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. You can hear The Short Stacks with author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah HERE, and TSBC episode with Wade Allain-Marcus HERE.Read a full review ofFriday Black, HERE.


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
Hear Vanessa McGrady on The Stacks discussing her book (Ep. 45) and All You Can Ever Know(Ep. 46), and find a full review of Rock Needs River HERE.


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.

Ep. 44 Rap Dad by Juan Vidal — The Stacks Books Club (Josh Segarra)

We are joined again today by actor, Josh Segarra (Arrow, Sirens, Orange is the New Black) to discuss Rap Dad by Juan Vidal. A sort of a coming of age story rooted in becoming a parent in the hip-hop culture, Rap Dad is part memoir and part commentary on society. We talk redefining success in relationship to parenthood, intellectualizing religion, and Rap music as teacher. There isn’t a lot to spoil this week, so listen and enjoy. You can also hear Juan Vidal talk about writing Rap Dad on The Short Stacks Episode 4.

Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. The Stacks participates in affiliate programs, and shopping through the links below (mostly Amazon) helps support the show, at no cost to you.

Connect with Josh: Josh’s Instagram

Connect with The Stacks: Instagram | The Stacks Website | Facebook | Twitter | Subscribe | Patreon | Goodreads | Traci’s Instagram

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

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

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire was The Stacks Book Club pick this week on the podcast. We discussed the book in detail with actress and comedian, Tawny Newsome. If you want to hear that full episode, click here, but be warned there are plenty of spoilers throughout our conversation.

Here is a little more on Home Fire

Isma is free. After years of watching out for her younger siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she’s accepted an invitation from a mentor in America that allows her to resume a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London, or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream, to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew. When he resurfaces half a globe away, Isma’s worst fears are confirmed.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Son of a powerful political figure, he has his own birthright to live up to—or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Suddenly, two families’ fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined, in this searing novel that asks: What sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

Home Fire is a master class in my kind of fiction; plot driven, strong characters, a world that I recognize, political topics, moral conundrums, and life and death stakes, oh, and of course, beautiful witing. Kamila Shamsie checks all my boxes and more. Reading this book was engaging and emotional without ever getting too corny or predictable (which is worth noting, when the book is based on Sophocles’ Antigone). Part political thriller and star-crossed romance and family drama, I am telling you, Home Fire has it all.

The central conversation of this book is what it means to be Muslim in a country that has become fundamentally distrustful and hateful toward Muslims, who you can trust, and what loyalty means. Home Fire looks at the extremes of political rhetoric and terrorist groups and asks, what is fair and what is not? What laws are meaningful and which are hateful? What rules of humanity are we bound to obey?

Of course there is much much more in the book. There is family, loyalty, romance, and drama, so much drama. The characters are developed and clear on what they (think they) want and need and how best to get it. It leads to plenty of conflict that is beautifully captured by Shamsie. The female leads, Isma and Aneeka, are strong and pragmatic and fierce, and endearing and all the things that women so rarely get to be. All the characters are great. I was particularly struck by Karamat Lone, the politician and father. I could have read an entire book just about him, a Muslim conservative who is constantly called on to be the chosen representative of both sides (the Muslim minority and the Conservative party), though he doesn’t really fit anywhere. He is the golden boy of diversity and the villain turncoat. He is all the things and none of them particularly well. He manages to be despicable and pathetic, and captivated me throughout the book.

Home Fire is an exceptional book. Enjoyable to read, thought provoking, and good luck with the ending. The book gets going and never really slows down. And it should be noted, the book is short, under 300 pages, and it still packs a punch. There is much to discuss and dissect, which of course we do on The Stacks Book Club.

Click here to hear The Stacks Book Club discussion of Home Fire with guest Tawny Newsome.

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • PublisherRiverhead Books; Reprint edition (September 4, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy on Home Fire Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

In a book that navigates feminism and the many facets of being a woman, Men Explain Things to Me runs the gamut from snarky to scathing, from an indictment of society to a reflection on it. Rebecca Solnit has thought a lot about feminism and women’s rights, and her essays clearly indicate that.

Men Explain Things to Me came out in 2014 (my edition has added content and come our in 2015), and in the years since, the women’s movement, the 2016 election, the #metoo era, and so much more has propelled the conversation about feminism and the abuse of women in a way that Solnit couldn’t predict. In this way, the book feels more dated than perhaps it should. Solnit feels like a tame observer compared to the books and essays that have come out in the last 2 or so years. So while I found these essays smart and well done (though some were a little disjointed), they felt redundant as a reader in 2019.

I know that Solnit was an early advocate, and this critique comes with all the powers of hindsight, but in my reading, the book doesn’t hold up so much against time. It does serve as a reminder that we’ve been having these discussions for decades. In these debates around feminism, Solnit has been on the front lines and we have her to thank for many of the conversations we’re having today. One essay in this book, #yesallwomen, feels like connective tissue from this book, to the current conversations and debates we’re having today.

Men Explain Things to Me is a certain kind of feminism that centers White women. In 2019, that feels life a gapping omission. It is a reminder that 53% of White women voted for Trump. Which is of course, part of the problem when we come to the coalition that fights on behalf of women. Sure, these essays are good, but they lack in inclusion and perspective that now, just four years later, feels unacceptable.

If you’re looking for a book that is intersectional and feels very of this moment, Men Explain Things to Me might not be for you (I would suggest Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister, or Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper). If you’re looking for a book that might remind you of how we got here, Men Explain Things to Me, might be a good place to start.


To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz

Our first book for The Stacks Book Club of 2019, The Four Agreements a bestselling self-help classic. I was lucky enough to have lover of self-help books and celebrity trainer Alec Penix, join me for this discussion. If you’ve yet to listen, check it out here.

For reference The Four Agreements are:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • Do not take anything personal
  • Do not make assumptions
  • Always do your best

There is a lot to be said for The Four Agreements honestly, if more people lived by the agreements, we would have a more empathetic and communicative society. If people really were true to the spirit of these agreements, to the people around them and to themselves, we would have a healthier world. If you take the agreements at face value, they’re wonderful and easy to remember and implement. However, nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and there are a lot of complex elements at play when we talk about human interaction. This is where the book misses the mark.

Ruiz is very cut and dry and comes across someone who is oblivious to the nuances of life. He makes a lot of assumptions about the people reading this book (which, is a no-no). There is a ton of victim shaming throughout the book. For example, he makes the point that we only take as much abuse as we think we deserve. This very well may be true for people who have horrible bosses or have mooching friends. However, this logic doesn’t hold up when we think of the child who is molested by their parent, or the mother torn from her child at the border of The United States. Do we value these people who have been victimized? Should they have demanded better for themselves? And to whom should they make such demands? The power dynamics of life are not always as clear cut as Mr. Ruiz says, and his saying it, offended me.

If you’re looking for some concepts to help you in your dealings with yourself and others, especially at the start of a new year, this could be a good book for you, but be careful not to take everything Ruiz says to heart. He too is only human, and has work to do on himself as well.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Alec Penix discussing The Four Agreements.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • PublisherAmber-Allen Publishing (November 7, 1997)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onThe Four Agreements Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

The Stacks Book Club — January 2019 Books

January is just around the corner, which means, holy cow a new year, and a new month for The Stacks Book Club. The way the weeks shake out, you’re getting three bookclub reads in January. Lucky you.

First up is the 1997, best selling self-help book, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements is a code of conduct that helps to transform our lives, and encourages deliberate self love to free ourselves from judgement and fear. Our episode on The Four Agreements will air on January 2nd. 

Then, on January 16th, we will discuss Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, the winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. This book is a modern day telling of Sophocles’ Antigone. A suspenseful and heartbreaking story of family that is forced to chose between love and loyalty. 

Our last book of the month is Rap Dad by Juan Vidal. In his book, Vidal examines identity, race, hip-hop culture all at the intersection of his own journey into fatherhood. The book is both personal and representative of modern fatherhood and American culture. We will discuss Rap Dad on January 30th. 

As with all our TSBC books, we want to hear from you. Don’t be shy, send over your thoughts and questions so we can be sure to include them on the podcast. You can email us at thestackswithtraci@gmail.com, comment on this post, or reach out to us through our Instagram @thestackspod.

Order your copies of our January books on Amazon:


The Stacks received Rap Dad free from the publisher. For more information on our commitment to honesty and transparency click here.

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 opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong by Raymond Bonner

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This book belongs in the sub-genre of Black man convicted of a crime where there is minimal evidence, goes to death row, gets new lawyers and continues to fight for justice. This story has been told countless times, and that in and of itself is a searing indictment on the American prosecutorial system.

Here is more on this book

This is a lucid, page-turning account of the trials and death row appeals of Edward Lee Elmore, a quiet and mentally challenged African-American man accused of the brutal murder of an elderly white woman in South Carolina in 1982, and the remarkably dedicated legal team that fought for him to have fair representation in court after three separate, grossly mismanaged jury trials. Led by Diana Holt, a lawyer whose own turbulent youth contributed to a fierce commitment to her client, Elmore’s defense winds through nearly three decades of legal maneuverings as suspenseful as the investigation of the mysterious crime itself.

Bonner is skillful in crafting a well researched and thorough narrative to tell Elmore’s story. He won a Pulitzer for this book, so to say its well done is an understatement. Bonner’s style is journalistic, he is direct and presents the details without manipulation. This works well for this book. I want the story and the facts, you can leave the feelings for me to develop on my own.

The only place the book really misses, is that I knew where it was going. Bonner is very formulaic. There is no room for surprise. The book feels more like a train coming down the tracks at you. It keeps going and getting faster, but there is no finesse. It’s all impact. And there is a lot of impact to be had, the law enforcement involved are incompetent (at best) and Bonner relies on that to engage the audience. It leaves the reader enraged, but it doesn’t do much for narrative nuance. If you’re familiar with this genre, you’ll feel like you’ve read this book before, it just has new details.

If you’re new to the genre, it should be pretty captivating. It is also infuriating. That’s the point. Our system is broken and Anatomy of Injustice  is a reminder that there is work to be done.

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 8, 2013)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars
  • Buy Anatomy of Injustice on Amazon

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

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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Before we dive in, here is a little information on this book.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I enjoyed the book and also I didn’t quite get it.The book is short and yet feels almost never ending. Ward creates a world that seems so close to reality and yet also seems so unreal, so magical it couldn’t be the real world.

When boiled down this book is a black family drama set in the deep south. The family is haunted by their grief and their ghosts (both literal and figurative). That is about as simple as it gets. From there Ward adds layer upon layer. There is of course the plot. There are the characters. And then, she adds the recurring themes. The jealousy and neglect of close family bonds, the rage of racism, the scars of death come too soon, the denials of drug addiction. Between these layers is where the book is found. Ward’s ability to add complexity and subtlety to the tropes we come to expect is what lifts this book up.

The book misses for me in some of these layers. I don’t fully buy into the relationship of Jojo and his sister Kayla. It bothers me. It feels too saccharin. Too easy. Another miss for me is in the supernatural elements. I wish Ward took more time to craft the rules of the world we’re in. More structure. Something to anchor the mystical.  

Where Ward shines is in her ability to display the pain that is passed down through the generations. The inherent grief of living Black in America. The experiences of Jim Crow as they evolve and morph over time. This is handled delicately and gracefully. The racism is breathed into the book and allowed to float in the air. It is masterful.

There is much to unpack in this book. I recommend you read it, if only for the experience of something so unique. Something magical and heartbreaking.

  • Hardcover: 285 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner (September 5, 2017)
  • Rating: 3/5 stars
  • Buy Sing, Unburied, Sing on Amazon

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

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot

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As a San Francisco Bay Area native, I’m a little embarrassed to say I’d never heard of this book. However once it was brought to my attention it moved to the top of my TBR list immediately. If you’re unfamiliar with this book, here’s a little blurb for you,

In a kaleidoscopic narrative, bestselling David Talbot recounts the gripping story of San Francisco in the turbulent years between 1967 & 1982—& of the extraordinary persons who led to the city’s ultimate rebirth & triumph.

This book attempts to discuss and explain some of San Francisco’s (and the country’s) most important people and well known incidents. While Talbot does manage to cover a lot of ground, from Janis Joplin to Jonestown, from Patty Hearst to Harvey Milk and beyond, he is unable to dive into the complexity and nuance that is required to chronicle such important figures and moments.

A lot of the sections of this book fall short. Not only because Talbot doesn’t have enough time or space to give detailed and analytic explanations, that moments like the start of the AIDS epidemic deserves, but more so because his tone is glib and condescending and he often misses the point. When discussing the AIDS crisis at the end of the book, he uses it as a catalyst for The City’s deliverance from the rocky decade preceding. This is dumb. This is also truly offensive considering how many people died.

Talbot has his opinions, and his puns, and his glibness that carry him through this book. His best decision was picking this era filled with interest and intrigue to carry the reader through. I found a lot of Talbot’s point of view and word choice to be off-putting. It was almost as if he was joking around with a pal, instead of documenting a major U.S. city during a tumultuous era.

The part of this book that is most enjoyable is chronicling all of the events and iconic moments that took place in such a short period of time in one city. San Francisco has lived many lives, and if you’re not familiar with late 1960’s to the early 1980’s, this is a great book for you. You will have to ignore some of Talbot’s bad behavior. Which is actually easier than you would think given the subject matter.  

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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This book, has been with me since I read it a few weeks ago. I’ve been reflecting a lot about my thoughts and feelings while reading it. Before I dive in here’s a little more about the book.

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

This book felt like a modern day heartbreaking fairytale. Though the  characters exist in a place, New York City, they exist without time and context. There is no mention of real life events, like 9/11, that these characters would have experienced. The book relies on stock character types, but heightens them with emotional events and situations.

I was warned about this book, that it was going to make me cry. Which I brushed off cause  I like dark books. I like reading about struggle and loss and the human response to these things.  However this book is bleek. There is not a lot of redemption. I remember looking up about a halfway through the book and just thinking, “this book is the epitome of sadness for sadness’ sake”.

For me this became very challenging. Not because of the sadness, but, because I felt as a reader I was being manipulated. Of course I’m going to feel things if all I’m presented with is the darkest depths of human capability. The most unrelenting tragic events. Sorrow. Destruction. Brutality. It felt like I was being forced to be sad, because how can you not be after all that you’ve read? While reading and feeling (and crying), I could step outside myself and note that I my emotions were being taken advantage of.

The book gets away with this manipulation because it is so beautifully written. Yanagihara creates moments that are full of life and breath and are just beyond moving. To me, that is the greatness of this book. She narrates through different characters points of view which  works incredibly well.  A Little Life is certainly a book that will stay with me, and that is in no small part due to the world that Yanagihara created.

One thing worth noting, is that the revelation of the title of the book is fantastic. That’s all I’ll say.

I think this book is worth reading, if the 800+ pages don’t freak you out. If you’re uncomfortable or triggered by child, mental, physical, or sexual abuse this book may not be for you. It goes there, and it doesn’t let up.

  • Paperback: 814 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 26, 2016)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars
  • Buy A Little Life on Amazon

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