“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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