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.

Nitty Gritty: 3 Pillars of Zen

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.

This book paints all the walls white. Every time.

The Nitty Gritty: A Short History of Women

Holy Good Lord.

My feelings about this book are complicated at best. If you’d asked me any time over the past several weeks (and yes, I actually stretched out the reading of this novel for w-e-e-k-s, even though its only 237 pages) what I thought, I’d have told you I hated it. With oomph. And some cuss words.

A Short History of Women stretches from 1880 to 2007 and follows the female lineage in one family, as they navigate womanhood and its complexities. And, let’s be honest, there are plenty of complexities to being a woman. The book was broken into sections specific to a woman (and a time) in the lineage: The Suffragette, The Professor, The Junior Leaguer, The 80s Power Exec, and The Yale Freshman.

Ultimately, I suppose the trouble started because the sections written from the perspective of The Suffragette and The Professor (The Suffragette’s daughter) felt so performative. I just kept thinking, “You aren’t Virginia Woolf, lady,” Which may or may not be a fair critique. (I love Virginia Woolf, for what it’s worth. And admitting that I felt this way about the first half of the book makes me feel not-real-smart. And yet.) I couldn’t find any thing to grab onto in those chapters. They felt empty and pointless. Maybe that was the point? Woman’s life as a void? A search for meaning and purpose? Maybe.

I finally started vibing with the book when we got to the next generation (The Junior Leaguer). The exploration of her journey toward self-realization happens when she’s older–in her 70s maybe. She was a housewife of the 60s & 70s (which, to square with my world view/experience, put her right between my grandmother & my mother). I fell in love with the plight & fight of First Wave feminists in college–and this character was all of the plight and none of the fight. Like she was bewildered by her own existence: “I am a hollow bone.” It was poignant and sad. And hers was a fight against futility that seemed familiar–like maybe I was raised to be that person and escaped at the last minute.

But the best part about her was the fight she found in herself toward the end of her life. The chaos she created in her own little world, simply to feel alive. I’m a sucker for women coming to realizations later in life. The idea that it’s never too late to discover who you really are. And she talks about rage a lot (which is something I uncovered in myself only after I became a mother–an odd paradox, but a truth. And I love being a mother, so the rage was particularly both unwelcome and potent).

And, toward the end, the exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic, the push and pull of closeness and separation, the painful and intriguing knowledge that all human beings remain in some way unknowable and mysterious, no matter the love in which you hold them… I fell completely in love. With the characters. With their shortcomings. With how much they wanted. And how much they might have. Or not.

Everything seemed possible toward the end. An unfurling of possibility and self-determination. A breaking open.

I still hated the first part of the book. But the slog was almost worth it for the way the end made me feel. That push and pull toward the characters–the complexity of being drawn toward the things I want/value in my own life and wanting to banish or deny the feelings/experiences I don’t want/wish I didn’t have.

It most assuredly has made me think about being a woman, what I want to carry forth and leave behind, and what I hope to pass to my own daughter. Maybe that’s enough.

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of I Don’t Want to Be Crazy

I Don’t Want to be Crazy, by Samantha Schultz, made me a little cagey.  

But only because her truth resonated so profoundly with me. I wanted to run away from it, brush it off, escape from the memories of living with panic disorder. 

It is hell. 

Schultz captures the experience of being young, wildly self-absorbed (100% a rite of passage), and battling a serious mental health issue with a laser precision. If I could, I’d make this required reading for everyone.  

Period.  

Because in the thick of it, all I wanted was for people to understand what it felt like to be fighting for my sanity at a party while everyone else laughed and acted like they were really alive, while I was just barely exisiting, engulfed in utter hopelessness, sure that there would never be a normal.  

This book frustrated me, too—in the way that things do when they remind you of a self you hope you’ve left behind. But ultimately I felt seen, and I wish my younger, panic ridden self (or even my early 30s panicked self) could have read this book. Because then I would’ve known that I wasn’t alone. And maybe no one is really normal, after all. 

Ultimately, Schultz draws hope out of despair. And she lays out the most promising part of her truth: you can get better. But it’s gonna take a helluva lot of work, perseverance, and determination. But there’s always room for hope.