“What are you reading?”

People ask me this a lot. It’s my favorite question. But I decided I’d like to have a much better pathway to share that. So I’m popping this up. I can’t guarantee I’ll do it all the time, but here it is.

This month I read mostly books that have a few years on them–some more than others–but none of them are especially new titles. Still, it was a great month, and I’d recommend any of these. My number one pick from this month would be the Anna  Hibisucus series, a set of first chapter books for early readers.

*Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke, books 1-4 (early readers) These chapter books are a treasure–and I’m so glad that Uma spoke about them in her lecture or I’d never have known to pick them up. This annotation refers to the first four books of the series, all included on this bibliography.

Through her charming protagonist (& family), Atinuke develops a picture of life in “amazing Africa” that effectively squashes many western notions about the continent while also taking western perspectives on family and clothing and vacationing and pets to task for their myopia. The other books in the series do not have as much of an axe to grind as the first, however, and as a result read a little more like story/a little less like essay. But the activist in me loved the essay edge of the first volume and rejoiced in parts of the later books that emphasized it, especially “Anna Hibiscus and the New Generator,” and “The Other Side of the City” (Hooray for Anna Hibiscus) and “Anna Hibscus’s New Clothes” (Good Luck, Anna Hibiscus).

The author’s note at the end of each book says that Atinuke’s “stories are a medley of traditional folklore and contemporary urban life,” and that description is so apt. While they do build on each other from beginning to end, each chapter also functions as a stand-alone story that examines some aspect of culture and arrives at a conclusion that supports Anna’s way of  life. The conclusion is not moralistic, necessarily, nor is it simplistic–but it does seek to reinforce the status quo of Anna’s family as normal and good. The language is repetitive and rhythmic, mimicking the sound of the oral tradition and childhood fables–while also including details like offices and cell phones and text messages. And female presidents of other countries.

Heck Superhero by Martine Leavitt (middle grade) – I still don’t know what to think about this book. It’s sad. It’s oddly positioned between middle grade and YA in terms of content. It reminded me a little bit of the Cynthia Voigt books back in the 80’s in terms of how Heck views his homelessness pragmatically and protectively.

The comics gimmick doesn’t really work here–it doesn’t read as genuine
from neither Heck nor Leavitt. There’s a lot of telling about comics
rather than a sense of that coming from inside the character. But I forgive it as a reader because Heck’s belief in the magic rule of the universe (do good and nothing bad will happen to you) is utterly realistic–it makes it possible for to read his sweet, willful naiveté on the page. It raises the emotional stakes for him and makes his situation even more distressing for the reader.

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (YA) – No wonder this book is often hailed as Blume’s masterpiece–and no wonder I wasn’t much engaged by it as a teen reader myself. First, the prose is so spare in this book. It works on a craft level because the simple, repetitive syntax at key points in the book underscores the grief and disconnectedness that Davey after her father is murdered. It also gives the text a lyrical, straightforward cadence.

Second, like her other work, Blume’s adults are as carefully and complexly developed as her kids. However, here, the adult/kid interactions form the heart of the story. While Davey does make friends, and her friendship with Wolf is part of what helps Davey begin processing her grief, he is tangential to her daily life. Instead, it’s her interactions with her mother, her uncle, her aunt, and her therapist that form the majority of the scenes on the page.

Third, the book doesn’t resolve with Davey making heart eyes at Wolf and getting over her loss. Instead, it ends with Davey and her family facing the ocean and recognizing that “some changes happen deep down inside of  you.”

Reading this book (especially after reading her middle grade Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret recently) helped me realize that Blume works her style to her advantage–no better way to tackle controversial subjects than by underscoring them with straightforward, unadorned language and family relationships. If that makes Blume sound like Mr. Rogers for the YA crowd, well, there’s something to that.

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (a YA reread) – In this third installation of the Court of Thorns and Roses series Feyre’s pain and suffering and her first love are over. Her recovery and training in the Court of Night are complete and she has become their High Lady. With her new love, Rhysand, at her side, she leads her people into war against Hybern and the forces of evil.

Look, it’s a fantasy series. It has to have a war book. As war books go, it’s well done. War is rendered to both literal and emotional scale. Maas also creates enough legitimate opportunities for Feyre to leave the battle–in aid of the war–that the gore and size of the front line never overwhelms the narrative as it often does in the worst of the genre. More importantly, Maas keeps a firm eye on the relationships in the novel: not just the wholly satisfying romance between Feyre and Rhysand, but all the relationships. Nesta’s concern for Cassian, Feyre’s relationships with her recuperating sisters, Rhys’s tentative friendships with other high lords. The web of personal connectedness ultimately sustains the weight and complexity of the novel.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (YA) – Zenter’s novel is magic that explores class as carefully as it evokes characters that breathe. The three protagonists, Dill, Travis, and Lydia are best friends in a small southern community. Lydia’s family is comfortably well off, Travis’s family solidly blue collar, and Dill’s family nearly falling off the map into poverty after his preacher father has been sent to jail for child pornography. Each of the three are wholly alive, individualized characters who interact with each other and the world around them, but the one I want to focus on is Travis.

Here’s why: Travis isn’t in any book I’ve ever read. He attended my high school. I’ve met him at nearly ever Renaissance festival I’ve ever visited. He’s been a student in every high school where I’ve taught for the last fifteen years. But he is never, ever, ever in books.

Travis loves one particular Game-of-Thrones style book series so much that he’s read and reread it a thousand times. He has a staff and he has a purple robe–like an actual Gandalf-sized staff and a wizard’s robe. He makes the Harry Potter fandom look as cute and as juvenile as it actually is (I’m a Ravenclaw). He’s built to play football, but he just works at the lumbermill so he has lots of time to read. When he poses for pictures, it’s as a warlock.There is literally nothing cool about him and Zenter has brought him perfectly, epically to life.

Only to kill him. As adulthood must. But still. It was so good to see him again.

Infandous by Elana Arnold (YA) – This book does for fairy tale and mythology what Arnold’s recent book, What Girls Are Made Of, does for Catholicism, using ancient stories as a lens through which to understand girlhood and coming of age. The plot in the novel really became discontinuous at points–if there is really a plot in a novel like this. Instead, each retelling of a fairy tale or myth became an interpretive lens for the work until the final story, which, if not wholly triumphant, hit the notes of resurrection and hope for a girl reborn after she’s undergone the unspeakable.

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (ostensibly YA, but I wouldn’t give it to a teen) – Moran’s protagonist Johanna lives in blue collar Wolverhampton where her father is on disability benefits, her mother is struggling with postpartum depression, and her older brother is in the closet. She decides she wants to become a writer and wastes not even a second quitting school to write for London’s D&ME (Disc & Music Echo). On staff there, she invents herself as Dolly Wilde, a wild girl who’s perfectly willing to get drunk, have lots of casual sex, and write nasty music reviews of bands she doesn’t like (she learns early on not to write “fannish” reviews of music she adores).

This novel is so crass that it’s nearly unbearable, but the premise is compulsively readable. Moran’s lumpy character who has grown up in a house with no mirrors is free from a certain type of self-consciousness almost universally applied to female characters. At the same time, Johanna very consciously sets out to assemble “Dolly” based on what she’s learned from music magazines, rock lyrics, and male editors: a sort of man’s girl/fuck buddy/wild child. It’s almost a relief when she finds that construction wholly unsatisfying and begins again, though that’s also the end of the novel, so if it wasn’t satisfying, the novel wouldn’t work at all.

One of the major strengths of the novel is the working intimacy of the family portrait because Moran doesn’t conflate their poverty with dysfunction. Sure, they love each other fiercely as the trope goes, but they also love each other *well.* The parents are still in love. Her father blesses Johanna’s choice to become a music writer and her mother insists that Johanna open a savings account. Johanna’s older brother sets firm boundaries with her but also wears glitter with her to a favorite concert. The younger children snuggle and whine like younger children do. While Moran uses the novel to offer plenty of manifesto on poverty–a particularly compelling one is when the family benefits are cut by 11%–it’s actually the functional but utterly stymied every day life of Johanna’s family that speaks loudest and most poignantly.

The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat (adult nonfiction) – Danticat is brilliant and takes us on a tour of literary death that is nonpareil, examining death, suicide, and near-death with a lens both personal and extremely literary (heavy on Morrison and Hurston, and justifiably so). She tells us what great art does to bring death near and to keep it at bay, and her insight is some of the best craft advice I could have gotten writing a book whose protagonist lost her mom and is losing her dad.

But it is the final chapters of this book in which she begins to show us the art of death by writing the deaths of her parents in prayer, story, poem, and ritual. I wept openly as the book moved from theory and analysis into mastery of the form—not because it was artful, though it was, but because it did what all great writing about death does. It brought me closer to my deaths: both the losses I’ve survived and my own future expiration date.

 

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Turtles All the Way Down

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Look, I love John Green. As far as I can tell, he’s a great human and a decent writer. Plus, disclaimer: I’ve taught Looking for Alaska in sophomore honors English for almost 10 years.

And Turtles All the Way Down is a fine book in some regards. The portrayal of mental illness is top flight, right up there with Schusterman’s Challenger Deep. It puts readers who do not live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the mind and heart of someone who does. It’s real and terrifying. For that alone, Green deserves praise.

Plus, the relationships are both realistic and aspirational. The romance between Aza and Davis is handled sensitively and features consent. The best friend conflict is a little undercooked and over too quickly, but as a result, it’s actually one of the more realistic elements of the story–and one that ties directly to the portrayal of mental illness. Daisy interrogates Aza’s privilege to the point that she’s suggesting OCD is a luxury item. It’s not, and I appreciate that Green raises the spectre of that question, too often posed to those living with mental illness1.

However, the dialogue™ and the characters™ are a little too polished, like holding a handful of tumbled rocks.

The perfected form of a teenager.

And those perfected teenagers are far too familiar from his other work: they share the extensive philosophical concerns they always do, the relational tone of Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, and the rewriting-disease narrative of The Fault in Our Stars.

But does any of that matter? It was nice to be in Green’s universe again, where this one truth always prevails: We are the stories we tell about ourselves.

1 Another grace note worth mentioning is the short, quasi-elegaic flash forward at the end of the novel. Many readers–myself included–will wonder: is that Green or Aza? The book is dedicated to Green’s children, Henry and Alice, and it closes with a sort of apology to Aza’s (?) future children and an expression of gratitude to lifelong friends.

I Crawl Through It

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I Crawl Through it tackles education, rape culture, family trauma, and friendship with King’s matter-of-fact surrealism.

Stanzi’s parents leave her the same note every night, “Went to bed. TV dinner in freezer. Make sure to turn out the lights.”

Stanzi’s best fried, China, swallowed herself and is a walking stomach or anus on any given day.

Stanzi knows her friend Lansdale is a chronic liar with Pinocchio hair and four stepmothers.

Stanzi’s love, Gustav, is building an invisible helicopter. She can only see it on Tuesdays.

The bush man is a nudist and a sculptor of letters. He has all the answers.

Except he doesn’t. No one does. And the people who think they do live in an invisible place with no departures. Their answers don’t do anyone any good. Gustav and Stanzi run away to them, but escape with the bush man’s love, Patricia, in tow.

Meanwhile, China runs away to New York, and Lansdale tries to escape in a newscaster’s hotel room.

All of them return to their home town–and each other– to confront reality and find healing. But it’s not like their hometown is perfect. The adults at home are disengaged with their kids’ lives in every meaningful way. Stanzi and her friends go to a school where there is a bomb threat every day.  No one knows who is sending the threats, no one seems particularly fussed about it. School is one long series of interruptions. In fact, this book suggests school AS interruption to finding the answers, to living the answers.

Still.  [spoilers ahead] Home is where the healing begins. Lansdale cuts her hair and her lies, Gustav gets his Physics teacher to give him credit for building the invisible helicopter, Stanzi confronts her parents about the car accident that killed her baby sister, and China tells her mom what happened.

That scene–when China explains that her ex-boyfriend raped her and then posted pictures of it all over the internet–is one of the most utopian confession scenes ever written. In sum: King handled it tenderly but in a chapter titled “That Little Shit.” She puts China 100% in charge of telling her own story and then she evokes China’s mother’s emotions without muting China’s story. [Wow. Just wow.]

Another revelatory scene happens near the end of the novel when the principal suggests that they’ve found the man making the bomb threats and put him on public display on the football field. When Stanzi goes to investigate, she finds the dangerous bush man circled by her peers and teachers. Everyone is throwing things at him–all their trauma and anger and wrong answers. When she asks why, someone answers “Because he can take it.”

The bush man is a Girard-ian scapegoat if ever there was one. But even that doesn’t work. The only way out of any of this for any of them is to crawl through it.

As a post-script, I particularly enjoyed EW’s review, which you can find here.

 

Late to the party

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TL;DR

I’m calling these my “late to the party” books. When they were ragingly popular, I checked them out from the library and couldn’t get into them. I gave up.

But then came audible. And now these are the most recent five-star books on my list.

The Longer Version

This spring, I listened to My Brilliant Friend on my way to and from work each day. It took forever–both the story and the length of the book are epic–but it was so worth it. I loved the book and wrote about it on Goodreads (as did Rick Riordan in a post that made me even more of a fan girl than I already was):

Elena Ferrante gives us the gift of exquisite (sometimes excruciating) close ups, full of richly textured detail, alongside a ruthlessness about Elena’s inner life. She also makes the squabbles and foibles of a neighborhood I’ll never know become epic stand-ins for all of human life. I’ve never read a book like this.

Then, while driving cross-country with my family this summer, I tuned into A Man Called Ove at the recommendation of my brother-in-law. I was immediately captured by Backman’s use of free indirect style to create an unforgettable voice. I fell in love with Ove with all his curmudgeon ways, as lots of others had managed to do before me. Over on Goodreads, I wrote this in mid-book:

As for the story, the voice makes it astonishingly funny with an undercurrent of grief. Can’t wait to keep listening.

And this when I finished:

Great use of free indirect style & metaphor to create a character so real he can’t die.

So even though I was late to the party on both of these titles, I’m so glad I finally arrived.

Me & Marvin Gardens by A.S. King

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Me and Me and Marvin Gardens

Oddly enough, the last time I had enough get-up-and-go to write a review, it was for another of A.S. King’s books. Perhaps that is praise enough.

King has woven many of the themes from her YA work into this weird, charming middle grade, and I loved that–I found it compelling to see toxic masculinity and environmental degradation through the eyes of a younger, more vulnerable kid.

The kid himself–Obe–is sweet, sensitive, and smart, but not precious. I think there are a LOT of boys like him in the world, but not very many books about those boys. As a mom to one, I was grateful to see him being a protagonist. He’s an uncertain, tentative protagonist, sure, but he’s also a protagonist with a real spine (a spine he puts to formidable use in standing up for his friend Annie in one of the most moving sequences in the novel).

And my own kids were wide eyed at there being a  book about a family who lived on the last wild patch by the creek in a development of “new spacious homes!”–since that’s essentially where we live.

My main critique of the book is that it comes across as a little too didactic, and I think in a large part that’s because of the “told” style King chose. Every chapter starts with “There were/was…” and it’s clear by the end that the novel is positioned like To Kill A Mockingbird: an older narrator re-inhabiting a childhood space.

That said, I think the didactic component might work quite well for a younger middle grade audience. For example, the “Earth Facts” on the announcements at Obe’s school–and his responses to them–will feel very urgent, important, and realistic to lots of kids who read them. My 8yo, for one!

As for the surreal element (Marvin Gardens himself), I’m not sure it worked as well as surrealism typically does in King’s novels because ultimately Marvin functioned more like a plot device than anything.

Still, I am glad I read it and plan to recommend it to several readers I know.

Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King

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A feminist, surrealist YA title in shades of Vonnegut. Ostensibly the story of a 16yo girl calling out her family on its toxicity and lies, TORNADO is really a bold invitation for young women to welcome, love, and nurture of all their different selves.

An invitation to tell themselves and those around them the truth.

An invitation do the work they love even when others undermine it–or them.

In the present, Sarah is avoiding school and art, following a homeless man in her neighborhood, and frequently bumping into her 10yo, 23yo, and 40yo selves. She hasn’t seen her brother Bruce since the family took a trip to Mexico when she was 10. Interspersed with modern day chapters are short monologues from her mother’s point of view as well as chapters for each of the days of the Mexico trip.

But what makes this book go beyond an issue book is King’s mastery of motif. For example, on the Mexico trip, the ocean is so churned up that it’s not clear or blue but dull brown and full of churned up seaweed, like a toilet bowl full of diarrhea, according to Sarah.

Later, as she learns the truth of her family, she talks about living in a toxic stew of lies and ruin…but the images of the ocean in Mexico so well established that it creates echoes seamlessly.

The book has hundreds of layers like that, overlapping images and phrases and ideas that come back again & again to create new light, new energy, new meaning.

TORNADO is an impressive feat from a leading literary writer.

Disclaimer: I moved this book up on my TBR after King told me and my students recently on a Skype visit that this book “hit too close to home” because she’d stayed in an abusive marriage herself.
As a result, I find myself keenly aware that this book is also a story of domestic violence–even though that violence happens only on the edges of Sarah’s awareness. But to say it’s a massive influence on everything in the story is an understatement, so it probably deserves a heads up.

Political Action Training

Yesterday, I offered a political action training class for any interested adults at my church.

So many folks asked for my handouts from the event that I’m posting it here as a single PDF: Political Action Training. Feel free to share the PDF with others.

NOTE: To be fair, these are strategies that can be helpful no matter which side of the politics you’re on, and they’re mostly a combination of what I’ve learned about teaching students to read non-fiction and reading resources myself, most notably the Indivisible Guide (linked here), which I cannot recommend enough!

Credit to Maureen Hill (2017) for the Purposes of Nonfiction slides and to EasyBib for the how-to-read-news infographic.

 

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