In the January post, I indicated that I’ve added layers to my 2017 Reading Project (books I’ve “always” meant to read). The layer I added in February is: all fiction by writers of color. I allowed myself one exception since I was in the middle of re-reading a novel by a white British author when February 1st came around. As soon as I added this layer, dozens of books came to mind, books I’ve read reviews of recently, or have been meaning to read.
Some highlights of my February reading:
Clover, Dori Sanders – I heard about this book, originally published in 1990, because of Call Number, a CrateJoy book subscription box created by a librarian named Jamillah in order to help readers build a personal library of books by black authors. This book was the first selection. Clover’s voice is so compelling as she experiences the death of her father, living with her father’s new wife, a white woman, and her extended family’s grief. This is a coming-of-age story, as well as a story of a family coming to grips with death and a new family member at the same time. Clover’s relationship with her Aunt Everleen, especially as she butts heads and then becomes allies with Sara Kate, her stepmother, was moving.
The Hilda series, Luke Pearson – These large-sized comic books are mad and amazing. Hilda cannot resist an adventure and I love that best about her. What I also love about her (and this is going to sound weird) is that she’s not drawn or depicted as stereotypically “girlish.” She’s got blue hair and gigantic boots. She’s just this little being who’s very compassionate and curious and always saves the day (after she messes everything up). The art is incredible.
Kindred, Octavia E. Butler – This is my always-meant-to-read selection this month. Butler was recommended to me a few years ago, and of course her novel Parable of the Sower has come up recently (alongside Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell’s 1984) as being particularly relevant in our current political environment (/crisis). I listened to the audio version, narrated by Kim Staunton. My experience was similar to The Handmaid’s Tale in that I really enjoyed Staunton’s narration, even while wishing I’d read the book on the page (next time). Kindred is the story of Dana, a 1970s writer in California, who is somehow yanked back in time to a plantation in Maryland, where she saves the life of a young white boy. She returns back to her own time and her husband Kevin, only to return again and again to the plantation and the boy, Rufus, as he grows, each time protecting and saving him. Kindred reminded me of Outlander a bit, except set in more recent times (both the “present” and the “past” storylines are more recent), and of course the story of American slavery is still all-too relevant. Dana’s 1970s didn’t feel much removed from my 2017: her life felt very modern and distant from the past she journeys to. As Dana spends longer stretches of time on the plantation (as a slave, though she has special standing in the house because of her relationship with Rufus, the boy she saved), I was horrified by how she adjusts to slavery, how she is able to justify the actions of the plantation’s masters, even as she’s horrified at this herself. I was so scared for her, sad and angry for what she was suffering as a slave and what she was losing in her “real” life back home, and it was terrifyingly easy to imagine an 2017 version of Dana, of myself, in the story.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling with illustrations by Jim Kay – Here is my one exception. New large-sized editions of the Harry Potter series, illustrated anew by Jim Kay, are being released and I figured it was a great excuse to re-read. Mary GrandPre’s original illustrations have set a really high bar – so much of what we see in our head is because of her! – but Jim Kay has done a really fascinating job of adding new
dimensions, a slight twist to scenes and characters. It’s really remarkable.
Rad Women Worldwide, Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl – No princesses this month, just rad women. I think the subtitle says it all – Artists and Athletes, Pirates and Punks and Other Revolutionaries Who Shaped History. This book is so visually arresting that I recommended it to several people just by reading it publicly (which I did on purpose), but I’ve also recommended it to a lot of people – friends and teenagers, boys whenever I can. Girls and women need to know about these amazing women, but so do boys and men. I’ve been loving what I’ve been thinking of as “kick-ass women encyclopedias” and I’d included Wonder Women by Sam Maggs (read in December) and Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath (January) in that list, if you’re looking for more.
Mooncop, Tom Gauld – This graphic novel just showed up randomly, so I read it. It is literally about a cop on the moon, though I’d say it’s also about loneliness and human nature. This Goodreads review by Jan Philipzig says it best: “Sparse, subdued, existentialist, melancholy, wryly humorous, and maybe even a tad romantic: I liked it quite a bit. 3.5 stars, I’d say.”
Kick-Ass 1-3, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. – A friend recommended these and I’d liked the movies a. I have to admit: I’m really conflicted. The art is incredible, of course. The story is unique, compelling. There’s a Kill Bill-level of violence that’s just insane. But. Two things. One – these books should really be called Hit Girl. They’re really about her. She’s the interesting character, the one who keeps rescuing Kick-Ass over and over. There would be no story without her. And two – something happens in Volume 2 that angered me so much, because it involved casual and devastating violence that was entirely unexplored in the story. And it should’ve been explored. It just seemed lazy to me that it wasn’t, and also a damn shame. I finished the series, but I could never quite recover from that disappointment.
The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward – Using James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as lens, or a seed, the essays in this anthology meditate on race in America now. I was moved – angered, inspired, saddened – over and over as I read one essay each day. I was finishing the anthology when I saw I Am Not Your Negro, so the essays I’d read inspired by Baldwin were literally in conversation with Baldwin in my head as I watched the film.
Zombillenium Vol 1-3, Arthur de Pins – Not entirely about zombies, this trilogy of comic books about a theme park run by monsters for human guests is funny, weird and often really, really dark.
Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile – I listened to the audio narrated by Miriam Hyman. Audio books are really making my commute so much more pleasant. I loved living with these characters for a few days. Charley Bordeleon moves from California when she inherits a Louisiana cane farm, feeling alien in a place that is fairly familiar to me. Not entirely, since I don’t have experience on cane farms, but it was still a cool experience to “know” some of the characters from my own experiences in Louisiana. It would be easy to view Charley’s brother Ralph Angel as “the bad guy” in the family dynamics, but since we get chapters told from his point of view and we know his intentions and his struggles, he’s impossible to dismiss. The idea that some family can’t be reunited or see each other’s side really resonated, but of course it was so sad. Charley’s struggle to work the farm and the way she gathers support and partners was probably my favorite aspect of the book.
Half-Resurrection Blues, Daniel Jose Older – I’m a big fan of Daniel’s, having read both his young adult novel Shadowshaper and Long Hidden, the anthology he co-edited last year in preparation for a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival and his appearance at the library. I’ve been anticipating diving into his adult fantasy series, Bone Street Rumba, the third of which was just published in January. This first book does a ton of world building, offering a glimpse of an otherworldly and gentrified Brooklyn, and introduces a fascinating cast of non-corporeal and somewhat-corporeal characters. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, considering where this first book left off.
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead – I loved Whitehead’s novel Zone One (another zombie book that’s not really about zombies) back in 2012., so I’ve been wanting to read his newest novel since it was published. The tension in Zone One was unreal and Whitehead definitely used his skill for tension in The Underground Railroad. I read it in about two days, completely gripped by the story of Cora, a slave who escapes a Georgia plantation and her desperate journey for freedom after that escape. I was entirely captured as a reader, and as a writer, I was just in awe of the skill with which Whitehead delivered this masterful novel. [He came to New Orleans shortly after I read the book, so I got to see him read from the book and discuss it, which was an incredible experience.]
Born a Crime, Trevor Noah – I listened to the audio of this memoir, which was a little less than 9 hours, during a spring cleaning binge and I was completely blown away by Noah’s narration. There’s just nothing like hearing someone tell you their story. And Noah is incredible at accents and voices. He says in the story that he picked up numerous South African languages during his childhood and this ability to speak to people in their language got him in and out of a lot of experiences. He uses that skill here, speaking and even singing in a variety of languages and accents. He’s an incredible writer, too, invoking scenes so vividly that I felt like I was sharing my house with a host of people whose lives were foreign to me, but who felt so familiar by the end of the story.
I read (or listened to) 32 books (and one issue of a comic book) in February, and these are the highlights.