Books that surprised me, for particular reasons I’ll share below:
- Billy, Albert French – I found this book in a used bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin in 2001. I’d never heard of Albert French before, so it sat on my shelf for almost 15 years before I bothered to read it. When I did get around to reading it, it truly chilled me. It’s a series of vignettes around the execution of a ten-year-old Black boy named Billy Lee Turner, convicted of murdering a White girl in Mississippi in 1937. Not one word is wasted here, it’s one of the finest books I’ve ever read.
- Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland, Dan Barry – Another book I half-heartedly picked up at the library. Once I opened it, I could not put it down. This book is a fine work of investigative reporting about a group of men with developmental disabilities who were kept in a dilapidated rooming house and forced to work on a chicken farm for over 30 years with limited pay and no recourse for leaving their employer. The group eventually sued the company who abused their rights–and won.
- Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Jessica Bruder – Another nonfiction pick I consumed via audio. It’s about older Americans (mostly those who have lost their jobs and savings in the 2008 financial crash) that have chosen a kind of “off the grid” lifestyle, living in mobile homes and tents and working odd jobs (Amazon warehouses are a popular job among them). Great investigative reporting.
- See You at Harry’s, Jo Knowles – This is a YA book that I read for one of my doctoral classes about YA lit and trauma. I remember this book surprised me not because it was particularly well written, but because of how amazingly sad it was in the way it dealt with the death of the main character’s younger sibling. If you decide to tackle this book, have tissues handy.
- Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder, Leah Carroll – Another nonfiction pick that I picked up at the library somewhat half-heartedly, but ended up really getting into. Leah is a young girl when her mother is murdered by two Mafia-affiliated henchmen. She does not find out about the circumstances of her mother’s death until much later in her life because her father refused to tell her, attributing her death instead to a car accident. Many years later, Leah’s father, an aging alcoholic Vietnam veteran, is found dead in a seedy hotel. Despite the bleak content, I completely loved this book.
- Ru: A Novel, Kim Thuy – Ru (Vietnamese for “lullaby”) is a collection of short vignettes that describe the author’s growing up in Vietnam before, during, and after the war, her experiences as a refugee in Malaysia, and finally, in her new life as a mother and a writer in Quebec. It’s a short book, but man…every single page packs a punch. Loved this immensely.
- The Insides, Jeremy Bushnell – Fantasy like book about a dangerous man in search of a special knife with the power to change destiny, and a girl chef who possesses it and must keep it safe. It’s a nice mix of magic and realism and real-life like characters. Once I started reading this book I couldn’t put it down, it was a very suspenseful read from start to finish.
- Crimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill – I was surprised that I actually liked this book of short stories, despite the fact that it is full of the male-dominated violence that I completely abhor these days. All of the stories in this volume are connected, the head that got blown off in the meth lab explosion in the second story belongs the same guy who murdered two crooked cops in the first story. Despite the fact that these men are all pathetic, there is a kind of reckoning for all of them, which is one of the factors I think I responded to most. I also think what drew me to this book back in 2014 was the fact that I liked this book for the very reason I shouldn’t–because it is full of drugs, guns, and men fighting over them–a guilty pleasure, if you will.
- Inside Madeleine, Paula Bomer – Another audiobook I loved. All of these stories revolve around girls and their relationships with their bodies. They are amazingly brave and hide nothing. Whew.
- Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Laila Lalami – A short book of less than 200 pages that begins with four characters riding in a shoddy, makeshift boat across the 14 kilometer strait that connects Morocco to Spain. Each character, we learn, has a reason they are escaping their fate in Morocco in pursuit of a better life. Some of them find happy endings and some of them don’t. This book is really really good though. A must read.
On to dissertation writing for today, ya’ll. Good morrow…
Alas, another Tuesday. Here’s some of my favorite book quotes:
- “If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other.” – Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
- “What is it to worship an image? It is to pray for a gift you will never receive.” – David Mura, A Male Grief: Notes on Pornography and Addiction
- “Shelter, if it’s warm and safe, may keep a family from dying. Only a home allows a family to flourish and breathe.” – Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children
- “Where there is power, there is resistance.” – Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, volume 1
- “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” – Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
- “Love catches fire, it trespasses, it breaks, we break, it comes back to life…we come back to life. Love may not be eternal, but it can make us eternal.” – Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Color
- “It’s the myth of the American Dream that with initiative and industriousness, an individual can always escape impoverished circumstances. But what data shows is that you have these multiple assaults on life chances that make transcending those circumstances difficult, and at times, nearly impossible.” – Ta’Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power
- “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
- “Ignoring men–whether romantically or rhetorically–is existential violence to them.” – Jessica Valenti, Sex Object: A Memoir
- “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” – Audre Lorde, From a Land Where Other People Live
Ahh…another Top Ten Tuesday. I’ve been away for a few weeks because the topics presented didn’t really appeal to me. But hey–what’s past is past, right?
- The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison. I read this book on my own when I was in high school, and I must admit that it was one of the first books by a Black woman author I’d ever read. Later on I would realize that this was completely unusual, being that I had been through 11 years of education in school and none of my teachers had ever bothered to teach a book written by a Black woman. I was completely enthralled with this novel. I still am. This book is one of the reasons why I am who I am, a Black woman educator who is earning a Ph.D. in literacy education, to make sure that ALL students have access to books that are culturally relevant to them.
- Manuscript Found in Accra, Paulo Coelho. In this book, a philosopher answers questions from people on life and the connections we make to other humans and just existing in general. It’s a very simple format, but the knowledge it imparts is essential reading. When I first read this I was going through a hard time in my life and found this book illuminating. I’ve read it twice since.
- I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reid. I’ve reviewed this here before and could read and review it again a few more times, just to give it the justice it deserves. Normally I don’t care for books that are too grainy, too ambiguous in their execution but this one is one of the few that actually succeeds in that task. There’s even a website where people can type around and talk about what they think this book means. It’s not the what or the how, but the interpretation of both that’s interesting here.
- The Color Purple, Alice Walker. This is the book I read after The Bluest Eye that continued to open up the world of Black women’s perspectives and ultimately my own. Even though I love the movie, the book is much better.
- The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros. Every now and then I read this book to marvel at its beautiful complexities and remind myself that I’ll never be as good of a writer as Sandra Cisneros.
- Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire. If you watched Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual album, then you’ve already heard this woman’s words. Most of the spoken word on that album was written by Shire and published in her first volume of poems back in 2011. I copped this book back in 2013 after reading Warsan’s poems on Tumblr and kept it in my backpack for the next 3 years, I needed it that much. I read this book often, as a matter of fact, I’ve bought this book for other people several times as gifts.
- A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. I’ve reviewed this here before and still don’t think I’ll edit it to say anything more than what I have. It’s just something about this book sticks to your bones and won’t let you forget it. It’s truly extraordinary.
- Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White. I read this book so much as a kid that I remember I broke the spine. My mom bought me another one, and the pages became so dog-eared it was barely readable. Needless to say, I truly loved this book growing up. Still do.
- Wonder, R. J. Palacio. I remember reading the last pages of this book in a Panera restaurant and crying so hard that one of the employees approached me and asked if I was alright. I pointed to the book and told her, “you gotta read this.”
- Fly Away Home, Eve Bunting. The first couple words of this picture book completely grab you and shake your soul: “My dad and I live in an airport. That’s because we don’t have a home and the airport is better than the streets.” It’s a book about a young child named Andrew who lives with his dad in the terminal of a busy airport in an unnamed city. The ending brings no resolution but a hint of hope. Needless to say, its definitely a book worth buying.
Beloved readers: it’s bad to have book ADD. I’m on about a dozen publisher and upcoming book mailing lists (Buzzfeed, NetGalley, Kirkus, Electric Lit, Signature) so I get the word on books that are coming out months before they hit the stores. I’m also constantly in the library, looking, searching. The books I don’t pick up on my visits there I often add to my TBR pile to come back and get at a later time. Then there are the books that you come across on your Goodreads recommendations late at night, thinking: damn that sounds interesting, so I add those too. Before you know it, you’re like me and you’ve got 609 books in your queue list. I am also no respecter of order–if I really like a book I read it right then, forget the books in the back that have been stuck there, waiting for years to be read.
So this Tuesday, I’m giving ya’ll a glimpse into the books that have been in my TBR pile the longest. I’ve been on Goodreads since 2008, so we can assume that they’ve been there for at least 10 years (or longer, depending on if the actual copy is sitting on my shelf at home).
- Midwives, Chris Bohjalian
- The Farming of Bones, Edwidge Danticat
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
- Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom
- The Age of Shiva, Manil Suri
- Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi
- Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams
- All Over Creation, Ruth L. Ozeki
- The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
- You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon
And btw, add me on Goodreads, beloveds. Till next time…
More Top Ten Tuesday goodness.
This was a list that was fairly easy to write. Some books you get through because you have to (your grade depends on it), others you read and you wonder how you got to the end. Was it magic? Perhaps you were dreaming. Either way, you’re at the end and now it’s umm…the end.
- Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. NEVER, EVER read this book for pleasure! You will find yourself completely vexed, walking around at 3 am in your cold dorm room, wondering why you’re being tortured and how someone can write sentences that go on for 3 pages. Lord, I hated this book. I did finish it for class, but after that I found that I hated the teacher too. Ughhhh.
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami. This is a book about a young man who has difficulty making friends. Eventually he finds a group of people that he likes to hang out with and one day, for an unknown reason, they stop speaking to him. He spends years alone, trying to figure out why he was cut off until one day, he gets an answer. I listed this book here because this is, quite literally, a novel about nothing, with such minimal action that it should be criminal. However, I read this book from cover to cover and was completely enthralled. This is the novel that eventually brought me closer to Murakami and his genius, his work is often very minimal and about the most mundane of topics, yet something in the writing compels you to read it. This man can make a damn phone book sound interesting. Not many people have that gift.
- It’s No Secret: From Nas Jay Z, from Seduction to Scandal, a Hip Hop Helen of Troy Tells All, Carmen Bryan. I read this on a beach in Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s hella bad and mad forgettable. Written by the ‘baby mama’ of rapper Nas, Miss Bryan gives a detailed account of her relationship with Nas, how she cheated on him with Jay Z and pretty much every other rapper that was popular in the late 90’s. At the end she’s mad because Nas won’t pay her $10k more in child support for their daughter. After reading this I wanted to wipe myself down. Yuck.
- True Love, Jennifer Lopez. I’m a closet J Lover, ok? Plus the pics were cool. Next…
- Note to Self, Connor Franta. YouTuber Connor Franta talks about his battles with depression, self-acceptance, and anxiety. It would have been cool if the whole thing didn’t come off like a long-ass, typical millenial’s Tumblr post, complete with photos. His writing so generic you wonder how it got published, but wait a minute…oh yeah, he’s a YouTube star. Blah.
- what purpose did i serve in your life, Marie Calloway. More hipster lit. The first book with nude photos that I skimmed.
- Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez. Disturbing set of short stories that it took me forever to read. There’s Satanic sacrifices, kids being beheaded, girls who set themselves on fire, haunted houses where people get tortured…and umm, that’s just the first 4 stories. There is something here, but be prepared to suffer through it to get there.
- The Bees, Laline Paull. I somehow got through this book and I HATE bees. I know we need them but I can’t stand their buzzing, and will high-tail it like a runaway slave whenever they’re around. How did I endure a 350 page book about a creature I don’t like? The writing, that’s how. Wow!
- So Sad Today, Melissa Broder. The overshare of this book is icky. I always tell people that if you want to hear about Melissa Broder’s vomit fetish, read this book (btw, I did skip that essay). Books that are meant to shock never really shock me, they just make me annoyed and want to close them. That’s it.
- Rape: A Love Story, Joyce Carol Oates. Book about a rape victim who’s ‘put on trial’ with the perpetrators. It’s an ok book, except the title. For those familiar with JCO though, you know that she’s a decent writer but sometimes she’s a little too extra–you just wish she would write the damn story and stop with the cringe-inducing metaphors. This is such a book.
The original topic of this edition of Top Ten Tuesday (as stated on the website that sponsors it) is “Books I Really Liked but Can’t Remember Anything/Much About.” Well, I’m changing this one a bit. I refuse to let my reading memory fail me, my handy dandy moleskine notebook in which I catalog and write down everything makes sure brain erasure never happens. I will, however, change this one to “Books I Hated but Love to Discuss.”
Most of the selections I’m about to list here have been reviewed here at some point as a one star or a no star rating. Reasons for a one star review is obvious, but a no star rating is usually reserved for books I did not finish (DNF) or, in one case, because the subject matter of the book presented itself in such a way that I simply refused to rate it. I do however, think that all the books that I don’t like (and yes, even you don’t like) are open to discussion. It’s the American way, right?
Anywho…in no particular order:
- Tampa, Alissa Nutting. This is a controversial book about a female middle school teacher who teaches for no other reason than to seek young male students to fulfill her sexual desires. The author goes deep into her mind, with long (long!) passages that describe her deviant ways. While I didn’t like this book (reading it requires bathing in Dettol afterward), it raises an important point about how society views a female sexual predator vs. a male.
- Peach, Emma Glass. Very short novel about the aftermath of a young girl’s sexual assault. Written in a very experimental style, so weird and trippy that I can’t even tell you what the hell happened in the last 50 pages. I’d love to get some other people’s perspectives here. Hmm.
- Today Will Be Different, Maria Semple. Page 7 tells me why I hated this book and didn’t finish it (“one normal day of white people problems”). Other than that, just some rich lady bitching about her life for 250 pages. No thanks.
- Mexico: Stories, Josh Barkan. A book of short stories all about violent, narco-criminal Mexicans who kidnap and kill Americans. Entitled “Mexico” but these are not the stories of Mexico or Mexicans, these are the fears of privileged white Americans who watch too much Fox News.
- A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, Jen Waite. Pretty bartender meets another bartender, marries him, and has a kid. He cheats on her and suddenly she becomes an expert on psychopathic relationships. Not sure why this story warranted 200 pages, or even a memoir at all. We’ve all been cheated on, ma’am, move to the back and take a number…
- Inside the Criminal Mind, Dr. Stanton Samenow. Leave it to Dr. Samenow, people who smoke marijuana on the weekend are in the same category of deviance as Jeffrey Dahmer. He also disregards addiction as disease pathology, when about 40 years of research into the topic will tell him differently. Dummy.
- Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, James Lasdun. Was he being stalked by his student or not? Beats the hell out of me. What I’m mad about is that out of 250 pages, only about 50 deal directly with this story. The rest is a paper wash. Jesus.
- Universal Harvester, John Darnielle. Another trippy book. I wish I could tell you what it was about. Hmm.
- The Incest Diary, Anonymous. A recent review on a subject that is so disturbing that I had to include it here. Some people actually do like this book, I’d love to talk to them about why they feel that way.
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston. A YA book about the aftermath of a sexual assault. It’s a brave book, but also one that I found grossly unrealistic in how it deals with the subject. I’d love to hear more opinions on how other people viewed this one.
Ok, lemme get back to work. Yeah, I’m actually blogging at work. Go me!
To flex my blogging muscles a bit I’ve decided to follow a weekly feature for now. I may not do a Top Ten Tuesday posting every week because I honestly don’t see myself answering all the topics they’ve got posted over at thatartsyreadergirl.com. Also, I may not always give ten responses so this isn’t truly a Top Ten, per se. In the meantime, however, I guess it’s fun to take a departure (whichever way it’s taken) to peek inside my head a bit.
I don’t really make resolutions, but I do make changes in my reading habits fairly consistently. Here’s a few:
- Read the myriad of books I already have. About 90% of the books I review here come from the library. I have about another 100-300 books sitting on my shelves here at my home, unread. Most of them are tagged as ‘Want to Read’ on Goodreads, but I really should get with it and just stay out of the library and clear them off and read them. Even if I wanted to buy a new book, I’d have nowhere to put it. Sheesh.
- Continue to mine sources (other than bestseller lists) for great books. I follow some really swell book-friendly IG accounts, plus I get newsletters from sites like Electric Literature, Signature Reads, and NetGalley throughout the month on titles coming up. Buzzfeed Books is also cool too. Whatever I do, I prefer the less-traveled corner of book recommendations.
- Continue to extol the virtues of DNF. I realized a long time ago that one way to make reading more effective is to realize when you’re not having fun doing it. If a book doesn’t make an impression on me within 50 pages, I will usually stop reading it with absolutely no apologies. This isn’t high school, I’m not doing a book report. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is simply too much to read out there in the world without stressing myself out over reading something that bores me to tears.
- Follow more book blogs on WordPress. I see ya’ll following me and I appreciate the love. I will try to follow more of you guys, I promise. I just rarely have a chance to sit down at my computer and scroll through to find sites I like. When everybody’s reviewing the same 12 books over and over, finding ones that stand out from the pack can be a daunting task, you know?
I think that’s it for now. I told you this isn’t a Top Ten so much as it is just a chance for me to have you get to know me better. I hope it’s working.