All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island by Liza Jessie Peterson

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I picked this book up as part of a buddy read on #bookstagram. A buddy read is basically a one off book club, you all read the book and then discuss it (through video chat). All Day was the third book I’ve read with this group, and was our first miss, but it led to some great conversations. Before I dive in here is a little more about All Day.

 

Told with equal parts raw honesty and unbridled compassion, ALL DAY recounts a year in Liza Jessie Peterson’s classroom at Island Academy, the high school for inmates detained at New York City’s Rikers Island. A poet and actress who had done occasional workshops at the correctional facility, Peterson was ill-prepared for a full-time stint teaching in the GED program for the incarcerated youths. For the first time faced with full days teaching the rambunctious, hyper, and fragile adolescent inmates, “Ms. P” comes to understand the essence of her predominantly Black and Latino students as she attempts not only to educate them, but to instill them with a sense of self-worth long stripped from their lives.

All Day was a total miss. A book about incarcerated juveniles at Rikers Island and their teacher sounds like it would be a gripping and compelling narrative, Peterson, however, does not deliver. The book is mostly focused on Peterson and her thoughts and struggles, though she never gets vulnerable enough for us to fully see her. She puts up the front of a tough woman, but we never get to see her softer side. She barely shares with us information about her students and their lives and how they got to Rikers (however the few moments she does are great). Peterson mistakes the readers interest in what it is like to be a teacher at a jail, for what its like to be her. I did not care about her as the star of this story, I wanted to know about the boys, their lives, their struggles, and the battles they fight daily to survive. I felt most connected to the book when the boys were centered.

The writing is not great. The style is very casual, using a lot of slang. Peterson is making a point to her reader, that she is in fact a Black woman. Something that no one questions. She has insecurities around her own control and status, and they come across through out the book, both expressly and through inference. The book goes on too long and Peterson loses focus, drifting from subject to subject without any real points to be made. She retells the same stories over and over and tries to turn this book into a sort of comedy, relaying jokes and quippy interchanges between her and her students. Most of this is not funny, and makes little sense in the context of the book.

Peterson herself traffics in prejudices throughout the book. While she doesn’t say it expressly, the way she talks about the boys who come from single parent homes, how she dismisses their learning disabilities, and the words she uses to describe them are problematic and damaging. There is very little empathy toward them and their situation. She perpetuates stereotypes about Black and Latino youths, and even allows her own intuitions to be bases for condemnation. All Day was published by a very conservative publisher (Center Street), and this anti-Black lean allowed the publisher to get credit for a Black narrative by a Black female author, and still push forward damaging ideas about Black and Brown youth to their audiences.

I would not recommend you read this book. There is much better content (books, films, and TV) that captures the experiences of life as an incarcerated youth, and that of the people who work with them. All Day is self serving and has a conservative lean that is troubling and damaging.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Center Street (April 18, 2017)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy All Day on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

E4E88BC8-78C7-4811-8809-5AA5AE55942EWhile I don’t believe in shaming people for not having read something, I am a little ashamed that Hunger is my first book by Roxane Gay. The good news is, I can finally say I’ve read a Roxane Gay book, and the even better news is, this won’t be my last.

If you’re not familiar with Hunger here is a brief rundown.

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

Roxane Gay is brave and strong and wildly impressive as a human and writer. This book exemplifies all of these things. I doubt I could ever write anything as honest and candid about myself or my body. After reading this book and reflecting on what it took to write this memoir, I am blown away by Gay’s willingness to get vulnerable.

Mostly the book revolves around Gay’s body. Gay is super morbidly obese, and much of the book focuses on how she got that way, and how she navigates the world, both figuratively and literally. She details her thoughts on TV shows like The Biggest Loser and walks us through her eating disorder, she even talks in detail about kinds of chairs and how they effect her body. The whole book serves as a reminder that we are all vastly different and our experiences and shape and color directly influence our world view.

While Gay and her body are very different from my own, we are both black women, and in that share some solidarity when it comes to the way we interact with the world. Gay is masterful in the way she uses her own story to bring the reader in and isolate them. She shares ideas that are at one moment highly relatable, and then she switches quickly to thoughts that are uniquely her own. This style of writing allows the reader to feel both close to and far away from the author, it is a thrilling, and surprisingly rare.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and Gay is our narrator. Her performance is solid, the words are really the star, not her intonation or expressiveness. I would not, however, recommend this as an audiobook. I found her stories and reflections to be so personal and traumatic that I wanted to turn her off. I wanted to turn away and disconnect, and with Gay’s own voice there recounting the pain it is impossible to get a break. The book might be more manageable, as a reader you have control over the pace and can take time to digest some of the more intense moments of the book.

This is a a great memoir. It deals with violence done to a body and could have some trigger warnings in that respect. If you like an honest and raw memoir, this is your book. It is not an enjoyable read so much as an important and moving one. There is so much pain and suffering, but also much empowerment and honesty.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

This week for The Stacks Book Club, author Jo Piazza and I discussed Sheila Heti’s newest book, Motherhood. You can listen to our full conversation here. There are no spoilers on this episode so feel free to enjoy.

If you are not familiar with Motherhood here is a little bit about the book.

In Motherhood, Sheila Heti asks what is gained and what is lost when a woman becomes a mother, treating the most consequential decision of early adulthood with the candor, originality, and humor that have won Heti international acclaim and made How Should A Person Be? required reading for a generation.

In her late thirties, when her friends are asking when they will become mothers, the narrator of Heti’s intimate and urgent novel considers whether she will do so at all. In a narrative spanning several years, casting among the influence of her peers, partner, and her duties to her forbearers, she struggles to make a wise and moral choice. After seeking guidance from philosophy, her body, mysticism, and chance, she discovers her answer much closer to home.

Motherhood is a work of biographical fiction, a genre of which I’ve not read much. In This case, the book feels like it is Heti’s own life and thoughts, but shielded loosely by the idea that it is still fiction. The book essentially feels like a memoir with the caveat that it is not one. The main character is even named Sheila. While I’m no expert on this genre, it felt nearly impossible to distinguish between the author and the “characters”. For me, this was the  biggest barrier to really diving into the book. I was constantly trying to figure out what was biography and what was fiction.

Heti’s writing is beautiful (and also somewhat experimental), and many of the debates she has with herself through the course of the book about childrearing are wonderful. She examines many facets of motherhood. including difficulty getting pregnant and abortions. I could relate to the questions she asked herself, if this was the right path for her and her life and her partner. There are conversations around what it means for a Jewish woman, who is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, to not want to have children. Heti explores what happens to a woman’s creativity if she decides to have children. These ideas are important and nuanced and interesting and I’m glad she brings them up.

The overall tone of this book is mostly cynical. The conversation doesn’t feel balanced, nor does Heti seem to be weighing the options equally. She taps into the anxiety around loss of self accurately, but misses the value added that children can bring. I’ve not had kids, and I am currently weighing my options about having them, and while I can relate to her doubts, I do wish the joys were presented more evenly. Motherhood leans into the anxiety and never lets up. She makes her point early on, and the book could end, but instead she labors with her thinking, as if to prove the tediousness of her thought process. I would have loved the book as an article in The New Yorker (long, but not book long).

Motherhood is not for everyone. I would even venture to say it is not for most people. If you’re interested a meditation on having children, and you like beautiful and experimental prose, this might be a nice fit. If you prefer your fiction to be traditional you might skip this one. There are also plenty of memoirs that examine these same questions without the guise of fiction that could feel more straightforward.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Jo Piazza discussing Motherhood.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st Edition edition (May 1, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Motherhood on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

When I heard about Dopesick by Beth Macy, I was so excited. This is the kind of book I just love, investigative journalism meets profiles of drug abusers meets cover up by big business, meets politics meets the healthcare system meets current events. This book has all the things I love reading about. If you’re not familiar with this book here is a quick blurb:

Beth Macy takes us into the epicenter of America’s twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it’s a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched.

Beginning with a single dealer who lands in a small Virginia town and sets about turning high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy endeavors to answer a grieving mother’s question-why her only son died-and comes away with a harrowing story of greed and need. From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, Macy parses how America embraced a medical culture where over treatment with painkillers became the norm. In some of the same distressed communities featured in her bestselling book Factory Man, the unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death.

This book is telling the story of the heroin/opiate addiction that runs rampant in this country, and in this book specifically in Virginia. It is a compassionate look at the individual lives touched by these drugs and a also a searing indictment on the big pharma companies and government agencies that allowed it to get out of control. I think this book is important in the stories it tells, and only wish that other drug addicts and families got the same compassion and understanding the the victims of the opioid epidemic invariably seem to get.

Macy’s writing style is verbose to say the least, there are sentences that are filled with so many commas and dashes that I found myself having to reread them to figure out what she was talking about. As far as investigative journalism goes, this style is not what you tend to see. Macy inserts herself in the book, which is a trend I’ve noticed in two other works of investigative journalism published this year (Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann). I don’t feel that Macy needed to be an outright voice in this book, nor do I understand her choice to be one. It didn’t take away from Dopesick, nor did it add anything.

I learned a lot about OxyContin, heroin, methadone, fentanyl, a slew of other opiate drugs and the effects they have on a human body while reading Dopesick. I found myself constantly looking up from the book and asking my husband (who is a doctor) if he knew this or that, if he’d ever prescribed OxyContin, if he’d dealt with babies born addicted to opiates. The book excited my love of learning. Like most addictions, the stigma around heroin/opiate use prevents a lot of information from getting out to the world, and Macy’s work exposes the dark secrets we don’t hear about. Like the mother who takes the doors of the hinges to prevent her son from doing drugs in the house. All the things that people who aren’t connected to this kind of addiction would never see.

Macy is thorough in her research and reporting on this drug crisis. Her politics and perspectives are very much present in the book, and she even shares some of her opinions point blank (around drug treatment policy, the current President and his administration). I wish she would have pushed back on some of the racism and racial double standards we find through out the book and on the topic of drug use in America, in general. There was certainly more room for questioning and dissecting the politics around a book like this. Why is the main drug dealer in this story Black? Why is he described as a predator?

As I read the book, I kept asking myself, if we know that drug addiction alters brains, and changes humans, how come we’re only willing to extend the benefit of understanding to White kids and their families? Where are the compassionate profiles that examine addiction in theBlack and Brown communities? The book isn’t to blame for this, but it does highlight the second chances that White heroin addicts are given by law enforcement, the courts, doctors, and the community at large. That is what frustrates me most about the opioid epidemic and the way it has been prioritized in American political and popular culture.

Overall I suggest this book, if you’re OK with some of the more graphic and emotional details that come with drug addiction and overdoses. The book is a pretty heavy read, and the subject is upsetting. There is a lot to learn from reading this book. Trigger warning for those who are dealing with opiate addiction in their own life in any capacity.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st Edition edition (August 7, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Dopesick on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information See Disclosures.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is the book of the moment right now in America. I mean that literally, it is a book about a woman running for Senate in Pennsylvania in the 2018 midterm elections, which as of this writing as a mere 61 days away. If thats not “the moment” I’m not sure I know what is.

In the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of this book from the publisher in preparation of having Jo Piazza as a guest on the podcast. I really loved talking to Jo, and learning about her and her life and her process. Those things are all true separate from this review.

If you’re unfamiliar with this book here is your blurb:

Charlotte Walsh is running for Senate in the most important race in the country during a midterm election that will decide the balance of power in Congress. Still reeling from a presidential election that shocked and divided the country and inspired by the chance to make a difference, she’s left behind her high-powered job in Silicon Valley and returned, with her husband Max and their three young daughters, to her downtrodden Pennsylvania hometown to run in the Rust Belt state.

Once the campaign gets underway, Charlotte is blindsided by just how dirty her opponent is willing to fight, how harshly she is judged by the press and her peers, and how exhausting it becomes to navigate a marriage with an increasingly ambivalent and often resentful husband. When the opposition uncovers a secret that could threaten not just her campaign but everything Charlotte holds dear, she has to decide just how badly she wants to win and at what cost.

When writing this book, Jo Piazza took the time to interview over 100 women politicians and political operatives. This book is fiction, with a lot of a real life antidotes to back it up. And it feels that way, while the characters feel totally fictional, the things they’re going through feel all too real. There is a list in the book of names that Charlotte gets called on social media, and one just has to look into the mentions of a Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi to see that those vile insults are nothing out of the ordinary.

This book is totally enjoyable and a super easy and fun read. It takes a super serious topic and finds a way to make it fun and still confront major issues around sexism and gender norms in The United States. The writing is very straightforward and easy. Piazza is specific without languishing in adjectives and descriptive details. The book goes by quick.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win has an agenda. It is an agenda that I respect and am grateful exists. Piazza is trying to illustrate the disparities that women in politics (and the public eye) face compared to men. Piazza is asking us to really look at how we treat women, and why. She is also encouraging readers of the book to look into what female candidates are running in their area. There is a list of  organizations that support women candidates in the back of the book, including EMILY’s List, Higher Heights, She Should Run, and more. Its refreshing to be having this kind of conversation in the pages of an easy read, the book is not intimidating at all.

While there are sections of Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win that I found a little cliche, overall I liked the book. I enjoyed it. It didn’t really do much to change how I look at women in politics or sexism, but I found it exciting to know a book like this exists and is getting a lot of coverage and is being chosen for major publication’s book clubs (it Marie Claire Magazine’s September Book Club pick, #readwithMC).

If you have any interest in this book, I would say read it RIGHT NOW. Do not wait until November, read it before the midterm. It will feel timely and might help you think differently about the women running for office. Read it, register to vote, and support a woman candidate in your area.

Listen to Jo Piazza talk about Charlotte Walsh (no spoilers) and more on The Stacks

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino

A0C03263-3AE9-4F0F-8046-13CEA93858A3I am lucky to have really smart and interesting friends, and they often share smart and interesting books with me. Thats how Covering found its way into my life. Here is a little more about this book:

Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Racial minorities are pressed to “act white” by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to “play like men” at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.

Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the work of American civil rights law will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. 

At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of covering provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity—a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.

There are books that come into your life and change the way you understand your own identity and place in society. For me, this is one of those books. I have always been familiar with the concepts of passing, code switching, and assimilation, but had never heard of covering until starting this book. Yoshino does a masterful job of articulating the subtleties and nuances of covering. He clearly explains and gives examples to illustrate what it is, how it functions, and why it can be harmful (and at times helpful).

Something that makes this book unique is that Yoshino mixes his own personal stories of covering, both with his identtity as a homosexual and a Japanese American, with case law from his life as a law professor at Yale. We see covering as both something specific to the author and a much bigger part of the national conversation. While this book is focused on American law and experiences, it is easy to see that covering can be universal. While I generally dislike when an author of nonfiction tries to incorporate memoir, I think for the purposes of this book, it really works. The writing is so smart and nuanced, the parallels to his private life and the world of the courts seem well matched.

It is refreshing to watch as someone work through complicated issues of sexuality, race, gender, ableness etc., with a sense of compassion and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking. One particularly wonderful moment comes up during his discussion on the demands of covering as it pertains to women. Yoshino checks his own privilege and lens of maleness, pulling back to note how he may miss covering demands that women face. This self-awareness gave me as a reader an even deeper confidence in his point of view.

The book does lose some of it’s clarity toward the end as Yoshino looks toward the future of civil rights. He gets caught up a little in that vision, and I could have done without a lot of the ending. I understand why he speculated, but I’m not sure it was needed. This book was published in 2006, and so with 12 years of knowledge that Yoshino didn’t have at the time about the United States, some of his predictions felt wildly and naively optimistic (but I again have the luxury of hindsight).

Covering  is not a definitive text on assimilation or discrimination, it is more of a starter kit for anyone interested in understanding the more subtle world of marginalized people and the behaviors they exhibit to get by. While there are times that Yoshino seems to be flexing his massive vocabulary muscle, for the most part this is a straightforward and accessible read. There is a lot to learn from this book. I would suggest it to folks who are interested in human behavior as it pertains to discrimination and civil rights. This is great option, for teenagers going off to college or starting work after high school.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (January 17, 2006)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Covering on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

IMG_7843On this week of The Stacks podcast, we discussed The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Our guest for this episode The Stacks Book Club was Becca Tobin, actress best known for her work on Glee, and co-host of Lady Gang podcast. You can listen to our full conversation about The Mars Room right here.

If you’ve not yet heard of the The Mars Room here is a little more information for you.

It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

This book is a bleak examination of lives in proximity to incarceration. While the book mostly centers on Romy and her experiences, we do have other narrators, and other characters who steal our focus for moments throughout the book. The Mars Room feels like a much darker and less “entertaining” look at the prison system than what you might be familiar with from a show like Orange is the New Black (Netflix). One of the things I appreciated most with this book was how dark Kushner was willing to go. She romanticizes nothing. It is all bleak and full of despair. I find that choice to be a strong and refreshing choice.

Throughout the book we meet a lot of flawed and interesting and dynamic characters. People who have been dealt shitty hands and lived hard lives and yet have perspective and depth and hope, and sometimes, though not enough, humor. Through these people Kushner asks us to question our own relationship to the incarcerated, our own thoughts on gender identity, racism, and sexual assault, the power of institutions and more. There are moments in this book where Kushner gets caught up in showing us her point of view, that the book does become a little preachy. Kushner uses characters as devices to make larger points, which leads to some characters being full and dynamic and some feeling like they are just there to prove a point (Romy’s son Jackson comes to mind here).

A major problem with this book has to do with Kushner’s choice of featured characters. While she does include Latina and Black characters in secondary roles, none of the featured narrators are people of color, despite there being ample space to allow for their perspectives. In a book about incarceration, our central character is a pretty white woman. This type of whitewashing of a predominately Black and brown space is irritating at best, and something more cynical at worst.

When faced with the choice to leave the reader with hope or not, Kushner mostly choses not. I respect that. I think we are constantly looking for a silver lining, and sometimes when we strip that false hope away we see a picture of reality that can also be comforting. This book addresses this head on. If the reality of hopelessness that so many people live with scares you, or turns you off, this book isn’t for you, and thats OK. Aside from major issues of representation, I enjoyed this book and suggest it to those who are not faint of heart.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Becca Tobin discussing The Mars Room.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition Limited Issue edition (May 1, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Mars Room on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Hiroshima by John Hersey

EE8E4EB7-0AB7-45E2-95C2-99D93621B76BI have owned my copy of this book for over a decade and never picked it up. It wasn’t until I was sitting in Book Soup for a book event and looked over and saw it sitting there that I decided I should pick it up. I am so glad I did. If you’re not familiar with this classic work of nonfiction, here is more information for you.

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey’s journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic “that stirs the conscience of humanity” (The New York Times).

Almost four decades after the original publication of this celebrated book, John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search of the people whose stories he had told.  His account of what he discovered about them is now the eloquent and moving final chapter of Hiroshima.

One of the most horrific acts of war, and one of the hardest to justify, is the killing of civilians. The dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the stories that rose from the ashes, show us why. Hiroshima contains those stories. This book is haunting and powerful and allows the reader a glimpse into what it was like to live through August 6, 1945.

Hersey does little with language, he is direct with his words. There is no sense that this book was written in 1946, nothing that dates Hersey, except of course the subject matter. This isn’t a book full of eloquent prose, or even historical context. This is very much the story of six people who somehow continued to live even after the bomb fell. Hersey talks about his subjects with a distance that allows the reader to imagine themselves in Hiroshima, 1945. I found myself looking up from the page and just shaking my head wondering about the realty of such an atrocity, and also the unimaginable shock and horror that these people witnessed.

Hiroshima does a wonderful job of zeroing in on one perspective, that of the survivors, and erases almost all other chatter that surrounds the use of the atomic bomb. Hersey does not allow for a debate on weather or not it should have been dropped, who is to blame, what options were weighed, etc. He simply shares the stories of those who survived, if the act was right or wrong does not matter. The book is a reckoning of lived experience, not of tactical warfare. It is a brilliant stroke to isolate the intellectual conversations around the atom bomb from the very real effects its usage had on human lives. There is no rationalizing the bomb when you hear people share the things they’ve witnessed.

In the 1980’s Hersey goes back to Hiroshima and follows up with his six main characters. What he finds out about their lives in the 40 years since the bombing makes up the Afterward of Hiroshima .  This was the section of the book I felt the least connected to. While I was grateful to know what happened to everyone, Hersey seemed to have changed from the man who wrote the initial part of the book. His writing style and point of view were different (as I have to assume anyone would be after living an additional 40 years). He did not have the economy of language that I loved so much in the first part of the book. It was a subtle shift, but one that distracted me.

I am grateful that this book exists and it has inspired me to want to read more on the subject (I plan to read both Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham and Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb by Ronald Takaki). I want to read more about the history of the bombs, how America was able to justify dropping them, and more of the arguments around nuclear warfare. I am glad that my introduction to Hiroshima came from Hiroshima, and started with the stories of those who were bombed, those who suffered the greatest cost. I will carry their voices with me as I continue to learn and understand why this happened.

This book is suitable for all people.  It is appropriate for teenagers learning about World War II for the first time, and adults of any age. It is short and easy to understand. There are a few graphic descriptions of injuries, and while they are hard to read, they are important to fully comprehend the magnitude of this act.

If you do read this book, or you have read this book, please share your thoughts in the comments. I would also appreciate any and all suggestions for other books on this topic.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 4, 1989)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Hiroshima on Amazon

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

C3AC3073-5D3F-4AFD-AE59-A65863E1162FI have had this book by Celeste Ng on my list for a few months, and I finally decided to read it. I knew it had to do with the mysterious death of a teenage girl, and I knew that by the end of the book I would know “who done it”, which was important to me because an unresolved ending ruins my week.

If you’re not familiar with this book here is a little more,

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

This book is really well written. The story weaves through the thoughts and minds of all the members of the Lee family, and dives into their history as individuals and into how they relate to each other. I understand why so many people love this book. For me, it didn’t work, I couldn’t get myself to care about any of them, aside from a general feeling of “thats too bad”. I generally don’t like these types of books, family dramas. I decided to read Everything I Never Told You because of the mysterious death part, which I’m always interested in. I thought solving the mystery would play a more active part in the book. However after reading it, Lydia’s death is more of device to look deeper into the family’s dynamic. A device that gave us flashbacks that went on and on, and often times felt redundant. I wanted more plot and more movement forward.

The Lee family, like every family, has issues, and they are intensified by the racism they face as the only mixed race, Chinese and White American, family in the town. The book takes place in 1977 Ohio, which can only be described as intolerant and racist. In addition to racial taunting there are lots of elements dealing with sexism in this book, Ng questions a woman’s role in the family, and in the world. A lot of the racism and sexism in this book felt unspecific and stereotypical. Not that it wasn’t believable (I find that bigots tend to be pretty uncreative), but more that they are so commonplace they felt unexceptional. Which may have been the point.

The way that Ng writes about the shock and grief of the Lee family, is really well done. It is sometimes subtle, and sometimes not, which is true to how grief can look and feel. She takes care with each of her characters, even though I felt that they all kind of felt like the same voice. I enjoyed seeing the Lee’s carrying on and adapting after Lydias death. That is where I found myself enjoying the book most.

Overall I would say, that this was not the book I thought it was going to be. I wanted a book about the death of a teenage girl and what happens next, and instead I got a book that looked back and inward at a family. It is a solid book. If you like a family drama, if you like multiple perspectives on the same events, if you like flashbacks, this is your book. If you like a little more plot or action, I might skip it, however the writing is good enough to carry you through the 300 or so pages.

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If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

78BB304E-DA7D-4F9A-BB17-42DF210C020EHere is yet another book I decided to read right away, because the movie is coming. I have read a little James Baldwin here and there and never been disappointed, but to be honest I was in no hurry to read this book, until I saw the trailer for the If Beale Street Could Talk.

If you’re not familiar with the this novel, here is a brief synopsis for you.

Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

This book seamlessly marries a fictional story with very clear and searing commentary on injustice in America. Baldwin never wavers in this convictions about racism and the corruptness of the criminal justice system, however these ideas don’t come at the expense of believable characters or dialogue. The people found in this book embody the spirit of Baldwin’s thoughts and they live effortlessly in his words. The interactions feel authentic and the characters all have agency. They are not puppets for Baldwin’s believes, nor are they just there to move the story along.

If Beale Street Could Talk moves between present day and flashbacks, and is told through the eyes of Tish. Baldwin’s economy of words is beyond impressive, with a less skilled writer this book could easily be over 400 pages, but Bladwin keeps the book short and the emotion charged through out. He knows what he is trying to do an he executes. There are scenes in this book that are so tense that I shrieked out loud and had drop the book and walk away for a few moments to get my heart rate down. That kind of writing is not common, it is extraordinary.

While I enjoyed both the main character Fonny and Tish, the supporting characters were the real stars of this book for me. From both of Fonny and Tish’s family to the waiters at a small Spanish restaurant. The world is made vivid through the thoughts and actions of those who live in and around our young lovers.

The only thing I can say that I didn’t love about this book, is that I thought it got off to a slow start. I wasn’t fully invested in the book until about 50 pages in, and in a book thats less that 200 pages, thats a good chunk. However, once I got in, I was hooked.

You should read this book before you see the movie. I would say you should read this book even if you have no intention to see this movie at all. James Baldwin is considered one of the greats for a reason, his work is great. It is that simple.

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.