December Reads

The year has finally reached its end and I have surpassed my goal of reading 200 books! Let’s be honest . . . 2020 was a terrible year. However, I’m glad for all the books that have kept me company during difficult times. For this month (and for next month) I’ve focused on reading books that have been on my TBR list for a while as well as books that I own (regardless of whether or not they’ve been on my TBR list on Goodreads). Additionally, I’ve attached my filled out Reading Women Book Challenge List (completed!) and my badge from Year of the Asian Reading Challenge. Here’s to hoping more great reads in 2021 (and on overall better year, to be honest . . . ).

All Photos Courtesy of Goodreads

Light From Other Stars by Erica Swyler

She’d been little when he’d told her about the beginning of the universe and how the solar system was born. How the sun was like an island, and the planets were ships sailing around it. He’d said, “Pluto is our far star sailor,” the way other people said Once upon a time. His words opened a door inside her.

Short Description: A brilliant eleven-year-old girl fascinated by space must reconcile her dreams with her complicated relationship with her parents.

Critic Quote: “As the novel wends its way toward a Hawking-esque ending, it elicits wonder and sadness in turn.” –Foreword Reviews

My Verdict: I really could not get into this one – I had no idea what was going on for maybe 70% of the novel. I guess this writing style just isn’t for me.


We Are Displaced
by Malala Yousafzai

I wrote this book because it seems that too many people don’t understand that refugees are ordinary people. All that differentiates them is that they got caught in the middle of a conflict that forced them to leave their homes, their loved ones, and the only lives they had known. They risked so much along the way, and why? Because it is too often a choice between life and death. / And, as my family did a decade ago, they chose life.

Short Description: A collection of narratives focused on displaced young girls and women edited by activist Malala Yousafzai.

Critic Quote: “Poignant, fascinating, and relevant read.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: Though I wish these segments were expanded upon more, I overall really enjoyed being able to listen to the stories of so many brave young women and girls and found their courage, perceptiveness, and ambition heartening. Definitely recommend.


Shrill
by Lindy West

Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.

Short Description: A series of feminist essays on fatphobia, comedy, and relationships all told through a light-hearted, honest memoir.

Critic Quote: “West brilliantly articulates the thoughts and feelings about body image that many women and girls struggle with on a daily basis. With often witty, even humorous, prose, Shrill offers intelligent arguments on serious and frequently sensitive topics. It is a must read for both women and men.” –Women Across Frontiers

My Verdict: Such a delight to read – especially the essays on comedy, West’s boss, and trolls. Recommend.


Feelings: A Story in Seasons
by Manjit Thapp

I realise everyone is huddled in their own cocoon. They’re either happy in the warm. Or waiting to thaw in better days. I’m not alone in feeling this way but I’m alone all the same.

Short Description: A short graphic novel told through simple, poetic prose narrating the author’s moods through the seasons.

Critic Quote: “Though Thapp’s subject matter and visual metaphors (namely plants) aren’t uncommon, the notion that artistic and personal satisfaction might be cyclical rather than solvable via willpower, religion, or life choices, feels subtly radical.” –Publisher’s Weekly

My Verdict: What a beautiful book – from its rich color scheme and stylistic art, to its message, which, while delivered through simple sentences, is heartwarming and calming all the same.


The Women of Brewster Place
by Gloria Naylor

And she looked at the blushing woman on the couch and suddenly realized that her mother had trod through the same universe that she herself was now traveling. Kiswana was breaking no new trails… she stared at the woman she had been, and the woman to come.

Short Description: A loosely connected series of stories following a variety of black women and their lives in Brewster Place.

Critic Quote: “[A] moving portrait of the strengths, struggles, and hopes of black women.… Gloria Naylor weaves together the truths and myths of the women’s lives, creating characters who are free to determine the course of their lives, embodying the self actualization tradition of the Harlem Renaissance.” – Sacred Fire

My Verdict: A beautifully written, emotionally powerful novel. Highly recommend.


All Boys Aren’t Blue
by George M. Johnson

When people ask me how I got into activism, I often say, “The first person you are ever an activist for is yourself.” If I wasn’t gonna fight for me, who else was?

Short Description: A YA memoir following Johnson’s acceptance and growth into his sexuality as a Black man.

Critic Quote: “Unflinching, vulnerable, and so resilient, this memoir really touched my heart. I hope everyone gives this one a try, and practices compassion and open-mindedness.” –The Book Sandwich

My Verdict: A valuable resource for Black LGBTQ+ teens. Honest and full of hope.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien

If you’re trapped in a room, and nobody is coming to save you, what can you do? You have to bang on the walls and break the windows. You have to climb out and save yourself. It’s obvious, Li-ling, that crying doesn’t help a person live.

Short Description: A story of three gifted musicians who live through China’s Cultural Revolution and the legacy they leave behind.

Critic Quote: “History is deftly woven into a moving story of the musicians who suffered during and after the Cultural Revolution in China.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: Though I enjoyed the actual story as well as the historical context woven throughout, this book felt like it was overwritten. I felt easily overwhelmed by mountains of details and tangents that felt unnecessary. This resulted in constant confusion over what was happening, when and to whom, and which characters were important and worth remembering. Even the family tree provided in the beginning did not help.

Full Review HERE


Friday Black
by Nana Kwame Adjei – Brenyah

People say “sell your soul” like it’s easy. But your soul is yours and it’s not for sale. Even if you try, it’ll still be there, waiting for you to remember it.

Short Description: A collection of short stories following a variety of black characters in the present and future.

Critic Quote: “He [Kwame Adjei-Brenyah] conveys joy, pain, longing, rage—especially the rage felt by those who experience racism—with talent and force, writing through genres and styles ranging from the fantastical to the cartoonish, the dystopian, the morbidly stark and the surreal.” –Harvard Review

My Verdict: Though there are definitely some memorable pieces in here, ultimately, this wasn’t a winning collection for me.


Love in Colour
by Bolu Babalola

ISome nights we would talk with words, others just with our bodies, developing our language, discovering new ways to say I love you; I see you, I hear you, me and you.f

Short Description: A series of short, romantic vignettes following a variety of couples inspired by global mythology.

Critic Quote: “If anyone knows about romance, it’s Babalola and her new book, Love in Colour, is further proof of this. The anthology of love stories spans countries and history – from Greek mythology to Nigerian folklore – each retold by Babalola in imaginative new ways.” –Vice

My Verdict: This was a lovely collection of light-hearted love stories – retellings that position BIPOC in unique and fresh ways. As others have noted, this is a collection that’s best spread out over time rather than read in one or two sittings due to the overall inevitability of each story’s ending. If you’re a romantic, then perhaps pick this up.


The Good Immigrant
Edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman

The question “Where are you from?” has punctured most days of my life, and has been both innocuous and frightening. “Where are you from?” usually means “How did you get here?” or the clearer: “You don’t belong here.

Short Description: A variety of essays from American and British Immigrants and their perspectives on race, class, nationalism, gender and more.

Critic Quote: “. . . this collection is a resounding success on multiple fronts. Its righteous rage is perfectly matched by its literary rewards.” –Washington Post

My Verdict: Essential reading full of incredible, insightful essays. Highly recommend.


The Black Unicorn
by Audre Lorde

and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive

Short Description: Poetry from the renowned Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde.

Critic Quote: “While I do think hope is at the crux of Lorde’s beliefs, it’s a radical hope that we make an impact and force a change on this world while we inhabit it. One of her most well-known works, “A Litany for Survival,” is heartening in that soothes as much as it emboldens.” –Autostraddle

My Verdict: Though Lorde will always be one of my favorite feminist essayists, this poetry collection didn’t quite resonate with me.


Women & Power
by Mary Beard

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession. What I have in mind is the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually

Short Description: Inspired by her speeches, this short book elaborates on Beard’s observations on gender and power dynamics.

Critic Quote: “There are two things you need to know about it. The first is that what Mary Beard has to say is powerful: here are more than a few pretty useful stones for the slingshots some of us feel we must carry with us everywhere we go right now. The second is that most of its power, if not all, lies in its author’s absolute refusal to make anything seem too simple.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: A well-written, brief piece perhaps better oriented towards those who are new to studying/learning Western/White feminism.


At the Bottom of the River
by Jamaica Kincaid

The night-soil men can see a bird walking in trees. It isn’t a bird. It is a woman who has removed her skin and is on her way to drink the blood of her secret enemies. It is a woman who has left her skin in a corner of a house made out of wood. It is a woman who is reasonable and admires honeybees in the hibiscus.

Short Description: Short, meditative stories by Caribbean novelist Jamaica Kincaid.

Critic Quote: “. . . Kincaid shows vivid promise in this slim debut.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: Beautiful writing, but the stories blended into one another for me. 


The House of Broken Angels
by Luis Alberto Urrea

Big Angel could not reconcile himself to this dirty deal they had all been dealt. Death. What a ridiculous practical joke. Every old person gets the punch line that the kids are too blind to see. All the striving, lusting, dreaming, suffering, working, hoping, yearning, mourning, suddenly revealed itself to be an accelerating countdown to nightfall.

….This is the prize: to realize, at the end, that every minute was worth fighting for with every ounce of blood and fire.

Short Description: The story of a beloved family patriarch as he reminisces on his past and his connections with his family as he approaches death.

Critic Quote: “And all that vulnerability, combined with humor and celebration and Urrea’s vivid prose, will crack you open.” –NPR

My Verdict: Could not get into this book for the life of me. The characters and writing simply didn’t click with me.


Such A Fun Age
by Kiley Reid

I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like… happens.

Short Description: A tight narrative following a Black babysitter, her white boyfriend, her wealthy white employer, and a police encounter that permanently alters their relationships.

Critic Quote: “The title of Kiley Reid’s debut, Such a Fun Age, works on so many levels it makes me giddy — and, what’s better, the title’s plurality of meaning is echoed all over the place within the novel, where both plot and dialogue are layered with history, prejudice, expectations, and assumptions.” –NPR

My Verdict: Sharp, enjoyable, and representative of the pitfalls of white saviorhood, this is a a great novel if you’re interested in a quick, entertaining read.

Full Review HERE


We’re Going to Need More Wine
by Gabrielle Union

And anything I have accomplished, I did so not in spite of being a black woman, but because I am a black woman.

Short Description: Actress and activist Gabrielle Union recounts the lessons, laughter, and tribulations she’s gathered throughout her life and career.

Critic Quote: “Well, We’re Going to Need More Wine is like that moment of intimacy between girlfriends. You can feel that same closeness as you tear through the pages of this book. .” – Essence

My Verdict: I really enjoyed listening to the stories of Union’s life and the lessons/advice she has to share with others. Still, I wish there was a bit more cohesion in the structure and aim of each chapter.

Girls on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller

There’s no way to win. You’re a monster if you get an abortion, a slut if you had sex, a moron if you decide to keep the baby.

Short Description: When a high schooler realizes she needs an abortion, the most popular girl at her school and her ex-best friend team up to drive her across her conservative state to find a medical provider.

Critic Quote: “Waller’s book is highly informative, filled with frank, detailed descriptions of our nation’s restrictions on reproductive health as well as the emotional and physical experiences of abortion..” – Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: A wonderful read that provides empathetic insight on an important issue all told through an honest, approachable, emotionally realistic tone.


The Rape of Nanking
by Iris Chang

Looking back upon millennia of history, it appears clear that no race or culture has monopoly on wartime cruelty. The veneer of civilization seems to be exceedingly thin – one that can be easily stripped away, especially by the stresses of war.

Short Description: A historical account of the destruction and horrific massacre of Nanking leading up to WWII, all recounted from a variety of perspectives, articles, interviews, diaries, etc.

Critic Quote: “Chang, a Chinese-American, has written a searing account of the sack of Nanking. . . . Although it is clear that she is passionate about the subject, Chang gives a balanced account.” – HistoryNet

My Verdict: Devastating to read, but expertly written, organized, and presented.


Solaris
by Stanislaw Lem

We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is.

Short Description: A pivotal science fiction classic following a young man’s alien encounter.

Critic Quote: “Solaris is a superb science fiction novel, but also asks very philosophical questions about what it means to be human, and how exactly could humans communicate with a truly alien entity with very little terms of reference between both species?” – TechLeaderPro

My Verdict: Painful to read (in a negative sense. The writing, the characters, the science . . . all of it was a let down). Can’t recommend.


What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence
Edited by Michele Filgate

There is a gaping hole perhaps for all of us, where our mother does not match up with “mother” as we believe it’s meant to mean and all it’s meant to give us. What I cannot tell her is all that I would tell her if I could find a way to not still be sad and angry about that.

Short Description: A collection of essays by a wide array of writers who discuss their complicated relationships with their mothers.

Critic Quote: “. . . this is a collection of intimate and authentic personal essays, with each piece telling its own heartfelt story of silence.” –LA Review of Books

My Verdict: Some hits, but overall, not the collection I was quite expecting or hoping for (perhaps many were just too mellow for me, haha).


The Death of Vivek Oji
by Akwaeke Emezi

Love and guilt sometimes taste the same, you know.

Short Description: A brief novel that examines the death of a Nigerian LGBT youth and the atmosphere of shame and heteronormative expectations that clouded his death.

Critic Quote: “This tender, visceral novel follows a character who is both dead and alive, male and female.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: Beautifully written, but also slow and sometimes a bit too distant. Consider your own preferences before picking this up.

Full Review HERE


Blood Moon
by Lucy Cuthew

#Itsjustblood

Short Description: A high schooler gets her period during an intimate moment with her crush, only to have her menstruation be exploited for public humiliation by her classmates.

Critic Quote: “The plot holds few surprises . . . but Cuthew’s verse is sensitively written, enlivened by hashtags and typographical flourishes that successfully convey Frankie’s feelings.” –Publisher’s Weekly

My Verdict: Pleasant and meaningful, if a bit too overly optimistic.


What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia
by Elizabeth Catte

The average Appalachian is not, then, a white, hypermasculine coal miner facing the inevitable loss of economic strength and social status, but the average Appalachian’s worldview may be impacted by individuals with cultural capital who are constantly assuming we are all made in that image.

Short Description: A short text that dispels misconceptions and rumors about the Appalachia region.

Critic Quote: “This phenomenon is why a book like Catte’s is so essential. It is a very practical form of deconstruction that pokes holes in the operative myths and narratives that define Appalachia and determine how those in power make decisions concerning it. It has the power to make these conventional narratives less dangerous, and can potentially lead to the promotion of narratives that are less homogenous. This book is an act of resistance, both as a work of deconstruction and positive assertion of different narratives that get no coverage. On top of that, it is also an easily digestible but well researched cultural history and genealogy of how a region has come to be defined over time.” –Cleveland Review

My Verdict: A deeply informative beginning guide to learning about the Appalachia region and the various misconceptions surrounding its people. Recommend if you want a more nuanced account of “Trump Country,” so to speak.


Year of the Dog
by Grace Lin

They say the Year of the Dog is also for thinking. Since dogs are also honest and sincere, it’s a good year to find yourself. 

Short Description: A year in the life of a young Chinese/Taiwanese-American girl and the lessons she learns about her culture, her family, her friends, and life in general.

Critic Quote: “The Year of the Dog is the book I wish I’d had as a younger reader, in elementary school. I first read it when I was in 8th grade, which was beyond the target audience range, but I still found it highly enjoyable and relatable.” –Reading Asian America

My Verdict: Sweet and heartwarming – a perfect elementary school read.


What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat
by Aubrey Gordon

Fat people are frequently spoken about or at, but we’re rarely heard. Instead, bodies and experiences like mine become caricatured and symbolic, either as a kind of effigy or as a pornography of suffering. Bodies and experiences like mine are rarely allowed to just be ours.

Short Description: A searing series of intersectional essays on fatphobia in the US, covering air travel, medical abuse, clothing sizes, diet culture, sexual assault, and more.

Critic Quote: “Everyone who has a fat family member, friend, acquaintance, or coworker should read this insightful book.” –Library Journal

My Verdict: I have absolutely nothing negative to say about this book. An excellent analysis of fatphobia in the US with Gordon’s own experiences effortlessly woven throughout. Not only is the information itself deeply insightful, but the way Gordon presents her knowledge reveals precise, smart writing at play. Recommended for everyone. 


The Devil of Downtown
by Joanna Shupe

I know you are brave – I knew it within seconds of meeting you – but there is brave and then there is daring. The latter requires fearlessness with a sense of adventure.

Short Description: A determined charity worker with a focus on aiding women and children encounters the most dangerous gang leader in 19th century New York and both reluctantly fall for each other despite their differences.

Critic Quote: “From beginning to end, The Devil of Downtown was a swoon-worthy, well-developed tale fans will be sure to love.” –Caffeinated Reviewer

My Verdict: Exciting and fun, though the love developed a quick too quickly for my taste. If you’re a regular romance reader, you may enjoy this, but perhaps not the best introduction for a newbie.


Afterlife
by Julia Alvarez

A part of you dies with them, Antonia now knows, but wait a while, and they return, bringing you back with them. So, is this all his afterlife will amount to? Sam-inspired deeds from the people who loved him?

Short Description: Following the sudden death of her husband, Literature Professor Antonia comes to terms with her grief while searching for her sister and aiding a young, pregnant immigrant woman.

Critic Quote: “But the novel rewards precise, close reading, savoring the simultaneous pleasures and failures of language.” –Columbia Review

My Verdict: Incredible, intricate writing woven through a complex plot. Though the story itself won’t be a personal favorite of mine, there’s a lot to appreciate about this book.


Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike

Everyone knows that only children smile out of sheer delight. In a real adult smile, there is always something other than happiness.

Short Description: A series of short stories on the mystery, fear, joy, desire, jealousy, and overall complicated feelings of all kinds surrounding motherhood.

Critic Quote: “She deftly navigates emotionally difficult terrain while getting at the heart of both her characters’ and readers’ hopes and anxieties.” –Seattle Book Review

My Verdict: Really fantastic collection. Usually stories about motherhood alienate me a bit, but these were all told so wonderfully – so full of complexity and skillfully written. Every story was memorable and unique.  Regardless of how you feel about motherhood, I’d recommend picking this collection up.


Midnight’s Furies
by Nisid Hajari

If we don’t make up our minds on what we are going to do, there will be pandemonium. If we do, there may also be pandemonium.

Short Description: A detailed historical text analyzing how the violence of India’s Partition manifested.

Critic Quote: “. . . a fascinating, provocative, and ultimately heartbreaking read.” –Columbia Magazine

My Verdict: Though there was quite a bit of writing that went over my head, overall, I learned a lot about this time in history and am grateful for Hajari’s condensed account. If you’re new to learning Indian history and don’t mind a very matter-of-fact tone, then this might be good to pick up (though, I would advise preparing yourself with some basic world history first).


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalinithi

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving for.

Short Description: A neurosurgeon on the cusp of his big career break learns he’s been diagnosed with lung cancer, and writes a memoir chronicling the last of his days.

Critic Quote: “A moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring..” –The Washington Post

My Verdict: This unfortunately did not resonate with me at all. Though I appreciated Kalanithi’s honesty, his language was somewhat superfluous and made any meaning come off as more pretentious than profound. While I admire his resolve to write this memoir, especially in a time of turmoil and physical weakness, it didn’t reveal any new revelations on death or living (at least, for me).

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