Monday, September 19, 2022

The Feminist Multiplicity of Motherhood: A Review of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love

 Note: I wrote this review specifically as part of an assignment for a course I took this past summer with a visiting professor, Rita Felski. Thus, the review does assume an audience that is somewhat familiar with the book, since I knew Dr. Felski had already read it. Anyway, still thought it was a good piece of writing, so I wanted to share it here.

            “You know, when you’re a mother, you won’t be able to read all the time like this. You’ll have to actually pay attention to your children!” My mother repeated this refrain to me often as an adolescent, when she would become annoyed with my seemingly endless freedom to bury my nose in a book and become lost to the world. I was a voracious reader then, plowing through several books a week in a way she saw as irresponsible. I would stay up late to finish books, I would read through my (really quite boring) school classes, I would have read through dinner if my mother would have allowed it. I’m sure it was pure jealousy, her own wish to abandon her responsibilities as a mother and a housewife and a full-time working elementary school teacher and just get lost in a good book like me, get lost in any sort of activity that was purely for her own pleasure. But she was always too busy, so she contented herself with projections of my own future, when I would also be too busy to read, too absorbed in the roles of being a good mother.

            I still hear her voice in my head often, warning me that to be a good mother I have to put away my books and pay attention to my children, now that I have four children of my own. I also work full time, toiling away at a full teaching load of freshman composition as I struggle to finish my dissertation and graduate with my PhD. And like my mother before me, I have a husband to keep up a relationship with, and dinner to get on the table every night, and a house to keep (somewhat) clean. Yes, I am just as busy as she was.

            But I also still manage to read just over one hundred books for pleasure every year. Slower than my adolescent rate, but not by much.

            And I wonder, often, as any modern American woman with children will do, am I a bad mother?


            Hanne Ørstavik’s Norwegian novel Love, written in the late 1990s, explores similar questions about what it means to be a good mother, or a good woman. Translated into English by Martin Aitken in 2018, it is remarkable how much these issues still resonate in the culture of American motherhood two decades into the twenty-first century. Ørstavik’s tightly woven and relatively short plot revolve around the inner monologues of a single mother, Vibeke, and her almost-nine-year-old son, Jon, during their divergent adventures one fateful and perilously cold evening. After coming home from work and indulging in various self-care activities, Vibeke decides to venture out in search of books, entertainment, and possibly the companionship of a man (any man will do). Unbeknownst to his mother, Jon also ventures out in hopes of giving his mother time and space to make a surprise cake for his birthday, which is the next day. Vibeke’s inner monologue reveals not a single indication that she has any plans for her son’s birthday, let alone that she even remembers it is the next day, and this unforgivable fact, in concert with her general self-absorption, marks Vibeke as unquestionably a “bad mother.”

            And yet, when asked which of the two main characters I identify most with, it is not the son, who is clearly the more sympathetic protagonist. No, it is the mother I identify with most. Like Vibeke, I too wish I could “read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up” (7). She gets through at least three books a week, sometimes four or five. My two books a week seem tame in comparison. Like Vibeke, I also like painting my nails deep shades of red. I too enjoy the sensuality of a bath and little rituals of self care. A damning line from the novel comes after the dinner scene, when Jon is chattering endlessly about something. “Can’t you just go, she thinks to herself. Find something to do, play or something” (17). This line is pointed to by critics as evidence of just how terrible she is as a mother. But I have this exact same thought about my own children at least twenty times a day. Please, can’t you just stop talking to me, stop needing me? Just give me a moment to think my own thoughts? I see myself reflected back to me in so much of Vibeke. Does this mean I am a bad mother?

            This book was one of a spate of Norwegian novels written during the final decade of the twentieth century that offered examples of “bad mothers” or broken families as part of an exploration of the relationship between critical feminism and motherhood. Early feminism had a complicated relationship with motherhood. On the one hand, the roles of motherhood were so defined by the institutions of patriarchy that choosing not to have children seemed the only way to be a true feminist. Influential feminists like Simone de Beauvoir and Jeffner Allen called for a complete rejection of motherhood, arguing that “motherhood is dangerous to women because it … denies to females the creation of subjectivity” (Allen 315). On the other hand, women keep choosing to have children (and rationally, some women must have children to propagate the species), and such women’s lived experiences cannot be discounted in the great feminist project of caring for and about all women. But the question remains, both for feminism and this novel, what makes a good mother? What makes a bad one? And can you be a feminist, individual woman and a good mother at the same time?

            One could make a surface argument that Vibeke embodies a fully liberated feminist woman. She apparently has left Jon’s father because, according to Jon, who repeats the phrase as if he’s heard it many times before, “She was too young to be tied down” (56). She only reads books by female authors (a fact noted in passing that could be interpreted as either very feminist of her indeed, or rather weak-minded of her, depending on which female-authored books we’re talking about). And she seems like the type of woman who, unlike the model mother figure of the oppressive patriarchal order, is peculiarly free of self-sacrifice. She is her own woman. She pursues her own pleasure. If it weren’t for the fact that she is painted as a little silly and foolishly bad at reading people and relationships, Vibeke could be the heroine of some other novel, the free woman escaping the bounds of expectations placed upon her by society and the patriarchy.

            But she is not a heroine here. In this novel, her silliness is inexcusable, her self-absorption bordering upon the criminal as it leads to the serious neglect of her son. The neglect is not so much in how she is unaware of her son’s location, nor of his seeming self-assumed freedom to enter the houses and cars of strangers, nor her own failure to secure a babysitter before she leaves for the evening (here is a feature of the novel that does not translate well to current American culture, where we helicopter and hover over our children to the point that even in the safest of suburban neighborhoods, children up to age fourteen are not allowed to be left on their own[1]—Americans must take care to remember that even as historically recent as the nineties children were routinely left home alone for several hours at a time with no one blinking an eye; and as for Jon’s encounter with strangers, it is also important to note that he is neither harmed nor endangered by any of these strangers, they do not cause the tragedy of the book). No, the true neglect is in how little Vibeke thinks of her son at all. The inner monologues reveal that Jon thinks of his mother all the time, while she thinks of him rarely. That is the essence of Vibeke’s “badness” as a mother.

            But it is also the essence of where this book fails, both in terms of Vibeke’s character development, and as a feminist (or anti-feminist?) text addressing the issues of motherhood. In setting the liberated and self-focused Vibeke up as a “bad mother,” the sub-text seems to suggest that a good mother would be the opposite of Vibeke. A good mother, in contrast, would be self-sacrificing. A good mother would not go out in search of her own pleasure, she would devote herself to the care and pleasure of her child. A good mother would not have gone to the fair; rather, a good mother would have stayed home and made that cake for her son. This has been the narrative of motherhood writ large for the past century, if not more, and this is the patriarchal institution of motherhood that feminism has continued to grapple with. When you become a mother, you cease to become an individual, you cease to become a woman with needs and interests and desires. You must subsume all of that in service of your children. So my mother told me (both in words and by example), and so this book seems to be telling its readers. This is what good mothers do.

            But I would like to propose an alternate possibility for what it means to be a good mother, via an alternate imagined version of this character of Vibeke. It doesn’t substantially change the plot of this story, and indeed, may not change the outcome of the tragic ending. In my version of this story, Vibeke still leaves the house to go to the library in search of a good book. She even still goes to the fair, and possibly even on that terrible date with Tom (the man she meets at the fair). But in my version, in between all the other thoughts she has, Vibeke also thinks of her son. She thinks of what books she might pick up for her son at the library along with her own. She thinks of how her son might enjoy the fair and when she might be able to bring him back to it. She thinks of Tom in terms of how he might get along with her son. She still has her moments of annoyance and frustration with her son (heaven knows we all do), but alongside those, she has her thoughts and feelings of affection. At the very least, she remembers the birthday, and thinks of picking up a cake at the store in the morning. And while these individual thoughts might not change the specific course of the plot as it stands, I suspect that they would indicate a fundamental change in the character of Vibeke that would ripple out into the thoughts and actions of her son, and possibly make the tragic outcome one of pure accident, not neglect.

            Not a single one of these thoughts requires any self-sacrifice on her part, or rejection of her individual self in the service of her son. She is still allowed to be a completely individual woman. She is still allowed to indulge in her own needs and desires. She is even allowed to be a little silly and bad at reading men. But here’s the thing about women that any fully realized feminist ideology recognizes: we are capable of multiplicity. We are capable of multiple identities, we give attention to multiple areas of our lives. We can love reading, we can seek out companionship and excitement, and we can think about our children. While I am in no way espousing the doomed platitude that women can “have it all,” I am absolutely saying that a woman can be an individual person and a good mother. At the same time.

            Because after all, being a mother, just like being a partner or a friend or a daughter, is far less about the “roles” society has assigned to that title, and far more about what matters in any relationship: paying attention and showing love. It does not follow that the attention paid must be all consuming. In fact, in any other relationship, paying all consuming attention is generally considered dismally unhealthy. In any other relationship, it is recognized that a fully whole and individual person who takes care of themselves is far better able to show up for the other person. So it is in motherhood. Vibeke fails as a mother not because she takes care of herself and seeks to fulfill her own needs. She fails as a mother because she forgets her multiplicity. She forgets she can pay attention to both herself and to her son.


            And yet, I still find myself pondering the question, am I a bad mother? Am I paying enough attention to my children? Perhaps those questions can only be answered by my children themselves and their future (and in one case, current) therapists. But here’s what I do know: sometimes I ignore my children so I can finish the book I’m in the middle of, or work on my dissertation, or I send them to bed early so I can carry on an uninterrupted adult conversation with my husband. But sometimes, I put my book down so I can shoot the breeze with my oldest son, or I leave the dissertation mid sentence to comfort the crying baby, or I sacrifice date night with my husband so we can have game night as a family. I’m not perfect about the balance. There are times I feel frustrated about the lack of time and attention I’m able to pay to my work and my hobbies and my adult relationships. There are times I feel frustrated about the missed moments with my children. But I still give some time and attention to each of these things in turn, because each of these parts of my life is better for the attention I pay to the other. I am a happier mother, happier to spend time and attention on my children, when I’ve already had some time to do other things just for myself. And I’m a happier woman, happier in my career and my hobbies, because I’m grounded in relationships that bring me foundational purpose. My children give my life purpose and meaning, my work and hobbies give my life interest and satisfaction. I devote attention to my identities as a woman, as an academic, as a reader. And I devote attention to my children. Both/and. Is it enough? I don’t know. But I do know I’m happier than I would be without my children, and happier than I would be if I never allowed myself the time to read for pleasure.

            And also, I’ve never forgotten my children’s birthdays. So at least there’s that.


Works Cited

Allen, Jeffner. “Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women.” Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, edited by Joyce Treblicot, Rowmann and Allanheld, 1983, pp. 315-30.

Ørstavik, Hanne. Love. Translated by Martin Aitken, Archipelago Books, 2018.


[1] Every state has different laws and age limits, but in the most extreme case of Illinois, it is illegal to leave children unattended before the age of fourteen. See https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=070504050K2-3

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

2021 Top Ten (+1)

Okay, my last post on here was to announce the birth of my baby girl... and she's 5.5 months old now... so that's how things are going. But! I will never stay away forever because babies grow up and seasons pass and I find more pockets of time in my schedule and that continual itching to write about books and life never leaves. So I'll always be back.

The year is not over yet, but between now and New Year's Eve I have to finish my grades and wrap up the semester, celebrate the heck out of my-sister-in-law's wedding, pack like crazy, and take my whole family to Hawaii for Christmas (and not take my laptop), so this is kind of my last chance to get this post written before January (which is when I usually write these end of year wrap-ups, but hey, let's try doing things early for once in my life.)

So far this year I've read 71 books, and while I will likely hit at least 75 (after all, I still have that trip to Hawaii ahead of me), it's still not a banner year for me. This is the first time in three years I'll be under 100, but considering 2017 (when I only managed to read 67 books) was the last time I had a baby under one, I anticipated this year would likely be a struggle. On the one hand, I have all that nursing time to read, but on the other hand, my brain is sleep-deprived and fried.

And 71 books means I've still had a fair chance to read some pretty amazing books this year. In order that I read them, here are my top eleven reads from the year (I tried to narrow it down to ten, but hey, this is my blog, I make the rules).

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall

It's about two couples, two co-ministers of a church in New York through the sixties and beyond and their wives, how they came to be friends, their relationship with faith and God, doubts, and trials. It was beautiful, but not perfect. I wanted more from it, I wanted the story to go on, I wanted more things explored and explained. And there are people I know who didn't care for this book as much, found it went on too long or whatever. But there were passages in here that made me feel so much, moments I still haven't forgotten a year later. I loved it.

Wintering by Katherine May

I read this one back in January or February (a good time to read it), and I don't remember everything about it, but the things I do remember have really stuck with me and kept me thinking. It's not a perfect book, with a bit of a strange imperfect mix between personal narrative and research about winter, coldness, depression, and all sorts of things. But I still highly recommend it, I think, especially if you struggle with winter. I don't hate winter the way many people do, I don't struggle with depression, but I still found the message here resonated with me about why a season of dark, cold, and rest is necessary for life.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

A feminist retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey, or at least, a retelling from the women's perspective. The chapters jumped around from story to story, and often I found myself just getting invested in a character's story when we'd be ripped away to the next one. But I still loved this perspective of these classic stories, especially Penelope's letters to Odesseus. 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

I've heard this book criticized for being "gimmicky" or having a plot device that's a little too allegorical or hit-you-over-the-head with it's theme and message. Sure, but it's a really good and powerful message, and I actually thought Haig navigated his plot structure (which could've gotten old, or really Groundhog's day, or actually, whatever the opposite of Groundhog's day is, really fast) quite skillfully. It's the same message as It's a Wonderful Life about your life regrets probably mostly being unfounded, and the value of the life you've lived that you feel is worthless. I don't have many regrets in my life, but I still found this book resonating deeply.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I debated about whether or not to add this one. The experience of reading this book at the beginning is completely disorienting and strange and beautiful, but by the end has reduced down into something knowable and understandable and maybe even mediocre. But I don't know that I would've liked the beginning at all if it hadn't answered most (not all) of the questions by the end. But yes, something of the beautiful mystery had to die with the answers. Anyway, it's a very different book, and I recommend this one in print over audio. It's strange, be prepared, but just stick with it.

The Power of Writing It Down by Allison Fallon

For someone who makes a living inspiring and helping other people write, the writing in this was actually mediocre at best. But the message, despite it's self-help packaging and regurgitated cliche's, in one that resonates and speaks to my soul. The message is simply that we figure our lives out through writing about our lives. I believe this message, and I will preach it forever. And I think this book is worth the read if you can handle the self-help tone and style.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

I almost gave up on this one early one, because while I found the (based on real life) culture and history of these Jeju women divers to be fascinating, it took a while for the central conflict and direction of this plot to get going. I was getting impatient and a little bored, but I'm so glad I stuck with it. It got dark, super dark, but in the end this story has had some serious staying power with me. It was beautiful.

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

A graphic novel about high school basketball has made my top ten list for the year. No one is more surprised than I am. But guys, this book was so good, and so interesting, because it's mostly based on a true story, and it was just fascinating to see how Yang chose to frame the truth of it, the parts of real life that didn't fit neatly into some perfect narrative, and while there was triumph, there wasn't perfect resolution in everything. And it was just so compelling and clever and fascinating to see what can be done with the graphic novel genre. In short, this was brilliant, and I highly, highly recommend this.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Wow. My brother's comment about reading this book is that he's just so sad he'll never get the experience of reading this for the first time again, and I feel exactly the same way, because the first time through reading this book is so. much. fun. It's a thrilling ride, hilarious, with an insane amount of science, and it's just so good. I wouldn't say anything about this is super deep (I mean, the science is deep, but not necessarily the themes or philosophical side of it), but the writing is incredible. And so fun. I mean, can I say it enough? This might have been the most fun reading experience I've ever had. Full stop. Highly recommend.

More Than a Body by Lindsey Kite and Lexie Kite

Nonfiction about the cultural objectification of women's bodies and how it causes massive shame and horrible problems. Here's the thing, we all know this is a problem. We all know women have too much shame and pressure around their bodies and looking young and thin and perfectly beautiful and it causes major mental health problems. But also, we are so much inside the culture that we don't realize how bad it is. And that's how it was for me reading this book, knowing that our culture objectifies women, but still needing this book to get me to see just how pervasive and harmful it is, and how we need to think more deeply about all of this. Read this, then talk to me about it, because it's going to take some digesting.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Not quite as good as A Gentleman in Moscow in my opinion, but still so, so good. This was another one where I just loved the experience of reading it, loved being in the middle, and didn't want it to end. Towles is amazing at characters, and these characters are incredible. The plot gets a little over-drawn by the end, and that ending! I don't think it was the right ending! But I want to talk to you about it, because that is an ending that I just want to talk about forever and ever. I want to re-read this book again and again because I feel like there are so many layers to peel apart here. In essence, a worthy meaty book that leaves me already anxious for the next one Towles will write. I'm here for it.

Okay, there's the list! In the unlikely event I read another fantastic one before the end of the year that deserves a spot here, I reserve the right to come back and edit this list, but for now tell me which of these you've read so we can talk about them!

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Who Wants to Learn More About Shakespeare? A Lecture Video Playlist

I taught English 332 this past semester, which at my university is the upper division Shakespeare course. It was an entirely virtual course, but even still, I knew this might be my one and only chance to teach a college-level Shakespeare class, and I poured my heart and soul into this course (as much as my exhausted, sick, pregnant body would allow, that is).

As a virtual course, here's how it worked. We read seven plays over the course of a14 week semester, so we spent roughly two weeks on each play. Each week my students were required to read half of a play, plus any additional assigned readings (usually the introduction from the textbook, occasionally critical articles or other random things), watch a lecture video (produced by yours truly), post to a discussion board, and participate in one synchronous Zoom discussion. Because we only had one Zoom class a week, and because I really wanted to reserve that time for my students to direct the conversation and talk about what they were interested in, I saved all of my own research or thoughts about the plays for my weekly lecture videos.

Now, I just want to say that these lecture videos are nothing fancy. I was generally scrambling to stay one week ahead of the class schedule and get them made in time to post. The PowerPoints I use are full of typos, I didn't always have typed out scripts so I'm usually just rambling and spouting off a bunch of ums and ahs (and maybe even incorrect information... don't quote me), I never edited them, only ever did one take and called it good. So from a production (and even academic scholar) standpoint, these are nothing to brag about.

But that said, I still put a ton of work into these videos every week, and they contain some of my most interesting knowledge/thoughts about each of the plays we studied. I've been thinking how some of my readers here just *might* be interested in some of these videos, might care to know a little bit more about Shakespeare or the plays we studied, and how sad it would be to sort of just let all these videos languish in obscurity. So, considering I own the copyright to all this content, I've decided to go ahead and share them here to allow maybe just a few more people to learn about something I happen to find incredibly interesting (hence why I'm studying Shakespeare for a living).

Some other caveats about the videos... First, I tried to keep them short, under thirty minutes, which means sometimes I don't go into the detail I wanted to on some of the concepts. Maybe this just makes the videos more appropriate for a general audience? However, on the other hand, I quite often reference the introduction of the specific textbook we used in class (Norton 3rd edition, which is also where all the play quotes come from), and I will often reference the writing assignments the students were working on at the time, or the discussion boards, or other things that were very specific to the students in my course. In other words, I prepared these videos specifically for that class, and not necessarily for a general audience. That said, there's still plenty for a general audience to glean and appreciate from these videos.

Without further ado, here's the full lecture video playlist! I'd love to hear your thoughts if you end up watching any of these!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Books I Read in June

Okay, this is going to be a long one, because I just counted and holy cow, I read 18 books in June! I think that ties my previous record from last July, but I'm still impressed! I mean, I was hoping that my summer schedule would open up some good reading time, but I wasn't quite expecting to make this much headway. This brings my total number of books read this year to 53. My goal for the whole year is 100, so I am now officially ahead of schedule, which feels a bit like a miracle considering how behind I got after losing my commute to quarantine. Anyway, this means there are a lot of books to talk about, and I had a really broad mix of fluff and serious stuff, so let's jump in.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

After reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek last December, I was not excited to jump into *another* book about the packhorse librarian women of Great Depression Kentucky (sometimes themes come in floods). But this one was also getting high recommends from some trusted sources, and I was interested in giving Moyes another shot, so I read it... and honestly this might be my favorite Moyes book (I doubt that's a universal opinion). So yes, I liked it. I don't know if I liked it better than Book Woman, they are similar but different and I generally recommend them both, especially if you enjoy historical fiction with strong female characters.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

This was another historical fiction with a strong female lead, but this time about the plight of Chinese-Americans in a still very racist turn of the 19th-Century Atlanta Georgia (I had no idea that Chinese were not legally allowed to live anywhere, crazy!). First, I want to say this is YA, and feels like it. Second, I found the ending (and maybe the story in general) to be far too optimistic and sweet to be realistic. But there were several things I loved, foremost of which were the Miss Sweetey articles (the main character free-lances as an anonymous advice columnist), which I thought were delightful. If you enjoy sweet YA that attempts to address serious themes, this is a general recommend.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

A tough female fire-fighter just trying to make it in a very patriarchal profession, plus deal with the trauma of her past, falls in love with the cute new rookie, which is absolutely the last thing she needs to deal with. Despite the fact that I have almost nothing in common with this main character, I rather enjoyed this fluffy-with-just-a-touch-of-serious romance. Also, learned a bit about fire departments.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

I absolutely adored Mandel's book Station Eleven, and I've been meaning to read more of her since then... but this one was a complete disappointment. I mean, her writing is still beautiful at the sentence level, but the plot structure here was essentially nonexistent, with no real characters to connect with or root for. The ghost thing was too unexplained for my tastes. Some of the bits about the Ponzi scheme were kind of interesting, the moral dilemmas there, but mostly, this book was utterly forgettable. Don't bother.

Tightrope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book is by the same authors as Half the Sky, a book I found to be a very important read for me about global feminist issues. The topic they tackle here is poverty in America, and it is just as important, if no less pleasant to read about. I highly recommend this to everyone, we need to be educated on these issues, because I feel like poverty in America is often far too invisible (I certainly don't see it). Honestly, the picture they portray here is of an America that is slipping in places backwards into second and even third-world territory, and we need to do something about it. I have several complaints about the book. I don't necessarily agree with every solution they put forward, and I was also disappointed that they didn't address race and poverty as intersectional issues (in that, they didn't acknowledge that poverty affects BIPOC Americans differently than white Americans), so this isn't perfect, but this is important.

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Fun new fantasy series recommended by my husband. Reminded me a bit of Brandon Sanderson. If you like epic fantasy, I recommend (though I've only read one book, waiting on the second one, and apparently there are four or five books in the series, so we'll see...).

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

A nice little You've Got Mail-vibes YA story about the new girl at an elite private school who starts receiving anonymous emails from a fellow student giving her pointers about how to survive. It was decently clean from what I can remember, and cute, but nothing super special.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord

In a random coincidence completely unsought by myself, the very next book that happened to come off my holds list was another You've Got Mail YA riff about secret anonymous pen pals at an elite private school. This one also involves a snarky Twitter war and some epically bad parenting, and I quite enjoyed it, probably more than the first? All I know is that "Secret Pen Pals at Elite Private Schools YA RomCom" is now a list I have two titles for.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

I talk about this one more on the list at the end of this post, but this is a short YA novel that packs a punch and manages to cover a lot of the big issues/arguments around race in America today. Language warning, but it's a general recommend.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Look, there are problems with all of Gladwell's books, and this is no different. There are flaws in his reasoning and arguments. That said, he discusses some really pertinent ideas in this book that have to do with current events and issues. His mapping of the history of police department practices was fascinating in consideration of recent calls to defund the police, and I'm still thinking hard about his chapter on alcohol and rape (especially after reading Know My Name). In essence, lots of good interesting stuff to think about here, and I highly recommend (also, need to throw a plug in for the audio book, which is produced much more like a podcast, with actual sound bytes from interviews and news stories and music, it's fantastic!)

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Despite ticking many of my boxes (beautiful writing, slow character-driven novel, historical fiction), this one didn't quite hit for me. I think other people who value slower literary novels may potentially really like this one, it just wasn't for me at this particular point. Also listened to this one, and I must say the production team on this audio book missed a real opportunity to add clips of all the music mentioned in the book (seriously would've been so fantastic if they had done that). Anyway, I want to try another Jiles book, because I have a feeling a different story from her might really work for me.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I've been meaning to read this one for a while, but there's no audio version! (At least, not from any of my library sources.) So I finally got a paper copy, and breezed through it in an evening. It's light and fluffy, but seriously good writing and super enjoyable, my favorite Rowell by far.

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Another book I've been meaning to read for ages but could not get on audio. But you guys! Five stars! Beautiful! Spoke directly to my inner soul! Essays on motherhood/wifehood, solitude, simplicity, living a balanced life... lovely, impactful writing. I want to own this and reread every year. I can't believe it was written in 1955, it still felt so incredibly relevant. Highly recommend!

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Look, if you don't like sci-fi/fantasy, stay away from this one, and even if you do, you still might not like this one. Jemisin is just very, very different, but I'm totally intrigued by her creative world-building, even if I can't decide if I actually like her stories (and language warnings galore). This one takes a lot of effort to describe (cities are alive, they have avatars that are people, another dimension is attacking, New York is being "born"... yes, it's weird), but I will say that it was fascinating to read this after teaching H.P. Lovecraft this past semester, because Jemisin basically writes a response/reversal of the Lovecraftian racist mythos, and it was really interesting. I also learned a whole lot about New York. Oh, and major props to the audio book production team, because they went above and beyond to make a unique experience audio book (with sound mixing, etc.) that really fit the story well (though it might bother some people).

A Curse so Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

So this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and you know how much I enjoy a good fair-tale retelling. I wouldn't say this one is incredible or a must read, but I certainly enjoyed it enough I'll continue on with the series (trilogy, of course). It's YA and fairly clean and full of action, generally recommend.

Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon

Yes, WWII books are so overdone and I was totally turned off by how similar this title is to Code Name Verity, but do you know what got me with this one? It's a true story! I mean, it's written like a novel and takes some licence, but it is heavily researched and based on a real woman's life, Nancy Wake, who was the most highly decorated female spy working for the British SEO in France with the resistance. Her life is incredible! I probably never would've been friends with her in real life, but she is one heck of a character, that's for sure! I really want to read her actual biography now, but it's out of print and available nowhere. In general, I completely recommend, just don't look her up on Wikipedia and spoil the ending for yourself (or do, so you are emotionally prepared). The back-and-forth plot structure in this book is annoying, but otherwise a fascinating read.

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

While I'm waiting for Book 2 of the Black Prism series to come off the holds list, I decided to jump into one of Weeks earlier trilogies. It's about an assassin's apprentice (I've seen that trope before) and was quite dark and violent, not quite as good as the other series, but good enough I'll continue with this series too. Love fantasy that does politics too.

The Flat Share by Beth O'Leary

What's summer for if not to read a bunch of fluffy Rom Coms? And if you prefer yours with a touch of substance (in this case, emotional abuse and trauma), then this is the perfect book for you. I enjoyed it.

Okay, whew, that was a lot of books for one month. Typing all that up, I can't believe I fit all of that reading in! Clearly, this is shaping up to be a great summer of reading (although all my social justice/racism books are starting to come in, which means my July reading might look quite a bit less fluffy). How's your summer reading coming?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Magic of Writing

We were all born and raised in a literate society, meaning that most of us, even the most illiterate of us, have been so surrounded by written words, texts, and acts of reading since we were babies that we never stop and think twice about what a strange phenomena the technology of writing actually is.

Language, for most of human history, has been a strictly oral thing. According to linguist John McWhorter, people have been speaking for at least 80,000 years, but we've only been writing for fewer than 6,000 years. And this makes sense if you think about it. Language evolved as speech, sounds coming from human throats, heard by human hears, with words invented in human brains. For most of human history, language has been located entirely within the human body, and communication could only happen with those physically close enough for the sounds produced by one body to be heard by another body.

When you stop and really think about it, it seems like quite a remarkable jump to consider the idea that sounds coming out of human mouths could be correlated to scratches of lines on clay tablets. It's not an entirely logical leap, really, this idea of writing. How did someone get the idea that a symbol on a page could represent a spoken sound?

Well, it perhaps makes a little sense, if you think in terms of pictographic writing, or writing where the symbol for a bird looks like a bird. That kind of writing makes sense as soon as humans get any sort of ideas about drawing, about visually recreating things they see in the real world. The problem is that pictographic writing is incredibly limited. How do you draw abstract words and ideas?

Well, humans solved that problem too by developing partly pictographic words, partly symbolic images for words that didn't have an image to associate with it. Thus we get hieroglyphs and other symbol based languages, but the real leap, the real incredible jump, was when someone decided that we didn't need a picture for every discreet word. Instead we could have a symbol for every sound, and thus we get the phonetic alphabet.

We are inundated with this phonetic alphabet from the time we are so little that it feels too familiar, too childish, too simple to think twice about, until you try to teach a child to read and realize, well now, yes, why exactly does the symbol "A" represent both "ah" and "a" sounds? Who decided we could give visual symbols to spoken sounds? It's quite remarkable, really, if you stop to think about it.

What spoken language is in the first place is a verbal symbol representing the thing named, but that makes phonetic writing a symbol of a symbol. It is a visual symbol of a verbal symbol, twice removed from the actual object or idea or sentiment being expressed. And yet we can see thousands of those symbols typed out here in this blog post and process these symbols of symbols with no more difficulty than if we were hearing the words spoken aloud (unless of course, you happen to have a form of dyslexia, or a brain where processing all these written symbols reveals what an actually complex task it really is; the prevelance of dyslexia just serves to prove that writing is NOT natural for every human brain, because it hasn't been around long enough for all of us to adapt to it).

In our literate society today, we love our written words. We practically drown in written words. They are not just in our books, but draped all over our signs, our machines, our walls, our food containers. We spend most of our day scrolling through written words on the tiny screens in our pockets. In many cases, we even prioritize the written word over the spoken, from the casual preference of texting over speaking on the phone, to the legal preference for a written and signed contract over a verbal promise.

But it didn't always use to be this way. Back when writing was still an infant technology and most societies still operated under the forms of oral culture, some of the world's greatest minds viewed writing with suspicion and distrust. Socrates abhorred writing, believing it would destroy our need for memory (a fair criticism) and even our ability to gain and process knowledge. He didn't understand how a man could claim to be learned if he stored all the information of his learning outside his body, and couldn't just recall facts but had to look them up in books. Ironically, we only know about Socrates' negative views on writing because his student, Plato, wrote them down, thus preserving them for future generations, but Socrates was not the only great teacher to never write his own words. Christ himself left nary an iota of written record, though we know he could both read and write (I think about this often, and often wonder why, but it's topic for a different post).

I believe there are lessons to be learned from considering this, things we have lost from the oral cultures of yesteryear that are important. We must never forget that humans evolved precisely for spoken language, with our tongues and vocal chords and our ears and our brains. Writing merely borrows from the parts of our brain designed specifically for spoken language, and I believe there are great advantages to paying attention to the importance of spoken word, and listening to spoken words.

And yet, and yet, I would not give up the technology of writing for the world.

As much as I know the human brain in general evolved for verbal language, my own particular brain has been so shaped by writing that I don't know how to function without it. I don't know what I know until I write it. I don't understand my own emotions until I write them. I have no sense of identity, of personhood, until I write my own story and figure it out. I don't know what I want to say unless I figure it out in writing first. I am at best average at speaking in the moment. At worst, I find myself tongue tied and tripping, unable to recall even simple names or facts, unable to express complex opinions. But if I go to paper (or more often now, the keyboard) and hash it out, tell the story over, sort through the complex ideas... that's when the magic happens. I come to understand. I figure life out, myself out, the world out. I learn through writing. I think through writing.

Maybe Socrates is right. Maybe I could still do all of these things if I just had to rely on speech and rhetoric and memory, if I'd been raised in an oral culture. But also, maybe there's a reason writing has taken over the world. Maybe we really can do all these things better not just because we can store our words outside our body, but because the physical and psychological process of writing actually forces our brains to think more completely or more clearly, or at the very least differently than we think when we merely speak words aloud.

Whatever it is, something about writing is magic.

And that shows up in our magic stories as well. Perhaps stories about spoken magic words are more common than stories about written magic power, but the power of language in general seems to transcend medium. Historically, spells and charms were written on scraps of paper and worn in amulets, or even ingested. Runes and symbols of magic have been carved over tombs and inscribed over doorways or gates. It's perhaps not the most common trope in magic systems, but I love it when writing is given the power to change the world. Here are two books I love that use writing as an actually magical power:

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

This is the one I chose to teach in the "Magic Writing" unit of my course this past semester. We actually spent part of our discussion arguing about whether what forgers do count as "writing," but in the end, most of my students agreed that, like Chinese calligraphy, it was definitely a form of writing. This one is probably still my favorite Sanderson piece, possibly because I love this magic system so much, and the power given to writing to change the physical world.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I think I loved this book simply because the magic system was exactly this: the power of writing to create reality. It can't just be said, it has to be written. I mean, it's also a fun action/adventure story with romance and new worlds and evil secret organizations trying to destroy everything, but mostly, I love it for the magic system. It's just my thing.

I know there are others out there that I haven't read (I've heard Inkheart has a bit of this kind of magic system?), but I'd love to read some more. Do you know of any books where the magic system specifically involves writing to enact power? Please share!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Books I Read in May

Well, yes, definitely behind here on these updates, but they're more for my personal benefit than yours, right? May started off rough with end of the semester craziness, then I got sick somehow (even after being in quarantine, only trips to the grocery store! So baffling (not to mention frustrating)! I got tested, negative for flu and Covid19, so no idea what it was, but it took me out for almost a week). But the second half of the month we started settling down into a nice summer pattern, which included a lot more time for reading/listening to audio books, and maxing out my library holds now that my local branch opened for pick-up! Anyway, I read some interesting stuff last month, so let's talk about them!

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

I picked this one up after reading Amy's intriguing review, and found it super interesting. I've been in academia long enough to become incredibly frustrated by the specialization idealized there (seriously, I can't even write about Shakespeare and Austen in the same paper, because they belong to two different literary time periods, ugh!). Epstein manages to walk a fine line of not overly falling into the same trap as other pop psychology authors (like Gladwell) who narrowly focus on their own argument as the end-all be-all to the exclusion of other ideas--Epstein at least acknowledges there are some fields where specialization is preferred (like being a world class chess champion)--but in general I agree that interest across a wide range of fields is a very positive thing. In brief, I enjoyed this and generally recommend.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I wanted to like this book so much. I mean, it's about libraries! Book love! Fascinating tidbits of historical detail mixed in with the overall narrative of the Los Angeles Public Library system! It seems right up my ally! Alas, Orlean didn't quite deliver. I feel like in the hands of a different author, this could've been so much better. As it was, the most interesting part of the book was learning about the inaccurate science of arson investigation. In general, I suppose I still recommend to all my bibliophiles and library lovers out there, there are plenty of interesting details in here. Just don't expect to be wowed.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I loved this book. It wasn't exactly perfect (I think if this book could get together and have a love child with The Starless Sea, then I might find the magic book-lover story of my dreams), but still, if you like historical fantasy with a magic system that involves doors leading to other worlds, a world where writing has the power to make words come to life, sweet romances, and evil secret societies bent on destroying everything, then this is the book for you. The writing could be stronger, and it's not a story for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed this.

A Court of Thorns of Roses, A Court of Mist and Fury, and A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

Lumping my review of this trilogy all together. I saw this trilogy recommended repeatedly by some of my go-to fantasy review sources, but then I started seeing it pop up in some of my more literary review sources, and so I thought, well, everyone seems to love it? Maybe I should give it a try? And... eh. It's still very much a typical "special girl" kind of series, just with fairies and far more sex scenes than I cared for (I skimmed heavily to get through to the end). It was like a better Twilight. It was compelling enough I wanted to finish the series, and there were  a few things/characters I quite liked, but I was definitely bored by the third book, and ready to be done. Not a strong recommend from me, although the fan base is pretty rabid.

The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

I picked this up because Janssen picked it for her May book club book and some of her reviews intrigued me. Lots of it was good, some interesting stuff to think about, but mostly not very life-changing for me personally. I maybe want to start having more family meetings and come up with a good family motto, and other people may get other useful insights out of this, but it was all stuff I've heard before or already with my family. Good stuff, but not a must read.

Well, clumping three books into one review makes this list look shorter than it should, but seven books isn't bad considering how my reading life's been going this year. June is already looking way, way up, which is so fun. Anyway, if you've read any of these, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

On Teaching Lovecraft in the Age of George Floyd (Plus a Reading List)

Hi! I've been working on this post since the beginning of June, but due to my summer-haze work pace and accidentally leaving my laptop in Iowa for a week, I'm only finally getting around to publishing this today. Even if the heat of the protests is behind us, I still want to throw my two cents in the ring here, for whatever it's worth. This is an issue that needs sustained energy, and I'm only just learning how to speak up. Anyway, here we go.

I'd planned to write about this particular lesson from my magic course at some point, but the way I will write about it has now changed thanks to everything that has happened in the past weeks. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people reading my posts are white, and so I write this for a white audience. I've decided it's important to share my opinion, my voice, my stance, for my white family and friends to know. This is a conversation I want us to be having.

For my magic and language course this past semester, I included on the syllabus a short story by H.P Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu." I chose it because there is both an "unpronouncable" and "unreadable" spoken and written language that play a major role in developing the sense of horror around the great destructive elder Gods ("Cthulhu" being one of them) that form the basis of Lovecraft's influential mythos.

But I was worried about including Lovecraft on the syllable because the man was an outspoken, well documented, agreed with Hitler, named his cat the n-word, disgusting bigot and racist. I was aware of controversies surrounding his racism, and I worried that including him on the syllabus would make it seem like I was giving Lovecraft a platform, or endorsing him as a person "worthy" of canonized status. I finally decided that there was enough value in the contribution the story added to our overall class theme that I wanted to keep it on the syllabus, and the best way to handle the controversy would be to just have an open class discussion about it.

I dedicated two class sessions to discussing Lovecraft. The first class session we kept very focused primarily on the language use in the story, and it was an interesting discussion that worked well for the course. For the next class period, however, I had the students read this article, and then when they showed up to class, I asked them to write for five minutes about what racism they noticed in the story, and what value we should place on this work knowing the views of the author, and whether I should have a place for Lovecraft on the syllabus. For context, my class had 18 students in it, only one of whom was Black, and she mostly refrained from joining in the conversation (absolutely her right), so this was generally white students talking to other white students.

And their answers provided some interesting commentary on how white people in general respond to racism. I had some students who read the whole story and did not notice any form of racism at all. It was a story about monsters under the ocean being awoken to potentially destroy the earth, nothing remotely about racism. Then I had other students who had been so angered and appalled by the racism inherent in the very details of the story that they could barely stomach finishing. It was quite the spectrum.

But I think this is the way racism works for us, as white people. Some of us may go about our lives and not "see" it. We're just living our lives, dealing with our own conflicts, no racism here! That is white privilege. It takes some training, some education, but once someone begins to point out the racism, you can see how it is there, so woven into the fabric of our society that it might be unnoticeable to you, the white protagonist, but it is there, pervasive, everywhere. It is on every page, in almost every line. And once we began examining the racism in the story, it was very hard not to see. In fact, it became clear to us as a class that Lovecraft's story wasn't about fictional alien monsters at all, but actually about racism.

Lovecraft's brand of horror operates on the scariness of the unknown. What is so terrifying about his giant elder gods is that they are presumably beyond human comprehension, so unfathomable that to even try to grasp at their existence or purpose leads men to go insane. They are the definition of the "other." And what Lovecraft tries to evoke through the way he spins his narrative is to build that sense of the unknown, the unknowable. The language that these gods use to communicate with man is barely able to translate into recognizable sound. Lovecraft chose the name "Cthulhu" because it was supposed to look and sound unpronounceable. It was supposed to feel unknowable, and therefore terrifying. Lovecraft explores a type of fear of the unknowable that assumes what is unknown is going to destroy the world as he knew it.

If you read the story closely, you can clearly see this is how Lovecraft felt about other races as well. He seemed to find them unfathomable, so different, so "other," that it was impossible to understand them, and that was horrifying to him. Or perhaps, in the deepest, most unexplored recesses of his psyche, Lovecraft knew that to come to know or understand other races would be the destruction of his world, would be the destruction of white (male) dominance, and he found that too uncomfortable to countenance.

But what we spent most of our class time discussing is how in the very act of writing a story based on the fear of the unknown, Lovecraft undermined his intention. In trying to create a name that was unpronounceable, Lovecraft created a name that people have standardized pronunciation for through the decades and we now say without hesitation (see here, although check the comments to see just how upset everyone is that we pronounce this word at all). Even while declaring the monster indescribable, Lovecraft nevertheless included enough description that readers (and artists) are still able to guess at a fairly uniform image of it.




Lovecraft opens his story with this paragraph: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid isle of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Then he goes on from there to tell an entire story that does nothing but piece together bits of dissociated knowledge to reveal a sensible whole story of what are supposed to be terrifying monsters bent on destroying earth. Yet by the end of the story, we are no more driven mad by horror than we are by curiosity, and there is no impulse to flee from the deadly light.

What I proposed to my class is that Lovecraft had it all wrong when he assumed we should be afraid of the unknown. While we could debate for endless ages about whether powerful alien gods are or are not actually unknowable, what we can assume (both from the story and from his real life) is that Lovecraft was deeply afraid of other races because he did not know them, did not understand them.  While it is very true that knowing another race and acknowledging that race's humanity may be difficult, and may destroy our own worldview, it is far from the most terrifying thing. The most terrifying thing may very well be our own selves, our own ability to de-humanize others.

When we keep ourselves in ignorance, when we refuse to learn about the "other," when we refuse to acknowledge the reality, the humanity, the valid experiences and emotions, of other races, that is when we become the monsters.

But we are capable of learning. We are capable of understanding. We are capable of reaching across "black seas of infinity" and piecing together dissociated pieces of knowledge to open up vistas of reality that may be terrifying, but not because they reveal monsters that will drive us mad, but because they reveal other humans we have treated wrongly. Guilt may destroy our world view, but it will not destroy our sanity. We must trust that coming to face the unknown, coming to learn about the "other," is the only way to avoid the new dark age Lovecraft touts as a desirable condition for humanity. His racism would have us wallow in darkness because it is safe and peaceful (for us, the white dominant race). The light might be terrifying, but I will always choose the light over the dark.

Light is knowable. Light is knowledge.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that I will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like to be Black in America today. I am not saying I will ever be able to empathize completely, or really "know." What I am saying is that humans may be the only species capable of imagining what it is like to be someone else. We are a species that is capable of greater understanding. We may not be able to understand everything yet, and it may take many years of long, hard work to get there, but the work of seeking more knowledge, seeking more understanding, seeking to really listen, listen, listen, and validate the humanity and reality of the "other", will lead us to a place out of darkness. Maybe it is scary, and uncomfortable, and chaotic here, facing these unknowns. But we must always choose the light over the darkness.

I actually just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's Talking to Strangers (which, PS tangent, offers a super interesting look into the history of police work and one aspect of why police work the way they do, and how it leads to tragedy) in which he says something along the lines of how we are terrible at knowing when we are being lied to, and true communication may be almost impossible because we have such a hard time truly understanding each other. I take the more positive view that we may be terrible now, but understanding "others" is not impossible. Just difficult. It is the work of  a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. Just because it is hard does not mean we should not try.

My class finally decided that it was probably fine for me to leave Lovecraft on the syllabus for the single reason that it allowed that conversation to happen (I even had a few students tell me that class discussion was the single most impactful class they had all semester). It was worth reading the words of a racist so that we could point out to each other what the racism was and why it was wrong. We can read Lovecraft to learn that he had it all wrong.

I've had many conversations with people about my class over the past few months, because I love sharing about this course, but some of the most disappointing conversations have been with white men who, when they ask what books I'm teaching and I mention Lovecraft, have gushed enthusiastically, "I love Lovecraft!" And I wait for the "but..." that never comes. To all those white men I was too afraid to confront in the moment, Lovecraft needs a caveat. He contributed greatly to the world of horror literature, but he was racist, and he was wrong about what is truly terrifying.

I am not perfect on this topic. I was terrified to lead a discussion on this topic (like, literally heart-fluttering panicked), and I'm terrified to write these words here and share them because I might be getting it wrong. Racism is so messy, so incredibly messy, and so incredibly uncomfortable. But I don't want my silence on the topic to speak louder than a fumbling, potentially wrong attempt at standing on the right. I'm doing what work I can to get educated, to get informed, and to understand as much as I am able to. I am learning. And here is what I have learned so far:

Racism is not an emotion or a feeling, it is a system that exists. I may not love and support the system of racism, I may not actively persecute Black people, but simply by being white and enjoying white privilege I benefit from and perpetuate the system.

Racism has caused deep, systemic, generational trauma for the Black people of America (and other countries). From the very little I know about trauma from my reading, this means that their brains have had to develop in a way to survive and exist around that trauma every single day. When faced with triggers (like the killing of a Black person by white police men), that trauma may cause an expression of release in the form of violent protest. I am not saying I condone violent protest, but I am saying that I have a lot more patience and compassion for the burning of a building due to triggering generational trauma than I do for murder by white men (white men who, I might add, are probably also suffering from various forms of trauma, but it is a trauma from a position of power, not a position of victim, so it is harder to have compassion there).

I believe it is completely unfair to ask Black people to behave with the patience and long suffering of Gandhi while excusing white men for violent murder. Black anger is uncomfortable for us, but would we feel any different in their shoes?

To my white friends and family, none of us want to believe we are bad, or wrong, or monsters. None of us want to believe that we are racists. None of us want to believe that we contribute to a world that makes life harder or more dangerous for black people. But the fact is, we do.

My oldest son saw me watching a video of one of the protests and asked what was going on. I explained that a white police man had killed a Black man and people were angry about it. He asked why the police man had killed the Black man and I said the most likely reason was simply that he was Black. My son exclaimed, "That is so wrong!" A few hours later, he said, "Mom, I've been thinking about that video you showed me, and I didn't know until I saw that that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't win."

Clearly, there are a lot more conversations I need to be having with my son, but isn't his experience a little like all of ours? We learn about MLKJ in school, learn about his dream speech and assassination as part of a history lesson. And that is how we like to think about these issues. As part of history. Racism was in the past, and then we had heroes like MLKJ, and now we don't have racism any more. It's a very pretty story we tell ourselves. We want to believe it's over, and we've all learned to be good, and racism isn't a thing anymore. But my son, like all of us, has had to wake up to the harsh reality that it is not history. It is not over. MLKJ did not win. He was shot and killed by the very racism that he fought against, and it has continued to kill and kill and kill.

What can we do? We can start by listening to Black voices. We can start with reading Black writing. We can start by quieting our own knee-jerk reflex to defend ourselves and our position and just be open to listening, to validating the hurt and anger Black people feel. So now I've said my piece, I'll send you on to recommendations of Black voices as a place to start. Some of these I have read and highly recommend. Some of these are now in my queue waiting to be read, so I can keep educating myself, keep listening, keep learning, keep trying to understand, keep moving toward the light.


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I read this one last year and it changed my mind on so many things. My husband is a lawyer who has not read this yet, but I had multiple discussions with him about the justice system, what is wrong with it, how things need to change, and the values of mercy over justice (or not over justice, but mercy being a form of justice). Anyway, you've got to read this one. I haven't seen the movie yet but they are making the movie available for free on a bunch of platforms all through the month of June, and I will be getting around to it at some point.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

I read this one a few years ago (it was my university's book-of-the-year in 2017-18), and it is a little bit different as far as being a mash-up of genres (lyrical essays, poetry, images, even links to online videos), but if you wonder what racism looks like today, this is a heart-breaking description of it. We may not have Jim Crow laws anymore, but we still have everything from microagressions to full-on murder. This book doesn't offer solutions, just a plea to let their voices be heard.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This one has been on my to-read list for a while, but I've yet to get around to it. It's been a hot one for years, and I know it's left some (white) readers feeling conflicted and uncomfortable, but it sounds like an important read to me. It's a letter from a Black father to his son, about how to get along in a racist world.

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Saad is a Black Muslim woman living in London (I believe it's London, somewhere in the UK at least), which apparently has just a big a problem with race as we do here in America. I recently added this to my to-read list, but I understand it's far more of a work-book with pen and paper assignments than a read-through-in-one-sitting kind of book, so I'm looking to get a physical copy from the library instead of my usual audio book route. From what I gather, this is designed specifically for white people (I think?) to help us understand our own relationships to racist systems, and how we can do better.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I mean, no, does any white person really want to talk about race? But we're all talking about it now, so we better figure out how to have these conversations. I've heard really good things about this book, and therefore I'm adding it to my to-read list.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

So when it comes to difficult and depressing topics, I always like solutions-oriented books. It's like, yes, now I know everything is wrong and terrible, but what can I do about it? I'm hoping this book offers some of those solutions and suggestions. This is another one I've heard plenty of good things about, so it's on the list.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Okay, technically this one is not by a Black voice. DiAngelo is a white academic who made her career off of coining the term White Fragility, which as far as I understand it defines the knee-jerk defensiveness white people feel around topics of racism. Since I've seen plenty of defensiveness in conversations with family recently, I think this a topic worth learning more about, so this one is on my to-read list as well.

Adult Fiction

Homeoing by Yaa Gyasi

Okay, this is one of the best books I read in 2017. This is a sweeping multi-generational saga that follows the stories of two half-sisters from 1700s Africa, one who stays in Ghana, the other who comes to America through forced slavery, then follows the lives of their descendants through the centuries to the present day. It's a gripping look at the harmful effects of colonialism, slavery, and generational trauma, not to mention, breathtakingly written. I highly recommend this one.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This book is a historical fantasy re-imagining of pre-Civil War life in America. The underground railroad, rather than being a metaphorical system of trails and safe-houses, is a actually a literal underground railroad, with trains in underground tunnels, and stations at various places along which the protagonists stop to rest and see different aspects of racism in American society. There's all sorts of darkness and violence, and an a-historical mash-up of some of the worst treatment our country has subjected Black people to over the centuries, but this one is definitely worth reading. It's a history that needs facing.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This one feels so different from most of the other books on this list, because while this book does explore different issues of racism in America, it does so in a rather dishy/gossipy/beach read kind of way. In other words, it's not super dark or heavy. However, what this book does offer is a portrayal of two very different types of toxic white allies. When I first read this book, I was confused about the critique of white allies, but after recently learning about the "7 Circles of Whiteness," I can totally see how the white people depicted in this story represent toxic forms of white ally-ship. It's worth reading just to parse through that (though, language warning in effect).

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi

This one has been on my to-read list for a while. It explores themes of racism with immigration, and offers a non-American Black view of American racism (I believe). I've heard very good things about this one.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This one has been on my radar for a while (it's been hugely popular for a few years now) but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. As I understand it, the themes center more heavily on relationships and marriage, but there is a strong background of issues of mass incarceration and racism in the justice system, which seems to touch every Black person's life.

YA Fiction

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is one of those beautiful poetry novels, where the story is offered in verse. This one is autobiographical, describing Woodson's childhood growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 70s, and the impact of racism and the civil rights movement on her life. I loved this book so much, and highly recommend.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This book is so good and really just hits everything: police brutality, the caught place of Black people between the "hood" and "white" success, protests, and everything else. It's powerful and beautifully written. I have to give a strong warning on the language, but I understand the language wouldn't be as authentic or real if it were watered down. I haven't seen the movie version of this yet, but I understand it's also being offered free through the month of June on various platforms.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Similar to The Hate U Give, this one covers everything around police brutality, and the hard place of young Black people between seeking success in white schools and arenas, and the community of Black friends left in the "hood". It's short, and again a strong language warning, but it packs a punch in covering all the hot issues.

Whew. Okay. This is not a definitive list of all the books out there by Black authors, or all the good books on racism. These are just a handful of the most recent I've read or plan to read eventually and want to recommend (let me know what you would add to this list!). I offer this as a starting place if you are looking to read up on these issues and want to listen to more Black voices on these topics.

We must make the effort to try and understand each other. We must work toward listening, we must move toward the light. Otherwise, we will perish in our own dark age.