Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

SouthernBookClubThe Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, by Grady Hendrix (Blackstone Publishing 2020)

First line: “This story ends in blood.”

This book… was a surprise. I had heard positive reviews of it from a couple of different sources, and had fun listening to From the Front Porch’s episode where they cast their dream movie adaptation. Several of the reviews reference Steel Magnolias (maaaaybe my favorite movie ever), and used the word “hilarious.” My pop culture vampire comparisons include Buffy and Trueblood, both very humorous and light-hearted takes on the genre with vampires you kind of love despite yourself, so that was my impression going in. And it was that way, for a while. But then some CREEPY VAMPIRE SHIT STARTS HAPPENING.

Okay, so it’s set in 90s Charleston with a group of women who defected from the prim and proper book club that had rules and read terribly snooty books. When Patricia was chastised publicly for not reading that month’s selection, this group of five women split off and decided to read the things they really wanted to read: true crime books, the more awful the better. Which is perhaps why Patricia starts to pick up on some suspicious things about her handsome new neighbor down the street. (And also why she tries to convince herself she’s imagining things.) I mean, I know I had a clue going in, given the title and all, but I knew the second James Harris forced Patricia to truly invite him in to her home, DUDE’S AN EFFING VAMPIRE.

It’s hard to describe all the horror that goes on throughout the rest of the novel without spoiling it all, but let me just say that it involves ears, rats, cockroaches, rape, child sexual assault, and very bloody gore. Basically, if you’re an HSP (highly sensitive person) STEER CLEAR, MY FRIEND.

At this point, you might be saying, why Emily, it sounds like you didn’t like this book very much, which is an understandable assumption. But the thing is, I did! Partially, I know that is because it was read by Bahni Turpin, and I’m not sure I could dislike anything she narrates. But I also just haaadddd to know what was gonna happen. This is a 13+ hour audiobook, friends. Not a quick read. And yet, I spent hours at a time listening.

**Mild Spoiler Warning for this paragraph!** I had seen some reviews suggesting there was some problematic content in this regarding both Black characters and female representation. Grady Hendrix is, after all, a white man. (Although, the featured 1-star review on Goodreads commenting on this problematic content is… also from a white man.) Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to track down any negative reviews from #ownvoices reviewers, so I’m interested to read what they thought was problematic. If you know of any such reviews and can direct me, or if you have read it yourself, please comment below! I’d love to get a better sense of that. The Goodreads review I saw mentioned white savior complex, and I strongly disagreed with that idea. The Black housekeeper, Mrs. Greene, is the ultimate hero of the book, and is essential from start to finish. Yes, she tried to get help from Patricia to get police attention on the fact that Black children from her neighborhood are going missing. But Patricia fails spectacularly on that front, and it’s Mrs. Greene who will come to their rescue instead. There is some horrifying violence toward women and children that felt unnecessary. I do think that is a choice that would have been made differently by a female author. This phenomenon of violence toward women in mysteries and thrillers is one that is pretty well documented, and in fact there is now a book prize specifically for thrillers that don’t feature violence toward women. That being said, it’s the women that kick ass in the end, without help from any one of their waste-of-space husbands.

I did love the female friendship representation in this novel. These women look out for each other and take care of each other. They have their disagreements, but when push comes to shove, they will stand together. I’m hopeful I will have a similar group of women by my side throughout my adulthood, vampires or no vampires.

Not at all what I was expecting, but a surprise I enjoyed nonetheless. Although, I could have done without the cockroach in the ear thing.

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Review: What You Wish For

What you Wish ForWhat You Wish For, by Katherine Center (St. Martin’s Press 2020)

First line: “I was the one dancing with Max when it happened.”

I’ve been seeing Katherine Center’s beautiful books all over Bookstagram for months, so when I saw her newest was available for automatic download on NetGalley back in March, I jumped on it right away. I’m not a big romance reader, but there’s nothing like a worldwide pandemic to make you want to get swept away by your current read. Plus, the main character is a school librarian (heyyooo) and it includes one of my favorite romantic tropes (enemies turned maybe lovers?), so let’s give it a go!

First of all, the school library vibes were THE BEST. Our main character Sam works in this magical elementary school that values creativity and joy and curiosity, and her library reflects that. It’s a two-story magical land with reading nooks and painted book spine stairs and whimsy exploding from every corner. (Sorry Baby, you’re headed to daycare, because Mommy needs to work in this library.) And her explanation of what a librarian does and does not do (you mean they don’t just read books all day?) is spot on. I felt very seen by those pages.

Second of all, the romantic trope I was hoping for did appeal to me: after Sam’s beloved principal and founder of the school dies suddenly, a new principal is hired and Sam is horrified to learn that it is her former crush from her previous school, Duncan. She had moved four years ago to get away from him when he chose another girl, and now here he is as her boss. To make things worse, the fun-loving, goofy teacher Duncan she remembers has been replaced by a stoic, militaristic, fun-hating principal Duncan. Sam takes it upon herself to get Duncan to back down on all his new changes to the school before he completely kills the whimsy, and their developing relationship kept me sweeping those electronic pages aside through the climax of the story.

However. I felt a huge chunk of this was just fluff and cheese. Like most of the entire first half. I didn’t find the characters believable, I didn’t really like our protagonist aside from her profession, and there was so much repetitive expounding (this is what Duncan used to be like, blah blah blah, this is what Duncan is like now, blah blah blah, this is why everything is terrible, blah blah blah, oh, and did I tell you I have epilepsy that basically ruined my life?

Plus, and this is a little bit spoilery I guess, there is some discussion of a school shooting (looking back, not in present story chronology), that while was incredibly emotional in those few pages, seemed to then be swept away. I did not like how that was resolved and it felt too happily ever after to me. If you are going to use this incredibly horrifying plot device, I don’t think it can end with an HEA.  Make no mistake, I have no problems with HEAs, I am down for a good HEA, but in this case, it made me feel cringey in that one respect.

Okay, so overall, was it a fine read for quarantine time? Yes. Was it wonderful and would I have kept reading it in a non-quarantine stress-free time? Noooooope. I don’t know, guys, maybe Katherine Center’s just not for me? Have you read any of her other books? Maybe they’re better? It just seemed like from the plot/school setting, this would be the  mostly likely Center novel for me, and instead, it was just okay. I think I’m in the minority, but since I read it so far before publication, I guess time will tell!

If you’re a Center fan, like so many people are, go for it. Publication is set for next week, July 14. If you’ve read other Center novels and just found them okay, I wouldn’t bother with this one either. However, I *would* watch a movie adaptation of this hands-down, if only to see that gorgeous library.

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Thank you to St Martin’s Press via NetGalley for the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Midnight at the Electric

MidnightMidnight at the Electric, by Jodi Lynn Anderson (HarperTeen 2017)

First line: “From above, Miami looked as if it were blinking itself awake; the rising sun reflected against the city’s windows.”

I picked this book up at the ReadUp Greenville literature festival a few years ago (see this blog post for my explanation and adoration of ReadUp), simply because of the beautiful cover and the jacket flap description that sounded JUST UP MY ALLEY. At that time in my reading life, I gravitated heavily toward science fiction and historical fiction, as I loved to read stories of lives that are similar to ours, yet slightly different. I’ve been leaning more toward contemporary fiction lately, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for SF and HF, which is the reason I randomly grabbed this from my TBR bookcase last week and dove in.

In this novel, we get three stories of young women in very different times: Our main character lives in the year 2065, and is moving to Kansas to live with a distant older cousin she’s never met for several months while she trains to be launched to Mars for a very elite group who is colonizing the planet for future human occupation. While exploring her cousin’s ancient house, Adri discovers a journal and then a stack of letters from two other young women: Catherine, who is trying to survive the Dust Bowl in 1934 with her mother and very sick little sister, and Lenore, who is writing letters from post-WW1 era England to her best friend Beth in America. These three women, while separated my generations, have surprising connections that Adri discovers in these decaying pages.

Things I loved: As frequent readers of my blog know, I LOVE a multiple-timeline story and a multiple narrator story, especially when you get to see how those stories intersect. This serves up both, and with interesting time periods that I don’t read much about. I loved the 2065 details that showed the gradual and gentle changes to technology and environment, while still letting us feel grounded in the very old house Adri is staying in. I loved (is loved the right word here? Seems wrong.) learning about the horrifying details of the Dust Bowl, and her descriptions made me want to finally pick up the brick taking up residence on my Classics shelf, East of EdenThat undying conflict between wanting to escape in order to survive, yet feeling the pull of the land and hope that all those lives were built on in the Great Plains Breadbasket. I loved that our three heroines are defying odds and gendered norms for young women and striving outside comfort zones to make real changes to their lives. I loved Lenore’s sass and independence and found myself drawn to her character and story the most.

Things I did not love: I’m not sure I understood the necessity for the 2065 setting. Yes, it gives us a parallel for Adri’s story as she jets off to literal new worlds, but there wasn’t actually much development on her Mars mission or how she became involved. Actually, despite having (I think) the most pages devoted to her timeline, she felt like the least developed of the main characters. She was an orphan, totally alone before moving in with Lily, which seems like a juicy background, but we get the bare minimum. I also resented the storyline referenced in the title of the book, which takes place in Catherine’s era. By giving the traveling fair near Catherine’s home title status, you would think it would have a rather large importance to the story, and unless I really missed out on something, it seemed very minimal to the plot. There’s also a big reveal at the end of Lenore’s story that I wished was better explained. It seemed a bit neatly wrapped in a way that didn’t totally make sense. I wanted more for her. img_20200704_102759And finally, I was TOTALLY ANNOYED by the fact that the jacket copy sets Catherine’s story in Oklahoma in 1934, when her home is CLEARLY set in Kansas, not Oklahoma! It’s like an integral piece of the plot that she lives in Kansas! WHO wrote this jacket description, and WHO approved it??? I realize it’s not part of the actual text, so I should take a chill pill about this, but it makes me SUPER IRRITATED that something so simple and glaringly obvious is wrong, not only in the dust jacket, but also in all “publisher descriptions” like that featured on Goodreads. COME ON. If I was Jodi Lynn Anderson, I’d be irate. (I know my capitalization would suggest that I am irate currently. But more so.)

Overall, I found this quick novel compelling and engaging, and I definitely wanted to keep reading it. But I was frustrated by quite a few things, including some major plot and story elements. Will I keep it? Not sure. While it does not live up to my usual standards for permanent collection on my shelves, that cover sure is pretty.

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June Wrap Up

June ReadsYOU GUYS. June was so good to me. I have had such a great reading month. I don’t remember the last time I read FOUR 5-star books in one month, with another three 4.5-star books to boot. These books have been doing a lot of teaching and eye-opening this month, and I hope it’s just the beginning. Ranking is going to be nearly impossible, but I’ll do my best:

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau 2014): My most important book that I read this month, and possibly this year. Stevenson chronicles his career founding the Equal Justice Initiative working to free unfairly convicted people stuck in prisons. This book was incredibly well written and so eye-opening. I still can’t stop thinking about it, and don’t want to stop thinking about it. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books 2020): I loved this book both from a story perspective and from a craft perspective. By watching what happens when one twin passes as white and one twin doesn’t we get a case study of race in America. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) Rodham: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House 2020): Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my absolute faves, and I love her fictional stories of real women. I hope it becomes a thing of hers. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (Hachette Audio 2020): Squeezed this one in to the last few days of June, and so glad I did! I love Jason Reynolds SO MUCH and am blown away by all I learned in this one. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)halfstar Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — In Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There), by Sarah Hurwitz (Spiegel & Grau 2019): Mallory and I read this one for our book club and I found this to be *just* the kind of book we like to read: great writing, broad perspective, lots of learning, personal feel. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)halfstar  We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Penguin Random House Audio 2017): This collection of eight essays first written for The Atlantic in each year of Obama’s presidency acts as a primer to all sorts of issues of racism in America, including housing, police brutality, racism in politics, mass incarceration, etc. So well done, and super interesting. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)halfstar  Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Penguin Random House 2017): This *super quick* read is a letter to Adichie’s new momma friend, Ijeawele, who asked Adichie how she should raise her baby daughter to be a feminist. Still helpful for this new momma who plans to raise her son to be a feminist.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold secrets, and Advice for Living Your Best Life, by Ali Wong (Random House Audio 2019): The audiobook narrated by the author was fun and insightful and beautifully vulgar. Very enjoyable! Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, a Choreopoem by Ntozake Shange (Scribner 1975, 2010): Unlike anything I’ve read before, this choreopoem shares the experiences of Black women, and women everywhere. It’s inspiring and devastating. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1) Friday Night Lights, by H. G. Bissinger (Da Capo Press 1990): Read this one after watching the show with some friends. It’s very little like the show, but still a fascinating look at race and wealth and poverty and football in small town Texas. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)halfstar The Vacationers, by Emma Straub (Riverhead 2014): Dove into this one after loving my first Emma Straub book and while I didn’t love it as much, I still think Straub’s writing is outstanding, and I will definitely still read more of her. Read my full review here.

Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)Untitled presentation(1)halfstar Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Black (Quill Tree Books 2016): Got this one as a free Prime read. I found myself kind of confused for quite a bit of it, but compulsive enough that when I finished in the middle of the night, I immediately when to Hoopla to download the second one. I assume I’ll finish out the series, although I wish it was three books instead of four.

So there we have it folks! My most successful reading month of 2020 thus far! 12 books all over 3 stars?? INSANE. Plus, more than half were written by BIPOC authors, 6 of which were Black authors. I hope to keep up a high percentage moving forward.

What was your favorite read of this month? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

stamped1Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (Hachette Audio 2020)

First line: “Before we begin, let’s get something straight. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in schools.”

Sorry, Jason, I’m crossing off the “History Book” challenge on my 2020 Reading Challenge, despite your claims. Because, friends, this book is chock full of American (and global) history. Although he’s definitely right in his caveat, we have not read this kind of book in school before. In this young reader’s “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Reynolds presents the complicated history of racism in America in a way that is completely approachable, yet sometimes still hard to swallow (for this white reader). Without talking down to his “young readers” (because Reynolds is known for utmost respect for his readers), Reynolds starts in the year 1415 with the “World’s First Racist” and chronicles racism throughout our nation’s history up until the present day. He does so with clarity, humor, conversational tone, and so much information, much of which was new to me, or I had only a general sense of prior to this. And this information is unsettling, to say the least. A lot of feet are held to the fire in this text, including some who were taught, at least to me, were Black heroes, like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama. Lots more white Americans that we are taught to celebrate are also exposed for their racist ideas, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harper Lee, and Bill Clinton. Reynolds makes clear (which comes from Kendi, too I’m sure, from what I’ve read of Kendi’s other work), that there are three types of people: segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists. And as it turns out, many of those we thought were “not racist” or that we thought were fighting racism, very often fall in that assimilationist category instead. And the goal, for a just society, is to be antiracist, a person who supports the idea that racial groups are equal.

Now, since this is a remix of Kendi’s work, I know Reynolds is not the one to do all the research and gather all this information together in this way. However, he is the one to present the information in this context. I listened to the audio, read by Reynolds, and I think this is truly the way to consume this book. I do wish I had a print copy too, so that I could look back at certain facts and points he made, but having it read to you in Reynolds’ voice is just… the way it’s meant to be read. I don’t know what else to tell you. (Except that I slowed this baby down to 1x speed, because I don’t need to speed up Jason. I would listen to his voice for as long as he’d want to talk.) As I said, he respects the reader, talks directly to the reader, but holds the reader accountable. He assumes that he and I are on the same side, but also that he and I are all responsible for making our world antiracist. I want everyone to read this. Certainly every teacher who teaches American History in any respect. There’s so much that we are just getting wrong about the way we teach about our country. And Reynolds and Kendi are certainly doing their part in helping us correct that.

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My FOURTH 5-star read of June, guys. This month has been CRAZY GOOD.

Review: Rodham

rodham.jpgRodham: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House 2020)

First line: “There was a feeling I got before I spoke in front of an audience and sometimes also before an event that was less public but still important, an event that could have consequences in my life — taking the LSATs, for example, which I’d done in a classroom on the campus of Harvard. The feeling was a focused kind of anticipation, it was like a weight inside my chest, but it never exactly came from being nervous. I always had prepared, and I always knew I could do it. Thus the feeling was a sense of my own competence blended with the knowledge that I was about to pull off a feat most people thought, correctly or not, they couldn’t And this knowledge contributed to the final aspect of the feeling, which was loneliness — the loneliness of being good at something.”

The moment I heard about this book I was PUMPED. I am a huge Curtis Sittenfeld fan, and an even bigger fan of her fictional biography of Laura Bush, American Wife, so I knew that this alternate history of Hillary Clinton would be a must-read for me.  Like Rainbow Rowell’s work, Sittenfeld has such a knack for making her characters incredibly relatable, whether or not you have any specific tangible similarities. In Rodham, she did it once again for HRC. I found myself underlining and nodding and feeling more empathy toward her than I had previously, except perhaps in the recent 4-part documentary, Hillary (which would make an excellent pairing, btw).

Unlike in American Wife, which followed the Bushes story pretty closely, Sittenfeld takes a big “What If” approach in Rodham, and imagines what life for Hillary and the rest of the country would have been like had she not married Bill Clinton. We start in 1969 with Hillary’s big speech at her Wellesley graduation, which set her on the national stage, and follow along as she meets Bill at Yale Law and falls in love. I’ve got to say, the romance of Bill and Hill, at least represented by Sittenfeld, is quite the sexy one, and not for the faint at heart. If you blush easily, make sure you read this one in private! Eventually, Bill and Hillary’s paths — and truth and fiction — diverge and we get to see Sittenfeld’s imagined consequences of this decision.

I found this fascinating. I think so much the public’s impression of Hillary is due to her ties to Bill in one way or another, and seeing what could have been, but also, what actually is true about Hillary, was truly captivating. She is so much more than the wife of Bill Clinton, and yet so many of us can only see her as such. Like I mentioned above, I think the Hillary documentary does a great job of this too, but for some, it will be this fictional version that exposes her truth.

If I owned more of Sittenfeld’s books (why don’t I?), she would definitely take up residence on the top “favorite authors shelf” of our living room bookcase. As it is, Rodham might get a coveted spot by itself. After all, deciding to stand on one’s own isn’t always the worst choice.

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Review: Dear Girls

DearGirlsDear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold secrets, and Advice for Living Your Best Life, by Ali Wong (Random House Audio 2019)

First line: “Dear Girls, Your dad is the (if we are divorced by the time you read this please skip to the next sentence) best, but I didn’t just find him overnight.”

Comedian and actress Ali Wong brings us her version of the celebrity humor memoir in the format of letters to her two daughters, Mari and Nikki. As anyone who has seen her Netflix specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, might guess, these letters are filled with raunchiness and vulgarity in the very best way, so one hopes that Mari and Nikki won’t read them for quite some time (or, if it was me, I would hope to read them after mom was dead and gone, because EMBARRASSING). I remember the first time I watched Baby Cobra and laughed till I cried and hoped that I would be as cool a pregnant lady and inevitably mom as Ali was. I don’t think I’ve reached that notch of coolness, but Dear Girls does still leave me aspirational.

One of my favorite chapters was “Snake Heart”, about her experiences studying abroad in Vietnam in college. She starts the chapter encouraging, then insisting, that her daughters study abroad at some point, because, as she so correctly states: “Spending a significant amount of time outside the United States in your formative years makes you a better person. You learn things from simply living your day-to-day life in another country that can’t be taught in a classroom, like open-mindedness and empathy.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment, and it made me really excited to think about where my children might one day study abroad.

I thought this was a fun audiobook to keep me company in my ears and I enjoyed listening to her throughout the day. Like her comedy, there were moments that made me uncomfortable and verbalize the term “eesh” right along moments that made me laugh out loud. If you’re an Ali Wong fan, treat yourself to this short memoir while we await her next Netflix special (fingers crossed).

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Review: For Colored Girls

img_20200622_220009-1For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, a Choreopoem by Ntozake Shange (Scribner 1975, 2010)

First line: “for colored girls began in the middle of itself.”

This is one of those books where you don’t want to skip the introduction. (Frankly, I don’t want you to ever skip an introduction, but I found it really essential for this one.) In the intro, author Ntozake Shange explains the genesis and evolution of this “choreopoem”, starting as her single voice spoken word, to a cast of seven women filling a stage. She takes us through what we are about to read, guiding us to understand the context of each poem — which is especially helpful since the text itself isn’t actually broken up into individual poems with titles (unless you use the table of contents at the beginning and flip back and forth). She shares with us the reception of this work, from the ferocity of criticism she received from many men — “the body traditionally used to power and authority interpreting, through their own fear, my work celebrating the self-determination and centrality of women as a hostile act” — to the incredible longevity to resonate with so many, even becoming a feature length Tyler Perry film in 2010. And eventually, she invites the reader to speak the text aloud, to “find your way to the rainbow by your own voice,” and I’m so glad she did so.

I did read this aloud in one sitting, and I think I was able to feel it better that way. These poems were not necessarily written for me, a white woman, and I do think I missed some of it by not being able to hear the words spoken from the mouths of Black women, but getting out of my head definitely helped. Through these poems, Shange attempts to share the experiences of all women, displayed by the fact that the seven parts are unnamed, referred to only as “woman in brown”, “woman in red”, etc. The poems tell of romance and lust, sisterhood and violence, desperation and joy, motherhood and rape, survival and beauty. She covers such a vast landscape in 86 pages, and it is exhilarating and devastating.

Today I watched the film version (which is available on Netflix) and I highly recommend consuming both together. I don’t think those who watch the movie without knowledge of the stage version would fully grasp what’s going on — it uses lots of the actual text of the poems, which is a little strange for a narrative film. But having just read the text, the movie brings the poetry to life in a way I was unable to do by myself. There are so many fabulous actresses in this film: Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Divine, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, and Anika Noni Rose. Their abilities breathe life into Shange’s words and provides context for them. I appreciated both pieces of media more for having consumed the other.

From what I can tell, this play is very well known, and I feel a bit like I was living under a rock for never having heard of it before it was gifted to me. I’m thankful to have this acclaimed work in my head and heart.

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Review: The Vanishing Half

vanishinghalf.jpgThe Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books 2020)

First line: “The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort.”

This book is breathtaking. And when I say that, I mean that while reading, I felt like I couldn’t get a full breath and that I had a lump in my throat nearly the entire time. I realize that doesn’t sound like an enjoyable experience, but I guess what I’m trying to say, is that this book effected me in a physical way. Brit Bennett’s writing is simply like none other.

Twins Desiree and Stella Vignes grew up in Mallard, Louisiana, a town so small that it’s not on any map. Mallard is unique in that its entire population, while Black, is very light-skinned. So light-skinned that after Stella and Desiree run away to New Orleans when they’re 16, Stella ends up passing as white to get an office job, a quick decision that alters both girls’ lives — and their future families’ — forever.

There were several things that I found incredibly compelling about this book. First: the timeline. This story stretches from the 1950s into the 1990s. If you need a clear, chronological narrative, this one won’t work for you. Bennett gives us time markers in the section headings, but even within those sections, things jump around a bit. She sometimes will change time periods within a single paragraph, and she does so in a way that I never felt confused. Instead, I marveled at how effortless her writing made it feel. The intentionality of collapsing years and decades in a few lines shows how layered these family dynamics and decisions made by these characters truly are. My English major roots itched to take notes and plot things out for a killer research paper on her technique.

I also was so captivated by her narrative voice. We get several different perspectives throughout the book: Stella, Desiree, each of their daughters, and several of the men in their lives, and while they too are sometimes layered upon each other like the time shifts, I never felt disoriented or struggled to figure out whose lens we were looking through. She might drop us into a new perspective in the middle of an idea, and instead of sitting back and trying to figure out whose view it was, I felt comfort knowing that I would understand by the end of the sentence.

I guess this is what I mean when I say Bennett’s writing is breathtaking. She takes us on a ride through decades and across the entire country, through struggles of race, identity, gender, class, fame, colorism, memory, violence, and family, and I felt so deeply in it the entire time. There was a quiet urgency throughout the entire novel that didn’t stop till the last moment. While she brings up so many interesting and complex issues that warrant discussion, I also just joyfully basked in the beauty of her writing skill. I’d head this about Bennett’s first novel, The Mothers, too, and I’m so glad I have it on my shelf waiting for me.

If you haven’t yet, I urge you to consider participating in this past week’s push to show #Blackpublishingpower in the attempt to Black out the bestseller lists by purchasing two books by Black authors by the end of today. This one would be an incredible choice to purchase, although I don’t think it’s going to have any trouble staying on the Bestseller list this week.

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Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

wewere8years (2)We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Penguin Random House Audio 2017)

First line: “This story began, as all writing must, in failure.”

I grabbed this one from Libby a couple weeks ago as so many of us were scrambling to get our hands on some literature to help us reach a better understanding of what it’s like to be Black in America. Ta-Nehisi Coates, most well known for his long-form letter to his son, Between the World and Me, is one of those voices many of us are turning to in order to unlearn what we thought we knew and learn in a more complete way. While Between the World and Me is his most famous, I found We Were Eight Years in Power even more compelling.

In this collection of essays, Coates presents one essay written in each year of the Obama presidency, first featured in The Atlantic. Before each essay, he sets the stage in what he calls a “blog post,” centering us and giving us context for the article. Throughout the eight chapters, Coates basically gives a masterclass on racism in America, covering issues from reparations, mass incarceration, police brutality, racism in the housing market, race in politics, and more. While each essay connects to Obama and his administration, they go way beyond that as well. And while it’s clear Coates has deep respect for President Obama, he is also a vocal critic and doesn’t let him off the hook when he thinks Obama hasn’t done enough.

Although our current focus in the news and protests are on racism in policing, we know that the issue goes far beyond that. It is deeply rooted in our nation’s history and is embedded in all aspects of our society. Coates provides a brief education in many of these aspects in a way that is informative, approachable, gripping, and clear. I found myself thinking of his essays a lot over the past couple weeks, and I think I will continue thinking about them for days to come. If you need someplace to start, this is a great one.

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