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: 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: 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.

Book Nerd Love (a Thank You)

Almost 2 years ago, I got this wild idea to open a bookstore.

What could be better for an extrovert with an immense enthusiasm for both people & books, right?

Except that I tend toward the risk-adverse. And I have a well-documented history of sticking with what I’m good at. Running a business? Well, that was uncharted territory…

Opening a bookstore involved writing a business plan (I resist even making a to-do list), figuring out funding (I’d rather eat a bug than think about finances 90% of the time), and securing a commercial space (a daunting task requiring contracts and commitment and other scary stuff).

If I’d attempted to embark on this bookstore adventure at any other point in my life, I wouldn’t have gotten past the daydreaming stage. But an incredible alchemy spiritual lessons I’d internalized from some folks who don’t even know they are spiritual teachers and the pull of committing to a neighborhood like EAV and putting down roots to serve the community–well, it made me brave(r).

And, really, the Universe kept nudging things into place to bring this little venture to life. Every time I got nervous or wondered what the hell I was thinking, another piece would magically just fall into place. To the point that opening a bookstore felt like a calling–an answer to a question of community and place, a real labor of love.

From its inception, so many folks pitched in to make Bookish happen. In big ways and small ways, they offered support, money, encouragement, connections. When the Grand Opening finally happened, and the store was packed with southeast Atlantans–most of whom I didn’t even know yet–I felt it… that knowledge that community spaces are always bigger than the people that run them. And that Bookish really was going to be a place centered on connection and community.

That connection, and the dedication of loyal customers to spreading the word about Bookish, is what has carried us through this pandemic. We’ve been delivering books to people’s doorsteps since we closed to the public on March 15th. We’ve Facetimed with our customers to show them what we’ve got in stock that hasn’t made it on the website just yet (pivoting from zero online presence to getting an e-commerce site up & in a groove has been something real special). We’ve texted recommendations (complete with pictures!) to customers looking for books to keep their kids entertained or something they can escape into to shut out the pandemic world for just a bit. We’ve ordered (and sold) what feels like a metric ton of antiracism books. And we’ve fielded special orders through just about every communications means possible (except carrier pigeon).

People have rallied around Bookish, and we’ve been happy to respond by keeping the community in books throughout the pandemic.

The bottom line is Bookish has been fortunate, and I know it. And I’m so very grateful.

So, when the air conditioner broke just over a week ago, I figured it would suck but I could figure it out. And then our trusty AC guy called with the repair bill. I knew it was going to be pretty shitty when he asked if I was sitting down.

Damn.

When the number came in at over a thousand dollars, I cussed the folks who leased me a building with an 20+ year old AC unit, and I railed against commercial leases in general (you really don’t want to get me started on this particular topic. It makes me a tad stabby).

And then I thought back to 2 of my favorite customers who, on separate occasions completely independent from each other, made me promise if finances got dire I’d ask for help.

I suck at asking for help.

But staring this AC bill in the face didn’t leave me a whole lot of wiggle room.

I thought, when I posted the GoFund Me to Keep Bookish Cool, that I’d raise a couple hundred dollars. Which would at least put me in a financial position that felt less precarious. It was a relief just to consider not having to swing the whole bill. I felt lighter.

And then the donations started coming in. Some in $10 increments. Some closer to $100. Every single one felt like a tremendous gift. I watched the number steadily rise. And I kept blinking back tears. Because what was even happening?!? I started looking at the names of donors… and they were my neighbors, my customers, people from Parkside (hey, Pandas!), folks from Burgess-Peterson Academy, people I know well, and people I don’t. But all of whom I now love. Because within a few hours the GoFundMe was 100% funded.

The amount of gratitude I feel isn’t easily quantifiable. To ask for help and have the whole community rally around me has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

It’s the most clear affirmation that Bookish truly means something to the community–that it really is so much bigger than me & my dream. And that investing in community is 100% where it’s at.

Not that I ever really doubted… but still.

So, for every friend (whether they be long-distance or an ATLien, new or old), every customer (regular or less frequent flier), every person who loves the idea of Bookish even though they’ve never been in the door, every EAVer who supports local business always–because it’s what we do, every single soul who donated even a dollar to this campaign–THANK YOU.

Everyone needs a bit of hope every now and again. And I don’t think I knew how much I needed y’all’s light until you gave it so freely.

The love that poured in through this GoFundMe has buoyed me. And it’s also paid for an AC repair AND July’s rent.

I am humbled. I am grateful. So from one book nerd to another: THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

Not Nothing

Somehow, I’ve found myself teaching a writing class to a handful of 9 and 10 year olds.

That’s weird in and of itself. I typically regard groups of kids the way I might regard, say, a murder of crows. Beautiful, but best to keep one’s distance.

I’m easily overwhelmed by the chaos, caw-CAWing, and furious flapping of wings.

Their unpredictability (groups of kids & crows) unnerves me. And my patience doesn’t near approach even backsliding saint level.

But, earlier this summer, I was clearly possessed by a benign, somewhat random spirit because I floated this idea for a summer writing camp. We could chalk the whole idea up to the fact that the bookstore needed an additional revenue stream. But, truthfully, it doesn’t feel that simple.

Deep down, way deep in my subconscious, I think I’m being pulled toward being the kind of adult that I needed in my world as a kid. One that would’ve encouraged my pull toward writing, pushed me to share and open up. I needed an adult to celebrate my creativity in all its quirkiness and to push me to color outside the lines. Hell, what I really needed was an adult to show me that you could obliterate the damn lines.

Before we started the writing class this week, it was a check box on my To-Do list. I wasn’t sure I’d be any good at teaching/facilitating a group of kids at all. But something happened to me when I saw their little faces pop up on my screen (it’s all virtual because it’s still all pandemic-y out there).

I saw them.

In all their weird, kid glory.

And it clicked for me, deep in my soul somewhere quiet and a little bit sacred, that what I also needed as a kid was other kids who would let me fly my weirdo flag without judgement. I needed a place to nerd out where I felt safe and valued.

Like magic, the murder of crows in my head flapped off in a flurry of feathers. And I was just left with these kids. Wide-open, quirky, sweet kids.

And seeing them made room for all my excitement about their stories–hell, about them in general–to come rushing out. It’s like someone rubbed off the dust of their kid coping mechanisms (muting the other kids, shrugging their shoulders, mumbling “I dunno…”) and let me see all their internal kid stuff that makes them pull back and want to close down.

Instead of becoming one giant sigh of exasperation, I suddenly find myself redirecting without any judgement. Because I see what their doing–and what they’re trying to hide from–so clearly. And I get it. But I also whole-heartedly believe that this togetherness, the vulnerable space they have to exist in to put themselves out there by writing and sharing, is greater than their fear.

And I’m kinda just wowed by their creativity and the scope of what some of them want to write. I’m sure as hell not going to stand in their way.

I don’t want to teach them to color outside the lines. I want to be the one who sets the paper ablaze, so we can all watch it burn.

But, grandiose Dead Poet’s Society dreams aside, at the very least, they’ll leave this little writing camp knowing that there’s one more adult out there in the world who thinks they’re awesome and believes in their creativity, who heard their story and their vision and celebrated it.

And that’s not nothing.

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.   

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn

Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn lays out a meandering history of two prominent Atlanta families: the Allens and the Dobbs.  

Both instrumental in guiding Atlanta toward living into its promise. Both local royalty in their own right. Both produced Mayors of the City Too Busy to Hate. 

One was white. One was black. 

Through this whopping 550 page narrative, Gary M. Pomerantz masterfully wove storytelling and history. Each page was a delight.  

Reading this tome beefed up my understanding of Atlanta history. And it laid bare the wounds of racism that, at times, have almost torn the city apart. But it also uncovered brave acts by members of each family-that lead Atlanta toward a more egalitarian footing. But the little glimpses of the BIG names in Atlanta being so utterly human—for better and for worse—are what really immersed me in the saga.   

I was completely taken with both these families. I admire Ivan Allen, Jr. wholeheartedly for the way he shifted his views on race through his life. The quiet ways he did the right thing resonated with me.  

And Maynard Jackson, Jr…. Let me tell you, I would give almost anything to zip back in time to be at his first inaugural address—to see him do what the old school white establishment said he could not. To see him win. 

But I’ll have to settle for sending my daughter to the Southeast Atlanta High School that bears his name. And that feels pretty good, too.