What I Read in January
Somehow, I managed to read (or finish reading) nine books in the month of January (2021). I wasn’t expecting such a high number, but I think the fact that I was on vacation for ten days at the start of the month helped. I won’t go into much detail with my reactions/responses to these, though I have included my Goodreads “rating” after each title. For posterity’s sake, though, I should at least leave a word or two.
- The Fascinators by Andrew Eliopolous: A fun and unique concept. Eliopolous merges the traditional young adult novel with magical realism; I would (maybe most would) call it fantasy, but because the book begins with the premise that magic is a “given” in this story world, which looks very much like our everyday world in the United States, it just read more like realism to me. At the heart of it is a coming of age story intimately concerned with friendship, unrequited love, and same-sex attraction, dating, etc. (3 out of 5)
- There, There by Tommy Orange: A wonderful narrative that weaves together, chapter by chapter, a variety of stories about Native Americans in the contemporary American west, specifically the Oakland area of California. The primary narrator is on a mission to create an audio-visual project, for which he earns a cultural grant, documenting the lives and stories, the oral histories, of Native American people, in order to see if there is any common identity. Each chapter then follows one of the interviewees’ stories, and all of them eventually come together into a shared ending–one that is shocking and preventable, and damningly expected. (4 out of 5)
- Grammar for a Full Life by Lawrence Weinstein: This book was absolutely delightful, in my opinion. Weinstein, whose credentials in academic writing are unmatched, presents a kind of philosophy of language and how we use it. His argument is that being conscious of how we choose to write can make all the difference in how well, and joyfully, we live. It reflects a kind of stoic philosophy, or Buddhist one, that suggests everything in life depends on how we respond to actions, events, and stimulus both inside and outside of our control. Weinstein is less concerned with the rules of grammar and more so with what it means to follow or break those rules consciously. This is not a book to go to if one is looking for a lot of grammar instruction. (4 out of 5)
- The Poems by John Keats: Although this one is titled The Poems, it is actually the complete creative works of John Keats, including his plays, etc. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Keats far less this time than I have in the past. I still appreciate many of his most famous works; I still adore, for example, The Eve of St. Agnes, and was introduced to many pleasant poems I’d never read. It’s an accomplishment to be able to say I’ve read all of Keats, but now I wonder who my new/current favorite Romantic is, since it had always been Keats. I don’t think that’s true anymore. Blake… I’m coming for you! (4 out of 5)
- Fences by August Wilson: August Wilson is a Pulitzer-winning playwright, and performances of his plays have received Tony Awards, too. His Century Cycle is one of the most well-known and beloved series of dramas in American letters. This one, Fences, is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The main character–Troy Maxson–is a man straddling two different time periods, one where there was no opportunity for him as a Black man in America, and one where his own son sees more and better opportunities. I read this one after learning that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which recently received a new film adaptation starring the exquisite and brilliant Chadwick Boseman & Viola Davis, is also a Wilson play. I was looking for something to alternate with a text I teach regularly, A Raisin in the Sun, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. (4 out of 5)
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: I wrote a little about this one in my 2021 themed reading post and in my January Theme posts, but essentially the Tao Te Ching is an ancient philosophy that influenced many future philosophies and religions in the Asian world. It consists of about 80 short verses intended to guide its reader (or listener) on a “right path” for living well and freely. To me, a lot of the philosophy is similar to what we find in Buddhism and Stoicism, in that the keys to the good life are found in how we choose to react to the world around us, or not. This is one I’ll return to often. (5 out of 5)
- The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: I’m hesitant to admit that I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as all my reading friends seem to have done. Every review I’ve seen from my reading connections has been absolutely raving and positive. I can definitely understand why people love it, but there were a few too many things that irked me throughout to allow me to fully immerse and enjoy the story, I think. Repeatedly forced themes, for example. That said, I did absolutely enjoy it. It’s a well-written romp of historical fiction and fantasy, following the narrator’s life over the course of 300 years. Addie makes a deal with the devil, literally, and then ends up in a centuries’ long battle of wits with him, one which continues even… well, I’ll leave it at that. (4 out of 5)
- Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion: It will be no surprise to anyone who has read my blog for a long time to learn that, for me, the knockout read of January was Joan Didion’s latest collection of previously uncollected essays. I’ll admit, I’m pretty sure I had read one or two of these before, though I haven’t yet researched when or where I would have done so. It made me curious, though, since the book is described as “works previously uncollected.” Joan Didion is one of my personal writing heroes, and this collection is a fair example of why she’s earned that place. Her wit and observational skills, her precise prose, and the way she creates a mood and atmosphere that transcends the gap between herself and the reader, between even decades of time, is superior indeed. I will study Didion for as long as I live and wish to write well. (5 out of 5)
- Conversations with Buddha by Joan Duncan Oliver: This tiny little book, with an introduction from Annie Lennox!, is a great introduction to Buddhism. It explains the core principles in conversation rather than through lists and definitions, the way most books of the type must do naturally. I’ve read maybe a dozen books on Buddhism in the last few years, as I try to learn and grow, and this one is definitely a unique approach to the material, though I’m not sure it was always as successful or articulate as I needed it to be. (4 out of 5)
This was a pretty wide-ranging month in terms of genre, too. I realize now that I read everything from spiritual text and adult contemporary magical realism and Native American fiction, to LGBTQ YA fantasy, to writing philosophy, to poetry, to classic Black drama, to essays and journalism! What did I miss? Science-fiction? What are you reading these days?