The Stacks Book Club — May 2019 Books


We’ve selected our books for May and couldn’t be more excited. One is a collection of advice columns from an author known for her own sense of honesty and adventure. The other, a Classic American novel, written by a literary icon.

A collection of advice from Cheryl Strayed’s time as the advice columnist for The Rumpus, we’re reading Tiny Beautiful Things on May 8th. This collection is not the kind of advice you’re used to, it is the perfect mixture of humor, honesty, and compassion. It is advice at its best.

On May 22nd we’re returning to the work Toni Morrison, and tackling her novel Beloved. Beloved is a novel about family, spirit, memory, and freedom, and ultimately what it truly means to be alive. It is an American classic.

As with all our TSBC books, we want to hear from you, so if you’ve got thoughts or questions send them our way, they just might get featured on the show! 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 May books on Amazon or IndieBound:


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Lachesis’ Allotment:A Short Collection of Notes, Observations, Questions, and Thoughts by Diana R. A. Morris

4D2FC453-A70C-421D-9E5E-A57742A6B715As a new voice in the book world, I have been lucky enough to be approached by authors and publishers to review books. I am always honored to be asked for my opinion and perspective on new work. As with all my reviews, I am committed to being an honest voice for my readers (and listeners). All that is to say, that Lachesis’ Allotment: A Short Collection of Notes, Observations, Questions, and Thoughts by Diana R. A. Morris is the first book I ever received for free from an author, and now, here are all my thoughts.

Here is more about the book, Lachesis’ Allotment

In Greek mythology, Lachesis (lack-eh-sis) allots each of us a length of thread to weave with as we will. This hybrid collection of short essays and screenplay explores the nature of friendship and our relationships with the people in our lives over time. From the friendships we form in childhood to the adult friendships we form with our parents–even after they’re gone–this work weaves together memory, meditations on making our dreams a reality, and the evolving nature of our connections as we knot our strands together or unravel the knitting we’ve achieved.

This book was written and self-published by Diana R. A. Morris. It is her debut book. There is something I find exciting about reading someone’s first piece of writing. Like all firsts, you get a sense of the thing and the person, but you can also see potential. This book is no different.

Where Morris shines, in Lachesis’ Allotment is when she dives into the personal. Discussing her own experience with her father’s passing, her failures, and anxieties. My father passed away years ago, and I could relate to her experience and the specificity of her observations. These moments feel unique and intimate. When Morris strays more into the general advice giving, or rah-rah cheerleading, it feels strained and contrived. I appreciate the effort to cover a lot of ground, but would have enjoyed a smaller more specific piece of writing.

There are these scenes (quite literally, written like a screenplay) through out the book where two old friends are reconnecting and catching up after years of estrangement. They are fictional, and frame the coming essays. This doesn’t work for me. It gets in the way of Morris’ flow. It chops the book up, and serves only to muddy Morris’ clear voice.

Lachesis’ Alottment is a fabulous effort. There are moments of poignant reflection. There are moments of sarcasm and humor through out as well. However there are not enough strong moments strung together for the reader to fully dive in. The book is short and you can move through it quickly (as in a few hours). I don’t know that I liked the book, but I really enjoyed seeing someone’s first efforts. I also respect the hell out of anyone who writes a book and publishes it themselves. That says so much about a human in all the right ways.

The Stacks received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. For more information 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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

B5DEB0BF-DB0D-48AD-9963-60B75E9C0F0BAs far as I can tell, An American Marriage has been the most hyped and talked about book in 2018. The day the book was released it was also announced that it would be part of Oprah’s Book Club which is about as much buzz as a new book can get. So before I read this book (which I of course ordered as soon as I saw it was on Oprah’s list) I knew I was in for something.

If you don’t know much about this book, here is a little synopsis.

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

Before I go further, I am trying to talk about An American Marriage without spoilers, but if you haven’t read the book, you might want to proceed with caution.

I enjoyed this book. I read it in about three sittings, the writing is smooth and easy to consume. While I wanted to know what came next, I had already figured out what would happen. There were no surprises (for me). I just wanted to hear Jones tell me her story. Jones is the MVP of this book. She creates a story that is nothing special, with characters that are polarizing and mostly unlikeable (I know some of you might disagree), that I still wanted to read and know where everyone ends up. The book is neither plot driven nor a full introspection on the characters, its somewhere in between. Its a good place to be.

As a reader the main question of this book, is which character do you want to come out on top. Whose side are you on? I had a hard time picking sides. While I felt for Roy, (how could you not?) I also felt for Celestial. Twelve years isn’t a life sentence, but its long enough to destroy a marriage, especially one thats only 18 months old. Its not so much looking for excuses or passing blame, its just that for me, none of it was simple or cut and dry. I could understand where they were coming from and wish it could’ve all played out differently. Or at least that they both had mediators to help them communicate with each other.

Let me also say this, loud and clear, Andre is the worst. What a cornball. I’ll take any team he is not on. Andre is a strong no for me. I couldn’t let this review proceed any further with out getting that all off my chest.

What I’ve discovered from discussing this book with friends and family, is that we all bring to this book whatever we feel about marriage. Thats what makes this book powerful, and worthy of praise, and continued conversation. We all look at Roy and Celestial and we see ourselves and our partners, our failed and successful relationships. The ones that got away, and what we attribute to a successful relationship.  The things we each value most in love; loyalty, forgiveness, communication, physical connection, are the things we base our arguments on for why we’re #TeamRoy or #TeamCelestial. That is the beauty of the book. No matter what you think of the characters and their choices, you see yourself in it, you see yourself navigating this most terrible of situations.

I recommend this book. I’m glad I read it, and met these characters and saw their world. I don’t know that it will stick with me for years to come. I enjoyed it in the moment. It touches on wrongful convictions in a important way, and in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before. Jones asks us to look at the cost of incarceration on those who are ultimately cleared for their crimes. For that alone, this book is worth reading, and lucky for us this book takes on even more. I can’t wait for the movie, it must be coming right?

And since I know you all want to know, and since we’re picking teams, I’m going on the record as #TeamTayari all the way.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; Oprah’s Book Club edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy An American Marriage 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

 

Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth

IMG_5910.JPGI talked extensively aboutVulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth with Tony nominated choreographer Sam Pinkleton, on an episode of The Stacks podcast. You can hear us discuss and sort through the many layers of this book there.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his crimes, here is a little more about this book.

On July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. But months before Versace’s murder, award-winning journalist Maureen Orth was already investigating a major story on Cunanan for Vanity Fair. Culled from interviews with more than four hundred people and insights gleaned from thousands of pages of police reports, Vulgar Favors tells the complete story of Andrew Cunanan, his unwitting victims, and the moneyed world in which they lived . . . and died. Orth reveals how Cunanan met Versace, and why police and the FBI repeatedly failed to catch him. Here is a gripping odyssey that races across America—from California’s wealthy gay underworld to modest Midwestern homes of families mourning the loss of their sons to South Beach and its unapologetic decadence. Vulgar Favors is at once a masterwork of investigative journalism and a riveting account of a sociopath, his crimes, and the mysteries he left along the way.

There are parts of this book that are interesting and fascinating. There are whole sections and chapters that I couldn’t stop reading. Orth’s ability to paint the scene of Cunanan’s life and more specifically his crimes, are some of the best parts of this book. I had a hard time sleeping thinking about hist first murder. It is about as haunting as they come.

Where I struggled with this book, and ultimately what turned me away from it, was Orth’s contextualizing of the story. Orth’s tone is intolerant at best, and outwardly homophobic at worst. She has a disdain for Cunanan, which of course makes sense, but she also judges those people in his world. And his world is that of gay men in the 1990’s. I can’t help but think that the “vulgar” in the title is directed at the Cunanan and his community. She discusses sex, drugs, and lifestyle as if this community is synonymous with all gay people all over. Its generalization at its worst. If you’d never met a gay person, you might think that all they did was pay each other for sex and snort (or swallow) meth.

Vulgar Favors is a book about a man who is obsessed with lies and celebrity and Orth gets wrapped up in that herself. She name drops through out, and forces connections where none exist. Her sources, and she has a whole lot, can feel a little unreliable, who doesn’t want to distance themselves from a man who killed five people, before then killing himself?

The story is multilayered and entertaining, but Orth can’t resist turning it into spectacle. She draws conclusions and connects dots that just might not be there. Vulgar Favors is full of contradictions and hearsay. While I enjoyed the book for what it is, if you read it, read it as a period piece from 1999, and not historical fact. Its a reminder of how people felt about homosexuality not too long ago. Its a reminder of different era of technology and media. You can also watch the FX Series The Assassination of Gianni Versace; American Crime Story and be just as entertained and not feel quite as icky.

If you do read this book, which is just fine, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (October 3, 2017)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Vulgar Favors 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

 

Barraccon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neal Hurston

I had zero plans to read Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston any time soon, but was invited to join a buddy read (one time book club) with some friends I’ve made on the internet. Which, sounds a little creepy, except that people who talk about books on the internet are the best. So I got the book a dug in.

Here is some insights into this book.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. 

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, and spent more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past—memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

Barracoon is hugely important. I hate when people call books important, mainly because I find it to be an overstatement. However this book is deserving of the moniker. This book comes from such a unique perspective, an African adult enslaved and taken to America who went on to live long enough to see freedom, and have his story documented in his own words. There are not many of these stories. Mainly because the legal slave trade ended in the early 1800’s and Slavery did not end until 1865, so one would have to be have been recorded right after slavery, when most people were not doing that type of work.

With all of that being said, to have this story is a gift. To give a singular voice to the tragedy of slavery and racism in The United States is rare. We are often told the story of many slaves (Amistad), or a generic fictitious narrative (Roots). This book is not that. This book is one story. The story of a man who is the link between Africa and America. A man who is afforded the luxury to not have to speak on behave of the many, but is allowed to speak for himself. This is not a luxury that Black people in America are often given. Hurston gave this gift.

The story of Cudjo is told in his own words. Hurston transcribes his words in his own dialect and does not compromise that for the sake of the reader. She wants you to hear what Cudjo says, and how he says it. His idiosyncratic phrases are as important to his story as the events themselves. They help to create the man. She gives the book its shape, but it is Cudjo who gives this book its heart.

The book is surrounded by a forward (by Alice Walker), a couple of introductions, an appendix, an afterward, and a glossary, all of which give this story a place and gravitas. I found these additional writings to be powerful in their own way. They helped to contextualize both the work of Hurston, and the world of Cudjo.

I do wish this book was longer. While it talks about Cudjo’s journey and his life as a free man, I wished there was more about his time as a slave, the world around him as he saw it. His opinions on moments in the world, or in his world. I wanted to hear more from him. Honestly it could have been about anything. I just wanted more.

Since this book was written in 1931, and not published until 2018, I would have loved more context on Cudjo and his family and their life after his passing. I wanted to know more about where Cudjo fits into our current world. What became of his legacy.

In truth, my only complaint is that I could have read so much more. I want more of Cudjo, and also more of these types of stories. More uniquely individual tales from Black people. The stories are there, and they are interesting and important, and Black people deserve to be heard and heralded. I hope this book opens those doors.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1st Edition edition (May 8, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Barracoon 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

The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

373D9DE5-DAF7-409C-8CC6-C66584EF3853.JPGI don’t like comedy. I don’t really like celebrity books much either. So picking up The Last Black Unicorn, is really out of character for me. In the last few years I’ve read a handful of books that fall into the celebrity comedic memoir category, and except for Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, I have disliked them all. That being said, I did decide to listen to The Last Black Unicorn, and it was kind of wonderful.

If you don’t know Tiffany Haddish (breakout star of Girls Trip), or the book here is a little more for you.

Tiffany can’t avoid being funny—it’s just who she is, whether she’s plotting shocking, jaw-dropping revenge on an ex-boyfriend or learning how to handle her newfound fame despite still having a broke person’s mind-set. Finally poised to become a household name, she recounts with heart and humor how she came from nothing and nowhere to achieve her dreams by owning, sharing, and using her pain to heal others.

By turns hilarious, filthy, and brutally honest, The Last Black Unicorn shows the world who Tiffany Haddish really is—humble, grateful, down-to-earth, and funny as hell. And now, she’s ready to inspire others through the power of laughter.

Here is what I liked most about this book, its actually funny. Haddish does a great job of weaving her signature “tell it like it is” humor in with her own life events. She isn’t afraid of being too much, or going too far. She indulges us in the funny and bizarre events in her life, and doesn’t shy away from the darker moments. She talks about an abusive ex-husband, a childhood in foster car, and even her career trajectory in comedy. Her vulnerability makes this book both hilarious and heartbreaking.

I think its worth noting that in The Last Black Unicorn we do get to a little name-dropping, which I love. I love hearing celebrities talk about each other. Who doesn’t want to know about Jada and Will Smith using Groupon for the first time? Haddish only names those that she likes, and gives nicknames to those who didn’t treat her well. I respect it, and I appreciate it .

I wish that this book dug a little deeper. There are parts of her life she skims over. The story is a little disjointed, and the writing itself isn’t great. I can forgive most of that because she has lived such an interesting life, the content is strong. Its worth noting, that I listened to this book, and it is Haddish who narrates. She lived the life, she wrote the book, and she can perform those words. The audiobook is fantastic.

I think most people would enjoy this book. Its not too long, and helps to bring a little context to another person’s story. It is R-rated, and she talks about very adult stuff, just in case you wanted to play the audiobook in the car with your kiddos. If you’re like me and don’t like this genre, I would still say its worth reading.

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Gallery Books (December 5, 2017)
  • Audio Book: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Last Black Unicorn on Amazon

 

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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

 

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

E6521C99-1A52-4616-B658-92150D28E59B.JPGThis book is a true gift. I am very grateful that Wamariya chose to share her story with the world. I think we, as readers and consumers, can often feel entitled to read great stories. I think we feel we deserve to be educated and entertained. The Girl Who Smiled beads is an ever present reminder, that every book, every story, is the work of someone else. It is their labor of love and struggle, and that they are making a choice to share that with us. We should be humbled to be in the presence of someone else’s journey, and we should be grateful. This book made me grateful.

If you are not familiar with this book, here is more information for you.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive. 
 
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.

Clemantine and her sister Claire go on extraordinary journey, except its not extraordinary. It is all too common. It is the story of civil war. It is the story of death and violence. It is the story of becoming a refugee. It is one telling of this story, that too many know too well. Wamariya makes the point of reminding us that it is us, that are inadequate, we can not take in all the unique stories of suffering. So instead, we find ways to make certain ones the special ones. The ones we are willing to see.

The story as told by Wamariya to Weil is fantastic. The poetry in the language is beautiful and it brings so much depth and emotion. Wamariya is willing to get vulnerable. She is willing to be flawed for us. The structure of the book is not linear, we jump from event to event, year to year, we are sorting through Wamariya’s life with her. Looking for clues as to who she is and how she grew into her self. She is angry and bitter, she is distrustful, she is also a caretaker and a witness to so many. She will not let us see her, or her sister, as only victims.

While there are parts of the book I would have loved to hear more about (her relationship to Black Americans, the conflicts in Africa she experiences, her day to day acclimation in Chicago), this book is full. It is rich with thoughtful analysis of ones own journey, which is so hard to do. To be truly examines one self is no easy task.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is in line with other books about children who grow up in war torn African countries and find their way to America. Two that I am particularly fond of, What is the What by Dave Eggers, and A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah. While the other two books are more concerned with historical context and the telling of a cohesive story, I found this book to be more thoughtful, more introspective, and more concerned with the greater narrative of suffering that we inflict upon one another.

While there are parts of this book that are disturbing and emotional, I would suggest you read it. I would suggest you bear witness to Wamariya and her journey.

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

 

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

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Sometimes reading a “classic” makes me a little anxious. I have a long history of reading books that are called classics, and I just couldn’t get into them. This list includes, but is not limited to, Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. So when we decided to cover Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin in The Stacks Book Club, I was worried.

If you don’t know the story of Giovanni’s Room here is a little breakdown for you.

Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.

While all “classics” get that title for a reason, the reason for this one, I actually understand. Language is powerful when it is wielded by Baldwin. There is no tepid point of view, there is no doubt, the words are strong, powerful, and precise. You can sense that Baldwin is grappling with so much of the same ideas that we are as the reader. There is a vulnerability to this work that speaks volumes. Baldwin was something special, and this book shows that.

Giovanni’s Room has been seen as a quintessential text in Gay Literature, and for good reason. Baldwin humanizes the struggle for sexual identity in a way that few did in the 1950s, and still few can do now. David, the protagonist, takes a journey of exploration and self loathing. He is asking the most basic question of what it means to live the life we want versus living the life we think we should have. Baldwin is crafted something universal in this story, despite the stigma of homosexuality, especially at that time.

There are a lot of other themes that come up in this book, from gender roles to the refusal to succumb to love, from wealth to isolation. This book examines what makes us human, what makes us carry on, and what ultimately makes us give up. And while this book is specific in its story, it is universal in scope. There is emotion and feeling that is evoked in this book, and there are moments that are deeply personal for each reader.

I would suggest this book to almost anyone,  and especially to lovers of the art of writing, and to fans of James Baldwin. I would also suggest this book to people who are struggling with their sexuality, I have heard from many friends that it is healing and helpful in that journey.

Make sure to check out our Book Club conversation on The Stacks Episode 6, where we discuss this book in greater detail. As always, I’d love to hear what you think about the book and the episode.

If you’ve read the book and want a little more insight into Baldwin and his writing of Giovanni’s Room I would highly recommend this New Yorker article, The Unsparing Confessions of “Giovanni’s Room” by Colm Tóibín.

  • Paperback : 176 pages
  • PublisherVintage Books; 1 edition (2013)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Giovanni’s Room 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

 

 

Ep. 6 Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin — The Stacks Book Club (Chris Maddox)

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgOn this week of The Stacks, we discuss Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin with our guest, TV writer Chris Maddox.

Giovanni’s Room is a classic American novel written in 1956, and the topics of masculinity, isolation, and love deferred are as relevant now as they were then. Our conversation traverses these themes from the book and more, like what we think of the title and who we think should star in the film version.
 
There are spoilers in this episode, so if you’ve yet to read the book proceed with caution.
Here are other things that we talked about this week on The Stacks.509E8204-E248-4688-A6D3-EC4A5C6E722C

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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