January 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

Starting this month, I’ll be giving mini reviews for all of my reads each month. For longer reviews on each book check out The Stacks Instagram page. You can also find full length reviews for any books we feature on the show under the Reviews tab and any other reviews I just feel compelled to write. My hope is to streamline my reviews and make them easier for you all to read and enjoy.

I’ll also be giving you my month by the numbers, as a way to give you all a snapshot of what I read, and to hold myself accountable to reading diverse and inclusive books.

January by the Numbers

Total Books Read: 9
Audiobooks: 0
Five Star Reads: 1
DNF Books: 0
Unread Shelf: 9
Books Acquired: 21

By Women Authors: 5
By Authors of Color: 4
By Queer Authors: 0
Nonfiction Reads: 6
Published in 2019: 1

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

(Photo: amazon.com)

Nicole Chung’s story of her transracial adoption, searching for her birth parents, and becoming a mother come together beautifully in this her memoir, All You Can Ever Know. Chung is vulnerable and honest in a way that is rare, refreshing, and greatly appreciated as a reader. Chung shares her hopes, fears, insecurities, and expectations with her reader as if she is writing in her journal. I was deeply moved in reading this book, and found common ground with Chung when it came to identity, as I am the product of an interracial marriage.

There were pieces to the story that left me wanting more, and I feel a bit selfish to be asking for more from Chung who is so open with her reader. I would have liked more on what parts of her childhood (as a Korean raised by White parents) she is still grappling with as an adult, and how she interacts with the world because of her upbringing.

Overall, this book is very good. Chung is a writer with a gentle touch that packs a lot of power. She is unrelenting in sharing her own thoughts and experiences and for that I am grateful. Also there is Cindy, and I won’t say much, except that I felt so much love and respect for Cindy, and when you read the book, you’ll know. I would suggest this book to people who love a good emotional memoir, people interested in adoption stories, and people who enjoy the active search for identity.

Four Stars | Catapult | October 4, 2018 | 240 Pages | Hardcover
All You Can Ever Know is TSBC pick for February 13. You can hear The Short Stacks with author Nicole Chung HERE, and TSBC episode with Vanessa McGrady HERE.Read a full review of All You Can Ever Know, HERE.


Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

A collection of unique and imaginative short stories that provide a commentary on race, violence, consumerism, and survival in America. The writing is at times snarky and smart and then can flip in an instant to be poignant. Some of the stories in Friday Black were pitch perfect and found a great balance between reflection and experience. Some of the other stories never quiet landed with me. The two stories that stand out most (“Zimmer Land” and “Finklestein 5”) deal with the fragility of Black pain and the violence that Black people endure just to live. They comment on events and realities that are part of the American cultural zeitgeist.

I suggest Friday Black to lovers of short stories, racial politics, and people interested in thinking about capitalism in a different way. Warning, there is a lot of (stylized) violence in this book.

Three Stars | Mariner Books | October 23, 2018 | 208 Pages | Paperback
Friday Black is TSBC pick for February 27. Stay tuned for more content around this book.


Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

(Photo: amazon.com)

A fictionalized look at life in Atlanta during the Atlanta Child Murders as told from the perspective of three fifth graders. In her debut novel, Tayari Jones examines the changing responsibilities for Black children as the move toward adulthood. She engages with the unfortunate truth that Black children are forced to grow up too early, and that they are vulnerable to the world around them. Her characters have to come to terms with their Blackness and what that means to the rest of the world. Jones loves her characters and knows them well, she speaks for them without feeling corny or contrived, and develops them into complex characters. Their youth becomes a filter on which we, the readers, see injustices in their world.

Leaving Atlanta is mostly a character study and a coming of age story. If you love plot and action, and are looking for true crime, this book isn’t that (which is where it missed for me). However, if you love spending time with characters and thinking about the world from different perspectives, check it out. If you’re more interested in the Atlanta Child Murders you might like the Atlanta Monster podcast.

Three Stars | Grand Central Publishing (Reprint Edition) | August 1, 2003 | 272 Pages | Paperback


Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

(Photo: amazon.com)

An essay collection on feminism and the relationship of women to male entitlement. Rebecca Solnit’s essays are an indictment on how women are seen and treated in The United States. Solnit ranges from snarky to measured, and shows her self as a thought leader in the conversation around certain types of feminism, which is evidenced in my favorite essay “#yesallwomen”. Men Explain Things to Me misses the mark on intersectional feminism completely and makes no space for women of color and queer women. The book was originally published in 2014, and just over four years later it feels dated. I don’t doubt this book was forward thinking at the time of publication, and that Solnit’s own views have evolved in the last five years (this is my first time reading her work). Men Explain Things to Me is a reminder of the kind of feminism that centers White women and that we are, thankfully, moving away from.

While Men Explain Things to Me is a good collection, I wouldn’t suggest reading it, simply because it isn’t speaking to the current moment in the women’s movement. I would confidently recommend Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper (full review here) and Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister (full review here) as better looks at intersectional feminism today.

 Three Stars | Haymarket Books | September 1, 2015 | 176 Pages | Paperback
See my full review of Men Explain Things to Me which you can read HERE.


Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation by Juan Vidal

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

Juan Vidal shares his own story of growing up, finding his way, and becoming a family man in his memoir Rap Dad. The book is a mix of stories from Vidal’s past, meditations on fatherhood, breaking down the importance of hip-hop culture, and conversations of folks in the Rap world about their own thoughts on fatherhood. The book didn’t always feel cohesive or flow, and I often couldn’t relate to his experiences, but Vidal’s willingness to write and discover in that process is refreshing. He is asking the questions of what it means to be a good parent in this hip-hop generation.

Rap Dad is worth your time. The content is different from most anything I’ve read. Vidal is a unique thinker, a fluid writer, and his lack of pretense is beyond refreshing. He is talking about a subculture, hip-hop heads, we so often ignore, especially in the context of parenting.

Three Stars | Atria | September 25, 2018 | 256 Pages | Hardcover
Rap Dad is TSBC pick for January 30. You can hear The Short Stacks with author Juan Vidal HERE, and TSBC episode with Josh Segarra HERE.Read a full review of Rap Dad, HERE.


Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption by Vanessa McGrady

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

In Rock Needs River, Vanessa McGrady shares her journey from deciding she wants to be a mother, to adopting her daughter Grace, to eventually taking in Grace’s homeless birth parents. McGrady navigates the sometimes murky boundaries of open adoption in this book.

What worked in Rock Needs River is that McGrady is clearly only speaking for herself. He triumphs and blunders are clearly her own. She finds a way to be relatable so that you’re rooting for her for get whatever it is she wants and needs, even when she does some pretty questionable things (thinking of a chat room sequence that is painfully cringe worthy). I struggled with McGrady’s sense of privilege when it came to Grace’s birth parents. She wanted them to do what she would do, and those parts feel very entitled and narrow minded. Don’t get me wrong, McGrady is beyond generous with them, but that gets lost in the feeling that McGrady wants her good deed to play out the way she wants it to (with thank you notes). She spends a good chunk of the book projecting her value system on them, and it rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall I enjoyed the book, and I really learned a lot about adoption. If you like a lighter approach to more serious topics this might be a good book for you. If you’re interested in adoption and the ways that life doesn’t always go according to plan, I’d check out Rock Needs River.

Three Stars | Little A | January 1, 2019 | 204 Pages | Hardcover


Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

(Photo: amazon.com)

This month for the #ShakeTheStacks challenge I read Romeo and Juliet. The play is the story of two teenaged, star crossed lovers who find each other despite their families’ rivalry.The story is a total cliche now, but of course then you remember Romeo and Juliet was one of the originals.

I loved rereading this play. Shakespeare is interested in the ideas of loyalty and vengeance, individual desire versus communal stability. The play is dealing with these massive ideas and somehow still taking them on with a kind of urgent poetry that is just begging to be said and heard. In reading the play I couldn’t help but fall in love with Juliet. Her speeches are rich and full of so much emotion. I found myself reading them over and over (mostly out loud).

If you like strong characters with a driving plot, don’t be intimidated by Romeo and Juliet. It is a great play, which I’m sure you’ve heard.

Five Stars | Penguin Classics | February 1, 2000 | 128 Pages | Paperback
You can read my full review of  Romeo and Juliet HERE.



Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan

(Photo: amazon.com)

A collection of essays on things that are difficult to say. This book is not what it seems. Corrigan wrote Tell Me More after the passing of her father and dear friend, Lisa. The book ends up being more a response to the loss of her loved ones, an understanding of her own grief, and way to help her (and the reader) move on when things feel devastating. I got so much out of this book, it really connected with me emotionally. While the grief is ever present through out, there are also conversations about knowing your own worth, finding ways to be truly empathetic, and seeking out true love and joy that were valuable. There were times I thought Corrigan got a little cutesy, and didn’t need to, and some of her phrases seem beyond obvious (“Yes” and “No” come to mind), but I don’t think it hurt the book overall. The power of “Onward” was enough for an entire book to ride on.

While it is certainly not “required reading” it is a book that I could see being meaningful to anyone. I would check it out. I am certainly glad I did.

Four Stars | Random House | January 9, 2018 | 240 Pages | Hardcover


The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

TAn oral history of Tony Kushner’s iconic play Angels in America, The World Only Spins Forward was a surprising delight. For a person who loves the theatre this book was more than I could have imagined. I loved hearing from actors, directors, production teams, and theatre critics as they unpack the significance of one of the great American plays. Hearing thespians expound on the nuances of characters and the importance of lines, or how to an angel should fly, was fulfilling. Using the tradition of oral history as a way for the theatre community to talk about this depiction of HIV and gay experience felt completely spot on. The LGBTQIA+ community kept the memories of their own alive through telling stories, writing plays, and creating the art that lives on and is celebrated today. This book is a little bit of art imitating life (on a few levels). Also, the cover. It is absolutely perfect.

The only thing that was hard for me as a reader was that a lot of references weren’t explained. I spent time googling people and events that I would have loved to hear more about from the people who were telling this story, the interviewees.

I don’t know that this book is for everyone. I think you’d have to be interested in Angels in America or the theatre at the very least. The World Only Spins Forward is total theatre nerd stuff, and as a proud member of that community, it was everything I wanted and more. If you love the theater, and acting, and how plays get made, you must read this one.

Four Stars | Bloomsbury | February 13, 2018 | 448 Pages | Hardcover


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.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

E4FA3654-5315-4685-8748-2A65FF1D6F41Every year I try to read at least one or two Pulitzer Prize winners, while I generally don’t enjoy the fiction books for a myriad of reasons, I have found some of my favorite nonfiction books have won or been short listed for the Pulitzer (Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson, sticks out a recent favorite). It was a no brainer to pick up Locking Up Our Own, it won the Pulitzer in 2018 for general nonfiction, and had a subject matter that excited me.

Here is a little more about this book

Former public defender James Forman, Jr. is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness―and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.


This is a smart and thoughtful book. It highlights the role Black politicians, officials, and community members have had on mass incarceration. I appreciated Forman’s in depth look at this small and specific group of people. There are many nuances and subtleties in the giant machine that is the prison industrial complex, and this book zeros in on one of those nooks, especially from the vantage point of a defense lawyer.

The book mostly focuses on Washington DC (a majority Black city), and places a lot of blame on Black leaders, which Forman explains in detail. However, found myself questioning how different these laws were in other cities with large Black populations and White elected officials. A lot of the blame is laid at the feet of the African Americans who run DC, but it isn’t clear if this is unique to DC. If these trends were seen nationwide, including cities with few Black leaders, the case made against the Black leaders in DC is significantly diminished. I didn’t feel that I understood if the movement toward stricter laws was truly being led by Black folks, or if it was more a national trend in cities with large Black populations. Said another way, sure, Eric Holder enacted harsh search and seizure initiatives in DC, but was this any different than stop and frisk in Giuliani’s New York? This makes a huge difference in the argument, and these questions were left unanswered.

The writing style of Locking Up Our Own was mostly straight forward, nothing particularly fancy or noteworthy. Forman does include the cases of his past clients to connect the laws in theory to the lives they affected in practice. This didn’t feel like a priority for the book, but rather an after thought, and therefore these stories fell flat. They functioned more like interludes than anything else.

I enjoyed learning about the role that Black people have played in the mass incarceration crisis, even if it wasn’t clear if they were following trends versus creating a road map for The United States. I appreciated a much more subtle look at something that has become a topic that engenders a lot of debate.

If you find nonfiction to be a little dry, this isn’t the nonfiction book for you, I might suggest Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, because it has a much more human element (thought it is more focused on death penalty law). I would suggest you read this book if you’re like nonfiction, even when it is not story based, and are well versed in mass incarceration. It is a great compliment to The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Locking Up Our Own 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.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

EFD9FC14-C160-498F-8A7F-7B028658C6EDI live in Los Angeles, and this book about crime in South Los Angeles has been on my radar since it came out in 2015. I mean, it has all the things that I proclaim to like: true crime, race relations, specifically those dealing with Black folks; a journalistic style and approach, and a woman author. Plus, it talks about locations I’m familiar with and people that live 20 minutes (without traffic) away from me. This has just always felt like a must read for me.

If you aren’t familiar with Ghettoside, here is more about the book.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

I found Ghettoside to be a very well manicured book. It is clear from the moment the book starts where it will end, and it is clear exactly what points author Jill Leovy will hit. It has no twists and turns, no suspense, no real excitement in the storytelling. That is not what Leovy is doing here. The point of this book is to show how routine and mundane murder has become in South Los Angeles. The point is that day in and day out Black men are being killed, and the LAPD detectives are the only people of authority who care (her point of view not mine).

Leovy embeds with the Southside detective unit and spends much of her time with one detective, John Skaggs. He is ostensibly the hero of this book. He is the guy we are told to be impressed by, he is the best one, he solves the cases, he is dedicated to justice. While I enjoyed hearing about the detectives, the parts of this book I enjoyed most were about the victims, their families, and even those people involved in perpetrating the crimes. Detectives are cool, but we have so many stories focused on them. I wish Leovy would have spent more time engaging with the stories of those who live in Watts, those who lost loved ones, those who stories are often erased in from their own narratives.

Something that got in the way of my enjoyment of Ghettoside, is that Leovy clearly grew to respect and admire the work of the detectives in the units she was with. I think that biased her to the work of other police officers. The book felt incredibly pro-detective, and mostly anti-patrol cop. I’m not doubting the detectives do good work, and that cops make mistakes, its more that it felt like the detectives were the heroes only being foiled by lousy police work and out of control gang members. I found it hard to trust her praise or condemnations fully.

I am glad I finally read this book. I enjoyed the well researched subject matter, and the amount of effort Leovy put in to talk to so many different people involved in South Los Angeles murders. I also appreciated her willingness to discuss the anti-Black racism that has led to a world in which the murder of Black men goes mostly unseen, unreported, and unsolved. She really gave these murders the context that is so often overlooked in place of a “personal responsibility” narrative.

If you’re interested in the detective process and how crimes are solved, this would be a good book for you. I also would suggest this book to anyone living in a city with high rates of murder perpetrated against Black men, or anyone who thinks this topic sounds interesting.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (October 27, 2015)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Ghettoside 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.