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?

February: Buddhist Scriptures

January: Tao Te Ching

In January, my selection for this year’s themed reading project (world religions) was the Tao Te Ching: A New English Version edited by Stephen Mitchell and published by HarperPerennial. I read a few verses each day, which turned out to be a great path. Each verse is a page or less, with 81 total verses in the collection. Reading about three per day not only kept me on track, but gave me a very manageable “bite” of things to think about each morning (or evening).

Ultimately, I found the Tao to be calming and reassuring. It provides and reinforces some very simple, straightforward ideas for living a good life, many of which I found were similar to the teachings of Buddhism (no surprise there considering its an ancestor) and Stoicism (a bit more surprising).

Simply put, the Tao was there before anything else existed and will remain after everything else is gone. It lives in everything, and if one is in harmony with the Tao, she is in harmony with everyone and everything. To do this, one must put aside ambition, possession, and mastery in order to lead not by force, but by example; to be wealthy not in profit or consumption, but in spirit.

Interestingly, while much of the Tao Te Ching was about the self, its final verses are about nations and governments. The Tao demonstrates how governments who are one with the Tao are good for the people, and what this might look like. It was a particularly profound way to end my first engagement with this philosophy, considering all that’s been going on in the United States.

Here’s one particular favorite, Verse 56:

Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.

Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.

Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.

Finally, much like Buddhism has “the middle way,” Taoism repeatedly speaks of “balance” in all things. I truly enjoyed reading these verses and will keep my copy of the Tao Te Ching on my desk for easy and regular reference, for a long time to come.

February & March: Buddhist Scriptures

If you recall from my original post, I’m planning a kind of intercalary approach to my themed reading this year. For each short text, like the Tao Te Ching, which I read in one month, I add a longer text. The next one is Buddhist Scriptures published by Penguin Classics.

Here’s my reading path in case anyone would like to join:
• February 1-7: The Buddhist Universe chapters 1-7 (pages 3-59)
• February 8-14: The Buddhist Universe, Chapters 8-12 & The Buddha, Chapters 13-15 (pages 60-128)
• February 15-21: The Buddha, Chapters 16-22 (pages 129-199)
• February 22-28: The Buddha, Chapters 23-24 and Monastic Life, Chapters 25-28 (pages 200-268)
• March 1-7: Monastic Life, Chapters 29-35 (pages 269-334)
• March 8-14: Monastic Life, Chapters 36 and Meditation & Other Rituals, Chapters 37-43 (pages 335-393)
• March 15-21: Meditation & Other Rituals, Chapters 44-48 and Enlightenment, Chapters 49-50 (pages 394-449)
• March 22-28: Enlightenment, Chapters 51-56 (pages 450-512)
• March 29-31: Enlightenment, Chapters 57-60 (pages 513-548)

Thoughts: The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

I had grand plans of writing this review in fairy tale style, inspired as I was by Trung Le Nguyen’s adaptations of classical fairy tales to share this beautiful story. But, alas, I’m not the wordsmith Nguyen is, and definitely not the artist! So, please accept humble words filled with rapturous praise for The Magic Fish, which was one of my Top 10 favorite reads in 2020.

To begin, when I read graphic novels I’m usually more drawn to either the story or the artwork. There are plenty where I think the two work very well together, even complement each other, but this might be the first time I’ve read a graphic novel where I equally enjoy and appreciate both elements to the same degree. The story itself follows a young boy of Vietnamese descent who is being raised in the United States. It is very similar to the author’s own life story. Nguyen, growing up in the American Midwest, learned Vietnamese and English at the same time, Vietnamese at home and English in school and with his friends. As a boy, he and his parents would visit the library once per week and spend time reading to each other. Nguyen’s favorite stories were fairy tales and he soon learned that some of the English-language fairy tales, those most of us growing up in the United States would know, were very similar to ones that his parents learned as children in Vietnam. They had wonderful conversations about the similarities and differences between western/English-language fairy tales and those from Vietnam, and in doing so, began to communicate with one another in two languages, sometimes switching back and forth to use the words most appropriate or familiar in the given moment. It was a kind of hybrid language that is perfectly embodied in this graphic novel. It’s a fascinating, beautiful personal narrative that informs this fascinating, beautiful graphic novel.

The protagonist, young Tiến, uses the fairy tales that he and his family know and love, across the two cultures, to bridge a personal gap between them: to explain to his parents that he is gay. Nguyen explains that, while writing the story, he imagined that each character had a different vocabulary informed by their life experiences. These vocabularies were navigated through shared cultural stories, fairy tales. And Nguyen brings this richly to life not just in his words and images, both of which are stunningly crafted, but in the truly seamless presentation of the two as a single narrative. This is not a story told through two devices; it is an experience gifted to the reader through a cohesive vision, expertly executed. 

The heart of this graphic novel are three fairy tales, including two versions of Cinderella (the German and the Vietnamese) and The Little Mermaid. Also incorporated into the plot, though, are concepts such as traditional coming out and coming of age in America, the immigrant experience, issues of colonization and empire, post-war identity, and so much more. What on the surface might look like another wonderfully illustrated children’s story is in fact a powerful, delicate, and uniquely rendered story about a queer, Asian American boy’s life, his family, and their heritage, not to mention language itself. 

I was utterly captivated by this one. At a time when I’m donating bags and bags of books to libraries and charities in a fit of “winter cleaning” and pandemic stir-craziness, The Magic Fish has found its place on my forever shelf. 

Synopsis: 

Real life isn’t a fairytale.

But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?

Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?

A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what–we can all have our own happy endings. 

About the Author: Trung Le Nguyen, also known as Trungles, is a comic book artist and illustrator working out of Minnesota. He  received his BA from Hamline University, majoring in studio art with a concentration in oil painting and minor in art history. He is particularly fond of fairy tales, kids’ cartoons, and rom-coms of  all stripes. The Magic Fish is his debut graphic novel. 

Thoughts: Bye-Bye Blue Creek by Andrew Smith

Sam Abernathy’s story, prequel to the Winger novels, has quickly become one of my favorites among Andrew Smith’s works. Although the books are middle grade level, they are rich with wisdom, wit, and curiosity. The first in the series, The Size of the Truth, gave us much background on a beloved character from the Winger novels, and this second book (in what I hope will be a series?) continues to follow Sam as he grows up, enrichens his friendships, learns to overcome fear and prejudices, wanders rudderless through his first crush, and even meets his hero. In other words, he lives a life so many of us remember with both fondness and awkward embarrassment, our youth and the universal elements of it that we almost all share. 

Where The Size of the Truth does an excellent job of introducing us to Sam and his world, Bye-Bye Blue Creek, as the title suggests, shows us how Sam is preparing to say goodbye to all of that. And the reader, like Sam, having gotten to know these characters and this quaint little town in the last book, must also learn how to say farewell to them all. One thing Smith seems to be suggesting is that, no matter where or when we are in life, one thing we all must face at some point, perhaps at many points, is the need to say goodbye to what we know and love. And even when the next step is necessary, exciting, and a great adventure, it is sure to come with a bit of fear and apprehension, and even regret over what we’re leaving behind. There are a few very important lessons we learn when we’re young, and this one is perhaps one of the most difficult and most significant. 

Beneath the larger themes is a riot of a tale involving a mystery house, a mystery boy–strange indeed!-and a long-lost history of Blue Creek, involving Sam’s own father and the haunted house down the street. Can Sam and his friends get to the bottom of the mystery? As the weeks quickly race by toward Sam’s final goodbye, they scour the library and investigate the past in order to understand the present. And while they do so, they learn a little bit more about themselves, their families, and one another. 

Andrew Smith does it again. One definitely needs to read The Size of the Truth before this one, if the story and its call-backs are to be fully understood and appreciated; fortunately, I can highly recommend both.

Thoughts: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Every year around Halloweentime, I try to devote at least a week or two to “spooky” reads. This last Halloween season, I read a little collection of haunted poetry, along with The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I had assigned to my students. The last among these was Silivia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, a breakout hit this year, and I was very much looking forward to reading it. 

I’ll start by saying, I might be spoiled by psychological thrillers, like Shirley Jackson’s works. I find that I’m less interested in traditional horror that is filled with supernatural bogeyman, and more interested in the scary things that our subconsciousness’ conjure. Perhaps because of this, I struggled with Mexican Gothic, whose villain is certainly a fresh invention and yet fits into the more traditional role of scary bad guys. 

On the other hand, as historical fiction about 1950s Mexico, with family and romance at its heart, the story is quite charming and interesting to read. I found Moreno-Garcia’s characters and atmosphere provocative and compelling. Her exploration of women and men, femininity and masculinity, and the horrors of eugenics, is ultimately more interesting–and horrifying–than the haunted house/ghost story that is the primary vehicle. And perhaps that was the intention. We see, unfortunately, much of the West’s last decade (and further) mirrored in the supremacist themes that sour the soil upon which Mexican Gothic’s haunted house, High Place, is built. 

The story begins with a young woman, Noemi, and her father in metropolitan Mexico. They are wealthy, popular, and even powerful. Then, glamorous Noemi, aloof in her world of rich dances and ever-changing academic and career interests, receives a letter from her cousin, who has been swept away by her new husband to the in-laws home on an abandoned silver mine, in a struggling rural village. Noemi’s letter is scrambled, confused, and filled with foreboding danger. It is a cry for help, and Noemi is an unlikely hero. 

What unfolds is an inventive haunted house tale that puts at its center a battle of the sexes, and two distinct mindsets: the villainy of an old and backwards view of European superiority versus the championing of progressive equality, a view that all are capable and there is no such thing as inherent worth or racial supremacy. These two foils unfold amidst a bizarre poison that infects High Point’s patriarch and has been passed down, generation to generation, for hundreds of years. As Noemi and her cousin enter the picture, the time has come for this evil to pass again into the next generation, and if it succeeds, it will trap them both forever. 

Mexican Gothic is an important story with a, to me, unfortunate villain; and yet, that villain is wildly imagined and certainly unlike any I’ve read before. Overall, I think the book is a success more so for its politics and psychology than its primary story, but I can understand why many will be pulled in by that as well. Those who enjoy traditional horror novels will likely appreciate this one. 

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