together. We stopped after every chapter to pause the book and pour over the meaning – tease out the nuances. Because, this book is incredible. Arguments I hadn’t thought to make, facts I didn’t know existed, all woven seamlessly into the story of Kendi’s life. If I didn’t already know it, this book taught me the importance of definitions.

“A racist is someone who is supporting a racist policy by their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is someone who is supporting an antiracist policy by their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. Racist and antiracist are like peelable nametags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting, or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist we can only strive to be one or the other.”

Every day I plan to strive to be an antiracist.

You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour & David Levithan: A good read during Pride Month, You Know Me Well tells the story of two classmates who were strangers until the first night of Pride Week. This book should have been cheesy, but instead, was too sincere to be. Kate’s self-sabotage was heartbreaking, and Mark’s heartbreak was so visceral – I was instantly swept up in their stories. The frequent Tegan & Sara references didn’t hurt either : ) Only last month did I read Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay, and now I plan on reading the rest of her work as well.

4 Stars

Four Stars

The Strawberry Thief (Chocolat #4) by Joanne Harris: I have made it to the end of the Chocolat series. On my to-read list forever, it feels odd to finally be done. The Strawberry Thief was another thoroughly enjoyable piece to Vianne Rocher’s puzzle. This was the first book that actually had me rooting for Francis Reynaud and his storyline very much eclipsed Vianne’s. I was also totally caught up in Narcisse’s confession and I thought the real star of the story was actually Rosette. I can’t say much more without giving too much away. Harris weaves together a beautiful story and if I wasn’t so frustrated with Vianne throughout it, I would have given it five stars.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib: This book felt a little all over the place to me – but maybe that’s just because that’s what real life feels like. I found myself judging the author for entering her second marriage. I couldn’t understand her need to continue to seek out men. And then I had to stop myself and remember that I’ve never experienced any of this – I don’t come from a culture where a man can change his fiancée’s first name to something he likes better, a culture where I can be married to my first cousin at 16, a culture where I have to hide myself both literally and figuratively. And I was reminded once again that I have no business judging someone else’s choices in life. A line that really resonated with me from the book was, “Representation is a critical way for people to recognize that their experiences – even if invisible in the mainstream – are valid.” This is still true for women today, so I know it’s true for groups that are even more marginalized. Near the end of the book, Samra Habib quotes another queer Muslim who says, “We have always been here, it’s just that the world wasn’t ready for us yet.” It’s our job to make sure the world is ready for them now.

Fatherland by Nina Bunjevac: Nina Bunjevac manages to weave the history of the Balkans into her family’s story and it is a history I have to admit I know little about. With a childhood that takes place in Canada and then Yugoslavia, she is able to incorporate a number of perspectives into her graphic novel. And while her father joins the terrorist group Freedom for the Serbian Fatherland, Bunjevac is able to tell his story in a way that shows that this was a logical conclusion based on his upbringing and life encounters. I also really enjoyed her illustrative style and thought the images added a lot to the story. While I don’t quite agree with the blurb that this book belongs in the annals with Persepolis and Palestine, it was still an enlightening account.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Nigeria is not Ghana, but reading about jollof rice, harmattan, and community-wide holidays brought me right back to our years in West Africa. Purple Hibiscus is not for the faint of heart, the abuse scenes get more and more detailed as the story continues. It sets up a desperate family and the lengths one of them will go to free themselves. Adichie also does an incredible job of weaving the effects of white missionary work into the day to day assimilation and erasure of local religions and customs. I can see why her first book made such a splash.

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn: I’ve read all of Gillian Flynn’s books, so when I came across this short story at our bookstore, I figured I should add it to the collection. I’m glad I did. The story was good, good, good, epic…and then it sort of petered out. My husband used to read Goosebumps as a kid and he said he’d always stop reading before the final page because that was when the final twist came and the book got creepy again. He liked the happy ending instead. For me, however, I wish I had stopped The Grownup 8 pages before the ending. I reveled in the first twisted reveal of the story, but by the time we reached the end, it was looking more like a happy ending after all.

The Power by Naomi Alderman: This book has been on my periphery for years. If I knew it was recommended by Margaret Atwood and President Obama, I would have picked it up much sooner. It was a quick and enjoyable read and I found myself easily falling in with each of the main characters’ stories. In 2011, I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, and I remember feeling frustrated with the academic ending. But now that The Power has done the same thing, I can see the added commentary on our current society and how we view these stories and the actions taken in them. It’s left me with a lot to ponder…what would happen if women were in charge of the world? 

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi: Damn. I mean, yes, this was mostly a YA romance, which is not usually my go-to read, but Tahereh Mafi really makes you feel American racism on a visceral level. Set in 2002, it follows Shirin, a 16-year-old American Muslim as she falls head over heels in love with the All-American basketball star at her high school. Her thoughts are heavy and the fact that people anywhere have to experience this is heartbreaking: “Are you racist? Or are you just having a bad day? I could no longer distinguish people from monsters. I looked out at the world around me and no longer saw nuance. I saw nothing but the potential for pain and the subsequent need to protect myself, constantly.”

It was also a loud declaration against those who don’t acknowledge racism because they don’t see it: “Still, it wasn’t hard for me to understand how we got here. I’d been expecting it. I’d been dreading it. But it was so hard for Ocean to stomach that the world was filled with such awful people. I tried to tell him that the bigots and the racists had always been there, and he said he’d honestly never seen them like this, that he never thought they could be like this, and I said yes, I know. I said that’s how privilege works.” I’m grateful books like this exist. Books that call out our own assumptions and biases and make us take a hard look at them.

3 Stars

Three Stars

The Leavers by Lisa Ko: I think Lisa Ko’s book has an incredibly important message about culture, adoption, and, most strongly, how we treat immigrants and refugees in the United States. That said, I just couldn’t get into the storytelling. It was a bit of a slow burn and while I was much more invested in the second half of the book, I never felt myself fully engaging with the characters.

Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify: Essays by Carolyn Holbrook: I have to say, I really struggled with this book. I’m not a fan of unreliable narrators in fiction and so I really don’t like them in nonfiction. Positives about the book: Holbrook is a solid writer, I’m interested in the work she did in the Minneapolis writing scene, and I love learning about what Minneapolis was like in the past. Negatives about the book: She believes she has the “gift of sight” and casually mentions it or other psychic abilities in friends/acquaintances, there is a chapter devoted to her meditation and how she was “transported back in time” to watch herself be born, and the flow of the book feels disjointed – I realized why when I looked through the publication history and found that the earliest of the essays were published in 1993 and the latest in 2019. I wanted to like the book much more than I did, but I prefer my nonfiction quite a bit more realistic. I wish the blurb had been a bit more explicit about her beliefs in the otherworldly, though perhaps I shouldn’t have written it off as figurative.

White Birch, Red Hawthorn by Nora Murphy: Nora Murphy uses this book to come to terms with her family’s role in taking Native Land. She traces their history from Ireland during the potato famine to their acceptance of 160 acres of recently evicted land in Minnesota. Land that had belonged to the Ojibwe, Dakota, and Ho-Chunk tribes until deceitful treaties stripped them of it. I was interested in this book as someone who straddles both worlds. I have grandparents who grew up on White Earth reservation and yet I have much stronger ties with my Scandinavian heritage. I grew up eating wild rice, as well as lefse. While the book seems to wander at times, near the end, Murphy offers actionable takeaways: Supporting teaching Native histories in school, rescinding the 1863 law banning the Dakota people from their homeland, replacing images of Paul Bunyan with more inclusive content, funding indigenous language revitalization, and more. It’s a good start, but there’s so much more work to be done.

2 Stars

Two Stars

Dry by Neal Shusterman & Jarrod Shusterman: The book was well-written – Neal Shusterman’s National Book Award (for a different book) proves his writing chops. That said, the premise of Dry mostly left me confused. I read more than one review about how “utterly convincing” this novel was, and nothing could be further from the truth. If I was giving a rating based solely on plausibility, it would get one star. Having recently traveled to South Africa, I can tell you everyone in Cape Town is well aware – down to the day – of when their water will run out. So, the idea that the taps would just one day run dry in California (which, if it was a country, would have the world’s fifth largest economy) is absurd. Followed by the fact that somehow, the national news was unaware of this issue until day four or five because they were too busy covering a hurricane is insane. If you want to read something by Shusterman, I encourage you to check out his Scythe series instead.

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan: I wanted to like this one, I really did. It has such a lovely premise – elderly author collects lost items and uses them as inspiration for his short stories while carefully cataloguing each and every piece in the hopes of one day returning them to their proper owner. What the blurb failed to highlight more articulately is the clairvoyant neighbor and haunted house. That really pushed it over the edge from charming to downright silly. The main female characters, Laura and Eunice, are less than empowering, but that could have been forgiven if the rest of the book didn’t lose focus for these other tangents. The writing style was lovely – maybe her next book will be more realistic.

I’ve got one more month to go, so let me know some of your favorite reads from this summer : )

    1. Thanks! Let me know if you have any recs : ) I saw your currently reading list and The Color Purple and Children of Blood and Bone are both high on my list! And I just downloaded Such a Fun Age today – so I’ll have to read your review.

    2. Great! I just finished The Color Purple, and it was incredible. I knew it would be good, but far exceeded my expectations. About half way through Children of Blood and Bone – usually I don’t read fantasy/sci fi but thought I’d give it a try!

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