As promised in 8 Rapid Reviews, Part 1, here are the other eight books I’ve read recently but haven’t had the chance to properly review. I’m not going into much depth on these because, well, I just want to get caught up! But I did appreciate all of them and thoroughly enjoyed some. Just like last time, I’ll include my Goodreads rating in order to provide a snapshot of just how much I liked each one of these, in general terms.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo: I have to admit that this one took me a bit longer than usual to get through, particularly as it’s not very long. There was something about it that unsettled me a bit and I still haven’t been able to identify it clearly. I will say, I’ve read a couple of scathing reviews for it, where people have called it condescending and counterproductive. I sat with my thoughts about those reactions for some time and haven’t been able to agree. I think some of the problem is, first, the people who have responded to the book that way seem to have a particular agenda/ideology of their own and, second, some of them clearly have not read the book or are not the intended audience for it. This is is a book written by a white woman whose intended audience is other white people, especially those who call themselves allies, want to be allies, or believe themselves to be, but who continue to perpetuate racism in smaller or larger ways. DiAngelo’s definitions were helpful, but not quite as helpful, in my opinion, as Ibram X. Kendi’s. Similarly, her shared experiences were helpful but not quite as–what’s the word, genuine?–helpful as Kendi’s. Is it a valuable supplement, though? Absolutely. I learned a lot from what DiAngelo shares and from her particular expertise in diversity training. Despite some hiccoughs in the messaging, I believe what she is sharing is true and that those approaching it with a genuinely open mind and open heart, will gain from the experience. 4 out of 5.
Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith: I’ve been reading an awful lot of poetry this summer, probably because I’ve been focused on writing my own while I revise my third draft of my novel and prepare it for submission/query. This one, though, is a standout among the dozen or so that I’ve read since May. Smith tackles head-on (and in the very first poem) issues of police violence and black death. But he also illustrates, beautifully, experiences of grief and love. Some of his poems are musings on morality, others are stark and naked explorations of desire and sexuality, including the HIV experience. It is, really, a complex and complicated journey describing one poet’s existence as an American, and he reminds us of James Baldwin’s righteous truth that anyone who claims to love this country is duty bound to recognize its flaws and to demand better from it. “take your God back. though his songs are beautiful, his miracles are inconsistent.” Really stunning. 5 out of 5.
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, by Chen Chen: This collection was chosen by Jericho Brown, one of my favorite contemporary poets, for publication and award, which immediately piqued my interest. Chen Chen’s poems run the gamut of emotions, from tender to ferocious, as its description indicates, and he describes in ways both blunt and subtle experiences with sex and romance. Writing from the perspective of an Asian-American immigrant, some of the most striking poems are the ones in which he describes his memories of coming out and his parents’, especially his mother’s, strong negative reactions to it. The reader/listener is invited to witness the poet’s life, like an autobiography in verse, and to share his joys and sorrows, griefs and hopes. “I was 13 & it was night & all night I stared / at the moon from my tree, willing myself to think / not of them, but of how it would taste / to kiss, to be kissed, oh / moon, for a long time, for the first time / . . . / oh / moon, hungry moon, unkissed / & silent, I would kiss you.” 4 out of 5.
Where We Go From Here, by Lucas Rocha: I honestly can’t remember how this one even got on my radar, but I remember reading a review for it, somewhere, and noting that this one was a recent translation from Brazil. The combination of being an LGBTQ novel, in the young adult genre, that covers life with HIV, and that was written and published originally in South America, was too much for me to turn away from. I don’t read nearly enough South American literature and this seemed like a decent way to correct that, somewhat, particularly at a time when I was reading a lot of heavy material and could use a little YA break. The story is told from three perspectives, two young men with HIV and one without (but who thought he might have it). I appreciated the fact that the author provides multiple perspectives on living with HIV, including the good and the bad, the optimistic and the pessimistic, and also that it is a contemporary example featuring young adults (much HIV/AIDS literature is decades old at this point, and often features older characters; it is also, unfortunately, often fatalistic.) A relief to read a mostly joyous story of people who just happen to be living with HIV. I did have some trouble with the narrators (they were not distinctive enough from each other, for me) and with the repetitive storytelling, but overall, a valuable read. 3 out of 5.
Imago, by Joseph O. Legaspi: As I prepare to teach my Southeast Asian Literature class this fall, I wanted to dive into some SE Asian literature that is not on my required reading list but that might offer me more perspective and experience, including possible recommendations for students who are interested in reading more. This was an incredibly fortuitous place to start. Legaspi’s poems cover his time in the Philippines as a young boy and, later, his life in the United States. His poems are often classically erotic, even as the pertain to family–his father, mother, and brother. This was striking at times, and unusual, but wholly beautiful and necessary in telling the story of his life as he experienced. In one poem, he writes about transforming from boyhood to manhood, “I then thought of others at the verge of their manhood: / my brother to replace me on this stool, / a neighborhood of eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old / boys wearing the skirts of their sisters / and grandmothers, touched / by the hands of their mothers, / baptized by green waters, / and how by week’s end / we will shed our billowy skirts, / like monarchs, and enter / the garden of our lives.” What an absolutely breathtaking way to describe what must be one of the most physically painful experiences–and memories–imaginable. This, I found, is something Legaspi managed to do throughout his entire collection. He looks at life, at himself, and at his loved ones, in ways that seem improbable, if not wholly impossible, and makes us understand, no, makes us feel what only he could have felt. One of the few perfect poetry collections I’ve ever read. 5 out of 5.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley: I had been on the hunt for this book for nearly a month, when a dear friend sent me her copy. Thank you, Crystal! I had read this one way back in junior high but could barely remember anything about it. I did remember a few flashes from the film adaptation with Denzel Washington. I can even remember where I was when I watched the movie, which is to say, it definitely left an impression on me. I think what I admire most about Malcolm X, aside from his courageous altruism and his great personal and professional successes despite limited education and a tumultuous childhood, is that he had a genuine ability to think critically about a situation of which he already had a deeply held belief or opinion, and then change his mind. That’s a rare thing, perhaps now especially. It was not a comfortable read, given Malcolm X’s opinion of white people for most of his life and as told throughout most of the book, but watching his progression, watching his mind and heart change, is one of the more unique experiences available to any reader. This is an autobiography that is not just a personal history or a social history or an ideological critique; it is the living, breathing philosophy of a man on display, with all its faults and with its extraordinary developments, presented much like a gift to the reader, to view in real time. Haley’s afterword is also remarkable. 4 out of 5.
Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski: “Your face. It looks like something’s opened up, something that was folded tight. Like a fist. I’d never noticed it before, but now I do.” This book took my breath away. When I finished it, I wrote down a single line: “Thank you, Tomasz.” Swimming in the Dark is a rich and daring tale set in 1980s Poland. Its backdrop is the decline of communism in the nation and the rise of something new. Wading through that transition are two young men on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. One, the narrator Ludwik, cannot abide the communist state and its restrictions, prejudices, and invasiveness. He loses his first close friend, Beniek, to bigotry against Jewish people in Poland at this time, a loss that will change and haunt him forever. The other, Janusz, having come from extreme poverty and worked his way up, through education, into a stable and rewarding position in the communist party, cannot imagine defying it. The two fall in love and, just as the country is torn apart politically, Ludwik and Janusz are bombarded by the many obstacles of being gay in the 1980s, in a country where it is not explicitly outlawed but where any deviation from the norm is an affront to the party. Jedrowski’s prose is lyric and emotive, matching brilliantly the narrative’s tone and atmosphere at every point. 5 out of 5.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: “We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” Based on a true story, which is referenced extensively in the afterword, The Nickel Boys takes place just as the Civil Rights movement begins in the United States. Its protagonist, Elwood Curtis, is an unusual boy in the neighborhood. Polite, introverted, and perhaps a bit of a nerd, he is inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent movement and dreams of attending college, soon. Indeed, his dream is about to come true–one of the first in his neighborhood for which this will be true–when life takes a terrible turn and everything changes. What follows is the story of a boy, wrongfully convicted and sent to a juvenile prison, progressively labeled a “school.” Here, he meets young Turner, Elwood’s opposite in nearly every way. The two use their own unique resources and abilities to survive the Nickel Academy and all its horrors. For as long as they can. I would love to say that Whitehead has invented something profound, here; a historical metaphor for modern American life, but unfortunately, a version of this school (let’s face it, many versions) really did exist, and a version of Elwood’s life (let’s face it, many versions), really did exist. Whitehead’s research is sound and detailed, though, and he fills in the narrative gaps with creative honesty and delicate rage. It’s no surprise this one won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 4 out of 5.
Thanks for reading through my mini-reviews for these most recent eight reads. It’s funny, lately there’s been this huge discussion online over whether or not we should review (negatively) books that we did not enjoy. I come down mostly firmly on the side that there’s no point or purpose in sharing negative thoughts about books I didn’t enjoy because the purpose (to me) of writing and sharing reviews is to recommend books to others who might also appreciate them. So, if I didn’t like it, why waste my time? That said, I’ve also discovered that, as I’m nearing 40-years of age and three full decades of ravenous reading, I tend to pick books that I’m pretty sure I’ll like in the first place. I guess we readers know ourselves pretty well, right? Anyway, that’s all a long-winded way of saying, I’ve read a lot of great stuff this summer and I hope you’ll get to enjoy some of these, too!