What I’ve Been Reading During Winter Break

Hello everyone!

I hope you all are staying warm and taking care of yourselves in the midst of the cold and national politics. While I’m currently bracing myself for a return to the Minnesota weather, I’m trying to fit in as much reading before the spring semester as possible, along with trying to keep track of all the great books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks. So, without further ado, here is some of what I’ve been reading since classes ended:

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

This was the first book I dove into after flying home from Minnesota for the holidays, finally done with exams and papers and trying to remember how to read for fun again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in a new trilogy from Man Booker Prize-winner Marlon James, and even if I hadn’t already wanted to read it after reading the synopsis, the cover would have been enough to draw me in. Set in a masterfully built fantasy world based on Africa and African kingdoms such as Songhai and Kush after the fall of the Roman Empire, the book is told from the point of view of Tracker, a mercenary hired to find a mysterious young boy. However, the reader is informed from the outset that by the end of the years-long search, the child is dead. While it took me a few chapters to orient myself and truly feel that the plot had begun, James’ world building and prose are both fantastic, and I was fascinated by how he constructed the many cities and kingdoms through which Tracker travels. Tracker’s narration, told in his distinctive voice, only makes it harder to put down. While the book has considerably more violence and gore than I usually read (including several scenes that reference sexual assault), I am excited to see what the next book holds. (This interview is a great look at the book’s origins, as well.)

Strong Female Protagonist (Book One & Book Two) by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

I initially began reading Strong Female Protagonist online ages ago, but unfortunately lost track of it, despite how good it is. This means that I was thrilled when a friend lent me the first two physical books over the break and I was able to devour all of it at once. Strong Female Protagonist is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and striking superhero stories I’ve ever read/watched, centering around a young woman–Allison Green–who eventually quit heroing to attend college and learn about different modes of making the world better. What follows is an intriguing look into ethics and philosophies surrounding saving the world, told through a host of engaging characters that I adored. Molly Ostertag’s art is fantastic, as well, and I would honestly die for the power couple that is Feral and Paladin.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Danez Smith’s second poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead is one of those books that I want to write about but consistently end up staring at the blinking cursor instead. Clocking in at a slim 82 pages, Smith’s poems are the kind that stay in my head long after I’ve closed the covers, their urgency and craft impossible to ignore. Smith writes truthfully and at times defiantly about the dangers faced by Black men, particularly queer Black men, and their bodies. Shifting from police violence to AIDS and back again, here metaphors and allusions to gods and pigs mingle with lines that are as stark as the black words on the page: “i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones.” These poems contain anger and pain, but also tenderness, a love for boys such as those in “summer, somewhere,” where “paradise is a world where everything/is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.” Don’t Call Us Dead is the kind of book that often feels beyond review. Instead, it leaves me wanting to simply press it into the hands of everyone I meet.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to finally read her bestselling follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere. Set in the minutely planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the book centers around two very different families who find themselves on opposite sides of a local custody battle, in which a white couple seeks to adopt a Chinese-American baby. However, this book is so much more than its summary–Ng’s methodical development of her characters and the lyrical prose with which she reveals their past and present makes the novel feel almost like an in-depth character study of both the families and their larger community. At times as suspenseful as a thriller, Ng’s writing never rushes, but rather lingers beautifully within each character and moment. Just as the character of Pearl is described as lingering in “the gray spaces,” so too does the book, in a way that made me feel like I had to lay in bed thinking about it for hours after I finished it.

Florida by Lauren Groff

While I’m only about a third of the way through Lauren Groff’s new short story collection, Florida has already reminded me of why I love Groff’s prose so much in the first place. Each story is eerie without being supernatural, embracing the strangeness and uncertainties that emerge in everyday lives with a sort of psychological urgency that leaves me on the edge of my seat. She writes about sisters, a lonely boy, and, often, a troubled mother, among a host of other characters. I am endlessly impressed by the ability of her writing to describe sensations and images in ways that are both surprising and cunningly accurate. The first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” is a particular favorite: “Window after window nears, freezes with its blue fog of television light or its couple hunched over a supper of pizza, holds as I pass, then slides into the forgotten. I think of the way water gathers as it slips down an icicle’s length, pauses to build its glossy drop, becomes too fat to hang on, plummets down.”

That’s all for me today–it’s time to fit in some more reading before I have to start packing. Have a great rest of your Sunday, and keep warm!

Nora

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The Upside of Unrequited

Hello everyone!

It’s a stiflingly hot summer day here in Maryland, a.k.a. the perfect day to hide out inside with lots of ice water and books and YouTube (until the dog needs a walk, of course). And one of the books that I’ve really enjoyed diving into recently has been The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli.

I’ve been meaning to read Albertalli’s award-winning debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for ages now, but while my library didn’t have it in stock, it did have The Upside of Unrequited, published just a few months ago in April 2017. And oh my goodness, am I glad I checked it out.

The book is narrated by Molly Peskin-Suso, a crafty, chubby seventeen year old twin living in Takoma Park, Maryland, who has had twenty-six crushes already in her short life. Molly is a true romantic, falling fast and hard, but she’s always, always careful. After all, she has to be, right?

Molly’s twin Cassie, however, doesn’t tend to get lovestruck at all–that is until she falls hard for Mina, a girl she and Molly meet at a concert one night. As they begin their own relationship, Mina and Cassie become determined to set Molly up with Mina’s friend Will–something the ever-cautious Molly is not exactly thrilled about, as cute as he is. And then there’s Reid, Molly’s nerdy, funny, Lord of the Rings-loving coworker. It’s all shaping up to be an extremely interesting start to the summer, to say the least. Now Molly just has to figure out how to navigate it.

One of the things that really drew me into The Upside of Unrequited (and made it way too hard to put down) was Molly’s voice. It took me a couple of chapters to truly get a sense of her character, but after that, I was hooked. There’s no question that Molly is shy and introverted, and she finds it extremely difficult to have as much confidence as her twin sister–in her body, around other people, etc. But one of the best things about The Upside of Unrequited was getting to watch Molly gain that confidence, in her own way. Everyone has their insecurities, and while Molly of course has her fair share, she is also a very well-written, strong character with tons of development. I loved that her gaining of confidence was not linked to any boy liking her, but rather, her learning to like herself more, and consciously deciding to take more risks and try to step out of her comfort zone a little. Plus, Molly’s narration is just so perfectly her–from her love of arts and crafts, to her trepidation over her and Cassie’s changing relationship, to her talent for baking. I have never read a book that made me crave cookie dough so much in my life.

It was also really refreshing to read a book featuring a teenage main character who takes anxiety medication, without it being a huge deal. With how stigmatized mental health issues still are, there was something about reading about Molly’s anxiety as just another facet of her character that made my heart happy. While there’s obviously no problem with books that focus more on a character’s mental health, I like that there are also books showing that it doesn’t have to be a big deal, or that medication doesn’t have to be a big deal. Plus, speaking as someone who has also dealt with her fair share of anxiety, it was comforting to read about a character who goes through the same anxious thought-loops, even if it was just one part of the book. It made me only enjoy and relate to Molly’s character more.

Of course, I couldn’t help but fall in love with many of the other characters, too, especially Molly’s family. While Cassie is of course very different from Molly, despite their shared DNA, and I didn’t relate to her nearly as much, she obviously loves Molly just as much Molly loves her, and fiercely at that. She is just as unsure about the shifts in their sisterhood as Molly is, but I loved the way Albertalli portrayed those shifts (growing apart, being nervous about growing apart, etc.) in a way that felt very real and genuine. I also enjoyed the way she showed Cassie’s side of things, too, even though the book is narrated by Molly.

The rest of their family is no less lovable. Their moms, Patty and Nadine, are both funny, supportive, and so enjoyable to read about, not to mention that the twins’ baby brother sounds way too cute to be legal. Many of Molly’s and Cassie’s friends are also unique, well written characters that only made the book richer, especially their best friends Abby and Olivia. However, I think the one I was most fond of (and this is a hard decision) was ultimately Reid, Molly’s adorable, dorky coworker whose fascination with Queen Elizabeth the First was both hilarious and relatable (to an extent). It’s not hard to see why Molly likes him so much, and it makes the reader love him, too.

However, arguably the thing that made me love this book the most was how genuine and real everything in it felt. Molly’s voice is so perfectly that of a seventeen year old girl still figuring out who she is and what she wants, and all the other characters feel just as authentic. This is especially true with how rich and realistic the cast of characters is in its diversity–Molly and her family are Jewish, one of her moms and her little brother are black, Mina is Asian and pansexual, the list goes on. This is the kind of diversity that should be everywhere in books these days, and while it’s sad that it isn’t, it’s great to read a book that actually shows that inclusiveness. Plus, there’s a certain sort of thrill in reading a book set not very far from your own home (I knew exactly what kind of Metro poles Molly was talking about!).

All in all, The Upside of Unrequited is an excellently written story about growing up and coming into one’s own that I absolutely loved reading, even when I probably should have been sleeping. It’s a perfect book to get lost in, and I wanted to hang out with Molly in its pages forever. Now I just hope that my library finally has Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda back in stock.

Thanks for reading everyone, and have a great rest of your weekend!

Nora

The Hate U Give

Hello everyone!

It has been quite awhile since my last post, and lots of exciting things have happened, the most obvious being that I am officially done with high school! Summer break has been pretty great so far, needless to say, what with providing truly delicious amounts of free time for reading, sleeping, and finally getting the chance to watch The Get Down. (Don’t even talk to me about Netflix canceling it. I could write an essay on what a messed up decision that is.) And for working on blog posts! And the book I have been meaning to review ever since I stayed up until 2 am finishing it a couple months or so ago is The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas.

The Hate U Give is one of the few books that I specifically asked for as a birthday present, but I probably would have done anything to get my hands on it anyway (well, anything within reason). It’s a completely captivating and searing story of an all-too-familiar narrative–that of a young, black, and unarmed boy shot by a white police officer, only to have his character put on trial rather than the cop’s, his name replaced with “drug dealer,” and his humanity assaulted in a way we all know a white boy’s never would have been. But The Hate U Give also tells a story that isn’t always as prominent: That of the one witness who was with this boy, Khalil, when he was shot–16 year old Starr Carter. She is the only one, other than the cop himself, who can tell what happened that night. But she is also afraid, not only for her own safety but for that of her family, as well.

Starr is no stranger to how an individual’s race and background affect how they are treated and how the world expects them to behave. As one of the few black students at a predominantly-white and wealthy private school, Starr is automatically cool because she is black, but is also appalled to hear her white classmates (such as one of her close friends) refer to Khalil simply as a “drug dealer” who was up to no good. At home in Garden Heights, however, she is “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store,” one who feels comfortable using slang and doesn’t feel the pressure to make sure she never comes off as the “angry black girl.” But she’s also set apart from her peers–it’s hard to keep Garden Heights Starr and Williamson Starr completely separate.

It’s even harder to keep her two selves apart after Starr becomes the principal witness to Khalil’s death. All of a sudden she is a key player in a narrative so terribly similar to those she has read about on the internet and reblogged on her Tumblr. And the way Thomas tells Starr’s story is not only near-impossible to put down, but also a constant reminder of the systemic racism that still runs rampant in the U.S. today.

It doesn’t take very long to realize why The Hate U Give is one of the best books of the year. I was instantly drawn in by Starr’s first person narrative. Her voice is candid and so very much her own, masterfully expressing her conflicts, her fears, and how hard it is for her to be two different versions of herself depending on where she is. And then, after Khalil’s death, how hard it is for her to not only grieve one of her best friends, but to face the prospect of having to defend his humanity.

Starr’s character was without a doubt one of my favorite parts of the book. She is smart, clever, and honest, and it comes through on every single page. She is desperate to do something to get justice for Khalil, but at the same time is terrified of the consequences. She knows what race relations in America are like, and while she isn’t afraid to point them out to the reader, she struggles to make her non-black friends understand. Watching Starr’s growth throughout the book–as she copes with levels of grief and fear that no 16 year old should have to face, as she overcomes her trepidation and takes control of her own anger–is one of the most powerful aspects of reading The Hate U Give, and made me never want to put the book down.

But there are many other characters that I loved besides Starr, most of all her family. Her parents, her little brother, her step-brother Seven–all would go to the ends of the earth for Starr, and all are lovable in their own ways. Her dad is a former gang member who wants to help make Garden Heights better, while her mom wants desperately to make sure her kids are safe. Seven may sometimes play the role of the protective older brother too much for Starr’s taste, but his everlasting support for her made me love him. And her little brother, well, he’s the only one who doesn’t treat Starr a little differently after the shooting, and she loves him for it.

Another part of The Hate U Give that made me never want to put it down again was, of course, Angie Thomas’s writing itself. It is lively, cutting, and perfectly on-point, never feeling stiff or clunky. It seamlessly communicates everything Starr is feeling–her pain, her confusion, even her love for Fresh Prince, and it only makes the book more absorbing. And while the focus of the novel largely consists of police brutality, it touches on a myriad of other issues, too–cultural appropriation, microaggressions, supposedly “harmless” jokes that are really anything but. The writing and the language is a large part of what makes The Hate U Give feel so real and immediate, just as it should be, and it captures the urgency of the book’s story masterfully.

It is hard to describe how one feels after finishing The Hate U Give. It is not a fluffy, happy, uplifting read. It is not sending the message that progress will be easy, that the deaths of black people at the hands of police are isolated incidents, that things will change if we just root out the “few bad apples.” It sure has hell doesn’t coddle.

But it does end with the sense that progress is necessary. It is not a question of whether one is brave enough, or whether an unarmed black boy was a drug dealer or not. It is a question of when a hoodie will qualify as a piece of clothing rather than a reason to shoot, a toy gun as just that–a toy–rather than a reason to take the life of a 12 year old kid. No one knows when that time will be. Starr certainly doesn’t, as she points out at the end of the book. But as Starr learns to speak her truth throughout the novel, it becomes a call for others to speak their truths, as well, and for allies to amplify those voices as best they can. The Hate U Give can certainly make things feel hopeless at times. But it does not send the message that the situation itself is hopeless. Rather, it sends the message that the situation will improve, but only through extremely hard work and struggle. Through listening and allyship. Through making people’s voices heard.

And that, that right there, is part of what makes The Hate U Give so important.

Take care of yourselves, and enjoy the rest of the weekend. Hopefully I’ll be back with another post soon.

Nora

What I’ve Been Reading Lately (I’m Back!)

Hello everyone!

So, that was quite the long, unofficial hiatus. My senior year of high school is getting closer and closer to being done (I finished a year-long project and I swear, I can’t remember the last time I felt so relieved), and while there is still work to do (AP exams, deciding on a college, etc.), I’ve really been enjoying the little extra bits of free time that have been cropping up.

One of the things I’ve been having a lot of fun getting back into is, of course, reading. Reading books separate from school is something I never get to do as much as I’d like, but it’s been pretty wonderful to have been working through some here and there. So, as a little back-to-blogging update, here are a few of the books I’ve been diving into lately:

1. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I got this as a Christmas present and was immediately interested by that lovely, old-fashioned cover. Why does the woman look so sad? What about the man through the window?

The woman, as I quickly found out, is naïve Sophia Fairclough, recently married to young painter Charles, to the immense chagrin of everyone in his family. Unfortunately, Sophia’s marriage dreams are soon compromised by poverty, unexpected babies, and a husband who is horrified at the thought of getting a job. She eventually becomes the mistress of an art critic named Peregrine, but finds that that only leads to more problems.

While Sophia is indeed naïve and doesn’t always make the best decisions, I found her unguarded, candid narrative easy to fall into, and I couldn’t help but feel for her as she tried to make a life in a world that seems especially tailored to make it difficult. I seethed at the harsh nature of some of the other characters, and felt relieved whenever something went right for once. All in all, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a book that held my attention from start to finish, and often left me holding my breath in the hope that maybe, just maybe, things would look up.

2. In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe

It took quite a long time for me to work my way through this one, but oh, was it worth it. I began taking an AP Art History course this year because I was so interested in the stories behind some of the pieces in museums, and reading Roe’s account of the group of artists and Bohemians that gave rise to cubism and other new artistic techniques only cemented my interest. The book begins with Pablo Picasso’s first visit to Paris in 1900, and ends after the emergence of new, dramatic forms of expression that had already changed the art world in ways few would have expected. It is obvious that everything was meticulously researched, and anecdotes about some of the key figures of the time (Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, etc.) made me laugh multiple times. While some of the more philosophical ideas regarding art took some time to absorb at first, I have always loved reading about the lives of the people behind the masterpieces, and In Montmartre definitely delivered. I think I’d like to the dive into The Private Lives of the Impressionists next.

3. the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelacethe princess saves herself in this one

This one feels a little bit like cheating since I actually read it at the end of last year, but it was so good that it’s showing up on this list nonetheless. I read this captivating poetry collection in one night and was instantly sucked in. Amanda Lovelace’s poems are fantastic and cutting–they’re about abuse, fat-shaming, love, and learning to value yourself. I loved the blend of feminism and allusions to fairytales, evident even in the four parts that make up the whole book: The princess, the damsel, the queen, and you. By turns angry, hurt, comforting, and full of joy, the princess saves herself in this one is one of those books that I finished quickly and immediately wanted to read all over again.

4. Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen

Continuing with the feminism theme, I was overjoyed when my copy of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World was delivered early back in January (even before the official release date!). Here We Are is an utterly amazing anthology on feminism and all its forms, covering everything from mental illness, to body image, to intersectionality. There are over fifty pieces in all, and they are all just as diverse and wonderful as the contributors themselves. I was constantly struck by just how much is covered by the book, and how many different stories and issues are contained within. They made me angry, they made me rage, they made me feel ready to dismantle the patriarchy piece by piece. They also made me think about my own privilege as a white, straight, cisgender girl, and how my experience varies so much from those of other girls. However, one of the feelings I hadn’t expected to feel as much before I opened the pages was the feeling of being comforted. There is a sheer respect and love for all women and girls, especially young ones, that radiates from every page, and it is hard to describe just how much of a strong connection that creates between the book and the reader. If I ever have a daughter, I cannot wait to give her a copy of Here We Are for her birthday. It is without a doubt one of the best books of the year.

5. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

I actually just started reading The Star Side of Bird Hill a few days ago, so I haven’t gotten very far, but I am already enjoying it. It focuses on two sisters, sixteen-year-old Dionne and ten-year-old Phaedra, who are spending the summer in Barbados with their grandmother since their mother can no longer care for them back in Brooklyn. Jackson’s writing is lovely, and I am truly loving getting to know each of the characters. Dionne and Phaedra are both different but complex, as is their mother, Agnes, and the ways in which Jackson gives the reader a look into the minds of each of them is wonderful. I can’t wait to finish it, and I hope I have enough time within the next couple of weeks to do just that.

One the things that has been best about finally getting back into reading things outside of school is remembering just how comforting falling into a good book can be, especially when every New York Times alert that pops up on my phone fills me with an unpleasant mix of weariness and dread. Staying informed is so important, now more than ever, but being kind to yourself is important too. I’ve been trying to work on finding that balance, and I’m not always good at it, but reading helps ❤

Take care of yourselves, and hopefully I’ll be back soon (or at least within a reasonable amount of time).

Nora

P.S. If you’re wondering how you can help people in Syria, especially after the chemical attack and military strike this week, here is an article that gives several ways to help out–whether it’s donating money or helping out refugees in your own area. There are also many, many other options if you just google “how to help Syria.”