I just realized I am guilty of a thing that I hate that other people do: not putting Goodreads links (or Amazon or wherever) for books I’m currently reading. I will no longer make that mistake.
Hello! This has been a whirlwind week. First, I have to say I am officially OFFICIALLY on vacation now. I know I said I was on vacation last week (and I was), but I had to wrap up some search committee work, which meant I had to go to work twice. TWICE. That does not count as vacation, especially since I had to (a) set my alarm and (b) go to work and do work. Interviews! Work.
Anyway, it’s over now, and I have three months with no teaching or search committees ahead of me.
A funny thing keeps happening to me. I cannot for the life of me remember what I am planning to do in my classes in the fall. I always remember three of the four assignments I have planned. And it’s only ever three. Usually it’s the same three, but this time it’s a different three. My plan is to put the missing assignment in my phone as soon as I remember.
But I digress.
It’s been over a month since my last links round up, so there’s a lot happening here. Let’s dive in, shall we?
“Congresswoman Maxine Waters isn’t even reading these fools anymore. She has completely leveled up. She is like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy, that movie where she was using like 100% of her brain and she can control televisions and tell the future. That’s Maxine Waters. Except with reading. We don’t even have a word for what she’s doing yet.” — You Will Never, in Your Entire Life, Get the Best of Maxine Waters
I posted this to Facebook after it was clear where the election was headed (@ 2:06 a.m.):
I have been trying to sleep since 10:30 and can’t.
All I can think about is how over 400 years, this country has used and abused us and made it clear over and over how much they hate us. And over 400 years we haven’t let them take our humanity or our souls. And how we have so much now that our ancestors couldn’t even begin to wish and hope for. And what it must have been like for them to see this same abuse, this same denial of their humanity denied over and over and over again.
I am living that latter experience in a very real way. But I feel good knowing that I did what they couldn’t and wanted to do, which was vote. And I feel good about the candidate I voted for.
I wanted to tell them that I’d never had a friend, not ever, not a real one. Until Dante. I wanted to tell them that I never knew that people like Dante existed in the world, people who looked at the stars, and knew the mysteries of water, and knew enough to know that birds belonged to the heavens and weren’t meant to be shot down from their graceful flights by mean and stupid boys. I wanted to tell them that he had changed my life and that I would never be the same, not ever.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz has been on my radar since it first came out–not only because it has won so many awards and is lauded by many, but also because my summer book club picked it a few years ago. I didn’t read it then because I had required reading fatigue (it’s a thing I tend to get every summer), but I knew I would get back to it eventually. Well, eventually came this year once I found out Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) did the narration for the audiobook.
The plot of the book is pretty straight-forward: Aristotle (who goes by Ari) is a lonely 15-year-old who befriends Dante one day at the swimming pool. Then, you know, life and stuff happens. Big life and big stuff. I am avoiding spoilers here, obviously.
What I Liked
– First and foremost, this is a friendship novel. I LOVE FRIENDSHIP STORIES. They make me happy. Friendships can be easy and challenging and hard and beautiful, and that’s exactly what happens here.
– Dante is pretty fantastic. He’s such a great character: open, honest, frustrating, angry, challenging. He’s just so earnest! Ah, it’s adorable.
– Ari is pretty great, too. He’s the narrator, so the reader is more privy to his thoughts, and he is struggling to find his place in the world. I liked that he is pretty much just doing what comes next like a checklist for life, even if he isn’t sure what he wants yet. I think that’s pretty accurate for how many teens do things.
– This is a kissing book. Lots of talk of kissing here. Lots of kissing happening, too. I approve.
– THE PARENTS. Both boys’ parents are excellent. They are supremely flawed human beings who are doing the best they can, which means they screw up sometimes but that they love their kids so, so much–and the narrative acknowledges it. Also, Dante’s father is an English professor, so that automatically raises his level of awesome for me.
– Gina Navarro and Sophie (I can’t remember her last name). These are girls Ari grew up with who drive him insane but also love him a super lot and force him to participate in life stuff. At first, I was jarred by their presence, but I really like how they challenged him and how he came to see their place in his life.
– So basically all of the characters were great is what I’m saying.
– THE ENDING. I 100% love the ending to this book, and that’s what took me from liking it to really liking it. And when I say the ending, I don’t mean the last chapter. I mean pretty much the whole last act, starting from the moment Ari’s parents sit him down for a heart-to-heart until the very, very end. It was pretty much perfection.
– The dialogue is super realistic and I loved, loved, loved any time the characters were talking to and interacting with each other. I could pretty much see every single one of those scenes playing out in front of me. They were so great.
– One of the running threads through the book is this idea of being a “real” Mexican. I loved that exploration of the boys’ identities and how the idea is tied into not only cultural expectations but also outside stereotypes. It’s really well handled and Saenz is subtle in how he completely and most emphatically states that the only thing that makes someone a real Mexican is being Mexican. Love.
– Lin-Manuel Miranda is A+ as a narrator. I would listen to another book he reads. Also, he can definitely roll his r’s. I tried over and over to say Bernardo the way he does, and it just wasn’t happening. I also don’t speak Spanish, so you know.
What I Didn’t Like
– I thought this was a summer book. It’s not. When Ari went back to school, I was so confused and a little upset. This is all about my expectations as a reader, but it is what it is.
– I am pretty sure Ari is depressed throughout most of the novel (thought it’s never explicitly stated), and that’s fine. He’s also a pretty interior character, which is also fine. However, what that meant for huge chunks of the novel is that Ari is completely in his head and most of what he thinks is expressed in negatives. There is a lot of “I don’t know why I did this” and “I don’t know why this” and “I didn’t say anything, but” or “I didn’t ask him this.” Those moments (and there are A LOT of them) made the narration and the story drag.
Also, one thing I was taught when I studied creative writing was not to describe what a character doesn’t do and so I am hyper aware of when an author does it.
Those moments may have played out better in the text than in the audio, but just imagine listening to someone tell you for five minutes straight all the things they didn’t do in a given situation. It would get real old real fast.
On the plus side, it did make the moments of dialogue and character interaction that much more enjoyable, so.
In conclusion: A really powerful look at friendship, family, and love with great characters and an excellent ending.
Necessary Roughness by Marie G. Lee is another Friends of the Library book sale find. I probably picked it up because the main character is Korean—and completely ignored the football uniform. There’s a lot of football in here is what I’m saying. Basically, Chan’s parents move him and his sister Young to Minnesota from L.A. to take over their uncle’s store. There’s no soccer team so Chan joins the football team and encounters some violent racism under the guise of “necessary roughness.”
What I Liked
- There’s some really good family stuff here, especially with Young and Chan’s dad and his brother and how that affects his relationship with Chan.
- Chan frequently acts as a translator for his father, but his father expects him to be quiet and respectful at the same time.
- I especially like that O-Ma is not to be slept on. She constantly comes through in surprising ways. She gets things done is what I’m saying. She’s probably my favorite.
- As is Mrs. K, their neighbor. She and O-Ma have a great relationship.
- Young and Chan are both good kids, so the conflict doesn’t come from rebelling against their parents but just from them trying to figure out their new town and how they fit in.
- One of my favorite parts is Chan trying to find someone–anyone–of color he can relate to. And finding that in this particular town, that’s not an option. That is so real, especially when you go from a place with a lot of people of color to a lily-white town. It is jarring and weird and also means trying to recreate that feeling of home as best you can.
What I Didn’t Like
- FOOTBALL FOOTBALL FOOTBALL. Listen, there’s a lot of football in this book, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, it’s important to the main character, so he would talk about it a lot. But I find that the focus on drills and stuff in books only works if it’s to explore other stuff like relationships between characters.
- There are a lot of dropped threads plot threads here: Young and Chan’s uncle, the bullying incidents, the money issues.
- There are a lot of rushed and not satisfactorily resolved endings as well: the bullying incident, the money issues, Chan’s relationship with a girl, and the actual ending.
- I really wanted more from this book: more character and plot development and more of a sense of the school beyond football–especially for Young. Even though the story isn’t told from her point of view, I don’t really get a sense of what her experience at the school is.
- The tagline on the book is “Sometimes offense is the only defense.” Yeah, that wasn’t realized in the book at all.
In conclusion: This book had a promising start but left me wanting more. Reluctant readers who like sports might go for it, though.
I picked up A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich by Alice Childress at the Friends of the Library book sale one day, probably because I recognized the title and figured it’s a book I should have read by now. It’s a pretty classic problem novel about a kid named Benjie who is addicted to heroin. (The tagline on the novel is “Benjie is young, black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroin” lest there’s any confusion about its problem novel status or the topic of the book. But I digress. )
The story is told in alternating first-person POV chapters from Benjie and the people who his drug use affect, including his mom, stepfather, grandmother, teachers, and friends. The chapters really serve as character studies to let the reader know who populates Benjie’s world as well as how they view not only Benjie but the neighborhood and other people in it.
When I found out the book was made into a movie (starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, no less!), I wasn’t very far into the book and was surprised because it didn’t seem like there was really enough plot to hang a movie on, but I was wrong about that. While the beginning is pretty light on plot and heavy on premise (Benjie’s on drugs and people notice–seriously, that’s it), as the book goes on, there’s actually a lot of stuff that happens between characters, and it’s all pretty deftly handled. The characters reflect more on how they feel about what’s happened than detailing what happened to get the characters to that point. I mean, we find out, but the chapters don’t follow the standard this happened and then this happened and then this happened progression.
While I ultimately found the book just okay (it’s super short but took me a ridiculously long amount of time to read it given the length), I really enjoyed all of the relationship stuff with the mom and stepfather, and I am 100% in love with the ending. THAT ENDING. Not to mention, all of the familial relationship stuff is ace. Yeah, so that was pretty great. Also, there’s a really interesting conflict between the white teacher Mr. Cohen (who has A LOT of contempt for his black students) and the black nationalist teacher Mr. Green across the hall. They are both effective teachers but they do not particularly care for each other and they have very, very different views of the children and neighborhood they serve.
Anyway, I’m going to end this by just quoting Mr. Green because, through him, Childress basically says what I was trying to get at in my diversity fatigue post:
Look around your city and let me know if you see coloreds represented fifty-fifty in the white community. No, it doesn’t go down that way. I’m sick of explainin and talkin race. Race is the story of my life and my father’s life, and I guess, his father and all the other fathers before that. As a kid, I was in on “race” discussions in school, at home, in church, everywhere. It’s a wonder every Black person in the U. S. of A. hasn’t gone stark, ravin made from racism…and the hurtin it’s put on us.
Also, for anyone doing any banned book challenges, this book was successfully removed from a school library in 1975.
So I read this tweet the other day and it kind of shook me to my core.
Mainly because I realized that I still default to white. STILL. And I have been reading a lot of books for a long time, and I know better. But when I read a book (esp. if it’s written by a white person), I automatically think the characters are white. In fact, I did this HARDCORE with a series I finished recently. In the first book, there are hints that a character isn’t white, but I brushed them aside until it was explicitly stated that she was brown in the last book. And even then I was waffling about whether or not to count it for the Diversity on the Shelf Challenge (which it’s still not too late to sign up for!) because of that. THAT IS CRAZY. I know better. And yet.
So yeah. I’m hoping to get on Naz’s level is what I’m saying.
Happy reading, everyone!
Okay, so I was initially going to be pretty glib in my response to the diversity questions because I have a bit of diversity discussion fatigue (but probably not for the reasons you think). I was just going to post a link to the Diversity on the Shelf challenge I host (which it’s still not too late to sign up for!) and let that be that.
But then this weekend someone called my daughter and her best friend the n-word when they were at the Dairy Queen, and I realized that I can’t afford to be glib.
Here’s the thing: I am tired of talking about diversity because, for me, it is something that I have spent my whole life thinking about and being angry about. I AM TIRED OF TALKING ABOUT IT. I think it’s good for white people to get in on the action, though, but more importantly, it is time for white people in charge to STOP TALKING ABOUT AND AROUND IT and to start hiring and publishing people of color. Period. That’s it. I’m tired of the bullshit responses of “create your own” and “make your own” like people of color HAVEN’T BEEN DOING THAT. I’m tired of tokenism and I still cannot believe we are having this conversation in 2016 after the success of Lost and the dominance of Shondaland and the numbers at HGTV and HAMILTON and yet somehow it is always a shock or lightning in a bottle that people crave diverse stories. I mean, seriously.
Daniel José Older has an excellent thread of tweets about diversity fatigue. You can read the whole thing here, but I just want to highlight these two tweets because they basically capture what I am getting at:
It is insane. And infuriating.
I have posted about this before. So you see what I mean? THE SAME CONVERSATION OVER AND OVER AND PEOPLE STILL DON’T GET IT.
Basically what it’s like for me to be a black woman living in America:
It is exhausting. I am tired.
Link up your reviews below. If you don’t have a book blog, but have Goodreads or Library Thing, etc., you may use that to participate and post your links to your reviews. Get more details about the challenge here. It’s not too late to sign up!
March Reviews Link Up
Reading this book was almost like being home again. I mean, yes, it’s set in Atlanta and not the DC area, but all the black people in this book. Ah, I was just rolling around in blackness. Granted a bit more militant blackness than I usually rolled with back in the day, but a lot of blackness nonetheless. Yes, I miss that on occasion. It was nice to get right into it is what I’m saying.
Miss Iona may be one of my new favorite characters. She is so awesome. I love her. Love, love, love, love.
On the other hand, there is Wes, my new most hated character. I think he is worse than Dolores Umbridge. I mean, the hate I have for him is deep and abiding. The book mentions that he’s amoral more than once, and I think that’s pretty apt. He is the worst. THE WORST.
I hate him a lot is what I’m saying.
So, yes, anyway, I need to read more African-American fiction, obviously. That is the conclusion I’ve come to.
Oh, right, the book! So I think the beginning is slow, probably a little too slow. One of the benefits (and drawbacks) of listening to an audiobook is that they all seem kind of slow and my listening is kind of disjointed, so I can’t always tell if it’s slow because it’s slow or it’s slow because of how I’m listening to the book. But, no, the opening of the book is slow. It spends way too much time on Ida and how she doesn’t have a job but is going back to Atlanta because her dad has lost it blah blah blah Wes is the worst blah blah blah we get it. I was well over the 30% mark before Ida and Wes even got close to each other’s orbits. That is absurd. And Ida was mostly just walking around West End talking to people. Which…slice of life or whatever but come on.
However, once they both got into Atlanta, the plot and pace picked up considerably and I was hooked. I had to know what would happen. I was waiting for the bus, and my co-worker stopped and offered me a ride, and I almost declined because I wanted to be into the book. Also, I went from listening only during my bus commute to also listening in the car when I was doing errands. So, yeah. I was into it.
The ending, however, was disappointing. Sigh. Too rushed and rather preachy. Oh well.
I thought both narrators were pretty good. (This was my second Bahni Turpin in a row and not on purpose. However, that she was one of the narrators didn’t deter me from the book. Obviously.) However, I liked the way Turpin narrated men better than Willis narrated women. All of his women sounded the same, which may have been a deliberate choice, honestly. Wes is the kind of guy who probably thinks all women sound the same or would make all the women in his life sound the same. In contrast, Turpin’s Rev and Mr. Eddie (as well as some others) were all pretty distinctive.
Turpin’s Miss Iona is brilliant, of course, but Miss Iona >>>>>>>>>>>>>> everybody else in all ways, so it would’ve been pretty hard to make her terrible.
3.5 stars may be a bit high, but the stuff I liked, I really liked and the audiobook made it past commuter status, so.
Also, the book’s title comes from a song by Duke Ellington, and here is Ella Fitzgerald singing it. That’s worth at least a half-star, I think.