BOOK REVIEW | Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I was initially incredibly hard on this book. It’s up for literary awards and is touted a contemporary work on racism. As I read on, I contemplated putting it down many times; it just wasn’t a book for me. However, I kept reading, and around half way through I realized I needed to take the book less seriously – this is entertainment. Once I put away my expectations for the book, I was able to enjoy it as a fun page-turner.

The story surrounds Alix, a wealthy, white, influencer, and mother of two and Emira, her young, Black, babysitter. One night, Alix calls Emira in a panic: she needs an emergency babysitter. While Emira is out passing the time with her young, white, charge she is subject to racial profiling and becomes the star of the next would be viral video. At Emira’s request, the white man who records the incident promises he won’t share the video publicly.

What follows is a fast-paced story that touches on racism, specifically white savior complex and performative action, as well as the victimization and commodification of Black people. In this story, Emira serves a specific role in the narrative of Alix’s carefully curated life. I initially thought I was supposed like Alix, but once I realized she’s kind of the villain of the story I was able to enjoy it much more. The last quarter of this book was completely entertaining and almost reads like a thriller. Overall, a fun and timely book that address critical issues with a lightness many readers will enjoy. I’m more the heavy type myself, but I understand this book’s appeal.

BOOK REVIEW | Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

3/5 stars

Mongrels is a coming of age story for our young narrator – he’s approaching puberty and anxiously waiting to see if he’ll “wolf out”, joining his family lineage of werewolves. Both gruesome and charming, this is a surprisingly tender story.

This can be read as a allegory of a culture of people living on the outskirts of society, outcast by their savage qualities. Or, this can be read as a fun and gnarly horror story. Jones expertly entwines social commentary with gore and werewolf lore, making this a truly fun read.

Jones utilizes the Indigenous tradition of storytelling to educate both the narrator and reader in werewolf lore and best practices. The werewolf rules outlined in the book were, hands down, the most fun part of the journey for me. Make sure your garbage cans are always empty, denim is the preferred choice of pants, and if you’re a werewolf never, under any circumstances, wear pantyhose. The explanation will delight and disgust horror fans!

Overall, an entertaining and touching story of a boy trying to find himself. Gory with a side of heart 🖤

BOOK REVIEW | Corregidora by Gayl Jones

5/5 stars

Corregidora meets its readers at the intersection of racial and sexual trauma. This powerful book, first published in 1975, tells the story of Ursa Corregdira as she reckons with both her violent family history and her experience as a woman navigating her own intimate relationships.

Ursa is a talented blues singer, making her living performing in bars. After a violent encounter with her husband leaves her unable to have children, she becomes consumed with the generations that came before her, and the generations that she can no longer produce. Told though conversations, inner-dialogue, and memory, we piece together a painful family history passed down from Corregidora’s grandmother and mother.

There’s so much packed into this short book, from a woman’s right to sexual autonomy, to the psychological impact of the male gaze, to the lingering effects of intergenerational trauma. What struck me the most was the sense of loneliness. Ursa is desired for her talent as a singer and for her body, but rarely for who she is – the intersectionality of black womanhood that is still relevant today. She contends with her inability to “make generations”, which highlights the question of what society values in a woman.

The language in this book is extremely raw and visceral with an transparency unlike anything I’ve read before. The prose is colloquial and accessible which allows you to feel deeply for and with Ursa. Corregiadora is the most honest portrayal of womanhood I’ve encountered, and I am so incredibly glad to have discovered Gayl Jones.

BOOK REVIEW | Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe

4/5 stars

This is the story of an estranged father, Lucas, coming back into his teenage daughter’s life. At 17 years old, Vera has suffered a psychotic break, and after video of her public breakdown surfaces, Lucas decides to take her with him on a trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. Lucas desperately wants to find his way back into Vera’s life, and he sees this trip as a chance to find a way forward in their relationship. A family story about Lucas’s grandmother escaping a concentration camp and eventually being release by a Nazi guard provides some of the backbone to this family saga.

The story is told from both Lucas and Vera’s perspectives, with Vera’s sections told in the form of letters she sends to her boyfriend back home, Fang. The characters are perfectly developed: endearingly flawed but self-aware and open. As Lucas stumbles through his time in Vilnius, taking in historical tours and seeking out information about his grandmother, Vera is, for a time, surprisingly stable and enjoying the freedoms afforded to her. As we begin to grasp the weight of Vera’s mental illness, a tenderness develops between her and Lucas.

Dear Fang, With Love is emotionally intelligent and surprisingly touching. Thorpe dissects so much in regards to identity, specifically how we’re shaped by the stories we’re told – and what happens when the narratives in our lives are upended. This is a great escapist book, between the history and the descriptions of life in Vilnius it’s easy to feel transported.

Vera’s letters to Fang allow us into her complex and bright mind, seeing her decline in mental health play out before us. Thorpe is honest in depictions of what living with a mental illness might look like, such as how the stigma of diagnosis and side effects of stabilizing medication can impact a person’s self- worth. The book doesn’t wrap itself up nicely, but realistically; families are complicated and life is full of uncertainty, yet somehow, in spite of impending despair, we move forward.

BOOK REVIEW | A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

5/5 stars

Alicia Elliott delivers a powerful collection with A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. The essays are deeply personal, touching on her experiences with mental illness, poverty, teenage pregnancy, identity as a mixed Indigenous woman, sexual assault, and both external and internalized racism. I truly believe this book is critical reading – if you want to be a better ally, and have a more robust understanding of the impact of inter-generational trauma on young Indigenous communities, look no further.

Elliott explores some extremely complicated dynamics, such as gaslighting and trauma that exits within her own family. When it comes to abuse or toxic relationships, how easy it is to be manipulated into believing that your worth is validated only by the said abuse and toxicity. Much of this collection surrounds her relationships with her occasionally supportive and often deeply flawed father, and bi-polar mother.

I really enjoyed the essay “Sontag, In Snapshots”. In this piece, Elliot dissects what is means to take a photograph of someone. How her own aversion, and eventual acceptance of herself in photos is connected to her self worth, and how she perceived others who easily shared photos of themselves online. She shares some photographers of Indigenous culture who are creating beautiful, respectful art, rather than exploitative photos of Indigenous people as “others”. “Concrete Indians” is a series by Nadia Kwandibens that features Indigenous people, often in traditional regalia, photographed among urban backdrops. Aaron Huey, a white photographer, had to overcome his own objectification of the Oglala Lakota people when he set out to photograph them. After 4 years of immersing himself in the community, he began to take photographs that were a true representation of the tribe.

Elliott is a brilliant essayist – I admire her ability to put pen to paper so eloquently. She’s intelligent and insightful, with a depth of understanding on the topics she’s brought to the page. Her vulnerability combined with her wisdom creates a striking balance, making this collection truly stand apart.

Please note, there is frank and open discussion of suicide and sexual abuse, so please tread cautiously if those topics are difficult for you to read about.

BOOK REVIEW | Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

5/5 stars

Islands of Decolonial Love is a unique collection of stories and songs from Anishinaabe author, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. These stories are told in the Indigenous tradition, so please read this with an open mind, and leave behind your ideas about colonial literature.

For me, these stories felt like wisdom. They’re the sort of stories that can be read again and again, each time gleaning new lessons. I was blown away by the beauty of the language, and the openness with which Simpson writes. It feels like she has invited you into her personal space, sharing intimacy and tradition with her readers. Some of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read were in her stories about land and nature.

The book is accompanied by performances that you can download and listen to while moving through it. I found that these added a richness to the experience that was so valuable. In my second photo, you’ll see a little cassette tape graphic – this indicates that there is an audio piece to accompany that story / song. I absolutely loved how immersive this made the reading experience.

BOOK REVIEW | Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

4/5 stars

Sabrina & Corina is a collection of short stories focusing on Chicanas living in Colorado. The stories are rich and the characters are alive, each of these vignettes played out like a short movie in my mind while I was reading them. They’re sad stories, but beautiful and moving too. I wanted more from the stories because each of them was just so good, but I also felt satisfied with their tender conclusions. Fajardo-Anstine created something truly special with this collection.

While all of the stories make a strong emotional impact, Galapago had me shed a tear reading the last line – that doesn’t come easily in a short story. In this story, a widow is forced to move into a retirement community after a break-in at her house that leaves a young man dead. Touching on the economic disparity that would leave an elderly woman living alone in a bad part of town, as well as a young man addicted to drugs and committing a crime to survive, this story hit hard. Tomi sticks out for me as well – avwoman is released from prison, returning to live with her brother and young nephew. They both have trauma to work through and ultimately create a bond that suggests a more hopeful future for each. Ghost Sickness is a perfect conclusion to the collection, and a reminder of the significance of Navajo ancestry.

The collection examines gentrification, sexuality, violence, addiction, tradition, inter-generational trauma, love, death, motherhood, broken families, and the families you create. The stories feel deeply intimate, leaving one to wonder how much of herself Fajardo-Anstine has laid bare on the page. A profound, and wholly unique read.

BOOK REVIEW | The Color Purple by Alice Walker

5/5 stars

I’ll keep this short and simple. This book is beautiful, heavy, hopeful, transcendent. I’ve heard from a few folks that this book holds a special place for them, and I completely understand why (this is a LGBTQ+ classic). I can’t remember a character I cried with and rooted for more then Celie. The entire cast of characters is expertly crafted, and the story culminates with an unexpected but completely perfect denouement. I don’t know why, but I kept putting off reading this book. When I finally cracked it opened, I couldn’t put it down. If you have this book collecting dust on your shelf, make it your next read!

Have you read any of Alice Walker’s other works? I’m thinking of picking up The Third Life of Grange Copeland next 🖤

BOOK REVIEW | The Fire This Time – Edited by Jesmyn Ward

5/5 stars

This is a stunning, relevant collection of essays that represent the diverse experiences of Black people in modern America. The essays range in topic, but an underlying thread throughout all of them is identity. There are struggles with identity, celebrations of identity, and the reinforcement that Black identities matter. The subtitle A New Generation Speaks About Race is perfectly placed.

The second essay, The Weight, by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah immediately resonated with me. She recollects her experience in visiting Paris to see the home where James Baldwin once lived. The dilapidated property was set to be demolished, and she struggled with the idea that the home of such a prolific figure would soon be gone. She reckoned with the realization that Baldwin, as brilliant and important as he was, was also just a man. She wondered if he was comfortable to be himself in this house as James Baldwin, the man. She drew comparisons between her own grandfather and Baldwin, two men seeking a life of contentment. Whereas Baldwin spent his life…writing himself into the cannon, my grandfather simply wanted to live with dignity.

Lonely in America by Wendy S. Walters is about a slave burial site in Portsmouth, N.H. that was discovered, reinterred and paved over, then finally excavated and turned into a monument. Reading the accounts of the uncovered burials was nothing short of harrowing.

Black and Blue by Jamaican writer Garnette Cadogan, we see how existing as a Black man can look completely different from one country to another. In Kingston, Jamaica, Cadogan walked. It’s his pasttime, his way to relax. He was often warned to be careful walking in certain neighborhoods in Kingston, especially at night. There was violence, but he was confident in when and where he could go safely. When he moved to America, he soon found in his experiences walking the streets (he learned never to run), that he was now seen as the threat. In America, a Black man walking leisurely was problematic. He was regularly stopped and harassed by the police. As a Jamaican, he hadn’t learned how to behave around police as his American friends had.

There are 14 other essays that I don’t have space to discuss here, including a fantastic piece by Jesmyn Ward herself, but know that they are all excellent. I’ll leave you with this quote from The Condition of Black Life is one of Mourning by Claudia Rankine:

There really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW | Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker

4/5 stars

This is an in-depth, comprehensive look at schizophrenia and its impact on one American family.

The Galvins were a large family with 10 sons and 2 daughters. Over the years, 6 of the boys would develop schizophrenia. The children were born between 1945 and 1965, and during these years the family was sought after by researchers as potentially holding the key to the mysteries of genetics and mental illness. Why were so many children from one family developing schizophrenia? And alternately, why weren’t the others?

The book is well crafted, with chapters alternating between stories about each family member and the progress of researchers and medical experts over the years. It’s heartbreaking to see the boys, once young and healthy, become more and more disconnected from reality as they grew into young men. Schizophrenia is often onset in young adulthood, and the siblings were constantly worried about who may be the next to be impacted.

The Galvins were a troubled family, dealing with sexual abuse among siblings, and even homicide. Mimi, the matriarch, struggled with maintaining the facade of a perfect household while raising her deeply troubled children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Little was known about schizophrenia at this time, and the pressure to appear perfect must not have been easy. Don, the patriarch, was discovered to suffer from depression, leaving Mimi to wonder if mental illness must have come from his lineage. The story often returns to the notion that the ill children demanded all of Mimi and Don’s attention, leaving little of themselves for their other children.

Kokler pieced together a fascinating, albeit extremely sad, portrait of the Galvin family. He was allowed access into their lives, and spent years interviewing and learning from the survived members of the family. The greatest impression this book left me with is that schizophrenia is highly complex. It impacts everyone very differently, and to varying degrees. While some of the sons with schizophrenia were violent, angry, and predatory, others were gentle even during psychosis. People with schizophrenia are no different than those without: some are good and some are bad.