King John by William Shakespeare

One of the things I’m learning with my journey through all of William Shakespeare’s plays is that, most of his plays that are obscure, are obscure for a reason, they aren’t that good. That is certainly the case with King John.

As with many of the other history plays, King John mostly revolves around the throne and who has the rightful claim to the power that it holds. There are really only so many ways you can tell that story, and in King John it is done in a way that feels remedial and lacks creativity and excitement. Plus, the full title of the play gives away the ending, which isn’t so bad, but in this case it feels like a trek to get there, and it fizzles out when you do.

There were two characters that stood out to me in my reading, and I imagine they would be even more engaging on the stage. One is Constance, a mother, whose young son has a claim to the throne but is unable to seize power. The other is The Bastard who speaks truth to power and is sort an unhinged kind of person. The problem is these parts can’t carry the show and aren’t on stage enough to really make the narrative compelling.

If you’re planning on reading one of Shakespeare’s history plays I would suggest Richard II or Richard III long before King John. There just isn’t much to latch on to in this story of shifting allegiances and male ego.

Next month for #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I’ll be reading The Merchant of Venice

  • Paperback: 118 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (August 2000)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy King John on Amazon or IndieBound

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.

April 2019 Reading Wrap Up

April was not my best reading month as far as content. I liked a lot of what I read, but I really didn’t love anything. I reread Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and still found it excellent, but it wasn’t as thrilling as the first time around. I loved Fatimah Asghar’s poetry collection If They Come for Us, and was happy too participate in reading poems as part of National Poetry Month.I enjoyed mostly what I read all month, but was never really blown away.

You can find my reading month by the numbers and short reviews of everything I read below, and check out reviews of all of these books over on The Stacks Instagram


April by the Numbers

Total Books Read: 10
Audiobooks: 1
Five Star Reads: 2
Unread Shelf: 1
Books Acquired: 37

By Women Authors: 6
By Authors of Color: 6
By Queer Authors: 2
Nonfiction Reads: 7
Published in 2019: 4


A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland by DaMaris B. Hill

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

In her collection of poetry that covers the history of incarceration of Black women in America, DaMaris Hill crafts poems that highlight the pain of being a Black woman and the undeniable strength that comes along with it. She tells of some of the most famous women of the Diaspora as well as many women whose stories were nearly lost to history.

The collection is both poems and small bits of historical context that allow the reader to get a deeper understanding of the poetry. I really enjoyed the contextual bits of this book. Not all of the poems resonated with me, some were too fare removed from the context given. I also found some to be extremely powerful. The section on Assata Shakur was my favorite.

Three Stars | Bloomsbury Publishing | January 15, 2019 | 192 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
DaMaris Hill is our guest on The Stacks, hear that conversation now, by clicking HERE.


Beloved by Toni Morrison

(Photo: amazon.com)

Every once in a while I will read a book that I can appreicate for its artistic beauty and masterful use of themes, language, and characters. I will be impressed by the dialogue and wowed by the sheer craft of the thing. And despite all of the beauty and skill, I won’t really like the book. That was the case for me with Beloved, Toni Morrison’s most famous and well regarded book. Its not that I didn’t think the book was spectacular, its just that it wasn’t for me. When I say a book is “too fiction-y” this book is a prime example.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it is the story of a runaway slave woman, Sethe, and her life as she lives free in Ohio mixed with the haunting of her past on the plantation and the early days of freedom. It is supernatural and haunting, and contains so many layers. I didn’t love the book, but I look forward to talking about it on The Stacks Book Club on May 22. I have a hunch that every time I discuss and dissect the book I will like it more and more. Toni Morrison’s works have a funny way of always having more to give.

Three Stars | Plume; Reprint edition | October 1, 1998 |275 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss Beloved in depth on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that episode HERE


If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar

(Photo: amazon.com)

A collection of poetry about violence, race, gender, and mortality both in a cultural sense and in the more intimate context of what it means to be alive and human. These poems are so smart and tough and vibrant and some are funny and snarky, and in the best ways.

What I appreciate in these poems beyond the craft itself is that the content ties in the historical and deeply personal. Asghar talks about being an orphan along side the fracturing of India and Pakistan. She takes the many parts of her identity and reflects them back to her audience. She reminds us all of the pain and joy in the world to which we must bear witness.

Five Stars | One World Books | August 7, 2018 | 128 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

(Photo: amazon.com)

A collection of short stories about drifters, drug addicts and life on the margins. It is both about the falling down and the getting back up of life. Before we recognized the opioid crisis as a crisis and before we sympathized with addicts, Jesus’ Son gave a human perspective to those that suffer from addiction. The book feels ahead of its time in this way. I couldn’t help but see Johnson’s ability to tell this story as a part of his own privilege. He gets to tell the stories of this specific group of users, instead of having to be responsible for all people who have ever been addicted. It is a great thing for an artist to be able to do, though I wonder if a Black author’s work would have been granted that kind of specificity.

Jesus’ Son is a well crafted collection, sparse in words but big in feeling. Johnson is fantastic at all the twists and the short sentences that pack a huge punch. While there were moments of great emotional resonance, this one wasn’t for me, in the end, I just didn’t care about the people in the stories.

Two Stars | Picador | Febbruary 17, 2009 | 133 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss Jesus’ Son in depth on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that episode HERE


Richard II by William Shakespeare

(Photo: amazon.com)

This month for the #ShakeTheStacks Challenge I read Richard II. It looks at the reign and fall of King Richard II, and is a glimpse into the fragility of power and the necessity of legitimacy. This play has the potential to be boring, however Shakespeare crafts dynamic characters who use their speech as a way to influence and persuade. I was particularly struck by the diversity in oratory style between Bolingbroke and Richard. Both men attempt to convince those around them to follow their lead, and both do it in drastically different ways. I found a couple of Richard’s speeches to be some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful. On top of the beauty, the play is easy to read and understand, which isn’t always the case for The Bard.

Richard II is an engaging and thrilling read. It is a play about politics and legitimacy. It feels especially relevant in today’s climate. What does it take to overthrow the leader? It is a dramatization of a theoretical question of who has the will of the people. The play is more cerebral than action packed, but it works beautifully and leaves the reader with much to think about.

Three Stars | Penguin Classics; reprint edition | December 1, 2000 | 160 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom

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

A collection of essays that are at once smart, funny, and truly thought provoking. Cottom is one of the most critical and nuanced thinkers on race and gender in this moment in The United States.Thick is effortless in its ability to move between ideas of intersectionality, the art of “the turn” is perfected in these pages. As the collection goes on the essays build on each other and deepen the readers understanding of Cottom and the work she has dedicated her life to. It is because of this depth that the second half of the book really stood out for me.

Some of Thick was challenging to read. I often had to go back and reread sentences and passages because I found myself lost in her arguments. That is less a criticism and more an observation about the style of the book. I applaud Cottom for not making her work small to accommodate her reader. Her writing is too important for that. Go read Thick. You will learn things, you will connect dots you never knew you could. It is powerful and empowering.

Four Stars | The New Press | January 8, 2019 | 224 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound


Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert W. Fieseler

(Photo: amazon.com)

In June 1973, there was a fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans that left 32 people dead. This tragedy was barely acknowledged when it happened and has since, been largely lost to history. In his book, Tinderbox, Robert Fieseler attempts to shed light on the events of June 24, 1973, and the connect those events with the early days of the Gay Liberation Movement.

Tinderbox functions on two levels, one the story of the fire and the people and city directly involved, and two the story of the movement that was connected to it. The true crime part of this book is fantastic. In particular, the pages where Fieseler describes the fire itself were vivid and horrifying. The history of the movement falls a little flatter, the connection feels forced. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you like true crime, you will too, even if some sections are not as good as the rest.

Three Stars | Liveright | June 5, 2018 | 384 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Hear Robert W. Fieseler on The Short Stacks HERE, and hear our in depth discussion of Tinderbox on The Stacks HERE.


Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

(Photo: amazon.com)

A reread of one of my favorite books from last year (you can find my first review here). Cheryl Strayed’s advice column from her days at The Rumpus strikes all the right chords. I love this book. I don’t know how else to say it. It is full of reminders and suggestions on how to live life a little better. Its not polite or even precious, its more in your face. Its the kind of book that opens you up a little bit. Thats what makes it so great. Strayed even says, most of the time you know what you must do, this book, like her advice, is just a nudge in the right direction.

Five Stars | Vintage; Original edition | July 10, 2012 | 368 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
Tune into the The Stacks Book Club conversation of Tiny Beautiful Things HERE .


The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris

(Photo: amazon.com)

The Truths We Hold is part of a tradition of books for future presidential candidates, they almost all have them. One part memoir, one part policy platform, and one part resume. These books aren’t particularly insightful, though they are a glimpse into the candidate on their very best days (even the bad ones are good or have packaged lessons to take away). Barack Obama famously wrote The Audacity of Hope on the eve of his candidacy, and that book gave America a glimpse into the changes Obama wanted to make in this country. Likewise Harris lays out the things she has achieved as prosecutor and attorney general, and the direction she thinks America should go. It is all well written and readable, but it is all so safe. I understand why, but I wish there was another way. I will wait and read her tell all after she is president.

The final section of the book are the truths she lives by, and aside from learning about her courtship with her husband, this is the best part of the book. Its a little insight into how she ticks. It should also be said, she reads her book and does a fantastic job. Her charisma shines through, and if nothing else, you finish the book and really like the woman.

Three Stars | Penguin Audio | January 8, 2019 | 9 hours and 26 minutes | Audiobook | Listen Through Libro.Fm


What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young

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

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is the exact book you might expect from Damon Young, of Very Smart Brothas. It is smart and funny, and yet it still makes you think. The book is dynamic and covers a range of topics from what is a “good dude” to Black anxiety, to gentrification, homophobia, to name a few. The book is good, though some of the essays are stronger than others, and sometimes thats frustrating.

There are four essays that really stand out, and whats interesting is they all have a common thread: Women. Each one of these essays (about his controversial piece on rape on VSB, his wife, his mother, and his daughter) is vulnerable but still maintains the style that Young is known for. There is an ease to his voice though saying the hard things, admitting fault, calling out his own privilege, and taking others to task must have been extremely challenging. There is a humility to these essays that allows them to soar above the rest. The book is worth a read, even if at times I found Young to be reaching for a laugh when he didn’t need one. His story is enough.

Three Stars | Ecco | March 26, 2019 | 320 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Hear our conversation with Damon Young on the Short Stacks HERE


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.

Richard II by William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare wrote ten of plays that are fictionalized accounts of real events and people, they are called the “History Plays” and are similar to how we today would watch a biopic. The story is based on truth, but dramatizes and imagines the story in a new (and hopefully) entertaining way. Richard II is one of those History Plays and is the first part in the eight play series that includes Richard II, HenryIV (both parts), Henry V, Henry VI (all three parts), and Richard III.

My expectations were very low for Richard II. I had seen a production years ago in New York City and found it to be very boring, however in reading the play I was thoroughly entertained. To be fair, it is a play about politics and legitimacy of governance. It is a dramatization of a theoretical conversation around who can and should rule the people. Which is to say, it is a lot of talk and not so much action, though the opening scene and the final two acts are pretty engaging. The middle of the play does drag a little, but overall I was engaged.

The language in Richard II is readable, even if Shakespeare is challenging for you, this one is pretty approachable. The characters are straight forward and tell you what they are thinking and planning. The plot is very linear, without the interruption of comedic scenes. Shakespeare utilizes language as a way to differentiate the characters. Richard, speeches are long and languid, he is eloquent and paints pictures of his one psyche through his verse. Bolingbroke is direct in his language, almost polished, and very direct.

If you like reading Shakespeare, I think this is a solid play that leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Its not the greatest ever, but after reading it, I think it is overlooked without reason. Richard II, was a reminder of why I started my #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, so that I could revisit old favorites and find new ones.

If you want more on Richard II I suggest checking out the Lend Me Your Ears podcast hosted by Isaac Butler (hear him on The Short Stacks), who you might know as co-author of TSBC pick, The World Only Spins Forward (listen to the conversation). The podcast takes on six of Shakespeare plays and connects them with current social and political issues.The episode on Richard II is fantastic, especially as a companion piece to reading the play.

Next month for #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I’ll be reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (December 1, 2000)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Richard II on Amazon or IndieBound

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.

Richard III by William Shakespeare

8853EBC9-8629-4FB1-B2FF-2C6E331176EEThis month, for the #ShaketheStacks challenge I read one of my most favorite Shakespeare plays, Richard III. It is the fourth and final part of the Henry VI tetralogy. For as much as I enjoyed Henry VI Part III Richard III is leaps and bounds better.

In this final chapter of the bloody war of the roses, the House of Plantagenet finally ascends the throne, putting our anti-hero, Richard, a stones throw from the throne. This play chronicles Richard’s assent from Richard Duke of Gloucester to King Richard III. It is full of blood and lies and fantastic wit and dialogue. Richard has all the things you want from a bad guy, he is clearly the smartest and most detestable person in the room. I won’t give anything away, but he is delightfully terrible.

I was lucky enough to be in two different productions of Richard III, and grew to learn about the text intimately. Shakespeare layers so much in each line, drawing back to the three previous plays, and verbal sparring that is thrilling to read, let alone watch. As with all his plays, Shakespeare has a point of view on what we’re watching. He centers the play around a corrupt ruler and his unchecked power and entitlement, not to mention his deep seated misogyny. Sound familiar? Richard III still holding up hundreds of years later.

My favorite scene in the play encapsulates all that is good (not morally) in Richard III, Act IV Scene 4. The scene is led by the women of the play, of which there are four insanely amazing independent and vibrant women characters, and it weaves from cursing to courting to sorrow and rage. The scene is dynamic and is the one moment when truth is spoken to power. It is powerful and exciting and smart. A total force that sucks the air out of the room, weather you’re reading or watching the play.

If you’ve yet to read this play, you should. Or better yet go see a production or watch the film. If I’m ranking Shakespeare’s plays it is in my top five (so far, but if I’m being honest I haven’t read them all yet).

Next month I leave the histories behind and read The Taming of the Shrew. I hope you’ll read it with me.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reissue edition (June 13, 2017)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy Richard III 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.

Henry VI Part 3 by William Shakespeare

99FDDE2B-D633-4E55-935F-DFA48A78B68FThis month, I read Henry VI Part 3  for my #ShakeTheStacks Challenge. The book is part three is a four part series that fictionalizes The War of the Roses in medieval England.  If you’ve been following along with my Shakespeare reading you know that I was not a huge fan of Henry VI Part 1 or Part 2however, Part 3 is good.

The first three acts of Henry VI Part 3 are fantastic. The acts are filled with fights over who is heir to the throne, who succeeds who, and how that can all be change. The scenes are smart and occupied with ruthless characters unafraid of hurling insults and doing much worse. Richard (soon to be Richard III) and Queen Margaret stand out as the leaders of their sides, and the most cutting with their words and deeds. As the play moves toward its conclusion there is more focus on preparation for The War of the Roses and less attention to interpersonal fighting. The first part of this play stands out more, for being high stakes and deeply emotional.

I read the majority of this play out loud to myself, and the use of verse drives the speed of this play. There where moments when I heard the words I was saying and got chills from their power. There are a few speeches in this play that truly stand out to me. One is from the elder Edward, Duke of York  (Act I.4), where he mourns the death of his son. There is devastation and curses and deviance and rage. It is a beautiful speech. Another is from Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Act III.2) where he speaks directly to the audience, telling us of his plans to become king. This soliloquy is self loathing mixed with raw ambition. It is masterful and you can’t look away. When done right, it becomes the turning point in the entire play, in the entire tetralogy.

I was less than impressed with the first two parts of this tetralogy, but Henry VI Part 3 did not disappoint, and makes me even more excited to read Richard III next month.

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Subsequent edition (December 1, 2000)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Henry VI Part 3 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.

Henry VI Part 2 by William Shakespeare

4D9EB7E2-D692-4C3B-B298-41F3BF217869It is time for the August installment of #ShakeTheStacks. This month I read, the second book in the War of the Roses tetralogy, Henry VI Part 2This play sets up the reader nicely for the action of the war itself, and the fall out that is, Richard III.

I have to admit, this is not my favorite Shakespeare play, not even close. The history plays can fall victim of having too many characters, and trying to cram in too much action, Henry VI Part 2, is no exception. There are very few scenes that illicit any emotional response. The play is mostly just a really long prologue for whats to come. It is in both plot and function the set up to the war. Quiet literally picking sides and getting the troops lined up.

My favorite character in the tetrology is Queen Margaret, she is the only chracter present in all four of the plays, and she is a force that shakes up the stage from the moment she enters at the end of Henry VI Part 1 through to her last scene in Act 4 of Richard III. She is smart and politically savvy. She is not afraid of any man, and doesn’t back down from a fight. She also has a soft side, which is seen in my favorite scene from this play, Act III Scene 2. I won’t give anything away, but it is between the Queen and Suffolk, and its tender and tense and romantic and all the things. Not what you expect to find in Shakespearean history play, however they all have these scenes. This kind of scene is what makes Shakespeare one of the best. Intimate scenes between the most rich and powerful people that are explosive.

Again, like with my review for Henry VI Part 1, I don’t know that I would suggest you read this play or see a production of it on its own. I think its best as part of the four play series. Like any good TV show, you want to know how it plays out, not just watch one episode.

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Subsequent edition (December 1, 2000)
  • 2/5 stars
  • BuyHenry VI Part 2, 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.

Henry VI Part 1 by William Shakespeare

A146DD7D-E97E-40CB-8CBE-98228784EA85I’m onto month two of The Shake the Stacks Challenge, my 37 month journey to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. You can read more about the challenge here. I am going in a sort of chronological order, even though the chronology of these plays is widely disputed. I’m using the list from Open Source Shakespeare. This month I took on the first play of Henry the Sixth.

In Henry IV part 1 we are joined into the world of England after the death of Henry V, and the tumult that comes with the changing of kings, the pledging of loyalties, and the battles that surround this type of activity. The play is a major set up for the next three plays that are part of this tetralogy, culminating in Richard III. Which all goes to say, this play is kind of boring. You’re meeting a ton of characters, and then they’re talking about fighting battles, and introducing you to other people and contextualizing relationships. Basically, a lot of talk an not a lot of action.

There is one character of note, who sticks out to me in this one, and thats Joan la Pucelle aka Joan of Arc. Of all the characters in this play she is the one you remember. She leads the French in winning and losing battles against the English. She speaks truth to power, and she fights like hell. We all know what happens in the end. She isa great character in mediocre play.

This play is clearly meant to serve as exposition for the plays that follow, and thats fine, but it also makes for a pretty boring read. I would imagine if you could see all three of the Henry VI plays followed by Richard III this play would be more fun and feel more purposeful. There are some really beautifully written scenes and speeches, but for the most part its all set up, The War of the Roses comes next, and that should be exciting.

If you’re interested in this tetralogy, you should certainly read this play, but as a stand alone piece it doesn’t do much.

  • Paperback: 123 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Subsequent edition (December 1, 2000)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy Henry VI Part 1 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.