Summer Reads: Book Reviews Part 3

Since starting my Summer Reads list, I’ve read a total of 42 books. I’ve read nearly everything on my list, but I’ve also done a lot of supplementing after discovering the inequality between the number of white authors and authors of color on my original list.

In order to fulfill my goal of not reading two white authors in a row, I’ve encountered some incredible authors I’d never read before: Kao Kalia Yang, Austin Channing Brown, Tahereh Mafi, and Ibram X. Kendi. I also got to dig into more works by some of my favorites: Elizabeth Acevedo, Mitali Perkins, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

It has been an eye-opening summer and I hope that I will always remember to make sure I’m listening to a diversity of voices. So, without further adieu, my third (and final) Summer Reads Book Reviews:

5

5 Stars

What God Is Honored Here?: Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color edited by Shannon Gibney and Kao Kalia Yang: These stories were written in a world that typically does not recognize miscarriages and infant loss, especially for women of color. The editors wanted the “women and families who experienced fetal and infant death to be able to represent themselves and their particular truths. We wanted the babies who have been lost to become embodied and to discard their ghostly presence in the larger societal narrative.”

And so, I could write a review about how incredibly impactful and moving these stories are, or, I could just let the writers’ words speak for themselves. Each story in this collection speaks its own truth. These were the four stories that spoke most strongly to me:

Then and Then by Sidney Clifton:

“No heart. Just data. No heart. Just data. The machine turns on, sounding like a coffee grinder or a blender, something sharp that destroys things. Doctor asks, ‘Ready?’ ‘Yep!’ I lie. Doctor inserts the instrument and now everything is sound (no heart) that gets louder (no heart) and louder like a garbage disposal grinding too many scraps (no heart) and (I’m sorry) after (no heart) ten minutes (no heart) finally finally finally (no heart) it’s all (no heart) over (nooooooooheeeeaaaarrttt) It was the right thing. It is the right thing.”

“Finally an answer. Trisomy 13. ‘Incompatible with life.’ But was it my son or daughter who was incompatible with life? Until I know, I will not know what this means. Daughter means ‘not another,’ ‘not this one,’ ‘you have already been blessed.’ Son means ‘no boys for him’ means ‘you have not earned him,’ means ‘you had your chance and blew it.’ My heart is a madwoman screaming. I don’t know what this means.”

Lessons from Dying by Sarah Agaton Howes:

“I didn’t know that you had to go through labor to deliver your dead child.”

“After that, every movement felt slow and labored. And then I realized that I had also died. I couldn’t breathe. Losing your child is losing yourself. She died, I died. I didn’t, I couldn’t protect her. My body, what became known as the Death Trap had killed her. Or maybe the air had. The water? God? Who, who had killed my daughter?”

“Grief and total despair joined me to so many women. My grandmothers are the survivors of boarding schools, rapes, abuse, child abduction, and so much sadness. They surround me with their stories, their hands, their laughter, their bitterness, and their sheer determination not to die. I came from this legacy of sadness. But I also came from their legacy of survival.”

Binding Signs by Dania Rajendra:

“The doctor made sure to explain to us that it wasn’t an abortion, because the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Viable is the same in English and Spanish. What he said was, ‘It’s not a sin.’ He said it over and over. Neither of us told him I was Jewish, feminist, not Catholic. Neither of us told him we’re for abortion on demand, without apology. Neither of us told him much of anything.”

“For me, infertility provoked another internal conflict: embryos are not people, and yet, I have missed the people those embryos never became every day since I lost them.”

Calendar of the Unexpected? by Catherine R. Squires:

“My friend D from graduate school called to catch up with me in the winter of 2001. For some reason, I decided to go ahead and tell her: ‘I had a miscarriage.’ ‘Oh—how far along were you?’ she asked. ‘Um, like eight or nine weeks,’ I stammered. Then there was a pause, a silence, a hesitation on her end of the line. ‘So it’s not really a miscarriage, right? I mean—it wasn’t really a baby yet, right?’ Though she was hundreds of miles away, I think she could sense my face reddening, or could hear my heart pounding and stomach twisting and gurgling in the effort to maintain a steady voice as I replied, ‘It was to me.’”

Palestine by Joe Sacco: I grew up with the saying, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” But that’s just Zionist propaganda that isn’t true now and it certainly wasn’t true in 1948. One look at the Palestinian refugee camps proves that. A telling quote near the end of the graphic novel: “Israelis are tired of apologizing for the occupied territories! There was a war! We won the land in the war! It’s our land now!” Except I can’t help but agree with a sentiment written at the beginning of the book: “For the Jews to be treated the way they’ve been treated and then to treat the Palestinians in that way!” You can pretend this conflict is nuanced, but at the end of the day, basic human rights are being abused and ignored. Joe Sacco does a great job of highlighting what life looks like for so many Palestinians. But even he has to admit, what good do these interviews do? What changes have happened by sharing these stories? Thirty years later and the world is still unwilling to give Palestinians the support they deserve.

The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed: A few weeks ago, my husband asked me why I read YA and this book is it. The characters are exaggerated and over-the-top, the ending is tied up with a ribbon, and yet reading it makes you feel so good. Is this a perfect book? No. The bad guys aren’t very nuanced – although the inspiration behind the Real Men of Prescott blog was an actual misogynist podcast series and internet postings – and their crime – serial rape – is not a common form of sexual harassment. In fact, due to quality of writing, I was going to give it four stars up until the second to last chapter, titled Cheyenne, which gave me all the feels. But the best part of this book is its intersectionality. This is not just a book about feminism. Instead, this book looks at society as a whole and breaks apart a myriad of oppressions found within it. Including, but not limited to: The hypocrisy of conservative Christianity, people of color making less money than their white counterparts, people on the spectrum being talked about as if they aren’t part of the conversation, sexual double-standards for men & women, the shame transgender kids are taught to have for feeling different than they look, dead white men being the only writers worthy of the literary cannon, white women getting to be angry while black women are told they’re too hostile, and so much more. It’s a good reminder that as women (and humans) we need to stick up for more people than just those who look/sound/act like us.

4 Again

4 Stars

There There by Tommy Orange: There There has more stories interwoven than I can identify. I struggled, at first, to keep up, but Tommy Orange seamlessly wove them together. There There, the story of the urban Indian, is powerful: “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” It is also an important reminder for how the urban Indian got where they did: “If you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive to not find out, to not look too deep.” We no longer have the privilege to not take a deep look and come to terms with our histories. There There is a great reminder.

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman: As someone who suffers from social anxiety, there was a lot I could relate to in Akemi Dawn Bowman’s main character, Kiko. However, Kiko grapples with much more than anxiety, she also faces an unhealthy relationship with her mother, an abusive uncle, questions about her mixed heritage, and crippling insecurity. Plus, regular teen drama (i.e. romance). And while Kiko definitely gets her happy ending, the book still tackles some heavy issues.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: So You Want to Talk About Race is an incredibly practical book, and Ijeoma Oluo does a great job of interweaving history with personal stories with cold, hard facts with practical advice. It’s not a book you have to read in one go, instead it’s a good book to pick up if you need advice/information about a specific topic concerning racism. As a woman and a teacher, I most appreciated Chapter Five: What is intersectionality and why do I need it? Chapter Seven: How can I talk about affirmative action? Chapter Eight: What is the school-to-prison pipeline? And Chapter Thirteen: Why are our students so angry?

The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate: While missing the deep animal rights activism of The One and Only Ivan, The One and Only Bob was still a touching follow-up to a beloved book. I can’t think of a character more deserving than Bob to get his story told. And it’s a sweet way to talk to kids about bravery and what it takes to do the right thing, while being a lot lighter than its predecessor.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo: I still remember my first encounter with Elizabeth Acevedo, reading her National Book Award winning novel, The Poet X. And I’ve read everything she’s released since. I enjoyed the fluidity of narrators in Clap When You Land and how it returned to Acevedo’s poetry slam roots and was written in verse. A story about the secrets parent’s keep, as well as the secrets we keep from ourselves, I think this book has universal appeal. The Spanish peppered in feels natural and now I’m yearning to head to a tropical beach somewhere!

3

3 Stars

Ariel by Sylvia Plath: Living overseas, it’s hard to get my hands on poetry. Most of it I could buy on my eReader, but if it’s not from a poet I know, it can be a risk, stylistically. And if I do love the poet, well then, I’d rather own a hard copy than an eBook. So, you can imagine my joy when I came across a hard copy of poetry already on my to-read list. I loved The Bell Jar and have always been interested in Plath’s poetry. I enjoy confessional poetry and for that reason, some of the poems really spoke to me. But I have to admit that some of her imagery, her cavalier comparisons to concentration camps, the villainization of Native Americans, and the use of the N-word, clearly dated the work and made it less enjoyable to read.

 The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: There were things I loved about this book: The deconstructed primer at the start of each chapter and looking at the world through the eyes of these children. But also, things that were beyond difficult to read: Not only Pecola’s rape, but the parallel urge from Soaphead Church who “spares” Pecola because he is touched by the “righteousness” of her request. The book speaks to some powerful, heartbreaking themes, but I was also interested to read in the afterward that at the time of this particular publication, 23 years after it was first released, Toni Morrison was dissatisfied with how she broke the narrative apart. I also found difficulty with the flow and wondered how she might have altered it if she had ever returned to the work.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow: Well written, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is sad and slow the whole way through. Told through alternating viewpoints: Daughter Rachel; mother Nella; grandma Doris; neighbor Brick; and employer Laronne. They each have alternate opinions as to what happened on the roof that day, but only Rachel knows for sure and she struggles throughout the book to sort through her relationship with her mother – the person who gave her her blue eyes. Yes, this is a book is a coming of age story of a biracial girl, but it is also a story about family and secrets and never feeling like you belong.

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo: Even as I write this, I’m unsure of my rating. Was it a three, was it a four? I haven’t quite made up my mind. I found myself equally caught up in Ji Lin and Ren’s stories. And even though I’ve dropped ratings this summer due to unnecessary additions of ghosts, the weretiger and myth of being buried whole were expertly woven into this story of a girl down on her luck, just trying to make a living. For me, the unnecessary addition was the forbidden love story. In fact, Shin’s whole character was unnecessary except that he completed the five Confucian Virtues. I would rather have had more time unraveling the relationship between Ren and Dr. MacFarlane or out on the town with Ji Lin and Hui. Shin and his possessive, toxic masculinity could have stayed in Singapore.

Hold Still by Nina LaCour: This is my third book this summer by Nina LaCour and I’m so glad I was introduced to this author. I started with her most recent books and have now jumped back to this one, her first. I don’t typically read books about teen suicide – I feel like culturally, Thirteen Reasons Why did enough damage (though I have to admit I neither read it nor watched it) – but this book wasn’t about the suicide itself, so much as how it effects those left behind. The story follows Caitlin, her best friend, but also reflects on her photography teacher, parents, brother, and classmates. Caitlin’s love interest made this book a little too teen romance-y for my taste, but one thing I’ve noticed about LaCour is how beautifully she writes about loneliness and loss and I feel like that’s probably something a lot of us can relate to on at least some level during these Covid days.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins: This book got three stars, not because I think of it as particularly great writing, but because I think it’s important to listen to the experiences of others. Even when they can be hard to hear. Some of what Jerkins said felt universal – acknowledging how women use words like “slut” against each other because we’ve somehow decided a sexually satisfied woman is the worst insult we can throw at each other. She also called out the fact that black women with disabilities are “virtually invisible in our cultural landscape” and I think this disappointing fact is true for all races. She also mentioned the appalling “compliments” whites pay blacks and other minorities by claiming they don’t “see” them as a black/Hispanic/fill-in-the-blank person. You’re not complimenting someone by erasing their identity.

For me, the most educational line in the book was, “I do not want sympathy but acknowledgement, the freedom to tell an unapologetic story that is both black and female.” And while I can acknowledge her experiences, some of her truths were downright frustrating, if not appalling. Jerkins got more than a little graphic as she wrote about how her favorite porn was multiple men aggressively have sex with a white woman because it helped to “destroy her titanic influence on my conceptions of beauty and desire.” WTF. Another thing that concerned me was her dismissive attitude toward street harassment if it wasn’t aggressive in nature. Personally, I don’t need random men making comments about my body as I walk down the street. Regardless of how “polite” they sound, my body is not here to comment on. And I’m sorry, but don’t even get me started on her thoughts about “prayer warriors” and “clairvoyants.” One book by Jerkins will be enough for me.

And that’s it, that’s my summer. By Sunday I’ll be back at school and in a week and a half I’ll have another set of students to corrupt – I mean teach : ) Cheers to the end of an unexpected summer. Thank God for libraries!

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