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: 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.

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 Hey, Kiddo.

True confession time: I’d never read a graphic novel before Hey, Kiddo.  

I know.  

But, of course, the first graphic novel I grab is a memoir that tackles super-heavy stuff like addiction, loss, and belonging. Because tights and capes are overrated. 

I picked Hey, Kiddo specifically because it addresses addiction. I often wonder about how to talk to my own kid about recovery (I’ve been sober for 10 years). And I was eager to see if a graphic novel could stand up to the challenge of representing the ugly, heartbreaking side of having an active addict as a parent.  

It did. And it was brutal. 

But it was often hopeful. And funny.  

I loved Jarrett’s emotional journey toward finding his peace with his family as-is. Because, addiction or not, we all have to reckon with the family we’ve been dealt. We can embrace their idiosyncrasies, forgive their faults, own our part in the whole giant mess, and love them anyway…or not. We can create our own families with friends we collect along the way. And, no matter who we are or how we grew up, we can break the cycle of abuse, addiction, neglect.  

My ultimate takeaway (a pretty powerful one for teenagers reading this book): Your family contributes to who you are. They do not define you. They are part of your story. The beginning. Only you can decide what happens from there.  

Hey, Kiddo is not always a happy story. But it’s a real story. I respect that.  

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Shakespeare’s Trollop

I didn’t even mean to read this book. Not really. 

I meant to read one of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, because I think they’re Urban Fantasy, and I’m supposed to be checking that out. Like field research for the bookstore.  

But this one caught my eye instead. Because Shakespeare’s Trollop is about the best title ever. So, I read it. In just over 24 hours.  

This is the kind of book people like to pigeon-hole as frivolous reading–“beach reading” people call it when they’re being polite. But all reading is important… because books will speak to you, if you let them. They’ll meet you where you are and teach you. 

Shakespeare’s Trollop made some pretty strong observations about human nature: our willingness to judge others without considering the life events that shaped them; our desire to be in control constantly battling with our need for connection; our drive to categorize and label other people, without acknowledging that people can be multifaceted, complex, and human. 

The truth is I didn’t love the protagonist, Lily Bard (but what a GREAT name for a book set in Shakespeare, Arkansas), or feel any real connection to her. Which is usually a deal-breaker for me. But there I went, turning one page after another because I needed to know who had committed the murder in Shakespeare and WHY. Ultimately, I appreciated Harris’ glimpses into human nature (including my own). And her writing. Which is smooth as butter.  


The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of Rubyfruit Jungle

The first time I read Rubyfruit Jungle, I was 19 years old, recently out, and head-over-heels in love with my girlfriend. I devoured the book. It was mouthy, cocky, and brash—most of the things I wasn’t but really wanted to be. But most importantly, Rubyfruit Jungle offered me the gift of seeing some of my own life experiences, my thoughts, my pain reflected back to me on the page. I was represented in this book. And I was there for it. 100%. 

24 years later… Rubyfruit Jungle did not disappoint. I’d forgotten about the immediacy of the narrative, the precise turn of phrase that feels like a gut-punch, the poignant moments that remind me who I am (and how far I’ve come). It’s all still there.  

But, as a grown-ass woman, Molly Bolt read different. I saw less of her bravado and more of her tenderness. One scene with her mother toward the novel’s end slayed me—and it hadn’t really even been on my radar the first go-round. But it spoke so clearly to my own pain in coming out and navigating fractured familial relationships… I wonder how I could have missed it. But another interlude between Molly and a young lover, that I’d played up in my mind so much that I was sure the entire novel revolved around this relationship, seemed entirely insignificant to me.  

Turns out that Rubyfruit Jungle was still speaking to me after all these years… but offering entirely different insights. 

The Nitty Gritty: A Remotely Intellectual Review of I’m Still Here–Black Dignity in A World Made for Whiteness

Sometimes I get too big for my britches. That’s just cold hard truth. 

In a short, succinct, and damn powerful book, Austin Channing Brown managed to make me take an honest look at my relationship to whiteness and how I manage that in spaces where I’m working toward racial justice—hell, in any spaces at all. And she kinda took me down a peg. 

This book is a hard read. Because it’s honest. But it’s crucial for white folks invested in ending racism. Because that shit is pervasive. And difficult to stamp out, even with the best of intentions. And what will render me totally ineffective–and even harmful–is thinking I understand what it’s really like to move through America as a person of color. And thinking that the systemic racism that pervades America culture has somehow been washed clean from my psyche. This book fully disabused me of that notion. And reminded me that it is a fight every day to undo the assumptions, the misconceptions, the prejudice engrained in me as a white woman.  

I champion reading because I believe it changes us to our core. Books can offer perspective entirely different from our own. And because books expect nothing of us, we can process our feelings, our confusion, our defensiveness in the quiet of our own mind. Which is what, if you are white like me, you are going to want to do with this book.  

Read it. You’ll be better for it.