I hugged this book when I finished it. I just couldn’t imagine putting the characters down & walking away from them.
I’m still not ready to let go…
Even if YA novels aren’t typically your thing, this deserves a read. It’s a novel written in verse, which is pretty damn cool to begin with. It’s both stripped bare & poetic. And it’s easy to float through…
The themes aren’t simplistic at all. I think for teenagers just beginning to sort the complexities of family, this novel might be revelatory. For me, in my mid-forties with a child of my own and parents who are both complicated and aging, I found myself nodding my head often. Sympathetically clucking. Yes, yes. We are often disappointed in love and life. Yes, yes. There is pain. But there is also terrific joy and new beginnings. And life. In all its richness.
Elizabeth Acevado is immensely talented. Without any excess description to bog down her writing, she made me see the Dominican Republic so clearly. She neither romanticized nor disparaged the island. She rendered it real, beautiful, complicated–like a living being.
And I love Acevado for giving us a gay character in a YA novel where her being gay is entirely beside the point. This isn’t a novel about coming out. Or coming to grips with identity (not gay identity at least). This girl is just gay. Because folks are. And she lives her life. Because folks do. And it’s all so shockingly normal that it made me cry.
I was caught in this novel between remembering what it was like to be 17 and knowing that one day (sooner than I could imagine) my own baby will be 17. It’s kind of a beautiful, liminal space. And I found adults in this book that were complicated, yes. But sometimes powerful, sometimes vulnerable, and always deeply human.
I read the best books without having any idea why I really picked them up. In this case, the copy of Charm & Strange that I have at the store has library markings on it. For some reason, that makes it much harder to sell. So I grabbed it out of a pile of books I’d brought out to my front yard for the East Atlanta Strut-in-Place. Figured I’d read while I waited for folks to roll up and peruse the tent.
Except then I really didn’t want to put it down. At all.
It’s a YA book. And it won the American Library Association award for debut authors. And, y’all, it’s riveting. But it’s dark. Like, real dark.
It made me remember how stark the lies of adolescence can be–and how damning: that we aren’t enough, that we are flawed, broken, shameful. That the world would be better off if we didn’t exist–but at the very least we shouldn’t let people get close. Because they’ll loathe what that they see–probably wouldn’t be able to stand it–so to protect them and us, we shut everyone out.
Maybe that wasn’t your adolescence. But it was mine. And I wished I’d had a book like this to let me know that I wasn’t the only person that felt this way.
At many points in the book, you really have no idea what’s going on, or why it’s happening. Which drives you into a fever pitch of reading so you can figure out what the actual hell is happening/has happened to this 17 year old kid. Why does he make the decisions he does? Why is he bent on his own social destruction, his intense isolation?
Here are some things you should know: You do eventually figure out the whole dark, painful, twisted story. Nothing is rosy in this book but I felt like someone had opened a window & let in a stream of light at the end. But you have to be willing to engage in the journey to get there.
It was definitely worth the read. And I loved that the author trusted her YA readers with some intense social issues–and gave them the task of shifting the lies we tell ourselves when we are in pain from the objective truths that others can more easily bear witness to.
If the whole review is a little cryptic, it’s because I’m trying to preserve the mystery for you. But as a final note: there are some topics in this novel that will be triggering for some folks. If you’re concerned that may be you, please read a review that includes trigger warnings before picking this one up.
I picked up Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone on a whim. A mass market paperback version was just laying about in the store, in a pile of used books I was sorting to shelve. They don’t really sell for us, those little block-like books, so I figured nobody’d be itching to buy it anyway. So I cracked it open Saturday at about 4pm. But Monday night at 8pm I was done.
And, yes, I read to the exclusion of most other things on Sunday and Monday. Because it was that good.
I found it relatable, then horrifying that I’d ever found it relatable. I wanted to save the protagonist. Then shake her. I cheered and cringed. Witnessed utter despair. And hope. And then the fear of hope.
The whole spectrum of human emotions. That’s what Wally Lamb served up. And I couldn’t look away.
At one point I found myself muttering an entire diatribe about the point of feminism under my breath… there was no one in the room with me. I just needed to say it out loud.
I kept thinking about freedom… and how it doesn’t always come about the way we think. And we’re not always trying to break free from the right things. Sometimes we’re our own captors.
This book has been tugging at my mind all day. I want desperately to talk about it with someone that’s read it. And that, for me, is usually the mark of a damn fine book.
I’ll be upfront with you… I have aspirations of getting my PhD in Southern Literature. And, sure, there are lots of the Southern classics that I haven’t made my way through yet. But when I was looking at a syllabus for a graduate level Southern Lit class, I ran across Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. For whatever reason, it jumped out at me (it was probably at the top of the list of required texts). So I ordered it.
For Methuselah’s sake.
So, it’s billed as a dark comedy. And I get that. I do. But by the end, I was decidedly not amused.
It’s one of those novels where everything is cruising along… and one second later, things have gone real, real wrong. But all that is couched in a writing style full of asides and changes in point of view and a lack of clarity about who is talking when and is it out loud or are they musing over something or perhaps its a memory or a fantasy or OH MY GOD WHAT IS GOING ON?!?
The protagonist annoyed me as much as Holden Caulfield did (sorry Catcher in the Ryefans). Which meant that I wanted to throttle him so much I distanced myself from some of the themes that were hella important in this book: like the insidious and pervasive nature of racism–and how when you grow up breathing that madness in, it stays with you. Even when you think you’ve risen above it.
The author makes fun of Southern thinking regarding racism & the Civil War (you know, states’ rights and all). He lays bare the things we try so hard to overlook, Southern charm being what it is and all. And sure, you could get all “Not all Southerners” but that’s not the point.
The point is, well, pointing out what you mss when you love a place and are connected to it. When you’ve grown up and in certain ways of thinking. And those are the kind of thing we have to examine–even when it hurts–if we truly want to build a better South.
(As a side note, Johnson also has a REAL good time making fun of the academy. Which is, in fact, amusing. And horrifying. So, if you’ve spent any time in higher ed, you’ll laugh or cringe. Maybe both. You’ll have to read it to understand. Sorry. #nospoilers)
It took me a long time to read this one. I kept picking up other things to read. Because I really didn’t like it.
But do I think it’s an important book? One that belongs front and center on a Southern Lit syllabus?
The pull to a specific place has occupied my thoughts for the better part of 5 years now. This idea of place as a piece of who we are is what drew me to Atlanta. This city called me until I could no longer ignore it. I had to be here, in a way that I couldn’t describe to most people.
Atlanta resonates through me–my whole being–even though I didn’t grow up here. It is home in a visceral sense. I am happy here because I belong in the very deepest sense of that word.
So, I’ve often wondered if other folks feel the same way about place–that it takes on a life of its own, shares space in our psyches. Consequently, this wondering brought me to both Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (by choice) and The Yellow House (completely unwittingly).
I knew 3 things about The Yellow House before I read it: it was a memoir; it won the National Book Award; and it centered on a family that lost their home in Hurricane Katrina.
I’ll tell you up front that I’ll try to avoid spoilers–and also that I’m not sure there are spoilers for this book. Because it isn’t so much what happens in Sarah M. Broom’s family or to the house they inhabit, but the lens through which she views it that makes the book.
The Yellow House both is and is not a Katrina book. For instance, if you read the fiction work Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward–THAT is a Katrina book. The whole narrative centers around the storm & its impacts. While the yellow house meets its ultimate demise in Katrina, the story begins decades before the storm… and continues afterward, because families and people continue on with or without the structures they’ve called home.
The book is more broadly about New Orleans. About what it’s like to grow up black and poor in a city that holds an almost magical sway over most of America. Broom weaves New Orleans history–including an analysis of the pervasive colorism in New Orleans–throughout her narrative. All while exploring the pull of this place that she grew up in. She leaves and returns to New Orleans, looking for something. But she’s never quite sure what. She’s pulled in particular back to New Orleans East, where she grew up–which has long been neglected by the city and devolves completely after Katrina decimates the infrastructure in a part of town even more flood prone than the rest of the city. The fate of New Orleans East is tragic and infuriating. But it’s fascinating and instructive to watch Broom navigate these complex emotional spaces. For me, there was something simultaneously intimately familiar and ultimately unknowable about her quest.
This book is going to leave you with more questions than you had when you started. Broom will wrap nothing up tidily for you. And, if you’re an introspective sort, she’ll have you picking at your own family history, your sense of place.
Ultimately, The Yellow House begs the question: What constructs us? Is it family? Place? Home? Ourselves?
I turned 45 this week. And I wonder if that has anything to do with the pull of this book for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about family and roles we play in our family of origin versus the self the we construct outside those bounds. And, for me, that also calls up the places I grew up (all over Florida with parents born in the Deep South) and the places I remained connected to throughout my childhood and now choose to claim (the South, Atlanta, and South Georgia). The Yellow House gave me footing to think about these things & introspect in a way that felt important and a little esoteric.
This book laid out for me issues of family, place, and self I’ve been pondering–and allowed me to see that there are no easy answers. That there are always more questions. And that they are worth asking.
I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately: how where we are from constructs who we are. And I’ve been drawn to books that explore place as internal landscape.
My mother’s family is from South Georgia. Although I grew up in Florida, I always considered myself a dis-placed Southerner. According to my Northern oriented friends, my dad talks like a banjo. Growing up, my mother insisted we say “sir” and “ma’am” to adults, which most adults in South Florida found wildly unnecessary and sometimes offensive.
We didn’t fit there. And I knew it.
I moved up to North Florida as soon as I was free to do so (four days after high school graduation). If you’ve never been to North Florida, it’s really just an extension of South Georgia.
And there, I felt at home.
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is an in-depth exploration of the South Georgia landscape of my mother’s people. A place I visited multiple times as a child. The place we buried my grandfather not too long ago.
Author Janisse Ray explores not only what it was to grow up poor and deeply religious in the rural South, but she also details–with shockingly clear imagery–the landscape and wildlife that exists in South Georgia. Her description of deforestation, what we’ve lost that it will take a Herculean effort to reclaim, almost brought me to tears.
She pulls no punches about the South. But she also explores the “why” of the place. Her depth of understanding of both people & nature makes her a tremendous ecology writer.
If books about place speak to you, this is a fine one. As a Southern nature lover, it’s an imperative read.
My first boyfriend’s name was Jon Robinson. We were 8 years old.
He was cute, best I remember. And pretty nice. Nice enough to inform me that no, you couldn’t get pregnant just from kissing. Apparently, I’d snuck too many episodes of Days of Our Lives, where the timeline between lots of kissing and having a baby was fuzzy at best.
And it was me that asked to kiss him, for the record.
My clearest memories of him, though, are at the skating rink.
I’ve never been a particularly skilled skater. But what I lack in finesse, I make up for in enthusiasm. The thrill of getting going fast enough to feel a breeze on my face always eclipsed the very real fact that I wasn’t great at stopping. By the time I was 8, I’d (mostly) stopped slamming myself into that little carpeted wall by the DJ booth to come to a stop. But I wasn’t above coasting up to it and casually bumping into it.
I’m sure I looked super suave.
But the thing about flashing lights and loud music is that you can kind of escape yourself out there in the swirl & twirl of it all.
Eight was a liminal age for me. We’d just moved to South Florida, and I felt (relatively) popular because I was the new kid. People found me interesting. I swear 80% of my school hailed from New York originally, and I’d moved to South Florida from Gainesville. Florida. Where there were cows.
I didn’t fit in. But I had no idea how much I didn’t fit in yet.
I was blissfully unaware.
So, I skated with John Robinson. And we’d laugh and wave at each other. We were at the skating rink on a school field trip, so the place was packed with 3rd graders feeling really grown with money to buy junk from the snack bar.
Third grade was the year before I felt self-conscious all the time. So I just got to be. And to enjoy skating (even if I wasn’t that good at it). And to wave at a cute boy and giggle when I saw him fly around the rink with his friends.
I remember him being both adorable and particularly good at skating–but who knows? I’ve learned, as I’ve gotten older, that memories lie.
2 things happened on that skating trip that I remember as if they happened just yesterday:
I got to couple skate with John Robinson while “The Inspiration” by Chicago blared in the background. If whipping around the rink solo is fun, it’s doubly fun when you’re attached to someone else by a sweaty palm, going faster than you’d imagined possible. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. And if I close my eyes and focus really hard, I can conjure it all back up.
Then, right after that legendary couple-skate, John Robinson pulled me aside, over by the lockers where everyone stashed their stinky ‘Roos. I thought maybe he was going to kiss me (why I was so obsessed with kissing at 8 years old is a topic for another time). But, instead he took my hand and looked at me extra-sincere like.
I know you’re thinking that we’re about to get to the really cute, puppy-love part of the story where he tells me how much he likes me. Or whatever 8 year olds do.
And it started out well: he told me how pretty I was (feminist or no, I am a sucker for being told I’m pretty. Always have been). And then he looked even more sincere.
I remember my heart pounding against my chest.
“You’re really pretty, but why do you dress like that?”
I looked down. I was wearing my favorite quarter length sleeve sweater, with dark purple trim and rainbow colored stripes running through an off-white background. I loved that sweater.
“You’d probably be popular, if you just dressed more like everyone else.”
I mean, sure, I was still wearing homemade dresses on occasion. And I had to fight my mom about culottes all the time (which she though in some way were “pretty,” a mix between a utilitarians short and an impractical-for-school skirt. Let’s be clear: they were ugly AF), and sometimes she won.
But, here I was in my favorite sweater… and it was, well, wrong. Apparently.
I think I told him I’d try to do better. I’m not sure. It gets a little hazy after that. But I do know that I never felt quite the same about Jon Robinson. There’d been a subtle power shift. The feeling like itty bitty electrical currents when I was close to him was replaced with the subtle knowledge that he was doing me a favor by being my friend. That I was in some way jeopardizing his status as a “cool kid” with my presence, and I owed him gratitude.
I wish I walk up into that skating rink and hug my 8 year old self. And tell her she’s enough, as-is. That being cool isn’t everything. That she still won’t be cool at 45, but it won’t matter to her one iota. But I’d sure tell her to fight her mama harder on those culottes.
And, if I could, I’d couple skate with her. But we’d skate to Whitney Houston. I think y’all know which song.
I’ve never kept my love for middle grades novels secret. Given the option between a book for a full-grown & a middle grades book, well… middle grades wins every time.
As a bookseller, I have a place to channel my love of middle grades fiction: 4th & 5th grade book club!
We just finished When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. It’s become a middle grades classic over the last decade. And for good reason. Y’all, we just finished–and I already want to read it again!
It’s got some themes that I’m in love with: people are always more complicated than they seem, everyone deserves respect, and friendships shift and evolve (and that’s okay).
The protagonist is infinitely relatable–a girl who isn’t used to hanging out with girls (her bff is a boy), who is finding her place in school & in the world, who loves but pushes against her mom, and who ultimately wants to be a more giving, kinder person and is working on it in tangible ways that will make sense to kids.
I really dig books where it’s obvious that the author remembers precisely what it’s like to be a kid. Without romanticizing childhood. Or making the decision to be “good” straightforward (because it isn’t always). Life is complicated. And, for me at least, childhood was the most complicated, confusing time. This author honors that without weighing the book down. It’s not dark. It’s just … real.
Here’s the BEST part, though: for kids who like science but aren’t always into novels, When You Reach Me focuses on time travel… in no small part because the protagonists’ favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time. I love sci-fi shows, but don’t really read sci-fi, because the even the time travel talk in this kids’ book almost melted my brain. But I was also totally sucked in.
Oh! And it’s also a mystery.
Honestly, When You Reach Me may very well may be the best middle grades book I’ve ever read.
It’s a great kids’ book club pick. It would also be really fun to read with your 4th through 7th grader (I think kids younger than 4th grade might struggle to understand some of the mystery/sci-fi elements). There’s a LOT to discuss and conjecture about.
And, you know, if you happen to be almost 45… maybe its the perfect book to escape into during a pandemic.
This book is one I return to repeatedly. Partly for its clear message that, yes, enlightenment is possible for everyone. And partly because I find the discussion of how to meditate simple and refreshing.
But my favorite aspect of 3 Pillars of Zen is absolutely the personal anecdotes, transcribed and laid bare for the reader, of both dokusan (meeting with the teacher) and of the enlightenment experience itself.
Each time I re-read 3 Pillars of Zen, I uncover something new. So it goes, I suppose, with books that speak to us in a profoundly personal way. They seem to have an uncanny ability to morph & say exactly what we need to hear in the moment.
I appreciate the wide array of experience and personality of the subjects carefully chosen by Philip Kapleau: both Japanese and American, men and women, with varying (and relatable) back stories. As this reading unfolded for me, I found myself particularly amused by the Americans’ struggle with ego, which impacted their ability to grasp the simplicity of meditation, to be humble and open during dukosan, and to be patient (but still willing to work) to reach enlightenment.
It was disarming to be able to so clearly see the root of the the struggle of those zany Americans from the 50s & 60s (3 Pillars of Zen was published in 1965)… and then to (slowly) admit that some of those issues mirror my own. It was humbling–in a gentle way that allowed me to laugh at myself & release some of my take-myself-to-seriously-ness.
I also was keenly in tune with the book’s timeline this go-round. Some of the personal anecdotes of American zen practitioners begin unfolding, in Japan, in the 1950s. Maybe it’s because I finished Alas, Babylon recently, but I felt viscerally aware of how soon after the bombing of Nagasaki & Hiroshima the 1950s actually were. The willingness of Japanese zen masters to have any dealings with Americans at all made me re-evaluate my own perspective on the world around me–and left me feeling convicted about how long I’m willing to grasp at old wounds and how much more peace I might be able to bring into my own life with the practice of non-attachment.
When I want a clean slate, a fresh start, openness–I equate that feeling with painting all the walls white. All the walls in my house. All the walls in my soul.
When I was a kid, being a woman seemed like some sort of secret, mystical state that one entered into when they were, say, 16 or 17. Like maybe I’d go to sleep an awkward adolescent kid and wake up graceful, beautiful, and smelling like Estee Lauder Youth Dew. Who really knew how it would happen? The whole process was shrouded in mystery. Women had secret rites round make-up and feminine hygiene products (seriously, worst phrase ever) and no one seemed willing to explain these things to me.
Maybe I was just supposed to intuit them.
I did not intuit much of anything.
The 1980s/1990s hyper-conservative world I grew up in was full of god-awful gender stereotypes and a stony silence around sex. There was only one way to be a woman in the world: pretty, made-up, and ultimately submissive (men were the head of the household. They always had to make more money and, ultimately, made all the decisions. Which was some bullshit and I knew it, even then). Oh, and I needed to be a virgin. For sure. Because why buy the cow, if you could get the milk for free? (Just typing that out makes me cringe. But it was gospel truth in my world)
Two things really crystalize who I was when I went away to college:
I had no idea how to use a tampon at 18 years old. This became problematic when I got my period just as my best friend & I were about to head out to the beach. I told her I couldn’t go. She rolled her eyes so hard, she’s lucky they aren’t still stuck in the back of her head. She proceeded to stand outside the stall door and coach me through inserting a tampon, so we could go to the beach. How did that go? Well… I hemmed and hawed until she threatened to come into the stall and insert the damn thing herself. I figured it out real quick after that.
When I was at Florida State, a young woman who’d been class president (or vice president or something of that sort) in high school came to me in all earnestness and asked how she was supposed to reconcile holding a leadership position with the call for women to be submissive. She’d gotten mixed up in our youth group right before she left for college. Obviously, we were a persuasive bunch. The most persuasive? The boys who had something to gain from all this submission bullshit. I don’t even remember what I said to her. But I knew, at that moment, that everything I’d been taught about women was a lie.
Three things happened around that time that further unveiled the mystery of womanhood, gender stereotypes, and my own body:
I took a college class on Christianity. I thought it would be an easy A. I’d grown up in the church, after all. I knew things. Instead, that class upended everything I’d been taught in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, youth group, in sermons, on retreats… I’d been raised on a legalistic, self-righteous brand of conservative Christianity. And, for me, this class exposed everything I’d believed as a lie hellbent on manipulating me into fear and submission. And I was pissed. For years afterward, I wouldn’t even spell out Christmas (Xmas all the way, baby. I tend to be pretty hot or cold. So, when I was done with Christianity–for that go-round at least–I was aggressively done).
I took a Women’s Studies class. Mystery = unveiled. Goddess religions? Yes, please. History that included women’s contributions as something other than a footnote? Hell, yes. Women as equal and powerful? I could not get enough. Truly. I realized I could be a woman in whatever way suited me. First decision: no more make-up. I’d been one of those girls who never left the house without at least eyeliner and mascara–but usually a “natural-looking” version of the whole shebang. The first time my father saw me without makeup, he inquired as to what in the holy hell could be wrong? Upon discovering that I was currently in a makeup eschewing stage, he informed me that women wear makeup. I didn’t put on a lick of makeup again for at least 3 more years. It was my own daily protest against the tiny, proscribed life that I’d been raised to lead.
I started dating women. Here’s the thing: I’d always been completely awestruck by women. I just didn’t know there was anything I could do about that (no one said I wasn’t a little slow on the uptake sometimes). But when I realized that I could be in a relationship with another woman–honest to God, it was like heaven broke open. Everything in the world made sense. Angels sang. I wasn’t broken, I was a lesbian. This truth set me free in ways I didn’t know possible.
When, at age 34, I discovered I was pregnant with a baby girl–I had to start unpacking some of the complexities of being a woman real quick-like. I remember standing in front of the mirror, naked, right after I brought home this beautiful baby that looked so much like me. And I knew, right then, that whatever negativity I leveled at myself she’d hear as judgement about her own body. That was it: that was my moment of total release. I let it all go. All the body image bullshit I’d carried around, all the times I’d been nudged to be quiet, to not take up space, to just get along–I let all that shit go. And I finally set about becoming the woman I really wanted to be.
That’s what my baby girl gave me: the gift of being totally and fully myself.
While I know that the journey is just as important as the destination and all that jazz, I’d like my daughter to grow up with actual knowledge of her own body and an understanding that there are so many ways to live into being a woman.
There’s power and beauty in it. And there’s struggle, too.
I want her to proudly wear the Feminist badge (and to understand and live out a feminism that is truly intersectional). I want her to love, cherish, and understand her body–because it’s beautiful, and powerful, and worthy just the way it is. And I want her to know that she can love whoever she chooses.
But most of all, I just want her to be a open to the big, beautiful possibilities that her life holds.