Tuesday, March 6, 2018

It's Tuesday at the Leaning Stack of Books!

I’m a day late for my weekly update! So sorry! Can I blame it on the fact that I received another inexplicable recommendation from Goodreads?

Based on my reading preferences??????!
My intent last week was to read one book: News of the World by Paulette Jiles. I did that, and I also got through 2 more: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Rise Up!: Life and Literacy in an Urban First Grade By Linda Katz.

An American Marriage is, of course, the most recent Oprah book club pick. And I have lots of thoughts – ones that I should turn into a longer post. This book is about a marriage, sure, but the title, “An American Marriage,” is significant. My take is that the novel is as much about what our obligations are to each other as Americans as it is about our obligations to each other are in intimate relationships.

A fun tidbit about Tayari Jones – she once shined her famous writerly gaze on this blog. Here’s a screen shot of our exchange on Twitter after I posted my thoughts about her previous novel, Silver Sparrow.

In the spirit of setting small goals, I will be reading one new one this week: Force of Nature by Jane Harper. I read Dry, the first in Harper’s Aaron Falk series, in January, and I’m excited to return to the Australian setting and the fast paced plotting of these mysteries.

For those of you looking for new things to read, here’s a link to The Millions’ list of new books coming out in March. I just added The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea to my enormous leaning stack.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Staying Upright in a Messed Up World

My ability to get things done is very affected by the news. I recently wrote about how destabilized I was by the 2016 election and its aftermath, and how my reading and writing life suffered because of it. Watching the news these last couple of weeks has also unsettled me. But I’m trying to stay upright. I bought a happy light. I put highlights in my hair. And yesterday I went to the gym for the first time in eons.

While on the treadmill, I listened to Will Schwalbe’s new podcast, “But That’s Another Story,” which features different authors talking about their reading origin stories.  Schwalbe is most famous for his book, The End of Your Life Book Club. The first episode spotlights Min Jin Lee, who wrote Pachinko, a book I received at my book club’s holiday book exchange (and which is perched atop my leaning stack!). And at the outset of the episode, Schwalbe reads the famous James Baldwin quote about empathy:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.

I don’t know why Baldwin's insight struck me so much at that moment (somewhere around mile 2, at the point where I remembered that I hate running on the treadmill). There have been so many times recently when I have wondered if it matters that I read books or talk about them or write about them. And that set of questions very easily shifts into, “Why bother?” Baldwin reminds me that reading is a bridge to greater understanding of the world, an understanding that I so desperately need right now. So you can thank James Baldwin (via Schwalbe via the gym) for my first "It's Monday!" post in over a year.

The good news is that I finished two books last week. First I read Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 2017. I will write about that book shortly, because I think it's an important one for those of us grappling with questions about why things in the world seem so messed up.  I also read Girl at War, by Sara Nović, which is a fictionalized account of the Balkan Civil War in the 1990s.

This week I am reading News of the World by Paulette Jiles. This book has been recommended to me by so many people, which is weird because I wouldn't pick it up on my own in a million years ("for lovers of Texas historical fiction"). I have checked it out from the library 5 times, and the fifth time is going to be the charm. In addition to all the praise the novel has received, it has the added bonus of being only 200 pages. I’m all about small goals these days. 

Before I leave you, I have a random question. Can anyone explain the logic of Goodreads’ algorithm for picking recommendations? Today I woke up to this:

I can guarantee that I don’t have a single cowboy romance on the list of things I have read – no offense to cowboys, of course. Also, the blurb says, “Luke like his life – and his women – uncomplicated.” Luke would not like me at all.  Goodreads, I’m feeling a little bit misunderstood.

(It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Monday, February 5, 2018

Blogtastic!: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

BLOGTASTIC! We’ve reached the last and final square in the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge. Today will feature Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, which fulfills the category, “Book by an Asian-American Writer.”

The book blogosphere loves Ng’s books, because they are very accessible family dramas that offer entry into complicated conversations about identity. Her debut, Everything I Never Told You, was the Amazon Book of the Year in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere was the Amazon Best Novel of the year in 2017 an the Goodreads Choice Best Fiction Book of the Year in 2017. So y’all love your Ng.

I like Ng’s books. I do! But I don’t love them, and that always makes me feel weird. It’s kind of how I feel about Star Wars. Sure, I’ll go, but I have no interest in standing in line in costume at midnight to see it. 

photo credit: Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency at nyt.com
Little Fires Everywhere is a book that is trying to do several things. First, it is a satire of sorts of white, affluent culture. The novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which is the author’s hometown. Ng takes aim at the pristine appearance of the setting, the rules and conventions, and the supposed progressive politics of the very rich people. Second, it is an exploration of the complexities of motherhood, and the novel features several mother/daughter relationships that poke at all the ways that being a “good mother” is difficult. And third, the novel wants to explore intercultural/interracial/interclass adoption, which brings all three themes together. Ambitious, right?

The problem I have is that I don’t think that Ng really trusts her audience to grapple with the complex moral issues at the center of the book. I’m not truly spoiling anything with this discussion, but STOP RIGHT NOW if you are worried about finding out too much about the story. 

The interracial/cultural/class adoption controversy involves a legal challenge between affluent/white adoptive parents and a low income, young, Asian birth mother. Class issues are central here, because the baby will certainly grow up with all sorts of material advantages if she stays with her adoptive parents. But the birth mother’s biological connection and cultural connection sit as important, contrasting advantages.  There’s so much interesting (and tragic) possibility in this subject matter, but I don’t think that Ng allows us to encounter the difficult heart of this problem. I wanted to feel challenged, but the adoptive parents are so completely clueless that I felt manipulated. What if the adoptive parents had surrounded the daughter with people and experiences that would help her connect to her heritage? What if there was genuine goodness – though different goodness - on both sides of the legal aisle? Then the reader would have a real dilemma, just as we do when this issue plays out in real courts, when we have to ask, “How does race matter?” and “How does class matter?”

So read this for your book club! There’s a ton to talk about, clearly. You can even wear your Star Wars costume while you do so.

Original from pinterest.com. Then I mangled it.
Here’s an interesting interview with Ng. And here she is in The Atlantic talking about the significance of Goodnight Moon: “If you imagine this book without the words that accompany the pictures, it would be a mystifying work—even a little bit terrifying.”

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Blogtastic!: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Today I’ll be writing about the fourth square on my 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge bingo card: Book By An “Award Winning” Author of Color. I read The Round House by Louise Erdrich not because I wanted to, but because my high school aged sons were assigned to read this in class.  And I knew from reviews --EEK, the subject matter! And I don’t think this is a spoiler because it happens in Chapter 1:

The main character’s mother is raped, and the bad guy tries to set her on fire.

This struck me as a shocking topic for a tenth grade discussion until I realized that it’s probably the plot of half of the mass market thrillers on bookstore shelves. But still, trigger warning for this entire book!

The main character is a Native teenager who, as his family struggles with this crime, has to confront the idea of justice. And the crime happens at a place where location matters – will it be subject to United States federal law or tribal law? The question of rights and authority is literal, but it is also philosophical: can there ever be real justice for indigenous groups?

The other thing that is striking about this book is that it is a coming-of-age story. So much of this book did resemble novels that I had to read in high school: The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, etc. It is the terribleness of the crime that sets it apart, and the fact that a young boy has to live with that kind of violence. Is the reason that I was so shocked at this content because people like me (white, economically stable) can assume a protected childhood? Is this belief just another facet of privilege? There’s a connection here to Between the World and Me, in which Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writes a letter to his son about what it means to be young, black boy today. The message: The world might be safe for some people, but it’s not safe for you.

What would Holden Caulfield say about the fact that adults made an online quiz about him to help kids get good grades in school?
I also saw a connection with Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (#4 on my Best of 2017 list). That book has coming-of-age elements (main character is a teen boy coming to understanding about his family), and it also confronts the idea of whether justice is possible for the characters. There are cultural ghosts in both novels that tether the current day story to history. I can imagine a fantastic book club discussion with the three books together (Erdrich, Coates, Ward) – assuming, of course, that your book club wants to dive into deepest literary sadness.

The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. Erdrich’s 2009 novel, The Plague of Doves, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Award in 1984.

The internet just told me that Erdrich owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. It’s an independent bookstore that focuses on Native literature and community. So if you’re there for the Super Bowl, go check it out!

Here’s a 2012 New York Times interview with Erdrich about The Round House. And here’s a new one from Elle magazine. The interviewer is Margaret Atwood!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blogtastic!: Janesville by Amy Goldstein

 We’ve made it to the “free square” on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge bingo card. I’ve decided to choose the category, “Nonfiction About Race or Class in America.” And the book that fills that category is Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.

I listened to Janesville on audio, and come to think of it, audio books offered a great way for me to branch out from my go-to diet of fiction about sad white ladies. In the final half of 2017, I listened to three audio books that filled squares on my bingo card. Yay, broadened horizons!

Janesville is a true case of narrative ethnography -- only rarely do I feel like the author steps in the middle of it. It follows the trajectory of residents of Janesville, Wisconsin after the General Motors plant closes and offers a complicated story of the declining middle class. I was most struck by the hope that gets pinned on education (workforce retraining) as a way to bolster the middle class in the face of economic change -- and, in this case, its lack of impact.

This book will clearly appeal to people wondering what happened during the 2016 election, and frankly, I think it is better than Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – which was the book that has received the most praise for trying to explain the mindset that propelled some economically struggling white people to become Trump’s base. Goldstein brings a journalist’s eye and craft to her work, while Vance is talking about his family and his neighbors and his own history. Janesville is part of this same conversation because of Wisconsin’s Electoral College vote outcome and also because it is Paul Ryan’s hometown. It is notable, however, that this is NOT a book about Trump, and Goldstein doesn’t even mention him until the epilogue. Plus, Janesville voted Democratic during the election.

Several reviewers have noted that Janesville needs a part 2. Understanding the state of our politics requires grappling with race, and Goldstein does not do that with much depth. It’s true that the Janesville community is over 95% white, but the existence of the all-white communities is part of the story of racial segregation and exclusion that is central to American economic history. Goldstein does give a nod to the fact that Beloit, Wisconsin – just down the freeway from Janesville – is more racially diverse (15% African American and 17% Latino). The politics that led to a region that has those racialized elements is important.

Of course, there might be a bigger question at stake for readers who pick up a book about Wisconsin. What is the appeal of cheese curds? Why?!?!?!
Vat O'Curds

Valentine's Day Themed Curds?????
Here’s a link to a Marketplace interview with Goldstein, with an edited print transcript included. And here’s a review that I liked from The New Yorker.  Janesville won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year for 2017.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Blogtastic!: Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Today I’m focusing on bingo square #2 on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge: Nonfiction About Gender or Gender Roles. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a letter the author writes to a friend about how to raise a feminist.

Like in her fiction (Americanah is my favorite!), Adichie is writing about her understanding of both Nigerian and Western/American contexts. Growing up a feminist is both culturally specific and more universally political, and it was interesting to think about the idea of equality with that in mind.

I listened to this book on audio, but I have since read excerpts of it in print. Though I am enjoying the way I can grow my stack of books by listening to audio versions in the car, I will say that audio does this book a disservice.  Adichie is a powerful speaker. I have used her TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," in my classes. THIS is the voice readers need to hear in their head when they read this book. The American audio reader sounds particularly disconnected from the letter in her hands.

I listened to this book before the #MeToo events of this fall, but the book is even more profound with that movement in mind. Raising a child is a political act, and it helps to be thoughtful about our language (princess?) and about binaries (can you be both feminist and feminine? Or are those opposite constructs?) I was especially compelled with her critique of the idea of “likeability.” We certainly expect powerful women to be likeable, but we don’t expect the same of men (think: 2016 election). Here’s a little excerpt, which I took from her Facebook page:

Please do not ever put this pressure on your daughter. We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the ‘feelings’ of those who are hurting them… We have a world full of women who are unable fully to exhale because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.

Helping a child become a good person is such hard work. Adichie reminds us that consciousness-raising requires being conscious of all the little things. Now that the holidays are over, I'd like to add a 16th suggestion. Can we get real about Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer? I think it might be time to stop celebrating Rudolf's story – or at least call out his sexist dad – don’t you think?

I recently listened to an interesting Atlantic Interview podcast featuring Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I downloaded it from Apple Podcasts, but the YouTube link gives you the audio. And here’s an article about her from The Guardian.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Blogtastic! The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Today I’m focusing on bingo square #1 on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge: YA Novel By a Writer of Color. It’s possible that The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the only YA novel I read last year. I do find that I read fewer of them these days, despite having young adults in my house, because I’m not much into dystopia or dragons. Next year I might put a new square on the bingo card: YA Novel About Humans in a Real Life Situation. But, of course, the line between fictional dystopia and real life is getting more and more blurry…

I was drawn to The Hate U Give because of the buzz around it, but also because it ties into one of the content strands in the courses I teach. The last few years, my students and I have looked at Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. I teach about education policy, and the purpose of focusing on this event has been to look at the idea of “separation” as a tool. What does segregation do in our society? Why do we intentionally separate people, and to what end? Together, we read parts of James D. Anderson’s Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 to look at the logic Southerners used when they excluded African Americans from the public school system (and how African Americans fought back).  We listen to the This American Life podcast, "The Problem We All Live With, Part 1," to see the modern day version of that problem in the schools surrounding Ferguson, MO. And we read parts of We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang to see how streets and towns and bylaws and policies were created in the Ferguson area (and most places) to invent and reinvent separation again and again.

But if I’m honest, it was not until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me that I truly felt what it meant that the law is not on everyone’s side. The distinction between feeling and understanding is important for me. The reason that this book affected me so much is because Coates is writing a letter to his child. He is preparing him for the world, just as I have to prepare my own kids for the world. But in this letter, he is telling his son that he is not safe, that he has to carry the burden of society’s distrust and disdain.  And I felt my privilege in not having to write my own sons such a letter, and I felt through his words the pain of that process. That is what a good book can do, right? In some cases, you see your own truth validated, and in others, you get to walk in someone else’s shoes, or, perhaps, live in their skin.

The Hate U Give, which was nominated for a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year, is a debut YA novel that looks at the murder of an unarmed black boy by police. The story focuses on an African American teen that lives in a black neighborhood but goes to a mostly white, suburban school. When she witnesses the death of her friend, she has to navigate her experience of injustice in both contexts.

I always have to dial down my inner critic’s voice when I read YA, because I tend to feel like there’s just too much going on. Too many plot lines! Too many characters! But I suppose that’s what adolescence is -- so much simultaneous intensity. What did really interest me was the move in some communities to block access to this book, as if adults should shield kids from the world they already live in. Or is there a presumption that “YA readers” are white and should be kept separate from racial violence*?

Here’s a great article about Thomas from the Guardian.

*The reason the book was removed from school shelves in Katy, Texas was, supposedly, “explicit language.”