I’m a pretty shitty feminist.

I don’t ground my writing in feminism because I’m deeply afraid of doing the whole thing wrong. Like I’m not academic enough. I don’t see the stamp of patriarchy & oppression in places where it’s so obvious to other feminists.

But, look, I’m 45 years old. And I’m focused on building a world where women can thrive–not only for me, but for my 10 year old daughter. So, I figured it was time to dip my toe back into feminism. I started with Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay. Good lord, y’all. I’ve not laughed that hard reading a book in a while. She also made my heart ache, and made me think, and suddenly I was like … OH, this is feminism, too.

Because Roxanne Gay is WAY smarter than I am. But she never once made me cry UNCLE! to her intellect. Not even once. And it opened me back up to really figuring out what a feminist worldview looks like.

When I cracked open Three Women, I didn’t really know what to expect. Sure, I’d picked it for the Bookish 2021 Reading Challenge because come on, just read this:

Hailed as “a dazzling achievement” (Los Angeles Times) and “a riveting page-turner that explores desire, heartbreak, and infatuation in all its messy, complicated nuance” (The Washington Post), Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women has captivated readers, booksellers, and critics–and topped bestseller lists–worldwide. Based on eight years of immersive research, it is “an astonishing work of literary reportage” (The Atlantic) that introduces us to three unforgettable women–and one remarkable writer–whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.

Despite the last line in the blurb above, I didn’t expect to see myself in any of these women. But I found bits of myself in every one. I found myself completely mesmerized not only by the stories but by Lisa Taddeo’s wizardry with language. I stuck a post-it in the book to mark a passage that resonated deeply… like a tiny explosion of truth in my chest. Then I had to scrounge for another post-it. And another. Then I just went and got a whole bunch of damn post-its. And that’s when I knew: this was going to be one of those seismic shift books for me.

The theme that kept weaving it’s way around in my brain was about identity and desire. Each of the three women sought affirmation from the men they desired… but they also sought, and rarely received, affirmation from the women in their worlds as well.

It was as if they had nothing positive to attach their identity to–so their constructs became based solely on negatives, on subtraction, on being less.

If I seem too invested, he’ll leave.

If I show too much emotional desire, he’ll leave.

If I eat too much, he’ll leave.

If I draw boundaries, he’ll leave.

Desire–or at least the outward expression of it–had to be so measured, so careful crafted for the object of the desire, that at points it seemed like a complete descent into madness.

I have lived that life of reduction. It is madness.

And part of the madness–what really fuels it–is that while outwardly desire is measured, inwardly it rages on, out of control, until nothing else matters. Nothing. else.

I wanted to jump thought the pages, grab each of these women and take them for coffee somewhere quiet. Because surely, if they could just look at this objectively, they’d see…

But the cruelest cut, the reason the book give the reader so very much to think about regarding the construction of desire is encapsulated in an end-of-life exchange between the author and her mother:

Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.

Who?

Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.

I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see that you are happy, they will try to destroy you (297).

Well, holy hell.

I sat with this exchange for a minute. I read it. And re-read it. The idea that women reflect off other women to create identity and to gauge their approval of the identity they have created (of their own selves), had appeared several times throughout the book.

But this one was a gut-punch.

Because as the narratives of the three women intertwined, it became evident that the cruelest cuts–the ones that undermined the women’s sense of self and pushed them toward a continued balancing act of trying to be just enough but, god forbid, not too much–happened at the hands of other women. Some were tiny cuts. Some were markedly more damaging. But all along, they were accumulating–so that when it counted, when desire swirled on the edge of madness, and when it wasn’t easy to locate a sense of self amid all the debris–what was left was a gaping wound, and nowhere solid to land.

Maybe the first step toward being a good feminist is making sure that women have a solid place to land. Even if we don’t agree with their decisions. Even if they’re outrageously happy. What if we just approved of and supported other women because… well… humans deserve that? Women, too. Especially from other women.

Wild Quests & Small Talk

I suck at small talk.

It’s taken me a long time to reckon with that truth. But there it is.

I love people, though. I think they’re endlessly fascinating. But only if they’re telling me about things that mean something to them.

This made me ill-suited for office potlucks. But uniquely suited to own a bookstore.

Books delve into the heart of the things we wrestle with when we are alone. They draw out into the light the biggest questions in our existence. And they play them out in narrative form.

Amazing.

Hell yes, I want to talk about that stuff.

Yesterday, I stood in the bookstore with one of my oldest friends and one of my most adored customers talking about pandemic social awkwardness, fatigue and sorrow, and figuring out the difference between self-care & flakiness. It felt both intimate and safe. And 100% normal to talk about the things that are weighing most on our spirits right now, surrounded by hundreds of books that explore some of those very same questions: what is our place in the world? How do we impact the larger universe (even in the smallest ways)? How do we survive the shitty things and still find joy?

I’ve found myself reading a bizarre smattering of books lately and finding each of them shifting my world view a bit. As good books do.

The latest was Into the Wild. This isn’t a new book. But that’s kind of the joy of owning a (mostly) used bookstore. Sometimes you just grab what speaks to you–even if it was written over 20 years ago.

I don’t read a lot of nature/adventure books. Hell, I don’t even read a lot of nonfiction. But we ended up with a bunch of copies of Into the Wild before we opened & it caught my eye. I do love a good mystery (I always want the whys behind people’s stories). So it’d been on my TBR list (which only really exists as a figment of my imagination) for almost 2 years. The other day, I finally picked it up.

The deeper I delve into my spirituality, the more I’m drawn to being outside, to the cycles of nature, to appreciating the wild (which really means for me a well-worn hiking trail somewhere relatively close by). But, even though my experience tends toward the super safe dipping in and out of nature, its long been a dream to pick up and move into a shipping container in the middle of the woods.

This runs counter to everything about me: I like people. I thrive on the energetic thrum of Atlanta. I also like my cozy bed, flannel sheets, and fluffy duvet.

But there’s something romantic about leaving it all behind, paring down what I own into the barest minimum, and making a go of it in a place where the rhythms of the universe aren’t just apparent–they are everything.

So, Into the Wild spoke to that part of me. And it reminded me what my ego would prefer that I forget: I was once a 23 year old hell-bent on making decisions that could have cost me my life. I (like Chris McCandless aka Alex Supertramp) also saw the world in stark black and white. And I also had no use for folks who didn’t see things my way–still don’t sometimes. I’m working on it.

As I read, I swung wildly between horror at McCandless’s carelessness with the people who loved him (note: I’m in recovery & was equally careless with the people who loved me when I was in my 20s) and an ever-evolving understanding of what he might have been after. I got stuck right between wanting to believe we had nothing in common & knowing that was bullshit. Because I’ve been on a spiritual quest my whole life (except for the parts I stayed drunk primarily to fend off that same quest) and finding meaning has been the driving force in my life. Just like McCandless.

It’s a beautifully wrought book when the author can take you from contempt for a subject and wind you back around to understanding how very similar you are… and how one decision can separate the living from the dead.

It’s rare to come face to face with your own searching and longing–and then to be overwhelmed with gratitude for your own life. I made so many decisions along the way that could have cost me everything. But I emerged from the spiritual abyss of my 20s, got myself sober, and now get the immense privilege of owning a bookstore & connecting with other people (who are so often where I find the divine) every day.

McCandless never got that privilege, the ability to continue his journey and discover where he might end up.

I think, when it comes down to it, I loved Into the Wild for the same reasons I love owning a bookstore: we are all so wildly different. And yet, there are these gossamer threads of truth that hold us all together.

Into the Wild tugged one of those threads for me.

Everything’s Coming Up Witches

Back in early December, my book club picked A Discovery of Witches for our upcoming book nerd-out session. And when I say “we” picked it, I really mean I nudged it forward because folks had been coming in the store to grab the book. And it’s super helpful if, as a bookseller, I can chat about (or recommend) a book that’s garnering a lot of interest (it’s a series on Netflix …. and that gives book sales a big boost. I can’t even get any of the Bridgerton novels currently. Backstockarama, that one).

What’s funny is that I’d already tried to read A Discovery of Witches twice. And hated it both times. But books are mysterious. Sometimes it just has to be the right time, the stars have to align, and the Starbucks barista has to be able to correctly spell your name before a book will really strike you. But I was determined this time to read the damn book.

Which worked out because… witches.

Witches are real big in our house right now.

The sacred feminine has held me in it’s thrall since I read Women Who Run with the Wolves when I was 20 something. Pure magic. The power & mystery wrapped up in being a woman is nothing short of miraculous. That belief runs so deep in me that when Simon told me he was going to transition, I asked him why he would want to devolve like that (Alright. It wasn’t my finest moment. But I just didn’t understand how anyone could not want to be a woman. Don’t worry–I’m clearer on things now.)

I knew I was ready to explore the sacred feminine more fully this year, so I grabbed a planner with the phases of the moon, the Wheel of the Year (I do love a holiday celebration & ritual), and some preliminary witchy spells/rituals. Nifty. That sits on my bedside table so I can jot down what speaks to me most from my horoscope each morning (It’s woowoo AF over here lately. We’re embracing all the magic).

I’d also been looking for a good intro-to-all-things-witchy nonfiction book, and one of my bookstore customers recommended Witch, which is utterly amazing by the way. Lots of applicable knowledge about everything from history to casting a circle. It’s the perfect alchemy of hang-out-and-chat-about-woman-stuff and walk-into-your-power goodness. And the cover of that book (and, yes, almost everyone judges a book by it’s cover) is like BOOM. Here I am. In all my glory & power. It’s also on my bedside table.

And, for our family hang-out tv show, we’re watching Just Add Magic. It is adorable. And, well, magic-y*. I keep piping up in the middle of the show to let Jane & Simon know when things on the show line up with what I’ve read, like when each spell comes with a price often steeper than the magic being performed (see: Threefold Law). Jane just nods and eats another Oreo. I’m sure Simon’s making a mental note about how he’ll hear all about this later, whether he wants to or not (he’s long-suffering).

Anyway, into all that witchiness came A Discovery of Witches. And it was just the escapist reading I needed. It was totally otherworldly (vampires, witches, daemons), while still being of this world (set mostly in Oxford). I got into it enough that I dreamed of vampires for nights on end (they’re complicated & I was getting really close to understanding them, y’all).

What got me (and kept me reading) was the discovery of power storyline. There’s a central thread in the book that you cannot deny or escape power that is rightfully yours. It’s been bestowed upon you, and it will find a way out. Your only choice is to harness that power and control it–or it will control you.

I mean… hello, metaphor for life.

I’m a woman who has given away her power spiritually since she was a child. I let other people tell me what to think and how to believe. And I am done with it. I am 100% down with exploring my own power, having my own dealings with the divine, and not really giving one fig what anyone else has to say about it.

Diana, the protagonist in A Discovery of Witches, has been trying to make a go of her life on her own–without magic. Which leaves her hollow, albeit highly functional. But she’s cut off from everything that makes her special, from her own birthright in a long lineage of witches. What follows in the book is a messy discovery of herself, one that she can’t escape any more even if she tries.

I can relate to back-against-the-wall-self-discovery (which is pretty much the definition of getting sober). And I was driven to know more about her backstory (none of which I can tell you, because spoilers) and her journey to her own power.

There is a romance storyline wrapped in this. Parts of it resonated deeply with me (I don’t think many of us come into our power completely on our own) and parts were highly problematic. I liked that I pushed against it as much or more than it drew me in. But, for me, that part of the storyline was an addendum (more or less).

I was thrilled to have read this one. It was all that I needed it to be right now: a place to escape but also to believe that maybe we all have more power than we realize.

It fit right into my gigantic woowoofest & it completed the trinity of witch books on my bedside table. It’s definitely all coming up witches this January.

*This is a super-cute show. And they aren’t pushing any agenda, except friendship, loyalty, and personal responsibility. Which I think we can all get on board with.

The Nitty Gritty: Clap When You Land

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…

And yet.

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.

It’s good y’all. Go read it.

The Nitty Gritty: Charm & Strange

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.

The Nitty Gritty: She’s Come Undone

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.

Read this one.

The Nitty Gritty: Welcome to Braggsville

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 Rye fans). 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?

Definitely.

The Nitty Gritty: The Yellow House

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.

The Nitty Gritty: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

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.

The Nitty Gritty: When You Reach Me

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.

Not that I’d know anything about that.