January 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

Starting this month, I’ll be giving mini reviews for all of my reads each month. For longer reviews on each book check out The Stacks Instagram page. You can also find full length reviews for any books we feature on the show under the Reviews tab and any other reviews I just feel compelled to write. My hope is to streamline my reviews and make them easier for you all to read and enjoy.

I’ll also be giving you my month by the numbers, as a way to give you all a snapshot of what I read, and to hold myself accountable to reading diverse and inclusive books.

January by the Numbers

Total Books Read: 9
Audiobooks: 0
Five Star Reads: 1
DNF Books: 0
Unread Shelf: 9
Books Acquired: 21

By Women Authors: 5
By Authors of Color: 4
By Queer Authors: 0
Nonfiction Reads: 6
Published in 2019: 1

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

(Photo: amazon.com)

Nicole Chung’s story of her transracial adoption, searching for her birth parents, and becoming a mother come together beautifully in this her memoir, All You Can Ever Know. Chung is vulnerable and honest in a way that is rare, refreshing, and greatly appreciated as a reader. Chung shares her hopes, fears, insecurities, and expectations with her reader as if she is writing in her journal. I was deeply moved in reading this book, and found common ground with Chung when it came to identity, as I am the product of an interracial marriage.

There were pieces to the story that left me wanting more, and I feel a bit selfish to be asking for more from Chung who is so open with her reader. I would have liked more on what parts of her childhood (as a Korean raised by White parents) she is still grappling with as an adult, and how she interacts with the world because of her upbringing.

Overall, this book is very good. Chung is a writer with a gentle touch that packs a lot of power. She is unrelenting in sharing her own thoughts and experiences and for that I am grateful. Also there is Cindy, and I won’t say much, except that I felt so much love and respect for Cindy, and when you read the book, you’ll know. I would suggest this book to people who love a good emotional memoir, people interested in adoption stories, and people who enjoy the active search for identity.

Four Stars | Catapult | October 4, 2018 | 240 Pages | Hardcover
All You Can Ever Know is TSBC pick for February 13. You can hear The Short Stacks with author Nicole Chung HERE, and TSBC episode with Vanessa McGrady HERE.Read a full review of All You Can Ever Know, HERE.


Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

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

A collection of unique and imaginative short stories that provide a commentary on race, violence, consumerism, and survival in America. The writing is at times snarky and smart and then can flip in an instant to be poignant. Some of the stories in Friday Black were pitch perfect and found a great balance between reflection and experience. Some of the other stories never quiet landed with me. The two stories that stand out most (“Zimmer Land” and “Finklestein 5”) deal with the fragility of Black pain and the violence that Black people endure just to live. They comment on events and realities that are part of the American cultural zeitgeist.

I suggest Friday Black to lovers of short stories, racial politics, and people interested in thinking about capitalism in a different way. Warning, there is a lot of (stylized) violence in this book.

Three Stars | Mariner Books | October 23, 2018 | 208 Pages | Paperback
Friday Black is TSBC pick for February 27. Stay tuned for more content around this book.


Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

(Photo: amazon.com)

A fictionalized look at life in Atlanta during the Atlanta Child Murders as told from the perspective of three fifth graders. In her debut novel, Tayari Jones examines the changing responsibilities for Black children as the move toward adulthood. She engages with the unfortunate truth that Black children are forced to grow up too early, and that they are vulnerable to the world around them. Her characters have to come to terms with their Blackness and what that means to the rest of the world. Jones loves her characters and knows them well, she speaks for them without feeling corny or contrived, and develops them into complex characters. Their youth becomes a filter on which we, the readers, see injustices in their world.

Leaving Atlanta is mostly a character study and a coming of age story. If you love plot and action, and are looking for true crime, this book isn’t that (which is where it missed for me). However, if you love spending time with characters and thinking about the world from different perspectives, check it out. If you’re more interested in the Atlanta Child Murders you might like the Atlanta Monster podcast.

Three Stars | Grand Central Publishing (Reprint Edition) | August 1, 2003 | 272 Pages | Paperback


Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

(Photo: amazon.com)

An essay collection on feminism and the relationship of women to male entitlement. Rebecca Solnit’s essays are an indictment on how women are seen and treated in The United States. Solnit ranges from snarky to measured, and shows her self as a thought leader in the conversation around certain types of feminism, which is evidenced in my favorite essay “#yesallwomen”. Men Explain Things to Me misses the mark on intersectional feminism completely and makes no space for women of color and queer women. The book was originally published in 2014, and just over four years later it feels dated. I don’t doubt this book was forward thinking at the time of publication, and that Solnit’s own views have evolved in the last five years (this is my first time reading her work). Men Explain Things to Me is a reminder of the kind of feminism that centers White women and that we are, thankfully, moving away from.

While Men Explain Things to Me is a good collection, I wouldn’t suggest reading it, simply because it isn’t speaking to the current moment in the women’s movement. I would confidently recommend Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper (full review here) and Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister (full review here) as better looks at intersectional feminism today.

 Three Stars | Haymarket Books | September 1, 2015 | 176 Pages | Paperback
See my full review of Men Explain Things to Me which you can read HERE.


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

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

Juan Vidal shares his own story of growing up, finding his way, and becoming a family man in his memoir Rap Dad. The book is a mix of stories from Vidal’s past, meditations on fatherhood, breaking down the importance of hip-hop culture, and conversations of folks in the Rap world about their own thoughts on fatherhood. The book didn’t always feel cohesive or flow, and I often couldn’t relate to his experiences, but Vidal’s willingness to write and discover in that process is refreshing. He is asking the questions of what it means to be a good parent in this hip-hop generation.

Rap Dad is worth your time. The content is different from most anything I’ve read. Vidal is a unique thinker, a fluid writer, and his lack of pretense is beyond refreshing. He is talking about a subculture, hip-hop heads, we so often ignore, especially in the context of parenting.

Three Stars | Atria | September 25, 2018 | 256 Pages | Hardcover
Rap Dad is TSBC pick for January 30. You can hear The Short Stacks with author Juan Vidal HERE, and TSBC episode with Josh Segarra HERE.Read a full review of Rap Dad, HERE.


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

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

In Rock Needs River, Vanessa McGrady shares her journey from deciding she wants to be a mother, to adopting her daughter Grace, to eventually taking in Grace’s homeless birth parents. McGrady navigates the sometimes murky boundaries of open adoption in this book.

What worked in Rock Needs River is that McGrady is clearly only speaking for herself. He triumphs and blunders are clearly her own. She finds a way to be relatable so that you’re rooting for her for get whatever it is she wants and needs, even when she does some pretty questionable things (thinking of a chat room sequence that is painfully cringe worthy). I struggled with McGrady’s sense of privilege when it came to Grace’s birth parents. She wanted them to do what she would do, and those parts feel very entitled and narrow minded. Don’t get me wrong, McGrady is beyond generous with them, but that gets lost in the feeling that McGrady wants her good deed to play out the way she wants it to (with thank you notes). She spends a good chunk of the book projecting her value system on them, and it rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall I enjoyed the book, and I really learned a lot about adoption. If you like a lighter approach to more serious topics this might be a good book for you. If you’re interested in adoption and the ways that life doesn’t always go according to plan, I’d check out Rock Needs River.

Three Stars | Little A | January 1, 2019 | 204 Pages | Hardcover
Hear Vanessa McGrady on The Stacks discussing her book (Ep. 45) and All You Can Ever Know(Ep. 46)


Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

(Photo: amazon.com)

This month for the #ShakeTheStacks challenge I read Romeo and Juliet. The play is the story of two teenaged, star crossed lovers who find each other despite their families’ rivalry.The story is a total cliche now, but of course then you remember Romeo and Juliet was one of the originals.

I loved rereading this play. Shakespeare is interested in the ideas of loyalty and vengeance, individual desire versus communal stability. The play is dealing with these massive ideas and somehow still taking them on with a kind of urgent poetry that is just begging to be said and heard. In reading the play I couldn’t help but fall in love with Juliet. Her speeches are rich and full of so much emotion. I found myself reading them over and over (mostly out loud).

If you like strong characters with a driving plot, don’t be intimidated by Romeo and Juliet. It is a great play, which I’m sure you’ve heard.

Five Stars | Penguin Classics | February 1, 2000 | 128 Pages | Paperback
You can read my full review of  Romeo and Juliet HERE.



Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan

(Photo: amazon.com)

A collection of essays on things that are difficult to say. This book is not what it seems. Corrigan wrote Tell Me More after the passing of her father and dear friend, Lisa. The book ends up being more a response to the loss of her loved ones, an understanding of her own grief, and way to help her (and the reader) move on when things feel devastating. I got so much out of this book, it really connected with me emotionally. While the grief is ever present through out, there are also conversations about knowing your own worth, finding ways to be truly empathetic, and seeking out true love and joy that were valuable. There were times I thought Corrigan got a little cutesy, and didn’t need to, and some of her phrases seem beyond obvious (“Yes” and “No” come to mind), but I don’t think it hurt the book overall. The power of “Onward” was enough for an entire book to ride on.

While it is certainly not “required reading” it is a book that I could see being meaningful to anyone. I would check it out. I am certainly glad I did.

Four Stars | Random House | January 9, 2018 | 240 Pages | Hardcover


The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

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

TAn oral history of Tony Kushner’s iconic play Angels in America, The World Only Spins Forward was a surprising delight. For a person who loves the theatre this book was more than I could have imagined. I loved hearing from actors, directors, production teams, and theatre critics as they unpack the significance of one of the great American plays. Hearing thespians expound on the nuances of characters and the importance of lines, or how to an angel should fly, was fulfilling. Using the tradition of oral history as a way for the theatre community to talk about this depiction of HIV and gay experience felt completely spot on. The LGBTQIA+ community kept the memories of their own alive through telling stories, writing plays, and creating the art that lives on and is celebrated today. This book is a little bit of art imitating life (on a few levels). Also, the cover. It is absolutely perfect.

The only thing that was hard for me as a reader was that a lot of references weren’t explained. I spent time googling people and events that I would have loved to hear more about from the people who were telling this story, the interviewees.

I don’t know that this book is for everyone. I think you’d have to be interested in Angels in America or the theatre at the very least. The World Only Spins Forward is total theatre nerd stuff, and as a proud member of that community, it was everything I wanted and more. If you love the theater, and acting, and how plays get made, you must read this one.

Four Stars | Bloomsbury | February 13, 2018 | 448 Pages | Hardcover


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

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

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

When I started my #ShakeTheStacks challenge, I have to admit, I was most looking forward to rereading the plays I already knew and love, chief among them, Romeo and Juliet. The play is one of, if not the, most well known of all the Shakespeare plays, and is certainly one of the first people are introduced to.

The story of two teenagers from feuding families who fall in love and make a bunch ill advised decisions that eventually lead to their deaths (thats not a spoiler, its in the prologue, I double checked). The story seems almost cliche, because even if you’ve never read or seen Romeo and Juliet you’re familiar with its components even on the most basic of levels. This is the play responsible for some incredibly famous lines; “parting is such sweet sorrow” and “a plague a both your houses”. Even with all of that, hundreds of years of quoting and adapting and parodying, Romeo and Juliet is profoundly emotional and resonant.

I loved reading this play. I loved saying the words out loud (sometimes acting to myself alone in my bedroom, in the interest of full disclosure). The poetry is vibrant and raw, many of the speeches are begging to be said and heard. The way the speeches and characters are crafted show that Shakespeare too was fascinated by these declarations of love and loyalty and rage and vengeance. The most palpable energy in this play is fear, the unknown. Shakespeare taps into this over and over again as the play unravels. What comes next? Romeo and Juliet reads like a thriller even when the reader (or watcher) knows what comes next.

The characters in this play are all so well written from the Lady Capulet to Paris to Mercutio and even the Prince. Each are unique with strong points of view on their world, they’re never confused for one another. This is the first play in my #ShakeTheStacks challenge where I can say thats true. They have their own speaking patterns, and their own thoughts on life and love. They are also all (except a serving man here or there), crucial to the progress of the play.

My most favorite character is Juliet. She is the moral center of this play. She drives the action and is our guide through Acts 2-4. She constantly asks the question “what is right here?”. She delivers fantastic speeches and grapples with a variety of emotions, allowing the reader (or audience) to see her evolution and her resolve. My favorite of all her monologues comes in Act III, Scene 2: “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” (if you’ve never encountered this text, I suggest you check it out).

I so loved rereading this play. While it isn’t totally faithful to the play, the Romeo + Juliet film by Baz Luhrmann is so good. Claire Danes is an explosive Juliet, and Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as our aloof and emotional Romeo. And for the most part, the movie stays true to the text, though it does omit a lot. If you have the time read the play and then watch the movie. Neither disappoints.

Next month for #ShakeTheStacks, I’ll be reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (February 1, 2000)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy Romeo and Juliet 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.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

For the month of December, my Shakespeare read for The #ShakeTheStacks Challenge was, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first attempt at a tragedy.

Titus Andronicus is a revenge play centered around Titus Andronicus, a Roman General, who is locked in a cycle of personal revenges with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. The play is bloody and brutal, to the point that the first scene includes a handful of murders, one of which is Titus killing his own son. Shakespeare was not going for subtle with this play.

By far the most interesting part of Titus Andronicus centers on the character of Lavinia, Titus’ daughter. I don’t want to give too much away, but the scenes involving Lavinia, are some of the most fantastic scenes. She does not speak, instead the men around her speak at her and for her, and are given a voice when she is not. They must interpret her thoughts and her pain, and it is excruciating to read.While I’m not sure what Shakespeare was sayingabout women in his own time, Lavinia struck a chord with me now, at the end of 2018. I kept thinking of an essay, by Lacy M. Johnson, called “Speak Truth to Power” (which can be found in her amazing book of essays, The Reckonings).

Aaron, the Moor, is another fascinating character to read in modern times. He is Black and is a complete and total villain. He is given little in the way of redemption, and reaffirms his own villainy until the end of the play. I think so much about how this role would have been seen throughout history, this angry, violent, remorseless Black man as the epitome of evil. What kind of actor plays Aaron? Is he a brute? Is he cerebral? Is he ever played by a charming man? Or a light skinned Black man? Or is he always a stereotype of the angry dark Black man? How does this role evolve over time? I could reflect on Aaron (and Lavinia) and how the character functions in this play for a long time.

Titus Andronicus is shockingly easy to understand. While the character’s names are hard to remember, the text itself is accessible (for Shakespeare) in a way previous plays have not been. Its simple really, a play predicated on revenge. The ending of the play is too short, the fallout is too quick. I think thats partially because this is Shakespeare’s first tragedy. I know he gets better at elongating the pain and suffering at the end of his plays.

I really enjoyed Titus Andronicus more than I thought I would. It touches on mercy and justice in a way that I was not expecting, and gave me a lot to think about when it comes to Blackness and the representation of women on stage.


In case you’re reading along with me for The #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I wanted to give you a heads up to what I’ll be reading in 2019. You don’t have to read along in the same order as me, and you can feel free to join me for one or all. However you decide to do it, my plan is below.


  • Paperback: 107 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Australia; Pelican Shakespeare edition (January 1, 2000)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Titus Andronicus 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 Shakespeare Challenge — #ShakeTheStacks

EF56F06F-1235-4BBF-ACDD-4FF5EBA340BFLast month I read Othello for the first time in years. I read it to refresh myself on the story in order to discuss Tracy Chevalier’s adaptation New Boy. I was a little nervous to go back to reading Shakespeare, it had been years since I had opened a play by The Bard, despite having studied his work extensively in college. I was shocked at how enjoyable it was, and how rich the text is. The work felt relevant and touches on issues we’re currently discussing as a society. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed his plays, and how exciting it was to read them again.

So I decided that I’m going to commit to reading one Shakespeare play a month for the next 36 months (since I already read Othello). Some of them will be re-reads for me, and there are about 12 I’ve never read. I think it’ll be fun, plus then I can say, I’ve read every Shakespeare play. Who doesn’t love a little literary bragging. Its a long term goal,  and I won’t be done until 2021, which I also like.

I’m calling this challenge #ShakeTheStacks and I would love to have company on this journey weather you want to read the full 37, or just read the handful that are on your list.

I know folks can be intimidated by Shakespeare, myself included. So here are my suggestions on how to make reading Shakespeare a successful endeavor.

  1. Relax. The stuff is complex and thats what makes it everlasting. So if you miss something or don’t quite understand it, thats OK. Keep going, Shakespeare’s characters repeat themselves a lot.
  2. Play the part. These are plays, which means they’re meant to be heard aloud. If you get stuck, try saying the words out loud.
  3. Get into the groove. The verse is written in iambic pentameter, and it is there to help you. Allow yourself to fall into rhythm when you’re reading. Thats Shakespeare’s way of guiding you through, and keeping you on track.
  4. Get good notes. Try to find translations that have notes that make sense to you. I love the Pelican Shakespeare. The notes help but aren’t so long they get in the way.
  5. Read the ending first. Well not actually, but if you do better when you know the plot, go ahead and read a synopsis, so you can really indulge in the language and poetry instead of sifting for clues. Generally if the play is a comedy it will end in a wedding and the tragedies end in death.
  6. Trust yourself. You’re not dumb, and you do understand it. Take the pressure off. Think about how many times you’ve seen a play or movie and missed something, or gotten confused as to what was going on. It happens to us all the time. Don’t let the idea of Shakespeare freak you out.
  7. Enjoy. The whole point is to read something and enjoy it. If you’re not into the play move on. Or better yet, watch a the movie, or listen to a staged reading. Find a way to enjoy the Bard, this isn’t punishment.

Now I just have to figure out which order to read these plays. Do I got with chronological? Alphabetical? By genre? Or mood read? What do you think?

If you’re joining me make sure to tag any posts with #ShakeTheStacks, this way we can keep track of all our Shakespearian progress.

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.

 

Othello by William Shakespeare

AF5A379C-606C-48A1-AF83-92754A187CF9I have to admit up front, I am a total Shakespeare nerd. I love his plays and I actually enjoy reading the verse. I also feel that these stories are plays, and should be heard and seen. However, for an upcoming episode of The Stacks, we are discussing New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, which is a retelling of Othello, so I thought I should brush up on the original text.

Here is an introduction to Othello if you’re not familiar with this great tragedy.

In Othello, Shakespeare creates powerful drama from a marriage between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona that begins with elopement and mutual devotion and ends with jealous rage and death. Shakespeare builds many differences into his hero and heroine, including race, age, and cultural background. Yet most readers and audiences believe the couple’s strong love would overcome these differences were it not for Iago, who sets out to destroy Othello. Iago’s false insinuations about Desdemona’s infidelity draw Othello into his schemes, and Desdemona is subjected to Othello’s horrifying verbal and physical assaults.

I find Othello to be one of Shakespeare’s most relatable and easy to read plays. The story is very straight forward, there are not a lot of characters or subplots, even the language is relatively simple (for a Shakespeare play). If you’re a little intimidated by reading Shakespeare, this is a great place to start.

What makes Shakespeare masterful is how he was able to weave together so many themes and ideas into a short play. In Othello we are looking at the themes of, fear of the outsider, entitlement, sexism, love, trust, truth, rage, racism, and jealousy, and thats just to name a few. Shakespeare employs his characters to engage in debate over these issues, weather it be a conversation about jealousy, or a monologue on faithfulness. He uses the words to speak directly to the audience and drive home his points. You’re being asked to think as you read (or watch).

One of the things that stuck out to me upon re-reading Othello, is just how current the story feels. Iago might as well be the “Trump Supporter” we have heard so much about in the last few years. The white man who feels he is owed some standing in the world, and can not handle life not being what he thinks he is entitled to. He is racist, misogynistic, and thinks if he didn’t earn it he can just take it. His reality doesn’t meet his expectations of where he thinks his life should be, so he acts out instead. He throws the whole tragedy in motion, because of his fragile ego.

The last two acts of this play are fantastic. They move at the perfect speed and deliver a gut-wrenching finale. Each scene tops the one before, until you’re left with a feeling of what just happened here, and a pile of dead bodies, a staple of a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you’ve never read this play, I think its worth a read. If you read it years ago, it might be time for a re-read. It is that good. Its short and powerful. It is current. I would love to hear from you, so add your comments below.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group (July 3, 2001)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy Othello on Amazon

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