January Reads

It’s finally 2021! I’ve started off the year with a variety of different books, with ranging success in how much I’ve enjoyed them. Still, I’m happy to kick down my TBR number on Goodreads and finally read some of the books I purchased while ago. Like last year, I’ll be engaging in the Reading Women Challenge and the Year of Asian Reading Challenge (and will most likely be picking up some more challenges along the year).

All Photos Courtesy of Goodreads

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder

There aren’t many ways to find comfort in this world. We must take it where we can get it, even in the darkest, most disgusting places.

Short Description: Blogger, author, and essayist Melissa Broder weaves together blog posts and entries from her So Sad Today online personality to examine expressions of sexuality, desire, gender, and more.

Critic Quote: “As her work has evolved, Broder has written more directly about depression, anxiety, and mental illness. In her first essay collection, So Sad Today, she suggests that there is something daring and perhaps even liberating in wearing these conditions like badges of honor.” –Book Forum

My Verdict: Though I admire Broder’s honesty and there were a few quotes throughout these essays that really stood out and resonated with me, all in all, I couldn’t connect with this collection of essays (I think partially because I was expecting something else). If you’re looking for something unconventional and perhaps a bit graphic, perhaps pick this up.

The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang

I have managed to preserve my sanity only through making the mind into boxes and rooms, and entered hardly any of them.

Short Description: David Nowak and his web of family members struggle with a legacy of mental illness and the inheritance of piano company.

Critic Quote: “Wang’s prose is beautiful and restrained, and her generous, precise characterization makes every perspective feel organic and utterly real in the face of increasingly theatrical circumstances. The result — the story of an American family stretched and manipulated into impossible shapes — is an extraordinary literary and gothic novel of the highest order.” –NPR

My Verdict: I had a hard time connecting with the characters and following the story of this one. A lot of language with little to ground it. If you’re a big fan of gothic novels, perhaps this may interest you. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.

How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

‘You came across as the eternally offended black woman.’

‘That’s because we are eternally being disrespected.’

Short Description: A collection of short stories following different Jamaican women and their various experiences with love, family, friendships and more.

Critic Quote: “Her masterful handling of women’s sexual selves – those secret spaces where the urgency to feel loved is everything – is reason enough to read this sensual, funny, sad book.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: A well-written variety of stories. Though this book didn’t leave a large emotional impact on me, I still found it pleasant to read.

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

Not everyone wants to push themselves to that brink of breaking, but it’s what you commit to when you’re a professional- the very present reality that you may break instead of bend.

Short Description: A memoir documenting the rise of Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater.

Critic Quote: “Although she expresses a responsibility to break through color barriers for aspiring black dancers, her achievements will encourage all those attempting to beat the odds in competitive fields.” –Publishers Weekly

My Verdict: Delightful and well-paced, this was an enjoyable look at Copeland’s journey in ballet (though I would have preferred more time for Copeland to emotionally expand on some topics, as the writing tended to be a bit ‘matter-of-fact.’)

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?

Short Description: The story of an immigrant Mexican family who struggle to find their place in Delaware, US, and the blossoming love between their daughter and a young Panamanian boy who lives near them.

Critic Quote: “Every character shares a ‘coming to America’ story—both the positive and negative experiences of love, racism, economics, and family, along with powerful emotions of guilt and loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and hope.” –Hola Cultura

My Verdict: Mixed feelings about this one. During the first half, it was an easy 4 stars, but as other reviewers have noted, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the romance and the pacing felt a bit off as the book continued. I think some of my favorite parts of the novel were the vignettes, which culminated into a nice ending.

Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder

Long before my mom ever got sick, her death felt like the number one scariest thing that could ever happen. And then it happened. And it was the scariest thing that could ever happen. But I survived. Ten years later, I’m still here, trying to turn the crap into something sweet, just like she would.

Short Description: Illustrator and writer Tyler Feder narrates the story of her college self grieving her mother’s passing.

Critic Quote: “The pastel-toned illustrations effectively convey Feder’s youth and the intensity of her emotions while emphasizing the ultimate message of survival and resilience in the face of life-changing grief.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: I was constantly on the brink of tears. Definitely read this.

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde

It does not pay to cherish symbols when the substance lies so close at hand.

Short Description: The entire poetry collection of Black feminist lesbian activist Audre Lorde.

Critic Quote: “It is truly a three-dimensional work of art encompassing all aspects of Lorde’s being.” –Books and Quills Magazine

My Verdict: A timeless archive of Lorde’s poetry. Definitely read, if only for your personal education.

How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi

Never in her life had she thought that she would end up in jail unless she had committed a crime. So why was she here? … She hadn’t been convicted. She had been abducted.

This wasn’t justice. It was revenge.

Short Description: A collection of stories following different Arab-Americans recounting times of mistreatment, injustice, and discrimination after 9/11.

Critic Quote: “However, Bayoumi’s sympathy for his subjects sometimes shades over into identification, and the mix of academic background material with first-person narrative can be jarring. A slightly disjointed narrative structure enfolds some compelling personal stories.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: I enjoyed the stories and learned quite a bit, but the writing style felt a bit too distant and dry for me. Since it’s short, I’d still recommend.

Passing by Nella Larsen

It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew.

Short Description: Two Black-Biracial women find their lives intersecting when one, who passes as white, attempts to reconnect with the Black community she left behind, with disastrous results.

Critic Quote: Passing is about hypocrisy and fear, secrecy and betrayal. It is a universal story of the messiness of being human as it is portrayed in the particularly explosive relationship between two black women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield.” –Electric Literature

My Verdict: Sharp and tightly packed, this short novel is definitely worth a read for its literary analysis of white-passing women during the Harlem Renaissance.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.

Short Description: Author Jesmyn Ward recounts the many deaths of young Black men she grew up with, writing of how systemic racism shaped their ends.

Critic Quote: “Jesmyn Ward’s superb memoir Men We Reaped finds powerful new meaning in Tubman’s words, which serve as a still-relevant metaphor for the Southern black American experience. Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Salvage The Bones, chronicles an existence filled with social strife, economic struggle and, all too often, death.” –NPR

My Verdict: Though I appreciated the tightness of Ward’s narrative, I unfortunately had difficulty connecting to the writing style. Consider your own writing style tastes before picking this up.

Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Reason and law don’t mean much when white folk want their way.

Short Description: The year is 1915, and a trio of Klan-monster hunters must prevent the The Birth of a Nation movie screening before it recruits a new horde of alien-like white supremacists for its cosmic army of hate.

Critic Quote: “Each book from P. Djèlí Clark is better than the last. And that’s saying something when they are all absolutely fantastic. Ring Shoutis exactly what I wanted from Clark doing cosmic horror in a historical fantasy setting. It is simultaneously unrelenting, eviscerating, and unflinching. There is no one quite like P. Djèlí Clark and no story like Ring Shout. Get this book in your hands immediately.” –TOR

My Verdict: Love the atmosphere, concept, and descriptions, even if the story itself sometimes confused me. Read for the cosmic horror vibes.

Blue Angel, White Shadow by Charlson Ong

She reminded him of a small bird with its neck broken by a giant hand, laid to rest on a bed of dried leaves.

Short Description: Inspector Cyrus Ledesma must solve the murder of a young singer from the Blue Angel Cafe and Bar in Manila’s Chinatown.

Critic Quote: “He achieved that aim; Blue Angel, White Shadow is a crime novel that lingers in the mind long after you’ve finished it; the humidity of a Manila summer and the slow decay of the old quarters of the city are vividly portrayed.” –Crime Reads

My Verdict: I just could not connect to the writing style – something about the way charcters are introduced, dialogue is written, and overall delivery of information feels stilted and distracted.

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom

I wanted to protect you, but I’m starting to think that the best thing you can do for people is teach them how to protect themselves. Every girl needs to be at least a little dangerous.

Short Description: A fantastical take on a young trans girl’s journey to freedom, love, and adventure.

Critic Quote: “I cannot think of a book quite like this one, but Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is drawn from an ancient tradition of storytelling. Commonly known as fairy tales or Märchen(wonder tales) in the Western world and zhiguai in the Chinese literary tradition, Kai Cheng’s work is a ground-breaking urban trans girl fairy tale.” –Plenitude Magazine

My Verdict: A unique, beautifully written memoir. Highly recommend.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva

We townspeople all carried stomatological trauma, our mouths junk heaps of lead filings, wire bridges, steel crowns, plastic prostheses.

Short Description: A series of short, comedic stories about the residents of an unlisted apartment complex in pre and post-USSR.

Critic Quote: “The emotional impact of this book is cumulative. This is partly down to [Reva’s] mastery of the form: the stories are connected by a unity of place, time and relationship. More importantly, they are brought to life by Reva’s handling of darkness and light.” –The Guardian

My Verdict: It was okay! Though not personally memorable, I enjoyed the humorous tone of the stories..

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

I realized that war was monstrous. If it didn’t kill those it touched, it took away a piece of their souls, so they could never be whole again.

Short Description: A generational family epic detailing the survival of a young girl’s grandmother through the Vietnam War, and the legacy of suffering it left in its wake.

Critic Quote: “Born in 1973 in North Vietnam, Quế Mai relocated at six with her family to the South, before winning a university scholarship to study in Australia. She later decided to pursue a writing career exploring the long lasting socio-psychological consequences of the Vietnam War. This background gives Quế Mai an astute and graceful ability to sustain contradictory truths about war, displacement, aesthetic representations, and human nature.” –NPR

My Verdict: Well, my heart’s been annihilated. The Mountains Sing is a powerful novel, impressive in both its scope of time as well as its emotional complexity. This is a must read for anyone interested in learning more about Vietnam.

See Full Review HERE

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson

Love your younger self, and let them die.

Short Description: Comic-creator and She-Ra show-runner Noelle Stevenson’s recollections and doodles on her growth as a person and artist over the past decade or so.

Critic Quote: “The book’s many simple, sketchy black-and-white comic strips are a perfect illustration of self-doubt. . .  the book feels raw and personal in a way that eclipses the usual structure of a memoir.” –Polygon

My Verdict: Enjoyable to read, but vague and sometimes disconnected. Wouldn’t recommend unless you’re a big Stevenson fan.

Along for the Ride by Mimi Grace

What I’m trying to say is, like the clownfish and anemone, we just work. We’re people with different temperaments and approaches to life, but you inspire me to be bold, thoughtful, and indulge my feelings …

Short Description: An enemies-to-lovers romance road trip with a recovered hot-mess and a detail-oriented dentist.

Critic Quote: “While it’s important to see these very traditional tropes written in color, I love that modern storylines aren’t always delivering toxic behavior in the relationships portrayed. These were two very adult people and they handled themselves as such.” –Petite Reviews

My Verdict: I liked the characters and the banter, but I wish the road trip lasted longer (stops about 40% of the way in, then returns to normal day-to-day life), since the pacing drops off after that. Also, like other reviwers have noted, the 3rd act conflict the male lead initiated was pretty ridiculous and quickly brushed over.

Hill Women by Cassie Chambers

But outsiders who rush into the hills don’t always take the time to see that mountain people are a creative, resourceful lot. They don’t understand that Appalachians can be—should be—partners in the effort to make their lives better. They don’t grasp that, if given the right resources and opportunities, these communities are capable of saving themselves. If there’s one thing that women in these hills know how to do, it’s get things done.

Short Description: Author and lawyer Cassie Chambers looks back at her childhood in Appalachia, her path to Yale, current ambitions, and the various social factors that impacted the trials she and her family endured.

Critic Quote: “Through it all, Chambers tells an honest story based in love of home and its people.  Chambers doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses—and she doesn’t blame.  New ways are needed going forward, she knows….and it’s clear she will be part of the change.” –Blue Ridge Country

My Verdict: A well-explored memoir that may have benefitted from more lyrical writing to maintain its weight, especially in the latter half as it became more technical on the policies and inequities Appalachian women endure. That being said, this is a great read for those who want to learn more about Appalachia.

Girl, Woman,Other by Bernardine Evaristo

prettiness was supposed to make her compliant, and when she wasn’t, when she rebelled, she was letting down all those invested in her being adorable

Short Description: A polyphonic series of stories on mainly Black-British women and their personal trials and observations on life.

Critic Quote: “In this highly designed novel, almost everybody is just a couple of degrees of separation apart.” –NPR

My Verdict: Though I appreciated the unique writing style, I overall found it difficult to connect with the characters and their individual journeys. Just not for me.

How to Be Alone by Lane Moore

When you have a lot of shine to you, as so many bighearted people often do, you can attract a lot of people easily, because people are drawn to it, that kind of light. It can be so easy to forget that not everyone deserves your shine. But when you spend so much of your earliest years being told you have no shine at all, even though you’re pretty sure maybe you do, and someone finally tells you they see it too, you do, you have it, you want to give them everything. Because of this, more often than not, you’re not falling in love with them, you’re using them as a way to fall in love with yourself.

Short Description: Essays on writer, comedian, and musician Lane Moore’s experiences on living a solitary life, in search of healthy love.

Critic Quote: “An irreverent, candidly introspective exploration of toiling with loneliness that will leave readers feeling not so alone.” –Kirkus Reviews

My Verdict: I’m glad I got the audiobook for this, because hearing Lane Moore provide her comedic tone to these essays really helped in understanding the mood, pacing, and humor of all her stories (not sure if I would have enjoyed this collection as much without her voice). Though some of the asides probably could have been edited out, overall, I liked hearing about Moore’s insights, experiences, and observations on what living a lonely life has meant for her.

Soft Science by Franny Choi

If tenderness is any sort of currency

maybe I don’t want what it can buy.

Short Description: A poetry collection connecting technology and robots to gender, sexuality, and race.

Critic Quote: “Even without the Ex Machina background, the collection is accessible for anyone wondering about identity, construction, destruction, and human connection in a digital world, in a world further disembodied by the Internet. . . And Choi, as marvelously outlandish as it sounds, manages to both condemn and celebrate this most illustrious tool of society. She does so in language lyric and logical, befitting the behemoth task of taking on the world, and winning.” –Lambda Literary

My Verdict: Though half of these poems went over my head, the half that didn’t were pretty spectacular. I especially liked the pieces that explicitly interwove tech with questions of humanity. I recommend giving this collection a try!

Sitting Pretty by Rebekah Taussig

When you grow up in a world that doesn’t see you or welcome you or include you or represent you, you believe the world isn’t for you.

Short Description: Disability Activist and Professor Rebekah Taussig provides an accessible, witty, heartfelt memoir that teaches readers the many facets of disability activism and how to create a more innovative, empathetic world.

Critic Quote: “Taussig’s refreshing, matter-of-fact tone makes it clear that she’s not asking anyone to feel sorry for her; rather, she’s asking for just the opposite—to not be defined by her wheelchair. Her smart and witty observations about living with disabilities will be enlightening and eye-opening for readers.” –Publisher’s Weekly

My Verdict: An easy five stars. This is an incredible book. Taussig is able to convey complex disability activism teachings through sharp, witty, and heart-felt writing. I found myself devouring this book and all of the ways it reflected truths I held but could never articulate as clearly as she does. Please, please, please, please, please pick up this book!!!

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.

Short Description: Two Black boys of different ideologies find their beliefs put to the test when they are sent to horrific Nickel School in 1960s USA.

Critic Quote: Nickel Boys is more than the sum of its parts, and its parts are beautifully constructed to begin with. But as beautiful and thoughtful as it is, it never lets you forget that it is built around a true atrocity, around something that should never have happened. It’s a book that rests on top of almost 100 unmarked graves.” –VOX

My Verdict: The structure of this book is simple, but excellently executed. For me though, the distant emotional distance between the narrators and characters made the novel less impactful than I’d hoped. Consider your own tastes before picking this up.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

When people call single women selfish for the act of tending to themselves, it’s important to remember that the very acknowledgement that women have selves that exist independently of others, and especially independent of husbands and children, is revolutionary. A true age of female selfishness, in which women recognized and prioritized their own drives to the same degree to which they have always been trained to tend to the needs of all others, might, in fact, be an enlightened corrective to centuries of self-sacrifice.

Short Description: Author and columnist Rebecca Traister interviews, researches, and explains the history and rise of single women in the US and what this reveals about our changing society.

Critic Quote: “Some of what’s covered in the book is already well-trod ground — financial solvency is central to independence; marriage is still considered the end goal for many; white male conservatives still think single women are ruining everything — but the exemplary framework of cultural inclusion, the personal candor and palpable desire to lift up each and every one of us, is what makes All the Single Ladies a singularly triumphant work of women presented in beautiful formation.” –The LA Times

My Verdict: I gobbled this book up – Traister is masterful in her telling of history, especially when she connects it to herself and other young women. Definitely read this book if you want to learn more about the impact single women have had on the US. Even if you’re familiar with the history, Traister’s writing is worth absorbing.

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