“In the end, we’ll all become stories.” – Margaret Atwood
I read a lot of different kinds of stories. Some of them are downright disturbing and reflect a side of life that we would rather not see. The following are books that I found wonderfully awe-inspiring, but for reasons I’ll explain, I would never read them again:
- The Coming, Daniel Black. Written in the collective first person (“we”), this book follows a group of Africans taken from the continent in the early 1800’s and their horrific journey to America by ship (“The Middle Passage”), to their sale as slaves in the New World. If you really want to understand what African Americans endured to get to the U.S., you must read this book. It is absolutely devastating, an emotional wringer.
- Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng. Despite the fact that this is a good book with good reviews (and deservedly so), the dysfunctional nature of the family in the book is one that I don’t ever want to read about again. Everybody’s clueless, and their oblivion to real life put me in such a tizzy that I wouldn’t do this twice.
- Aquarium, David Vann. Another great book, about a family that puts the “D” in dysfunctional. The mother is a monster, and there’s a little girl at the center of the action that you just want to hug forever.
- An Untamed State, Roxane Gay. Haitian American attorney Mirelle is vacationing in her native Haiti with her husband when she is kidnapped and held for ransom. When her wealthy father refuses to pay for her release, her captors retaliate with a campaign of rape and torture. It’s heavy, heavy stuff. Forgiveness and healing does come, but it’s not in the form that you’d expect. Great book, but I would never dream of opening it again.
- The Summer that Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel. This is a “thinking” book about what happens when “The Devil” in the form of a child comes to a small Ohio town in 1984. It’s an excellent book I read this two years ago and I’m still thinking about a lot of the questions this book brings up. Still no answers.
- Problems, Jade Sharma. Maya is a married woman with a lover, a dead end job, and a heroin habit. She’s also one of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever read about. Her descent into chaos is the reason why, even though I loved this book, I’d never read it again.
- The Warmest December, Bernice McFadden. Another book about a girl’s experiences growing in a highly dysfunctional family in 1970’s Brooklyn. It’s a good book but a hard one to read, I remember having to take frequent breaks to finish it.
- Dime, E.R. Frank. A very gritty YA book about a young girl’s life while in the sex trade. It is raw and terrifying, but I was completely blown away by this book.
- Notice, Heather Lewis. Several months after this book was published, the author, Heather Lewis, committed suicide. When you read this book you will understand some of the demons that tortured her, because this is, quite frankly, the most profoundly disturbing book I’ve ever read. It’s good though. Really good. Read it again? No way.
- Delicious Foods, James Hannaham. A book about modern day slavery, drug addiction, greed, pain. This book had a profound effect on me because I distinctly remember that at the time I read this, my son was the same age as the protagonist of this book. Excellent read, but wouldn’t read it again. It’s too much.
For this Top Ten Tuesday I had to go back in my mental filing cabinet for a moment. I try to keep my reading choices diverse–plenty of books about people of different races, ages, religions, cultures, social backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual identities, dis/abled persons. I’ve ready plenty of books ABOUT and BY people from countries outside the U.S., but how many have I read that take place IN another country, where the entire context of the narrative is outside of the U.S.?
So in order to be consistent with my interpretation of this topic, here’s the criteria I followed:
- The book had to take place entirely in another country. America could not be a point of reference at any time (i.e., immigration to or from the U.S. was a no-no)
- The book could not be about Americans in countries outside the U.S. (that would make it an American experience, wouldn’t it?)
- The book could not take place in another industrialized, European influenced nation that’s kinda like the U.S. (i.e., Canada, Britain)
- The country could not be unnamed. There are a lot of books that have foreign settings, but for whatever artistic reason, the author does not specifically name the country where the action takes place. For example, “Beasts of No Nation” is framed in this way (the setting is understood to be Africa, but the actual name of the country is never given).
- The country could not be fictional. I love Wakanda too, but because it technically does not exist, it wouldn’t count. I know, I know… (*frowns*)
- Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement. Locale: Mexico. Didn’t really care for this book, but it’s a very interesting story set in the Mexican countryside about a girl who lives in fear of kidnapping by narco-traffickers.
- Golden Boy, Tara Sullivan. Locale: Tanzania. Very informative, well written YA story about a young boy with albinism. Due to cultural beliefs, he is shunned by his community and sought out by shamans for slaughter for his body parts’ use in special potions. There’s a good ending here, fortunately. I loved this story!
- Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, Laura Rose Wagner. Locale: Haiti. Story about two cousins, raised as sisters, who lose their family in the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and work to survive the next day, and the day after that. I cried when I read this. (*sigh*)
- Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez. Locale: Argentina. Very macabre, but well written short stories that take place after Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
- Stay With Me, Adebayo Ayobami. Locale: Nigeria. An interesting novel about the life of a middle-class Nigerian couple who cannot bear children. Lots of twists and turns here, along with cultural expectations and a whole lotta drama.
- Lotus, Lijia Zhang. Locale: China. Novel set in modern-day China about a young woman who, rather than go home and face shame for losing her factory job, chooses a life as a sex worker. I really liked this book.
- Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami. Locale: Japan. Insightful set of short stories about men who, at some time or another, either could not or would not have a successful relationship with a woman. I did the audio version of this and loved it.
- Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea. Locale: North Korea. Great YA nonfiction book about a young boy’s life in North Korea and eventual escape to South Korea.
- The Vegetarian, Han Kang. Locale: South Korea. Beautiful book about a young woman’s choice to become a vegetarian. Things don’t go well for her. There’s a whole lot more to this book though, and mannnn…it’s good.
- The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam. Locale: Sri Lanka. Short novel about a young man and woman’s marriage during the Sri Lankan civil war. Very excessively detailed, but it’s a great read if you’re patient enough.
Alas, a Top Ten Tuesday topic I can love with my entire heart. I’ve always got some good reading on the horizon, so here’s my Top Ten picks for this spring:
- Sometimes I Lie, Alice Feeney (currently reading, NetGalley ARC). This book comes out on this Friday, March 23rd. I’m going to try to get the review up before then. I haven’t gotten too far into this, but I think that there’s gonna be a really good twist here. Hmm.
- The Hunger, Alma Katsu (currently on reserve at the library). From what I’ve gathered, this book is a zombie-ish take on the Donner party story. I’m here for it.
- Social Creature, Tara Isabella Burton (NetGalley ARC). This book comes out June 5th, so I probably won’t read it until close to Memorial Day. It seems to be a thriller-type story with some “The Talented Mr. Ripley” vibes to it, so I’ll take it.
- Tyler Johnson Was Here, Jay Coles (currently on reserve at the library). A book that’s captured my entire interest lately, and not just because it has a beautiful Black man on the cover. My dissertation is all about critical YA lit by Black authors, so this book fits in perfectly with what I’m researching. I cannot wait to read this.
- The Comedown, Rebekah Frumkin (NetGalley ARC). This book comes out on April 17th, so I will probably read it and review it here closer to its release date. It’s gotten some really good press, so we’ll see.
- Monday’s Not Coming, Tiffany D. Jackson (waiting waiting waiting). I’m planning to purchase this book, another YA title that I’m discussing in my dissertation. It comes out on May 22nd and explores the topic of Black girls caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. Should be very interesting and informative.
- Let’s Talk About Love, Claire Kann (currently on reserve at the library). Another YA book that I’ve been dying to read lately that’s being discussed in my dissertation. The beautiful girl with the curly ‘fro on the cover is just a plus.
- The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo (currently on reserve at the library). YA novel in verse about a young Dominican girl and poet growing up in Harlem. Of course I’m discussing this in my dissertation too, this is a must read.
- Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lillian Li (NetGalley ARC). I’m trying to incorporate more contemporary Asian authors into my reading life, and this book seems to be a good one. It comes out on June 19th, I can’t wait to read it and have a review for you here closer to that date.
- Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (on ILL reserve). This book came out for American publication for the first time earlier this month, but Thiong’o wrote and published this overseas back in the early 80’s, after he was released from a Kenyan prison after being held there as a political prisoner from 1978-1980. I’m always interested in these kinds of topics, so this promises to be a really good read.
Ya’ll know I can’t stand commonplace, boring books, so I try to keep things fresh on 29chapters. So many exciting things (and more) coming up soon here, stay tuned.
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…