The Stacks Book Club — August 2019 Books

August is just around the corner, which means its time to share out picks for The Stacks Book Club for August. We’ve got two very different (and very good) nonfiction stories for you!

Our first book, for the August 14th, is The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. In her memoir, Alexander shares what it is like to have loved and lost after the sudden death of her husband. She uses her skills as a poet to tell this beautiful story of love, family, community, grief, and a life well lived. This memoir was touted as Michelle Obama’s favorite book of 2015 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Then on August 28th, we’re reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington. This book might not scream “beach read” but trust us, this book is hard to put down. This true crime story explains how two men in Mississippi could be imprisoned for over 30 years for a crimes they didn’t commit and how the forensic experts who helped convict them have a long history of exploiting the death investigation industry and the racist history of The United States. Hold on, this one is a wild ride.

As always, we want to hear from you, so please reach out with your thoughts, questions, and things you want to hear discussed 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 August books on Amazon or IndieBound:

  • The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander (Amazon | IndieBound)
  • The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington (Amazon | 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 opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

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 A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing from the publisher. For more information click here.

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.

Throughout the book, Hill connects her poems to the history of the women’s lives through prose. I found these introductions to be extremely helpful in contextualizing her poetry. While I didn’t always connect with the poems, I was able to understand the stories being told which enhanced my experience. Poetry can be so personal, having the historical details allowed me to have thoughts about the work even if the poem didn’t speak to me.

Not all the women in the book are famous women. One section of A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing focuses on women from another book, Colored Amazons by Kali N. Gross. These women, have also been incarcerated, victimized, abused and in some cases killed, like their more famous counterparts in this book. They serve as a reminder that not only Harriet Tubman or Assata Shakur have had their humanity stolen away, but rather that their more notorious incarcerations are part of a long line of locking away Black women.

If the struggle and power of Black women interests you, this is a book for you. If you are working on reading more poetry, this is a great place to start, especially because the context Hill gives her readers allows for more understanding. Certainly parts of this book are a challenge to read, don’t shy away from that. The emotional responses are intentionally evoked by Hill. The discomfort is part of the story.

Listen to DaMaris B. Hill discuss this book, and much more on The Stacks

  • Hardcover: 192
  • PublisherBloomsbury Publishing (January 15, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing 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 opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

March 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

March was all about the backlist. I went on an amazing vacation and took a bunch of books I had been wanting to read for a long time, and I read them! What a treat. I really enjoyed almost everything I read in March. My stand out was Assata by Assata Shakur and the low-light was Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare. What were your favorites this month? Also worth noting, I read my first books on a Kindle, and I survived.

You can find my reading month by the numbers and short reviews of everything I read below.


March by the Numbers

Total Books Read: 10
Audiobooks: 1
E-Books: 2
Five Star Reads: 1
Unread Shelf: 6
Books Acquired: 12

By Women Authors: 6
By Authors of Color: 3
By Queer Authors: 1
Nonfiction Reads: 8
Published in 2019: 2


Assata: An Autobiography by Asssata Shakur

(Photo: amazon.com)

In the story of her life, Assata Shakur lets her reader in on her childhood, her relationship with the Black Liberation Movement, and her arrest and imprisonment. The prose are conversational and the content is enraging and devastating. Not only is this book a look back at the past, it is also a very clear indictment on the current state of affairs in The United States.

If nothing else, Assata is a reminder of the struggle for Black equality that has spanned centuries, and the lengths the American government will go to stifle that quest. Racism, abuse, torture, and human rights violations are all part of Assata’s story, and the story of this struggle. She exposes corruption in the criminal justice system and even in The Black Panther Party. She is unapologetic and easy to connect with. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about a figure I had heard of, but really knew so little about, though there were times I’d wished she was more forthcoming with her own revolutionary activities, and the reasons why she might have been targeted by the police. The fact that this book is still so relevant over 30 years after it’s publication is a reminder of how much work needs to be done. I highly suggest this book for people who love a good memoir and people interested in the history of social justice movements, though I caution there are very graphic scenes of abuse through out the book.

Five Stars | Lawrence Hill Books | November 1, 2001 | 320 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Experiments in Joy by Gabrielle Civil

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

A book unlike anything I’ver ever read, Experiments in Joy mixes the genre of memoir with the artist’s performance notes, letters, and cultural criticism into a book that encapsulates both the artist and the art. Civil is a performance artist, professor, and poet, and this book is a reflection on some of her pieces and her way of seeing the world and her place in it. In addition to Civil’s own words, there are conversations and letters from her collaborators and reviewers to deepen the readers understanding of the work.

I didn’t always connect with the book, but I felt deeply that the context given helped me to better understand Civil as a creative and an activist. The book is truly a glimpse at how one creates. The sections in which she gave context before or after laying out the performance pieces were my favorite along with the book reviews. To understand how the artist works and why is captivating for me and brought the performance notes to life. Civil is a beautiful writer, and her letters especially show her skills. For any lover of the arts this book as a unique look into process over product.

Three Stars | Civil Coping Mechanisms | February 15, 2019 | 276 Pages | Paperback |Purchase on IndieBound
Hear Gabrielle Civil on The Stacks discussing her book (Ep. 55) and Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange (Ep. 56), and find a full review of Experiments in Joy HERE.


Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham

(Photo: amazon.com)

Paul Ham uses contemporaneous documents, reflections after the fact, and critical thinking in Hiroshima Nagasakito take down the conventional thinking about the use of nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945. This book is a fantastic work of nonfiction and does a great job of analyzing and deconstructing these acts of extreme violence

For 60+ years America has pushed a narrative about the “need” to drop an atomic bomb on a civilian target in order to avenge Pearl Harbor and/or to prevent “millions” of future US casualties. This book looks deeper into that idea and debunks much of reasoning that was flawed and so easily accepted by Americans and all of history. If you love history, politics, and smart writing, I would highly recommend Hiroshima Nagasaki. Though this book can be dense at parts (especially the first 100 pages) and lacks a real introduction for those not familiar with this moment in time, Ham’s writing is extremely readable. He mixes politics with humanity and covers many facets of these bombings its not all Harry Truman, it is also very much about the victims. I learned a lot about World War II, and was able to see the political maneuvering that America took part in that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Four Stars | Picador; Reprint edition | August 4, 2015 | 641 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

(Photo: amazon.com)

A vivid look at the culinary industry from the perspective of chef, Anthony Bourdain. This book is part memoir and part expose in which Bourdain shares what to never order from a restaurant and what the kitchen thinks of people who order a well done steak. It is an approachable book and an easy read.

Throughout Kitchen Confidential Bourdain seems hell bent on shocking his reader. He loves talking about sex, blood, and drugs. Its a little over played and can be cringeworthy at moments. There also seems to be a little self-congratulation around his relationships with his Latinx coworkers/employees. I was not familiar with Bourdain in life, and since his passing I am just barely more informed on his life and contributions. There was little sentimentality for me in reading this work and much of my criticisms come from who he presents himself as in this book, a bit of a know it all. Though I will say, his heart and passion come through loud and clear and I loved those moments of the book most.

I enjoyed reading this book, but 20 years after its first publication, I don’t know if the tone and approach stand the test of time. If you love Bourdain or want something a little rough and tumble you might really enjoy this one.

Three Stars | Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition | December 10, 2008 | 321 Pages | E-Book |Purchase on IndieBound


Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare

(Photo: amazon.com)

In Love’s Labour’s Lost we meet a King and his male courtiers who take a pledge to become celibate, but then, of course, they meet some women and fall in love. The show revolves around the men trying to secretly get the women to love them despite the oath. While most of Shakespeare’s comedies are trivial, this one is nonsensical. There is a lot of disguise and mix ups that are confusing to read and not particularly necessary or interesting.

The only part of this play that I found remotely intriguing is the ending, in which the women finally get some power and put their feet down. I don’t want to spoil it, but it is a twist and makes some interesting points about duty over desire and the idea of reciprocity in relationships.

I wouldn’t suggest this play to anyone, but it might be more fun to see than read. The language is confusing and the there really isn’t much action at all.

One Stars | Penguin Classics; Reprint edition | June 5, 2000 | 160 Pages | Paperback |Purchase on IndieBound


New Erotica for Feminists: Satirical Fantasies of Love, Lust, and Equal Pay by Caitlin Kunkel, Brooke Preston, Fiona Taylor, Carrie Wittmer

(Photo: amazon.com)

A book of quippy erotic fantasies of women being treated equal, or better than equal, to men. A world in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg is immortal, and Juliet tells Romeo off for being so love sick. While the idea is fun and smart, the execution left me wanting more.

The best and most effective satire calls out inequality by speaking truth to power and by forcing the audience to question their own complicity in the power structure. This book fails to do that. It seems to be content just being cute. It relies on the “erotica” to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The authors attempt to address intersectionality in the introduction, but then spend the rest of the book trivializing the aggression of men instead of addressing it head on. The book fits nicely into the White capitalist patriarchy as a piece of protest, meaning it is a safe way for women to vent without really forcing a deeper discussion at the issues at play.

If you’re looking for a light palate cleanser, this is might be a good choice, plus you can read it in about 90 minutes, but if you want something more biting I think there are other books to go to.

Two Stars | Plume | November 13, 2018 | 160 Pages | Paperback |Purchase on IndieBound


People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry

(Photo: amazon.com)

A true crime story about a White British woman who goes missing in Tokyo in 2000 and all that unfolds there after. The book looks at the crime, the family and their grief, the media and their coverage, and the police and their ability to figure out what happened.

What makes such a solid work of true crime is that the author, a journalist, is weaving many elements of this story together in an extremely readable way. The writing is no frills, but the story is full of surprises and is totally engaging. Parry is, for the most part, objective and helps the reader understand the cultural differences that makes this case unique . Plus the story itself is captivating, the book is over 400 pages but you want to read it in one sitting. I loved the commentary on race, class, culture, and gender throughout the book and would have liked even more. Getting to understand a criminal justice system that is so different than my own (that of The United States) was fascinating. Parry does a great job as our guide into a world I’d never known. If you like true crime, you’ll enjoy this book, though be warned there are trigger warnings for sexual assault and violence.

Four Stars | Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Reprint edition | May 22, 2012 | 454 Pages | Paperback |Purchase on IndieBound


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo

(Photo: amazon.com)

To articulate the fragility and toxicity of Whiteness to White people is one the the greatest challenges of anti-racism work, and in White Fragility Robin DiAngelo does just that methodically. This book is a take down of racist ideas and the entrenched denial around White supremacy.

White Fragility is admittedly written for White people by a White woman. DiAngelo is very clear in that, though, as a Black woman I found a lot of valuable insights in both how I can do better as I work toward anti racism and how I can approach uncomfortable situations with White people. I was able to understand the socialization of White people better, and to understand the tactics used to reinforce racism in our society.

This book is a great tool in any anti-racist’s tool box, along side one of my all time favorites, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. If you’re serious about the work this book helps to explain one road block that is often encountered, White Fragility.

Four Stars | Beacon Press | June 26, 2018 | 6 Hours 12 Minutes | Audiobook |Purchase on IndieBound


Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems by Ntozake Shange

(Photo: amazon.com)

Reading Wild Beauty, was a new experience for me. I am familiar with Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, but had never read a poetry collection until now. I enjoyed some of the poems and others I didn’t resonate with. Her style is rough and evocative and at times even felt like a call to action.

These poems are a look at the career of Shange as they span 40 years of her work. I started to notice which ones were from older collections and which were more recent. As with any collection some of the material connected with me and some didn’t. There were poems where I was stunned by the story, or moved by the language. There were also poems that I would zone out and have to read over and over and still felt like I missed the message. For someone who is new to poetry, I enjoyed this collection and I am really looking forward to discussing it on The Stacks on April 24th.

Three Stars | Atria / 37 INK; Bilingual edition | November 17, 2017 | 288 Pages | Hardcover |Purchase on IndieBound
Wild Beauty is TSBC pick for April 24. You can hear the TSBC episode with Gabrielle Civil HERE. Read a full review of Wild BeautyHERE.


Women Talking by Miriam Toews

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

One night eight Mennonite women gather to discuss their options and response to the repeated drugging and sexual assaults of themselves, their daughters, and the other women in their community. The book is written from as notes taken during these meetings and is inspired by true events.

Women Talking is a lot of just that, women talking. It is theoretical and examines the ideas of loyalty, faith, and safety. It is a feminist text in that it explores the equality of women and their rights to be alive and to have a say in their own lives. I really enjoyed the writing. I was hooked early and wanted to know what would happen in the end. I also found the use of the minutes to be irritating at times because it was a lot of back and forth interpreted by our scribe/narrator (who is a man, which added an element of conflict).

If you like fiction thats a little different, if you’re interested in religious communities and the role that women play in conservative spaces, this book is a great selection. Women Talking has been compared to Handmaid’s Tale which makes a lot of sense, but neglects the fact that Women Talking is based on true events (the assaults not the meeting) which makes it that much more devastating.

Three Stars | Bloomsbury Publishing | April 2, 2019 | 240 Pages | Hardcover |Purchase on IndieBound
You can hear more from Miriam Toews about her process on Episode 11 of The Short Stacks.


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

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

The Stacks Anniversary Giveaway and Book Drive

To celebrate one year of The Stacks on #bookstagram, I wanted to do a giveaway for you, and a book drive for those in need of some good reading.

I have picked two organizations, Prisoners Literature Project and The Free Black Women’s Library Los Angeles.

To enter the giveaway here is what you need to do:

  1. Follow @thestackspod on Instagram
  2. Donate a book through these links: PLP Wishlist or FBWL-LA Wishlist
  3. Comment with the title of the book you donated
  4. Share your receipt in your Instagram stories and tag @thestackspod. If your account is private please DM @thestackspod.
  5. Every book you donate is an entry.

It is super simple, will make you feel good, and you’re entered to win:

  1. A copy of Parkland by Dave Cullen– one of The Stacks most anticipated reads of 2019
  2. A copy of the new UK edition (with new forward) of Columbine by Dave Cullen as gifted by the author.
  3. A book of your choosing by a Black author– in honor of Black History Month
  4. The Stacks Tote Bag
  5. The Stacks Bookmarks

So head over to The Stacks Instagram page and enter.


Giveaway closes February 21, 2019 at 11:59pm PST. Must be at least 18 years of age. Not affiliated with any organizations, publishers, authors, or websites.

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

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

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

Here is a little more about this book

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ep. 22 The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner — The Stacks Book Club (Becca Tobin)

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Becca Tobin (GleeLady Gang) is back for The Stacks Book Club, and we’re discussing Rachel Kushner’s newest book The Mars Room. This gritty novel tells the story of Romy, a young mother who has been incarcerated for two life sentences. We see Romy in her life leading to prison and the world behind bars with thousands of other women struggling to survive.

There are spoilers this week, so please listen at your own risk.

We cover a lot of topics, and you can find links to everything in the show notes, below. Use the links when you shop on Amazon and iTunes to help support The Stacks.

Connect with Becca: Becca’s Instagram|Lady Gang Instagram|Lady Gang Podcast

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

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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.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

August Books for The Stacks Book Club

C7B44B61-937D-4F48-8598-339F3504B5EDWe’re excited to share with you the books we’ll be reading in August. The way the weeks shake out, you get three books instead of just two. Lucky you. You read the books, you tune in the to podcast, and you enjoy the conversations. Oh, and if you have any questions you’d like asked on the show, don’t be shy. You can email us at thestackswithtraci@gmail.com, comment on this post, or reach out to us through our Instagram @thestackspod. We want the show to reflect your thoughts and questions, so send them our way.

August 1st, we’re reading Shonda Rhymes’ book Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own PersonIf you’re not familiar with her, Shonda Rhymes is the creator of hit TV shows, Grey’s AnatomyScandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, she is a real life Hollywood superhero. One year Shonda decided to stay saying “yes” to everything, and this book is all about that journey.

The next book we’re reading, on August 15th is Between the World and Me by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic). Coates is known for his work in examining the experience of Black Americans. Between The World and Me is a letter written to Coates’ son, and looks at the history and practices that have created a culture in America, where Black people are not valued as full citizens. He looks at slavery, discrimination, mass incarceration, and the murder of Black citizens by the police. Coates asks us not only how did this happen? But also, where do we go from here?

The last book for the month, which we will discuss on August 29th, is The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. This gritty novel tells the story of Romy, a mother who has been incarcerated for two life sentences. We see Romy in her life leading to prison and the world behind bars with thousands of other women struggling to survive.

Don’t forget to send us your thoughts on these books or any questions/topics you’d want to hear discussed on the show, and for special access to book selection join The Stacks Pack by clicking 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.