I did actually read some books in May!
But then the world became even more awful than simple pandemic awfulness, as if that wasn’t awful enough, and I didn’t feel much like writing anything.
Well, the world is STILL awful, and I’ve talked to awful people who have said awful things. I’ve also talked to amazing people who haven’t exactly filled me with hope, but have helped me realize that I can make a difference. So I will continue to look for ways to take action- at work and in my community. Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black authors matter. The time has passed a million times to make changes. It is long overdue and will not happen if we all remain complacent and quiet. We can’t sit back and wait for someone else to fix this, or wash our hands of it and hope that our progeny will fix it. Yes, young people will be a HUGE factor, but if we leave it to our kids then we are still failing them.
Friends- please participate in the conversations. I am finding NOTHING more exasperating than white men feeling (no surprise here) very comfortable expressing their (sincerely held but completely fucking wrong) opinions on anything and everything, while others are content to “like” or “heart” a post or a comment, but decline to engage in the conversation. HELLO, WORLD, THIS IS THE PROBLEM!
The conversation makes you uncomfortable? It should. Don’t let that feeling deter you. Ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable and who you’re afraid of pissing off- because I’m telling you- the people who are throwing Ben Carson in my face are NOT afraid of pissing anyone off. Sitting comfortably with your silence is only emboldening these people to believe that their opinions are more valid and mainstream than they actually are.
I’m not suggesting you engage directly with these trolls- as my wise and beautiful friend Beth told me, “Rule One is we don’t engage with those who can’t hear. It’ll destroy you and this takes so much fucking energy.” If only I had the self-control for that. What I am suggesting is that if a neighbor comes up with an idea, or asks a question about something in the community, CHIME IN- don’t just let people flood the conversation with crap to the exclusion of any meaningful input.
I love you. We can do hard things.
What did I read in May?
Well, these are the books I wanted to read:
Did I read all of them? Heavens, no! But I did read the pile on the right. And it was a very solid month of reading.
The City We Became – N.K. Jemisin
Nerdette Book Club selection
I read this first because it sounded vastly different than anything I’ve read, and it’s not something I would have chosen for myself if not for the club. Jemisin has won a heap of Hugo awards (she was the first Black woman to win one), another thing I hadn’t heard of before reading this book.
The City We Became is the first part of a trilogy, and New York City is literally the protagonist (obviously it is way more complicated than that.) At some point in every city’s progression, it becomes a living being with an avatar. Unique to NYC, in addition to a main avatar (the “Primary”) there are five more representing each of the boroughs. I won’t spoil the names- they are clever plays on each of the boroughs, and I thought they were a delightful touch- not to mention four of the five are POC. The avatars must find each other and fight a force that wants to stop the city’s awakening and (of course) kill them in the process.
Combine that with a lot of tentacly Lovecraftian elements, and you get The City We Became. This is not an ode to Lovecraft. He’s the villain (in addition to his well-known racism- apparently he also hated New York?) This novel has a lot to say about very real things happening in the world- corruption, racism, and police brutality to name a few.
I’ve only been to NYC once, and I was very young. I’m sure there were a lot of NYC details that were lost on me- it’s a very site-specific story. However, I could plainly feel Jemisin’s love for her city- except maybe for Staten Island. I’ll definitely read parts two and three. While the “Team up and save the city from monsters” story-line isn’t completely original, the way that this iteration is written IS completely original, and amidst all the heaviness- it was at times still downright funny.
Listen to (or read) the Nerdette interview with N.K. Jemisin. It’s great.
The Book of V. – Anna Solomon
Belletrist/GMA Book Club selection
This book made me feel so many things, and was one of my favorites this month. I wrote a little about it earlier, but I have no problem spewing more loving word vomit in its direction. Please see my previous post for references to dog genitals and farts.
This novel takes turns telling the stories of three women in three different eras- ancient Persian Esther, 70s Vee, and modern Lily. Both of the modern story lines cleverly weave in elements from the stories of Esther and Vashti. Vashti is a queen exiled for refusing to prance around naked in front of the king and his company. Esther is the Jewish orphan chosen (forced) to be his next queen. While it seems that Vee is the new Vashti (she refuses to prance around naked in front of her politican husband and his company) and Lily is the new Esther (second wife), it isn’t so straightforward. There is a masterful twisty connection near the end of the novel that I should have seen coming but definitely did not. Regardless, it was very gratifying.
As I said before, I appreciate any book that reminds women that it’s okay to feel ambivalence, it’s okay to feel incomplete. These are universal feelings, and we’d be better off if we were reminded of that more frequently.
All Adults Here – Emma Straub
Read With Jenna/Barnes and Noble Book Club selection
All Adults Here follows practical family matriarch Astrid Strick and her children (Elliot, Porter, and Nicky)- who all have secrets. It’s a lovably dysfunctional family with a lot of love in a book that is an easy but absorbing read- a good thing to distract the mind from the hellfire that is this world right now.
This book has a lot going on: Single motherhood by IVF, LGBTQ+ and coming out, gender identity, infidelity, abortion, bullying. I did notice a few reader comments that made this sound like a negative- calling it heavy-handed or asking if Emma Straub could have POSSIBLY crammed anything else in there. I didn’t feel that way at all! Actually, it didn’t even strike me as notable that there were so many different themes in the novel until I saw those comments. I think Straub did a great job of handling these topics with respect and humor, and presented them in a realistic (yet fluffy) manner.
Best of all, Emma Straub is just funny. I think she has a talent for dialogue. This is the first book I’ve read from her, and I definitely have a new author/bookseller/decent human being crush.
Catherine House – Elisabeth Thomas
Fantastic Stragelings Book Club selection
I loved the creepy and sinister atmosphere of this book. I could vividly picture the campus, and I would love to see it brought to life. However, it took me a while to grow attached to the characters. I think in addition to the author’s very specific descriptions of place, she also wrote some really good dialogue. But- there wasn’t enough of it, so it took longer than I wanted to care about any of the actual people. I did love all the names (Second book that I loved the names in? I think I have a thing for good naming.)
I also wanted there to be more of a point to aaaaalllllll of the food talk. I can read about food all day, don’t get me wrong, and it sounded delish (uhhhh can someone get me some clementine pudding pleasedrool) but I kept waiting for it to tie into the story more. Like maybe the bad lady kept feeding them to fuel something or another? Or lull them into a sense of security? Something like that.
Overall, I liked it- but it was my least favorite of the month. The best part of it it was just imagining the campus, but I think the holes in the story are pretty big. And while the characters were eventually compelling, they are hard to recall as I write this- but the place and the feelings are still clear in my brain. I appreciated the representation of depression, and the commentary of how marginalized people are seen as expendable from society- unbeknownst to them, the students of this school are specifically selected to attend Catherine House because they have nowhere else to go.
It felt to me like the START of something that could have been excellent. I think I’ll keep an eye on this author.
Side note- Jenny Lawson did a virtual Zoom event with the author, and I’d love to present you with two pictures- these ladies are both super cute and definitely talk a lot with their hands!
The Knockout Queen – Rufi Thorpe
One of my BOTM picks
Probably my favorite book of the month, but it was realllly close with The Book of V. This book caught me WAY off guard- it was a lot darker than I was expecting, and Rufi Thorpe is shaaaaaarp. She reminds me a lot of Bryn Greenwood- they both write really smart and interesting books that knock you on your ass.
The Knockout Queen tells the story of the friendship of two high schoolers on the fringe, Bunny (a freakishly tall volleyball player) and Michael (a gay might-as-well-be-an-orphan smart kid.) A shocking act of violence has long-lasting repercussions on the trajectories of their lives, as well as their relationship with one another.
First of all. Pooping jujubes.
Second of all. Pop-tart and butter sandwiches.
Third of all. There is a chapter of the book involving a character in and out of a coma (trying not to spoil anything) and Thorpe basically writes the entire stream of consciousness that goes through his head. It is a mind fuck and it is amazing.
Fourth? Boxing. Unrelated to the unconscious character. I know. WTF.
This book is brutal but it is also lovely and kind. This book is violent but it is also elegant and warm. It was stressful and rewarding. I loved it sososososo much.
I recommend reading her description of her book, found underneath a letter she wrote about libraries.
Hidden Valley Road – Robert Kolker
Oprah’s Book Club selection
The sole nonfiction book I read in May! I can tell you already that this is NOT the case for June.
Hidden Valley Road follows the Galvin family- Mimi and Don are the parents of TWELVE children, and six of the twelve are diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kolker did a great job of telling the story of this family with empathy and without judgment, and providing some context and history about schizophrenia.
This was a double win for me.
First and foremost, it was a compelling chronicle of a very messy family- including squabbles across the violence spectrum, murder-suicide, and incest. Yet somehow, even while dealing with all of that darkness, the book still manages to feel hopeful. Also, falconry?
And second, there was a lot of science on mental illness and the nature vs. nurture debate (I love me some science.) The biggest miracle of the book has to be getting all surviving members of the family involved and on board, very helpful in adding another layer to the story of the Galvin family- how mental illness has impacts across generations of the same family.
The Henna Artist – Alka Joshi
Reese’s Book Club selection
Perfectly pleasant, predictable fluff with a side of education? There’s a lot of beautiful and evocative writing here. We root for the characters even while we can see the conclusion coming from a mile away. Lakshmi escapes an arranged and abusive marriage and becomes a coveted henna artist (and provider of abortion-inducing tea sachets) in the city of Jaipur. Years later, her ex-husband catches up to her to introduce her to the sister she never knew she had. Little sister gets pregnant, drastically altering the course of Lakshmi’s life.
I enjoyed the peppering of italicized Indian words indicating I should flip to the glossary to find out what they mean. It could be a tad distracting, but I thought it was worth it. And while I did feel a connection to the characters (could not have loved Malik more), this was another novel where location is the real star.
This is a nice article that includes an explanation from the author on how the book is an ode to her mother.
Joshi has second novel in the works centering on Malik, although for the life of me I can’t remember where I learned that.
My June pile:
Four down. June’s gonna be a scramble.