Black History Month Plus Two

February turned out to be another superb reading month. Despite being just 28 days long, I managed to read 11 books, broken down as follows: one history; one biography; one autobiography; one on poetry; two adult novels; one young adult novel; and four poetry collections. So, let’s break these into their genres and tackle them very briefly, but with true intent to express what we mean.
Each book will receive a line or two of description or commentary, in hopes that brevity will offet a large set of texts. We’ll take the texts one at a time from within their genre group, say a line or two, and end with The Goodreads Review. Here we go!

We begin with our non-fiction set:

Nina Simone: I Put a Spell on You. One can learn some about a life when, after it has lived, the life decides to put the details down; or perhaps they were compiling and recording all along. I Put a Spell On You is a transitional bildungsroman told by a young Black girl, Eunice, who would become Nina. Her book covers it all, dark spots and light ones too. She doesn’t deny that she was hard to work with, but claims she told audiences and event mangers what to expect. Nina never wanted to be a singer; she wanted to be the best Black classical pianist whoever was. I know she never received that title formally, but I do wonder if she achieved it. I’d wager on it, in fact. Ms. Simone lived a harsh life, suffered a great deal, and much of that was out of control. She was also a musical genius, awakened to political activism, and spoke the voice of the Civil Rights revolution multiple times, including with “Mississippi G-ddamn!” and “Young, Gifted, and Black.” She was a superstar who came to expect the flame and the burn. 4 out of 5.
Begin Again by Eddy Glaude Jr. Eddie Glaude takes his readers on a remarkable journey back in time, to the boy Baldwin was and the man he would become. It became clear to me immediately that Glaude knew Baldwin, I mean really knew and respected Jimmy. James Baldwin is one of my personal writing heroes, so I wade very cautiously into the waters of new biography, but there was no reason to fear this time. Glaude knows what he’s doing; excellent source material and historical records, in Glaude’s hand and through his analysis, guide the reader along competently and instructively. This rates now among those rare books that I’m truly thankful for existing in the world. 5 out of 5.
400 Hundred Souls edited by Ibbram X Kendi and Keisha N. Blain is described as a community history of African America, 1619-2019. To me, it reads like a survey study course of a four-century era, which meant there was never enough, not nearly enough material and context in each of the 80 chapters within their 10 parts; however, taking a few chapters together, or one total section, does help the reader to get a more complicated view of the multiple things happening at this time, in the (pre-)United States. As a starting point for rewriting history (in a good way – reclaiming what needs to be shared), this book is an achievement. I’ve already bookmarked sections that I know I’ll use to revisit with my students at various times. 4 out of 5.

Onto the Fiction Set

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Huston. I believe I first read this one in college, which would’ve been about 14 or 15 years ago. It is really not at all what I remembered; I had vague imagining of Tea Cake and of the other men, and I knew the town/people have something to do with the story, but I really couldn’t come up with many specifics. That said, it was a real treat to revisit it after such a distance (and two advanced degrees), and to be witnessing the genius work that Hurston does with language–and the racial politics surrounding it–as well as her genius for place and people, this being part of what made her such a brilliant anthropologist. I’ll admit that it took me a few chapters to sink into the language of her colloquial dialogue; I often reached graciously if a bit jealously for the moments of stricter prose. Richard Wright would later get Hurston very wrong; he claimed that Hurston’s use of the “low speech” or “slang” of her people was bound to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes, that it was harmful. I would have to say, Wright wasn’t yet seeing all the powerful things Hurston was doing with language, but it would be discovered again, many years later, by none other than Alice Walker. 4 out of 5.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. This book is a masterpiece. An absolute wonder. I hope the adage is true, that we turn to books when we are supposed to, because I’ve had this one sitting on my shelves for years and years, waiting patiently. I can’t say how many times I’ve almost picked it up. Having just recently read Butler’s Parable of the Sower, I knew I need to get to her again soon. I’m now just a little mad that someone kept me from Butler, or Butler from me, all my life until now! What a master story teller, strong and beautiful prose, rich and complex characters, deep, tragic, and meaningful plots. One of the most remarkably telling testaments to her craft is how epically, perfectly, and completely unexpectedly the bookends of the first scene and final scene work to hold this whole story and its time together, but also our whole American story, across time and place. I may be assigning this in one of my literature classes next semester. 5 out 5.
A Complicated Love Story Set in Space. Shaun David Hutchinson writes some of the most intereting and creative young adult novels on the market today. He often incorporates science-fiction elements into traditional but queer bildungsroman narratives. It should be no surprise that a book titled the way this one is, is right in Hutchinson’s wheel house. I found the story to be a lot of fun, but it also tackled some heavy and unexpected elements. It was, I think, smartly meta in at least two prominent ways, ways which would have seemed false had the meta narrative not been intentional. There has been a lot of pushback about the main character, who is definitely not likeable, but 1) I’ve never been that kind of reader (who cares if he’s not likeable – are only likeable people allowed stories?) and 2) this narrator in particular is specifically not supposed to be likeable. We learn why. It’s a mystery (that can seem tedious, I guess) until we learn why. So, I’m baffled by those who claim to have read the whole book and still say the can’t like it because the one guy is a jerk for most of it. Well, yeah! We know why he was a jerk. And we know he got better. How much perfection do we expect from our stories these days, my goodness? Anyway, I reqd through this 450-page tome in two days. It was fun! 4 out 5.

At Last, The Poetry Set

How to be a Poet by Jo Bell and Jane Commane: A very helpful, reflective-type guide for how to “be” a poet, not how to write poetry. This is a very different kind of thing. Rather than poem prompts, workshopping, etc., the “writing side” of being a poet, Bell and Commane focus on things like process, patience, and the practice of being a poet-person rather than just poet-writer. How to bring one’s self into the poetic lifestyle, as it is, and learn how to interact well and effectively with both the world around you (to gather matter for poems) and with others on this poetry journey. To create community. Helpful sections on publishing Dos and Don’ts, too, as well as the “blank white page” terrors, etc. 4 out 5.

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: This is a young poet’s dream collection, I think. It had a slow start, but as I kept moving through the poems, I started to see and feel more of what Jones is doing. Even the deeply uncomfortable became comfortable, because I knew Jones had this in control and that he would take me only exactly where he wanted me to go, and that he would end it where it needs to end. Two of my favorite poems in this collection are “Meridian” and “Beheaded Kingdom.” I’m not typically a fan of serial poems (poems with numbered chapters), but I really, truly enjoyed how Jones does them. 5 out 5.

Homie by Danez Smith: I’ve read Danez Smith in the past, and I’ve picked him up again because I enjoyed him before. He’s a powerful, witty, sexy, strong, sensitive, mad poet with so much to say, and such interesting ways of looking at the world. I was drawn right into this one even before the first poem. After the title page, which is fake, there’s an author’s note about the real title, and this page is followed by the real title page. I won’t disclose it here, because it’s not for me, but I thought the entire concept rather brilliant and also believable. As a commercial hook, I would’ve found it silly and annoying. But from Smith, whom I believe truly crafted it this way, it’s a statement to sit with before beginning. The rest of the collection returns to it, after all. One poem in particular gutted me, and that one is, “Waiting For You to Die So I Can Be Myself.” I’ll leave it at that. 5 out 5.

Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith: This collection is an elegy to Smith’s father, told through series’ of science-fiction poems. It’s a brilliant conceit, unlike any I have ever read before. Smith has some serial poems in her collection, too, that I really fell for, despite my typical aversion. One of these is, ‘Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” In, “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” she writes of “tin cans we filled with fire” and the “dark we’ve only imagined.” Later, in “Universe As Primal Scream,” she pleads, “let the heaven we inherit approach;” she silences all the “racket” of the world and hears that something quiet “has begun to insist / upon being born.” Smith’s father was an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her concept, here, is a tremendous accomplishment, and a beautiful homage. 4 of 5.

The New Testament by Jericho Brown: Along with Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown is definitely one of my favorite contemporary writers. I happened to receive two autographed copies of this one, so I put one away for safekeeping and read this one very gently. I might pass it on to someone, someday, if they’re truly deserving. Brown’s poetry is passionate, dangerous, and unflinching. He writes on sex and race and masculinity, and all of the nonsense that surrounds each of these. His focus often seems to be on how to ignore the garbage that our own self-doubting society foists upon us in order to simply live well and good and with fire. He’s one of the clearist poets I read regularly these days, yet he never ceases to surprise. 5 out 5.

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.