October was my best reading month so far in 2019. Not only did I read the most books I’ve read in a month (eleven), but I also had the most five star reads (three). I did have a few two star reads, which is never fun, but you can’t win them all. The stand outs this month were Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. Read below for mini-reviews of everything I read in October.
October by the Numbers
Total Books Read: 11
Five Star Reads: 3
Unread Shelf: 1
Books Acquired: 26
By Women Authors: 5
By Authors of Color: 10
By Queer Authors: 2
Nonfiction Reads: 3
Published in 2019: 6
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
The story of August, a twelve year old Black girl navigating a new life in Brooklyn. She moves north, with her father and brother, after her mother’s death. It’s the story of August growing up, finding new friends, and creating space her own space in the world.
This book is the best coming of age story I’ve ever read. She nails what it feels like to be Black and young and fearless and terrified and longing and female and free. Woodson understands what it means to be searching and to be found. The complexities of getting older are handled with care but without any sense of preciousness. And she does all of this in less than 200 pages. That kind of brevity is rare, and a sign of true mastery.
The love between August and her three friends speaks powerfully to beauty of Black female friendships. At times it took my breath away. There is an ease to Woodson’s writing that makes these young women come to life wholly and authentically. She doesn’t attempt to smooth over the traumas or stifle the triumphs Instead there is a reality filled with pain and heartbreak, and with so much joy.
Five Stars | Amistad | May 30, 2017| 192 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua
Two pregnant women living in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles decide to escape north to San Francisco and raise their children free of constraint and expectation of their Chinese families in this novel.
First off, Hua is a really beautiful writer, she balances her sentences between art and information in a way that is enjoyable to read. The truth is, I just couldn’t connect with the story. I liked the lead characters and the plot moved, but nothing grabbed me. I didn’t feel that I had a stake in what happened to the people in this story one way or the other. I did listen to this book on audio, and its possible that the narrator was what didn’t work for me. All of this is to say, if you like novels about unconventional women who blaze their own trails, this might be a book for you.
Two Stars | Random House Audio | August 14, 2018 | 10 Hours 54 Minutes | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
Black Card by Chris L. Terry
In this lightly satirical novel we follow our narrator as tries to get back his Black card, that’s been revoked. If you’re looking for comparison, this book felt like the mixed kids version of the TV show Atlanta. It’s funny, a little surreal, and sometimes felt smarter/more clever than me.
Overall I liked it. Terry is clearly a creative thinker and grappling with what it is to be mixed, and how that relates to both Blackness and Whiteness, and why that matters. I love seeing stories told about being more than one thing when it comes to race and ethnicity, because there are so many of us mixed kids out there (not just Black and White, but all sorts of combinations).
Henry V by William Shakespeare
Henry V, a play you might not know, but you’ve probably heard a few famous lines from.
“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more”
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
The play follows Henry, the new king, as he grapples with the responsibility of going to war, and what that says about him as a leader and as a man.
While I’m pretty over stories about Kings contemplating and ultimately going to war, I did get a lot out of this play. Henry has some wonderful speeches and meditates on some pretty heady stuff. This play got me thinking a lot about the responsibility of our leaders to the people versus the well being of the nation versus their own lust for power and legacy. It asks questions of who has blood on their hands? Is it the soldiers or the king that sends them to war? It all feels topical given what is going on in the world.
As a reader I loved reading the monologues from King Henry, but other parts fell flat, like the comedic bar scenes. There’s also a pretty spectacular courting scene in the play’s final act that shows how lacking in humanity our king is when he’s faced with courting (or conquering) a woman.
Three Stars | Pelican Shakespeare | September 1, 1999 | 121 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds
A collection of short stories of middle school kids walking home from school. The stories are all unique and individual, but they intersect with the other stories in one way or another. It is a beautiful book about the few minutes a day kids are left unsupervised and get to experience the world on their own.
Something that Jason Reynolds is able to do with this Look Both Ways is see the humanity in his characters. These kids have all had experiences that have shaped them, some more traumatic than others, but he finds a way to present this without making the kids their trauma. The characters are full of life and joy and they are impossible to forget. Its also worth noting, Reynolds can write! His prose are rich without being over worked. He doesn’t preach to his audience, he sees his reader and shares with them. As someone who doesn’t read YA or middle grade books, Look Both Ways was a welcome surprise that brought me to life as a reader and reminded me of goodness. It is a favorite read of 2019 for sure!
Five Stars | Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books | October 8, 2019 | 208 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Movies (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano
Shea Serrano is hilarious and so smart. In his book Movies (and Other Things) he asks questions about movies and then answers them. It sounds like a pretty straight forward concept, but the genius in Shea Serrano is that he finds new and exciting ways to look at movies and the world. He opens up the conversation around movies so that you feel like you’re debating with your friend, and challenging yourself to see movies differently.
This book is laugh out loud funny. Not just the ideas behind it, but there are sentences that are so accurate you can’t help but laugh. Its not all funny (mostly it is) there is a little more going on in this one, for instance, the chapter on Selena talks about what it means to be Mexican American and the struggles of being two things at once. Of course, Serrano infuses his signature voice and his humor, but its more than that, trust me.
The only complaint I have about this book is that if you don’t know the movies or the genre, it can be a little harder to engage with certain chapters. Gangster movies aren’t my thing, so I felt a little lost when looking at the quintessential gangster movie scenes. Overall, if you like movies, you’ll get a kick out of this book.
Four Stars | Twelve Books | October 8, 2019 | 256 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
The story of the Han family and their Chinese restaurant, The Beijing Duck House. When there is a fire that sets the restaurant a blaze the world of the Han family and their employees is shaken up and we’re left to sort the pieces.
This one wasn’t for me. It was too long and felt repetitive. I wasn’t excited by the characters or the plot, but rather felt like I was just going through the motions to get to the end of the book. There were some cute moments, and one scene at the end that was wonderful, but overall this wasn’t something that I enjoyed reading. I do think, however, this books would make a fantastic movie, in fact the whole time I was reading it I was wishing the movie already existed. The nuances of family drama might translate better to the screen, and certainly the food would be more appetizing that way.
Two Stars | Picador | June 19, 2018 | 304 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
The story of one Black family through time and place. We start in 2001 at 16 year old Melody’s coming of age ceremony and then unwrap the layers that make her family fragmented, strong, unique, and whole.
Woodson understands and articulates what it means to be Black and female in America, and this book puts her ability on display. She captures the delicious subtleties of life. In Red at the Bone we see class and race and gender norms and sexuality and so much humanity, and we get to see it all through the beautiful prose of Woodson. Woodson who is a master of brevity that lands a punch. I’m not sure this specific story will stick with me in five years, but I know that the feeling of reading Jacqueline Woodson will never fade.
Four Stars | Riverhead Books | September 17, 2019 | 208 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
We don’t normally read and review cookbooks around here, but we also are willing to try anything once, and I’m so glad we did. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a cookbook about the elements that make up everything we eat. Nosrat breaks it all down in the first 200 pages of the book, explaining each element and how to use it, and then give us 200+ pages of basic recipes to practice our skills.
This book is simply fantastic! I like to cook, but often feel I don’t know how to without detailed instructions. I find myself glued to my recipes and in a mild state of anxiety when trying something new. This book gives anyone the tools to make choices about how to cook and how to improvise. Its empowering. I would be remiss not to mentions the gorgeous illustrations from Wendy McNaughton. I can honestly say this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever owned.
Three Stars | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | October 22, 2019 | 480 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
A look at why humans are so bad at understanding and engaging with “strangers”. This book is deeply flawed and highly problematic. I found the arguments made to be harmful and irresponsible. In the past I’ve considered myself a Gladwell fan (I’ve read all his books and listened to his podcast) but this book feels like he’s reached his own tipping point, it is Gladwell for Gladwell’s sake.
One glaring is that there is no clear definition of the word “stranger”. We’re led through stories of people meeting for the first time and then of colleagues who’ve worked together for decades, and both are treated the same, we’re told they’re strangers. That can’t be.
Gladwell is a gifted storyteller (which is made all the more clear through his fantastic narration of the audiobook) and is known for making compelling arguments. Our understanding of who he is helps as he shifts from interesting scientific studies to unsubstantiated claims without batting an eye. He is riding on intellectual credit, but the arguments are weak at best when we look at them more deeply.
The most offensive piece of this book is his unwillingness to take power, sexism, and racism into account when discussing people and events like Larry Nassar, The Stanford Rape Case, and Sandra Bland. Instead of discussing racism and race he opts to discuss “misunderstanding”. Instead of discussing the power dynamics of sexual assault he expounds the harms of binge drinking, but nothing of misogyny. It’s a big mess, and he should’ve done better.
The book feels like an attempt to be both relevant and placate people who are tired of “identity politics”. He moves from one hot button issue to the next without any subtlety or nuance. He is name dropping iconic incidents to insure buzz for the book, instead of crafting compelling arguments that stand up to scrutiny. This book was enraging and irresponsible.
Two Stars | Hachette Audio | September 10, 2019 | 8 Hours 42 Minutes | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
This satirical novel takes place in the near-future American South where Black people are caged in ghettos, and there are experimental treatments that will “demelanize” the black out of people (if you can afford it). It is in this world, where we find our narrator, a Black man, his White wife, and his mixed son.
More than anything else, while reading this book I kept thinking to myself, “Maurice Carlos Ruffin” is a smart person. His writing left me feeling taken care of, and I trusted that he had put thought into this world. That’s not to say that I always felt connected, or that I liked everything in this book, or that I didn’t think it could be cut down by at least 70 pages. I felt those things, and that I was reading the words of a smart and thoughtful author. My biggest issue with the book is that I wanted more world building. I wanted to know how America got to where it was when the reader shows up. I felt there were details missing that I wanted to know. Overall the book is thought provoking and examines race in a way that we so rarely see in literature these days.
Three Stars | One World | January 29, 2019 | 336 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss We Cast a Shadow on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that conversation by clicking HERE. You can also hear author, Maurice Carlos Ruffin on The Short Stacks HERE.
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