Its time! Our June book announcement. This month we’ve selected two nonfiction books, one, the rediscovering a long forgotten fire, the other a memoir about facing death.
In honor of LGBTQIA+ Pride month, we’re reading Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation by Robert W. Fieseler, on June 5th. This book chronicles an arson fire in a gay bar, The Upstairs Lounge, in June 1973 in New Orleans. This fire took the lives of 32 people and then was largely forgotten. Tinderbox examines this painful moment in history; the fire, the victims, the police response, and the social and political attitudes of the time.
On June 19th we’re reading The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams. Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-William and her family flee to America, where she has surgery that gives her back partial sight. As the years progress Yip-Williams becomes a lawyer, a wife, and a mother. Then at 37, she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This book is her reckoning. It explores life through the prism of death.
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 might even get featured on the show! You can email us at email@example.com, comment on this post, or reach out to us through our Instagram @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. This in no way effects opinions on books and products reviewed here. For more information click here.
April was not my best reading month as far as content. I liked a lot of what I read, but I really didn’t love anything. I reread Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and still found it excellent, but it wasn’t as thrilling as the first time around. I loved Fatimah Asghar’s poetry collection If They Come for Us, and was happy too participate in reading poems as part of National Poetry Month.I enjoyed mostly what I read all month, but was never really blown away.
You can find my reading month by the numbers and short reviews of everything I read below, and check out reviews of all of these books over on The Stacks Instagram
April by the Numbers
Total Books Read: 10 Audiobooks: 1 Five Star Reads: 2 Unread Shelf: 1 Books Acquired: 37
By Women Authors: 6 By Authors of Color: 6 By Queer Authors: 2 Nonfiction Reads: 7 Published in 2019: 4
In her collection of poetry that covers the history of incarceration of Black women in America, DaMaris Hill crafts poems that highlight the pain of being a Black woman and the undeniable strength that comes along with it. She tells of some of the most famous women of the Diaspora as well as many women whose stories were nearly lost to history.
The collection is both poems and small bits of historical context that allow the reader to get a deeper understanding of the poetry. I really enjoyed the contextual bits of this book. Not all of the poems resonated with me, some were too fare removed from the context given. I also found some to be extremely powerful. The section on Assata Shakur was my favorite.
Three Stars | Bloomsbury Publishing | January 15, 2019 | 192 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound DaMaris Hill is our guest on The Stacks, hear that conversation now, by clicking HERE.
Every once in a while I will read a book that I can appreicate for its artistic beauty and masterful use of themes, language, and characters. I will be impressed by the dialogue and wowed by the sheer craft of the thing. And despite all of the beauty and skill, I won’t really like the book. That was the case for me with Beloved, Toni Morrison’s most famous and well regarded book. Its not that I didn’t think the book was spectacular, its just that it wasn’t for me. When I say a book is “too fiction-y” this book is a prime example.
If you’re not familiar with the book, it is the story of a runaway slave woman, Sethe, and her life as she lives free in Ohio mixed with the haunting of her past on the plantation and the early days of freedom. It is supernatural and haunting, and contains so many layers. I didn’t love the book, but I look forward to talking about it on The Stacks Book Club on May 22. I have a hunch that every time I discuss and dissect the book I will like it more and more. Toni Morrison’s works have a funny way of always having more to give.
A collection of poetry about violence, race, gender, and mortality both in a cultural sense and in the more intimate context of what it means to be alive and human. These poems are so smart and tough and vibrant and some are funny and snarky in the best ways.
What I appreciate in these poems beyond the craft itself is that the content ties in the historical and deeply personal. Asghar talks about being an orphan along side the fracturing of India and Pakistan. She takes the many parts of her identity and reflects them back to her audience. She reminds us all of the pain and joy in the world to which we must bear witness.
A collection of short stories about drifters, drug addicts and life on the margins. It is both about the falling down and the getting back up of life. Before we recognized the opioid crisis as a crisis and before we sympathized with addicts, Jesus’ Son gave a human perspective to those that suffer from addiction. The book feels ahead of its time in this way. I couldn’t help but see Johnson’s ability to tell this story as a part of his own privilege. He gets to tell the stories of this specific group of users, instead of having to be responsible for all people who have ever been addicted. It is a great thing for an artist to be able to do, though I wonder if a Black author’s work would have been granted that kind of specificity.
Jesus’ Son is a well crafted collection, sparse in words but big in feeling. Johnson is fantastic at all the twists and the short sentences that pack a huge punch. While there were moments of great emotional resonance, this one wasn’t for me, in the end, I just didn’t care about the people in the stories.
This month for the #ShakeTheStacks Challenge I read Richard II. It looks at the reign and fall of King Richard II, and is a glimpse into the fragility of power and the necessity of legitimacy. This play has the potential to be boring, however Shakespeare crafts dynamic characters who use their speech as a way to influence and persuade. I was particularly struck by the diversity in oratory style between Bolingbroke and Richard. Both men attempt to convince those around them to follow their lead, and both do it in drastically different ways. I found a couple of Richard’s speeches to be some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful. On top of the beauty, the play is easy to read and understand, which isn’t always the case for The Bard.
Richard II is an engaging and thrilling read. It is a play about politics and legitimacy. It feels especially relevant in today’s climate. What does it take to overthrow the leader? It is a dramatization of a theoretical question of who has the will of the people. The play is more cerebral than action packed, but it works beautifully and leaves the reader with much to think about.
Three Stars | Penguin Classics; reprint edition | December 1, 2000 | 160 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
A collection of essays that are at once smart, funny, and truly thought provoking. Cottom is one of the most critical and nuanced thinkers on race and gender in this moment in The United States.Thick is effortless in its ability to move between ideas of intersectionality, the art of “the turn” is perfected in these pages. As the collection goes on the essays build on each other and deepen the readers understanding of Cottom and the work she has dedicated her life to. It is because of this depth that the second half of the book really stood out for me.
Some of Thick was challenging to read. I often had to go back and reread sentences and passages because I found myself lost in her arguments. That is less a criticism and more an observation about the style of the book. I applaud Cottom for not making her work small to accommodate her reader. Her writing is too important for that. Go read Thick. You will learn things, you will connect dots you never knew you could. It is powerful and empowering.
In June 1973, there was a fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans that left 32 people dead. This tragedy was barely acknowledged when it happened and has since, been largely lost to history. In his book, Tinderbox, Robert Fieseler attempts to shed light on the events of June 24, 1973, and the connect those events with the early days of the Gay Liberation Movement.
Tinderbox functions on two levels, one the story of the fire and the people and city directly involved, and two the story of the movement that was connected to it. The true crime part of this book is fantastic. In particular, the pages where Fieseler describes the fire itself were vivid and horrifying. The history of the movement falls a little flatter, the connection feels forced. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you like true crime, you will too, even if some sections are not as good as the rest.
Three Stars | Liveright | June 5, 2018 | 384 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound Hear Robert W. Fieseler on The Short Stacks HERE, and hear our in depth discussion of Tinderbox on The Stacks HERE.
A reread of one of my favorite books from last year (you can find my first review here). Cheryl Strayed’s advice column from her days at The Rumpus strikes all the right chords. I love this book. I don’t know how else to say it. It is full of reminders and suggestions on how to live life a little better. Its not polite or even precious, its more in your face. Its the kind of book that opens you up a little bit. Thats what makes it so great. Strayed even says, most of the time you know what you must do, this book, like her advice, is just a nudge in the right direction.
The Truths We Hold is part of a tradition of books for future presidential candidates, they almost all have them. One part memoir, one part policy platform, and one part resume. These books aren’t particularly insightful, though they are a glimpse into the candidate on their very best days (even the bad ones are good or have packaged lessons to take away). Barack Obama famously wrote The Audacity of Hope on the eve of his candidacy, and that book gave America a glimpse into the changes Obama wanted to make in this country. Likewise Harris lays out the things she has achieved as prosecutor and attorney general, and the direction she thinks America should go. It is all well written and readable, but it is all so safe. I understand why, but I wish there was another way. I will wait and read her tell all after she is president.
The final section of the book are the truths she lives by, and aside from learning about her courtship with her husband, this is the best part of the book. Its a little insight into how she ticks. It should also be said, she reads her book and does a fantastic job. Her charisma shines through, and if nothing else, you finish the book and really like the woman.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is the exact book you might expect from Damon Young, of Very Smart Brothas. It is smart and funny, and yet it still makes you think. The book is dynamic and covers a range of topics from what is a “good dude” to Black anxiety, to gentrification, homophobia, to name a few. The book is good, though some of the essays are stronger than others, and sometimes thats frustrating.
There are four essays that really stand out, and whats interesting is they all have a common thread: Women. Each one of these essays (about his controversial piece on rape on VSB, his wife, his mother, and his daughter) is vulnerable but still maintains the style that Young is known for. There is an ease to his voice though saying the hard things, admitting fault, calling out his own privilege, and taking others to task must have been extremely challenging. There is a humility to these essays that allows them to soar above the rest. The book is worth a read, even if at times I found Young to be reaching for a laugh when he didn’t need one. His story is enough.
Three Stars | Ecco | March 26, 2019 | 320 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound Hear our conversation with Damon Young on the Short Stacks HERE
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. This in no way effects opinions on books and products reviewed here. For more information click here.
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
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.
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.
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 Monsterpodcast.
Three Stars | Grand Central Publishing (Reprint Edition) | August 1, 2003 | 272 Pages | Paperback
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.
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 Dadis 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 ofRap Dad, HERE.
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.
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 JulietHERE.
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
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
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.
Open Citywas The Stacks Book Club pick this week on the podcast. We discussed the book with actor Behzad Dabu (How to Get Away with Murder, The Chi). If you want to hear that full episode, click here, but be warned there are spoilers (though I don’t think there is much to spoil in this book).
A haunting novel about identity, dislocation, and history, Teju Cole’s Open City is a profound work by an important new author who has much to say about our country and our world.
Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor named Julius wanders, reflecting on his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past. He encounters people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.
In Open City we are paired with a protagonist, Julius, that is our guide, though we never get to know him well enough to care for him. He feels a little unreliable, but mostly, just aloof. He is constantly musing about the world around him, his place in it, what all of that means. He examines art and trauma and humanity and more, through out the course of this book, and because of his thinking, we too are asked to go reflect along with Julius. There is no real plot in the book. It starts, things happen to Julius, he goes on a trip, he meets new people, but mostly life happens and Julius moves forward, and then the book ends.
What I appreciated most about this book was the variety of issues that Cole asks his readers to engage with. We reflect on the Holocaust, and classical music, on 9/11 and shoe shining. There is a variety of consciousness that Cole presents and that is refreshing. He doesn’t do any deep dives into any one thing, instead, like many people, he scratches the surface of what is in the zeitgeist. In presenting this variety of topics for reflection, Cole brings up some of the most controversial and provocative issues, but right as the thinking gets good and complex he changes the subject. It can feel frustrating, but it also allows the reader to do some reflecting on their own. I also think, Cole is grappling with many of these ideas himself.
There were times the book felt disjointed. The chapter breaks made no sense. The dialogue was presented without punctuation or paragraph breaks. As soon as a character would start discussing a topic, like Israel and its relationship to Palestine, the subject would abruptly change. The book left me wanting more. It also left me with a lot to think about.
Open City felt like Cole’s musings on life and the futility of life. Things happen and we try to engage and then at some point we carry on. It is simple really, but leads to a sort of frustrating book with beautiful prose. Something that is lovely and also boring and then ugly and then interesting, and then its all over. Perhaps a metaphor for life?
I enjoyed reading this book overall. There were moments I was bored. There were also moments that filled me with energy as I allowed myself to consider things that I had previously taken for granted, for example the role of political parties in The United States. If you’re someone who likes philosophical conversations about hot button issues, this might be a nice pick for you. But be warned, very little happens.
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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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here