Rock Needs River: A Memoir About a Very Open Adoption by Vanessa McGrady

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

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 debut memoir. The Stacks sat down with Vanessa McGrady to discuss her book and her experiences on Episode 45, which you can listen to for more context on the book.

McGrady is amazing at connecting with her reader, from nearly the first page I was with her. Rock Needs River is, if nothing else, totally readable. There is an openness and honesty with all that comes up, even the complicated stuff, like murky boundaries, family relationships, and entitlement. McGrady doesn’t fein modesty, nor does she shy away from sharing traits that aren’t always so desirable.

The biggest challenge in Rock Needs River is that much of it feels rushed or unexamined. No characters (aside from McGrady) seem fully developed, which leaves them challenging to connect with. The same is true of the main conflict in the book, Grace’s birth parents. Their situation is glossed over and unspecific. McGrady wants to help them (and is clearly generous in letting them move in), but she doesn’t really get into anything beyond her shock and her disappointment in them not getting back on track. This part of the book could have benefited from more interrogation and introspection. It is this lack of specificity that ultimately hurts the book.

McGrady finds the time to reflective on moments throughout Rock Needs River, but comes up short when she has to fit the pieces together and bring the bigger narrative into focus. The book is a quick and easy read, but I sometimes found that it wasn’t grounded. I would recommend this book to people looking to get a glimpse of what one story of open adoption is like, though I think it would be best to pair with other adoption stories for context and perspective.

Click here to hear Vanessa McGrady on The Stacks talking about Rock Needs River and more.

  • Hardcover: 182
  • PublisherLittle A (February 1, 2019)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onRock Needs River 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 opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation by Juan Vidal

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

Juan Vidal shares his own story of growing up, finding his way, and becoming a family man in his book Rap Dad. What makes this book different is that his story is framed by his relationship to hip-hop music and culture, and his love of Rap music.

Vidal doesn’t try to make his story universal. He shares his own personal development as a Colombian man, and he never pontificates on what it means to be a parent, a Christian, or an artist. He is willing to get personal, but never uses his own experiences as the model or the standard. There is no sense that Vidal knows any more than the rest of us, he just shares what he’s learned in the hopes that someone else might relate.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t always relate. I’m not a dad, a writer, a Christian, a Colombian, a man, or any of the other labels you might throw on Mr. Vidal. We do share a love of hip-hop music, but even there our tastes differ. Vidal fills the spaces between us with a humanity that I could connect with. I wanted to know Vidal and hear his story. His moral compass and compassion come shining through in Rap Dad, even if I didn’t always share his experiences.

When we talked about Rap Dad on The Stacks with actor Josh Segarra, I got to hear from someone who could identify with Vidal’s experiences and it made me appreciate the book more. I could learn from Segarra’s take-aways. It was a great reminder that not every book is for every person, and that is the beauty of art, that our experiences inform our understandings.

In Rap Dad, Juan Vidal uses his slang to tell his story, which lends the book a sense that you’re hearing from an old friend. As a lover of hip-hop I appreciated his authenticity. He talks to and about artists and songs I know and love, and introduced me to so many rappers I wasn’t familiar with. The book has an entire track list of all the songs he references (which is begging for a Spotify playlist). You get a sense for who Mr. Vidal is through his writing and his taste in music.

The structure of this book felt disjointed. I didn’t always follow Vidal’s points and often felt unfocused in reading the book. While everything on its own (Vidal himself, the stories, the conversations with hip-hop folks, etc.) were great on their own, it didn’t come together cohesively.

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.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Josh Segarra discussing Rap Dad

Hear The Short Stacks conversation with author, Juan Vidal

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • PublisherAtria Books (September 25, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on Rap Dad Amazon

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

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

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

For reference The Four Agreements are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman

Confession time, I love The Bachelor franchise. I know its corny and low brow and whatever else you want to say, but I also know that it is so entertaining, and it brings me so much joy. So obviously when I was listening to my favorite Bachelor podcast, Bachelor Party, and Amy Kaufman was on and said she had a book about the show, Bachelor Nation, I knew I had to read it.

More about Bachelor Nation

Los Angeles Times journalist Amy Kaufman is a proud member of Bachelor Nation and has a long history with the franchise—ABC even banned her from attending show events after her coverage of the program got a little too real for its liking. She has interviewed dozens of producers, contestants, and celebrity fans to give readers never-before-told details of the show’s inner workings: what it’s like to be trapped in the mansion “bubble”; dark, juicy tales of producer manipulation; and revelations about the alcohol-fueled debauchery that occurs long before the Fantasy Suite. 

Kaufman also explores what our fascination means, culturally: what the show says about the way we view so-called ideal suitors; our subconscious yearning for fairy-tale romance; and how this enduring television show has shaped society’s feelings about love, marriage, and feminism by appealing to a marriage plot that’s as old as the best of Jane Austen.


Bachelor Nation is a book for people who like and/or watch (since I know these things can be different, hate watchers, I see you) The Bachelor franchise. If you don’t, don’t waste your time. The book has some interesting moments but goes on way long (could have been 50 pages shorter). The best thing is that Kaufman gets access to producers and contestants who are at least semi-revealing in their insights into the show. There is no ground breaking scoop revealed. It is a fun and trashy read, which feels right, given the source material.

I listened to this book on audio, and Kaufman narrates it. She is super animated and very casual in tone. It is almost like talking with a gal pal, who is a bit of a valley girl. The writing is nothing special, but she gets her points across. She clearly is passionate about her topic and her excitement makes the audiobook fun to listen to.

The middle of Bachelor Nation is by far the best, and has the most insight into the show. When she discusses how the contestant’s get their clothing, or how much the leads are paid, or the details of their contracts, I was totally into it. I was less interested in the introduction and ending of the book, which was mostly Kaufman telling us what she loves about the show, and how she came to it, and why. There are also little sections where famous people say why they love the show, which I didn’t care much for either.

Bachelor Nation is exactly what you think it is. If you love the show and the contestants then you should check it out, but if you hate watch the show or don’t watch at all, I think you could steer clear. And yes, just in case you were wondering, I am looking forward to Colton’s season, even though I think he is a terrible and boring pick for The Bachelor.

  • Audiobook: 7 hours and 43 minutes
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton (March 6, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on Bachelor Nation Amazon

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

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

Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee

I am so grateful to My Mentor Book Club, a sponsor of The Stacks for sending me Joyful. MMBC is a monthly book subscription, where you get two newly released nonfiction books sent to your door. I am always really excited when the books show up, and sometimes they send me things that I’ve never heard of that are totally in my wheel house. That was the case with Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee.

Here is more about Joyful

Have you ever wondered why we stop to watch the orange glow that arrives before sunset, or why we flock to see cherry blossoms bloom in spring? Is there a reason that people — regardless of gender, age, culture, or ethnicity — are mesmerized by baby animals, and can’t help but smile when they see a burst of confetti or a cluster of colorful balloons.

In Joyful, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee explores how the seemingly mundane spaces and objects we interact with every day have surprising and powerful effects on our mood. Drawing on insights from neuroscience and psychology, she explains why one setting makes us feel anxious or competitive, while another fosters acceptance and delight — and, most importantly, she reveals how we can harness the power of our surroundings to live fuller, healthier, and truly joyful lives. 


Lee does a fantastic job of breaking down the ten different elements that provoke joy, she calls them “The Aesthetics of Joy” and they range from energy to magic, from abundance to celebration. This isn’t simply a design book, Joyful does a fantastic job of including the psychology of joy and experts in a range of fields that engage with each aesthetic. I particularly loved hearing about color (in the energy aesthetic) from Ellen Bennet of Hedley & Bennett Aprons. These moments through out the book provide context for Lee’s points and give depth to seemingly basic concepts.

This book allowed me to think of the different aesthetics that spoke to me, and the places in my life I could add joy. Its a totally practical guide complete with worksheets that help you figure out where you could add joy to your life, and which kinds of things spark that joy in your own environment. For me, I love sparkle, and travel, and hosting dinners, which all fit into different categories, and could work on adding color and magic into my world.

I think overall the book could’ve been a little shorter. Some of the later sections got repetitive and didn’t require as much explanation, but were still long. While the writing is solid, the content is where this book really shines. Lee traveled the world to meet with so many kinds of people and experience unique places and gardens and homes and artwork. It is almost a kind of culture study in addition to being a guide for joy.

In 2019, I’m looking forward to (or dreading) a renovation in my own home, and found this book to be helpful and inspiring for that process. It also will serve me as a guide for how I want my whole life to feel, especially with a new year on the horizon. If you like a pop-psychology book, want to live a more joyful life, or are thinking about transforming any spaces in your life (including launching a new project, or hosting a major event) I would suggest you check out Joyful and Lee’s website, The Aesthetics of Joy for guidance and inspiration.

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • PublisherLittle, Brown Spark (September 4, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on Joyful Amazon

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

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

She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Joan Morgan

In the year that we celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, Joan Morgan put together a book that reflects on the importance and influence of this iconic album.

Here is more about She Begat This

Released in 1998, Lauryn Hill’s first solo album is often cited by music critics as one of the most important recordings in modern history. Artists from Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj to Janelle Monáe have claimed it as an inspiration, and it was recently included in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, as well as named the second greatest album by a woman in history by NPR (right behind Joni Mitchell’s Blue).

Award-winning feminist author and journalist Joan Morgan delivers an expansive, in-depth, and heartfelt analysis of the album and its enduring place in pop culture. She Begat This is both an indelible portrait of a magical moment when a young, fierce, and determined singer-rapper-songwriter made music history and a crucial work of scholarship, perfect for longtime hip-hop fans and a new generation of fans just discovering this album.

Here is what this book isn’t, a song by song dissection of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Not even close. If you want that, you should check out the Dissect Podcast, Season 4, a which is exactly that, and it is pretty great. Instead, this book is a conversation about the importance and influence of Hill and her album. What it meant in 1998 for a young Black woman to leave her group, and go out into the world, pregnant and powerful, and sing her face off. The book also looks at what it meant for that same woman to age and evolve and struggle. She Begat This engages with the comparisons to Nina Simone and the widely (and I think unfairly) criticized Lauryn Hill: MTV Unplugged No 2.0. Effectively the book tries to put Lauryn Hill in context of the 90’s and also the doors she opened for artists, especially Black women, since.

Morgan rounds up women thought leaders in hip-hop culture and feminism to discuss the album with her, from Dream Hampton to Lyneé Denise and more. These women share their opinions on the music, the moment, and the movement. Sometimes these opinions conflict and that allows the book to be a subtle exploration, instead of a singular coronation. There is both praise and criticism which exemplifies the vastness of Black womanhood in art and the world.

One part of the book that was particularly insightful and powerful, and something I wish was more consistently throughout, was when Morgan explained the importance of Lauryn Hill and her pregnancy in the age of Bill Clinton. Morgan explains not only the similarity between Hill’s relationships with Wyclef Jean and Rohan Marley and the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, but also the importance of Hill’s choice to keep her child in the face of Clinton’s crime bill that wreaked havoc on Black families, placing an extreme burden on Black women. This section is exceptional. I only wished there was more of this kind of comparison throughout the entire book.

Sometimes Morgan and the other women interviewed overstate the importance of this album. Not that the album isn’t iconic, but that these women were overly attached to the album and biased. They take claim and ownership over feminism that had started long before 1998 and continued much later. Perhaps a little too personal at times. It is clear Morgan respects Hill’s work professionally, but also has deep connections to it personally. That muddies the waters of the book, a little.

I listened to She Begat This as an audiobook, and found it a little challenging to know if Morgan was saying things or if she was quoting other women she consulted, I enjoyed the narrator but sometimes found myself confused.

If you love The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill this is a quick and interesting look at the album and the woman and her place in the cultural zeitgeist. It is a simple idea, and I wish there were more books that did this with the icon albums. I personally can not wait to read the one that comes out in 18 years about Lemonade by Beyoncé.

  • Audiobook: 3 hours and 55 minutes
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Atria / 37 INK (August 7, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on She Begat This Amazon

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

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

Open City by Teju Cole

Open City was 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).

For more on Open City read here: 

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.

Don’t forget to listen to the The Stacks with Behzad Dabu discussing Open City

  • Paperback: 259 pages
  • PublisherRandom House Trade Paperbacks; 1 edition (January 17, 2012)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy onOpen City Amazon

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

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

Black No More by George S. Schuyler


54CDB2F3-2C1C-4FB6-A29C-9B96A70731DEI picked up Black No More as part of a book club read with my all Black online book club. I wasn’t familiar with the book, and had only barely even heard of the the title, but was excited to read a satire written by a Black man from the 1930’s.

More information on Black No More

It’s New Year’s Day 1933 in New York City, and Max Disher, a young black man, has just found out that a certain Dr. Junius Crookman has discovered a mysterious process that allows people to bleach their skin white—a new way to “solve the American race problem.” Max leaps at the opportunity, and after a brief stay at the Crookman Sanitarium, he becomes Matthew Fisher, a white man who is able to attain everything he has ever wanted: money, power, good liquor, and the white woman who rejected him when he was black.

Lampooning myths of white supremacy and racial purity and caricaturing prominent African American leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois, Madam C. J. Walker, and Marcus Garvey, Black No More is a masterwork of speculative fiction and a hilarious satire of America’s obsession with race.


This book, like so many classic books that discuss the Black experience in The United States, feels relevant today. Schuyler uses Black No More to eviscerate Black and White people, intellectuals and hate leaders alike. He doesn’t hold back on bringing everyone to task. Depending on your own perspective on the world, this book could be interpreted in many different ways.

What I appreciated most about this book was that Schuyler seemed to have no fear about how the book would be received. If he did, he didn’t let that stop him. He created characters that mocked well known Black thought leaders (W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and more) and reduced the KKK to a complete scam. He minimized Black identity to something akin to crabs climbing out of a barrel, and showed that White people just need someone to kick around. He showed the American propensity toward violence, and the shame that so many people carry around due to their family’s history.

What I didn’t like about the book was the tone. It felt old-timey. It read like something from days gone by, and that took me out of the story. The jokes didn’t land. The writing felt dated. I never laughed out loud, and mostly felt detached from the work itself. I wondered if that had to do with the era, or with the genre, as I do not read satire often.

When I read classics, I save the introduction for after I’ve completed the text. In the case of Black No More, the introduction is by author Danzy Senna (Caucasia, New People), a mixed race woman who is very fair and often presumed white. She does an excellent job with the forward, and helped me put the book in context. It was worth it to go back and read her words.

In the end, I am glad I read this book. I haven’t read much from the 1930’s and Schuyler paints a searing picture of race in America that is prescient beyond belief. The book is a great work of speculative fiction, even if the satire didn’t work for me. I would love to see this book turned into a film, does anyone have Ava DuVernay’s number?

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher:Penguin Classics (January 16, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on Black No More Amazon

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

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

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

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

This is not the kind of book I normally pick up. It is character driven literary fiction, about a topic I have little to no interest in, classical music. But, because the author Aja Gabel was going to be a guest on the podcast (listen to our conversation here), I read The Ensemble and it is proof that I know nothing about my own reading taste.

Here is more information on The Ensemble

Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful and quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who’s always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest and an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader. Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet. After the group’s youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty. They are always tied to each other – by career, by the intensity of their art, by the secrets they carry, by choosing each other over and over again.


The Ensemble isn’t real life, its stylized life, life the way you wish it played out. Gabel’s characters say all the things you wish you’d thought to say in a fight, or right before a kiss, or in the throws of grief. They say what you wish you’d thought to say if you weren’t so overwhelmed. Jana, Brit, Henry, and Daniel aren’t common they’re normal with a splash of special. They are precise and piercing. Even their missteps are admirable and attractive. The Ensemble is reality plus. I couldn’t help but think what a great TV show this book would make, filled with gorgeous musicians, emotional outbursts, and a soundtrack that mixes Beethoven with acoustic Prince covers. Shonda Rhymes wishes she wrote this book, it is Grey’s Anatomy but with a string quartet. I mean all of this with such high praise. Sometimes reality isn’t enough. Sometimes you want to be around the beautiful people and watch them be sort of perfect, in failure and success.

Gabel knows her characters. She writes their relationships with a confidence you only gain from knowledge. She understands everyones weaknesses and motivations, who they are, and why. The dialogue and inner monologues are fantastic. She knows how to push their buttons how to turn them on, what makes them tick. As moments unfold, they feel right, I never once thought “Jana would never say that”, because of course she would say that. That is just so Jana.

The plot, which is minimal, doesn’t have its own life. It is the character I am missing in the book. I don’t know that Gabel cares to give us much plot, instead we get glimpses of our quartet. It could be any moment, and Gabel picked this one, and here we are. Sure some are major life moments, but some others feel small and benign. The plot feels a little but like an afterthought in this book. It wasn’t the focus and it wasn’t complex. The book doesn’t really have a start or a finish, we just stop getting invited back. This is the kind of book that many people love, character driven, a study of relationships. And for that, it is done extremely well. I would have loved more events. More action. More.

Oh, and then there is the music. Exactly as it should be. In the background, and sometimes loud and mostly soft and just right.

The Ensemble is simultaneously intimate and vast, with rich writing and complex characters. This book centers the realities of life, but with style. I’m glad I read this book. I never felt Gabel was trying to teach me anything, she didn’t attempt to change the way I see the world. Instead she wrote a beautiful small book about relationships and humanity, and gave them the best words to say, and let me do my thing.

If characters and life and small moments excite you. This is your book. Even if they don’t you still might enjoy this book. It has a magic to it, mostly its simple. What a refreshing thing to be in 2018.

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  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • PublisherRiverhead Books; First Edition, First Printing edition (May 15, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on The Ensemble Amazon

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