You know I haven’t reviewed a book since September? The end of the year is tough for me – autumn is lovely, but I spend most of it in dread over the inevitable winter. And then once winter comes, I spend it all wishing for the return of sunlight and reasonable temperatures. SAD sucks a lot of the creativity out of me, and for sure it takes whatever energy or impetus I might have had to write. Nevertheless, I continue to read, and I’d like to share some of the good stuff with you all.
Jennifer Latham: Dreamland Burning; Or: Everybody Learns A Lesson. Did you know there was a race riot in Tulsa in 1921? Neither did I. But I learned that from this book! In true coming-of-age-story style, everybody learns something here. In some ways, at some times, the narrative comes perilously close to after-school-special, and more than once during the reading of this book I found myself with these four tones running on a loop in my head. But the mystery is intriguing, and the fact of the connection between the characters with its as-yet-unclear delineations is captivating enough to keep a casual reader interested. I had the distinct impression that this would be an excellent book for high school English or Social Studies classes, in the vein of The Wave or The Outsiders, a vehicle for teaching Something That Needs To Be Taught while teaching conventional lessons, too. Recommend.
Roxane Gay: Difficult Women; Or: 21 Screen Stories Ready for Ava Duvernay. I am never fully satisfied by beauty unless it devastates me, and Roxane Gay shatters me. As I read each story, I watched it unfold before my eyes, visualizing in a way that only the best writers can inspire. I took my time with this collection, setting it down for a while between each story – sometimes within stories – the better to absorb them. And each time I read a story I thought, “I want to watch this movie!” They were each so visceral, so real to me. The common thread through this collection is thick, making some of the stories perhaps a bit eerily similar. This is only a problem if you don’t like good stories, or if you can’t handle stories about women’s inner lives. I loved this collection. Highly recommend.
Louise Erdrich: The Last Report on The Miracles at Little No Horse; Or: How To Slow Roll Your Readers In 200 Pages Or Fewer. I bought this book because Erdrich was selling signed copies at her bookstore for $10 and for no other reason. Well, I was willing to spend $10 on a book I knew nothing about because I’d read some of Erdrich’s other stuff and loved it, so I guess I knew something about it, sort of. The Last Report is a slow roll of the finest order. It takes you and grips you and won’t tell you why, but doesn’t let you go. Nothing happens for the longest time, and you think you’ve maybe been swindled, that this book is perhaps a fluke, a rare lemon, but you keep reading because you spent those 10 goddamn dollars and you are going to find out what happens…and then the last 1/3 of the book hits you like a tsunami that is also a lullaby and you feel outraged, soothed, swept away, bewildered, conned, delighted. You are yanked across. Highly recommend.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge; Or: Nothing Is Surprising. George and Martha Washington enslaved a woman who got herself free and they tried as hard as they could to get her back while still being polite about it. They never managed it. The thing that is peculiar about Judge’s story is the fact that there were still laws on the books at the time that kinda, sorta, let enslaved people hope for actual freedom in the North, and that her particular family situation at Mount Vernon was such that she was able to seek her freedom without the corset-tight ties of husband and children and dependent parents/grandparents back home (which is not to say she didn’t have ties – it was awful having to leave her folks). The book is history, not a novelization, so Dunbar sticks tight to the historical record. This limits her narrative pretty strongly, but you still get a flavor for Judge. Seems like she was a pretty fierce bitch. Recommend.
Mat Johnson: Loving Day; Or: Oh, Boy. When I first read about this book, I thought it looked interesting. Before I was willing to read it, though, I wanted to know something about the author. I looked at his picture on google and thought, oh, geez. WTF does a white guy have to say about the complexity of interracial relationships and the concept of multiraciality itself? No, thanks. And then I read a little more and realized I’m an asshole (for the millionth time). So, I read. Loving Day is good. It’s good because it’s a good book – plot, characters, etc. There are ways to quantify good reading, and Loving Day hits all those data points. It’s also a good book because it’s a ~good~ book – it does something good to the reader, has something important to say about our world. Mat Johnson is a fucking talented author. Highly recommend.
Johann Hari: Chasing The Scream; Or: We Are So Incredibly Fucked. Listen. I don’t know what to say about this book except “holy shit.” I think Hari’s analysis is spot on, which is horrifying and terribly, deeply sad. The upside, I suppose, is that there do exist better and more effective ways to treat drug addiction. I don’t feel particularly optimistic about them, though, when you consider that the reason we don’t do those things already is because Americans are such mean-spirited, racist motherfuckers as a group. (Don’t argue with me about this. Donald Motherfucking Trump is in the White House – we are racist, sexist, awful people, and he is the proof.) Recommend.
Alex Gino: George; Or: Melissa Goes To The Zoo. This heartbreaking heartwarmer tells the story of a great little kid with a really great friend. It captures the immediacy of the feeling of this particular stage of childhood so well – I found myself picturing my own classroom, my own school yard, my own best friend at that age. George’s specific challenge isn’t one a lot of kids will face themselves, but it’s one that we can all respond to and have empathy for. I loved this book. If you’ve got a kid between the ages of 4-11, I recommend reading them Charlotte’s Web and then moving right into George. It’s another companion book I think should be in classrooms. Highly Recommend.