Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Available for purchase here.

When the leader of your country seems hell bent on a personal mission to antagonize the rest of the world leaders, spend every dime at his disposal and then some on policies that marginalize the already at risk while bankrupting the nation, and generally behaving like a coked out gorilla, literature can offer a respite, a sanctuary of black letters on white pages that can buoy the reader only to the limits of imagination.

Or, it can shine a light on the swift devolution of civility and the eruption of chaos that can break out instantaneously in a country with an ever widening gap between the privileged and the working class and a strident adherence to us vs. them mentality.

Exquisitely written as it is, Half of a Yellow Sun is unmistakably the latter of the two. The story is told from three perspectives: Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy to Nsukka professor Odenigbo, Odenigbo’s fellow professor and mistress Olanna, and Richard, British expat and lover to Olanna’s twin sister Kainene. In the early sixties, the characters interact with each other through the prisms of race, class, and gender. Ugwu receives an education thanks to his employer’s socialist ideals, Olanna is a daughter of privilege and enjoys the benefits of both beauty and education, but has to live with accusations of witchcraft from Odenibo’s old-fashioned mother. Richard is a perennial outsider who views Nigeria–all of Africa, in fact–as a wonderland peppered with self-fulfillment.

Following the military coups that lead to the persecution of the Igbo, the characters become caught in the civil war follows the attempted secession of an Igbo state called Biafra. Olanna witnesses the slaughter of her beloved aunt and favorite cousin at the hands of Hausa militants. Ugwu gets conscripted and perpetuates the same war crimes that leave Olanna traumatized. Richard uses his privilege as a white man to report the atrocities of war to the wider world. In real life, the Nigerian-Biafran War saw the birth of NGOs across the world.

Adichie knows well that a million is a statistic. By weaving the story of a country in turmoil around her characters, the readers see firsthand the horrors of war, rape, starvation, and the casual brutality of indifference. Of course, the war in Nigeria was the result of American and European imperialism, the need to stake out multiple recognized territories as a singular country, currying the favor of one tribe while systemically forcing down the others, and absconding when the consequences of our actions come raining in. We’ve shifted the geographic location, but not learned from the tragedy. See the rise of Daesh in Syria, or Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan.

Reading Adichie now is like gazing into a crystal ball, and we are running out of time to curtail the effects of monumental greed combined with political power. It’s easy to absorb the story in a mantle of fear, but better to heed the warnings, pinpoint the failings, and resolve to improve both our approach and our attitudes.

2016 Wrap Up

Here I am, ten days deep into 2017, with the loose threads of last year’s reading challenge still dangling and the start date of this year’s looming (February 1, a celebration of Black authors that will run until January 31, 2018 for those itching to know).

The end of the year was brutal, for a lot of reasons. There was a little bit of personal heartbreak, but in truth the results of the election hit me like a gut punch, and cast a shadow over the remaining tendrils of 2016. I stayed awake on November 8 watching the election results pour in, tears streaming down my face while I prayed to all the deities I don’t believe in for an 11th hour turn of the tide, a Superman swooping in to save Lois Lane. But Supes never arrived, and Lex Luthor took the highest seat in the country.

For all the buffoonery surrounding Trump, it’s the elevated position of the worst of society that his presidency promises. Pence, Bannon, Sessions, all uniquely unqualified to protect the rights of American citizens, all tasked with doing exactly that. The injustice of this whole election became a crushing weight that rolled over me, my joys, my creativity, my desire to write. To whit, I haven’t written a single word since I profiled Laura Jane Grace’s memoir. What is the point of creativity, when my country has decided to yank out the rug from every civil rights gain we’ve had since our inception?

I turned to the solace of books, as I always have. I broke my fast with Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, enjoyed the self-deprecation of Anna Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, meditated on the idiosyncrisies of Modern Romance with Aziz Ansari, and plowed into Carrie Fisher’s full bibliography upon the breaking news of her untimely death, and emerged, as always, feeling a little less lonely and considerably rejuvenated.

Great writing does one of two things: provides connection or provides escape. Truly great writing does both. As we trudge through the next four years, it is more important than ever that the words of anyone and everyone who will be targeted, marginalized, or silenced find an audience.

Words have power. As humans, we are fundamentally wired for story. Story is how we give form and meaning to chaos, how we empathize across all the realities that separate us. Inhabiting the stories of those we differ from is as close as we come to walking in each others’ skin. JK Rowling performed more magic with simple words than her characters ever could.

And so, without facetiously attributing my time and talent to that of all the amazing women who opened my eyes to the world around me this past year, my promise to myself is that I will continue with my words. I will protest, I will talk back, I will yell until my voice disintegrates in the air, and I will write until my fingers bleed.

Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Available for purchase here.

This is not a book. This is a fucking floatation device.

If booklust is real (and it is), I’ve had it hardcore for Laura Jane Grace’s memoir since she first announced its inception. I structured this entire blog with reading it as my ultimate end goal, long before the US went through a political mindfuck of an election that has shaped every facet of this year’s art and pop culture.

I don’t mean to take away from TRANNY as its own animal. Grace is a gifted storyteller with a compelling story to tell. It’s hard to reconcile the demure, articulate, warm person Grace is in interviews with the younger self she unveils in her pages. The charisma is there, and the keen intelligence, but closeted Grace is achingly angry, depressed, dysphoric, and reactionary. Her story of combatting her internalized fear and shame with punk rock, anarchist politics, and an almost absurd amount of drugs is heartbreaking and eloquently rendered. Her choice to be honest about her struggles post-coming out, being a newly single parent still figuring out her own shit, neatly avoids the fairy tale ending and the narrative is all the better for it.

TRANNY would be a great story at any time, but being released exactly one week after half the country decided to hit the reset button on civil rights feels like finding port in a storm. The president-elect is a clueless bigot, his chief strategist is a blatant white supremacist, and his VP would rather electrocute kids than have them grow up to be like me or my friends.

I can’t claim that Grace’s struggle with her gender is the same as mine with my sexuality–that’s kind of the point of closets. They are all specific to the individual, but all marked by shame and isolation. If it was a shared space where we had the benefit of each others’ love and wisdom, no one would ever feel the drive to come out.

Every time Grace tries to commit to the masculinity foisted on her at birth, I’m reminded of every time I tried to force myself to be straight–and the utter self-loathing I felt when I failed. Every out and open LGBTQ+ person who provides a platform for these conversations gets us closer to a generation that won’t grow up without community or support.

It would be easy (idiotic, but easy) to dismiss Grace’s memoir as one in a series of rock BTS stories, but it’s so much more. It’s 306 pages of forward momentum. Grace isn’t going backwards, and neither am I. And so long as we stay loud, and focused, neither is society.

 

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

I promised myself I wouldn’t read any more books by the same author, since I’m two weeks from my deadline and still trying to eke out a solid 100 books that I was hoping to make as diverse as possible, but I was tempted by a friend who dangled the sequel to Katie Coyle’s excellent YA debut Vivian Apple at the End of the World in front of my face, and…I’m weak.

To be clear, this is not literary escapism. Vivian Apple living in an America that seems to be fairly gunning for an apocalyptic event (see: all of 2016), and she has, due to her own tenacity and ill luck, become a lynchpin to unleash the revolution. She and her friend Harp, the teenage girl we all pretended we were but few of us had the chops to pull off, are the victims of a smear campaign by the still powerful Church of America. They’ve lost their most precious asset in anonymity, and are now pursued by law enforcement, as well as the Church’s own lethal forces.

Vivian and Harp are taken in by Vivian’s sister Winnie, previously long-lost and currently one of the driving forces of the revolution. Both girls are pulled in over their heads, being symbols for what proves to be a militia almost as extreme as the Church they so vehemently oppose.

Reading this with the election looming is the equivalent of watching a horror movie alone on a dark stormy night in a cabin in the middle of the woods. I know whom I support in this election, and truthfully, the name of this blog should be a giveaway, but eruptions of ugly behavior coming from both groups of supporters indicate that the results of the election will not cool the ardor of hate in this country, where we are so deeply concerned with being right we are losing sight of what is actually right.

Vivian and her allies seek a third option as they try to ease the tension and terror that has gripped the society, and without giving away too much of the plot, the adage that violence only begets more violence bears out. This is not me being a bleeding heart who advocates for handholding during wartime, this is the reality that war does not buy peace, and hopefully more people will realize that before we reach a breaking point.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Available for purchase here.

A family patriarch who made his wealth in the private sector, hated by his employees and subordinates, notorious for his vicious temper, an unabashed rapist and known abuser, who turns to Conservative politics in his later years. Oh, and his last name starts with T-R-U.

I’m fully convinced in light of reading this in 2016 that Isabel Allende had psychic powers. Or, more likely, the tendency of history to repeat itself and the archetypical personalities associated with those who have an unbridled lust for power are as unchanging as the path of the Earth around the sun.

Allende’s story is a saga of the rise and fall of the Trueba family in a country that’s totally not Chile, chronicling the trends, movements, and mores of the ever-changing culture of the twentieth century. All the points are hit: two World Wars, the spread of first-wave feminism, communist ideology, a peaceful revolution, the underpinning of the accomplishments of the masses by the wealthy one percent, a military coup, the brutality of the regime. The House of the Spirits would be a grim read if its primary focus weren’t the rich lives of its women characters, both their magical prowess and the more earthly matters which concern them. They are rich in their passions, diverse in their characters, and blissfully faulty, real despite the fantasy that blurs the edges of their world.

The House of the Spirits was born in a letter from Allende to her aged grandfather, and inspired by her own life, twinned with political exile and her friendship with such key figures as Pablo Neruda, of whom the unnamed Poet is a clear expy.

Ideology ebbs and flows, but extremism is a fundamental human flaw, and in the United States is reaching its own tipping point. Every four years our presidential elections are deeply divisive, building on the excess of the preceding one, and here we are, less than a month away from casting our votes, the entire country adhering almost blindly to one candidate or another, turning neighbors into enemies and putting ugly words out into the public where they cannot be shirked or removed in a moment of clarity.

We all like to believe that the events that occupy the final third of Allende’s debut novel cannot happen here, that they do not happen in places like this or countries like ours, but this thought process is shared by everyone who lived before bloody coups and drowned in the aftermath. We ignore precedents set by history at our own peril, and now seems the most prescient time to pick up a copy of The House of the Spirits and learn the lesson crafted so beautifully within its pages.

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

Available for purchase here.

As the name of this blog would imply, I’m a bookworm. I was a shy, quiet kid whose idea of an outdoor activity was taking whatever I happened to be reading out onto the patio. I slipped paperbacks into the pocket of my pink windbreaker (oh, 90’s fashion, how did we ever allow you to happen?) so that I could catch up on the exploits of Kristy and Mary Anne or Elizabeth and Jessica. So, in the lexicon of pop culture, there is perhaps no fictional figure I ever identified with as much as I did Matilda Wormwood.

I never owned my own copy of Roald Dahl’s childhood masterpiece, because, like his heroine, I had a deep and profound adoration for the mysticism and magic of the public library, but I did check out their copy so many times that between the years of 1994 and 1997 it’s possible no other child in Northeast Philadelphia got to read it. #SorryNotSorry.

Mara Wilson played Matilda in a film version so perfectly written, cast, and executed that I almost shy away from watching it as an adult for fear that my overly critical brain will pick apart this gem from my childhood. Wilson’s face is the face of 90’s nostalgia, playing the sweet, cute, curious kid we all empathized with in our favorite movies.

Wilson’s memoir touches on the years between her child star years and her re-emergence as an adult, working as a fresh and funny playwright, author, and storyteller. Her history is eminently relatable–she came from a sweetly stable life in suburban California where child acting was simply one option for after school activities, and she grew up with all of the awkward dithering of navigating the hierarchy of middle school friendships and the horror of first crushes, while she still manages to tell her story of growing up with OCD and the power of story in helping her realize that she had a treatable condition that didn’t have to consume her.

No memoir ever put to paper was written absent of tragedy, but Wilson’s was not the product of the excesses of fame or the indulgence Hollywood has for addiction, but simply from the loss of her mother at a tender age, due to breast cancer.

I can’t imagine my world without my mom now, so for Wilson to peel back the layers of her loss and share with the world how not having a mom right before the age a girl needs her mother the most is one of the most daring and empathetic aspects of her personal story. And the way her family and acting community extended their kindness towards her to help her through the loss is proof positive that all is not ever as dark as we perceive it.

Wilson is more clear-headed about her position in life than most people our age in general, even more so for someone who was processed through the fame machine. She’s been her own advocate for her mental health, survived great personal losses, and had to adjust her professional expectations all while balancing high school, and now, as an adult, she’s telling her story the same way she once consumed them. She is, in fact, much more like Matilda than anyone could’ve guessed twenty years ago.

Memoirs and Mental Health

Up until this past year, memoirs have never really been high on my to-read list. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful to have stumbled upon that seemingly long-ago post on XOJane that inspired this endeavor. I’ve read the stories of fascinating women leading amazing lives. There’s a body positive mom who was tapped for a TED talk, a barrier breaking TV host and journalist, a descendant of a Nazi officer trying to make sense of her family’s past, an iconoclastic, world-traveling artist, and the Queen of the Geeks, to name just a few (full list here). And no matter what kind of lives these women are living, they all share common characteristics: they foster community, they inspire their readers, and they all have experience living with mental illness.

Artists across all media and genres seem to share a collective experience with mental illness: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Art has been therapeutic for people living with mental illness since long before we had words to define them, which explains the tendency to create as a method of coping. But as much as art is therapy for the artist, it’s a catharsis for the audience. Art is the light in the darkness, the words, pictures, and sounds of what lives inside our own minds, letting us know we are not alone at the moments we most need to feel a connection.

Mental illness, which is so unfairly stigmatized, is not like diabetes or cancer or high blood pressure, the physical ailments to which it is so often compared. The organ affected by mental illness is the one programmed to detect problems, but if someone lives long enough with depression, anxiety, etc. they become almost impossible to dissociate with reality. It makes de-stigmatization all the more important, so that those who suffer will know that living in pain and fear isn’t permanent, and that they can move beyond it. It is only by allowing us to speak our truths that we can relieve the burdens of others.

Healing is not linear. If you have mental illness, even if you are being treated and feel in control, you will have another valley. Do whatever you have to do to ride out the darkness safely. It has passed before and it will again. If someone you love is living with it, you will say or do the wrong thing. They will be unresponsive and emotionless and maybe even mean, but don’t stay away because of it. Everything passes, even the worst of times. And the stories shared by the wonderful, wise women I’ve read this past year are proof that life, ridiculous, funny, tragic, beautiful, strange life, is possible and rich in all its complexity. There is never a need to opt for a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but there is great need to join the chorus of people living with mental illness and their loved ones, stripping away the stigma and sorrows until we no longer suffer losses because of it.

Everyday Monsters by Ellie Robbins

Available for purchase here.

The fantastic racism of X-Men is perhaps the most famous modern example of superpowers-as-allegory regarding the way we exploit the marginalized members of our society while still relegating them to the sidelines. Everyday Monsters clearly draws inspiration from X-Men: the isolated school for the young and gifted, the murky and mythical explanations for “talent”. But there are roots of another story of a seemingly mundane child being thrust into a world of magic flexing its influence as well.

Assume that Harry Potter, instead of being a famous hero who had been bequeathed a fortune, was instead an ordinary orphan, without so much as a Dursley standing between him and homelessness. Imagine if instead of being resigned and snarky he was aloof and resourceful, because he’d had to parent himself on the streets. Imagine if he had to navigate Hogwarts without the benefit of his name, trying to suss out friend and foe without a guide. Imagine him as a 15 year old girl from Austin and you’ll have something approaching Taylor Brock, the protagonist of Everyday Monsters.

Taylor is a street kid earning cash from impromptu fight clubs to keep herself afloat when she’s hunted down, both by a recruiter for the school that can help her harness the powers she didn’t know she had and by creatures who see her as prey. She finds education and allies, if not actual safety, in the mountains of Colorado, where she learns how deep her talents run and discovers the cross section of dimensions, and the magic creatures that live in the hidden corners of the world.

Unfortunately, though, Taylor’s ultimate discovery is that even though she is sequestered away from the troubles that plagued her in Austin–uncertainty of shelter, the violence of the streets, being profiled for crimes because she’s young and dirty and transient, authorities doing more harm than good, all the other problems faced by real life American homeless people–human nature is what it is and her greatest tribulations come in the form of bullies and blowhards.

It’s twisty enough to keep readers engaged, but the best part of Everyday Monsters is how well it lives up to both its roots and its title. Power aside, the problems faced by Taylor are ones real young girls and teens in general face every day.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

 

Available for purchase here.

There’s really not a bad time, per se, to read Shirley Jackson (although when you take four different literature classes in college and they all insist on reading The Lottery one really must wonder if the English department is involved in some mass conspiracy, but I digress). However, October is the perfect time to read Ms. Jackson, notable for her running theme of humanity as the real monsters.

It’s easy, now that every book, movie, and mid-level TV show has co-opted the plot twist as a storytelling gimmick, to forget that a twist was once the hallmark of a master storyteller. Even if you manage to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle completely unspoiled, a seasoned fan of psychological thrillers can pick out the true villain of the piece. I won’t be the one to point out the wizard behind the curtain, except to point out that all the really important key players are women, wherever they fall on the spectrum between “good” and “bad”.

One of the fascinating (and demoralizing) tropes in storytelling is the frequency with which a female antagonist’s villainy is tied to her sexuality–she’s either the whore to the heroine’s Madonna or she’s aging past the point of fuckability, possibly both. See the stepmothers of the Disney villain catalogue, the femme fatales who imperiled James Bond, Batman, and other enigmatic heros, the hags who manipulate the the events of Macbeth. And those are only the ones that popped up in my mind as I was typing. Small wonder Washington is trying to police the sex lives of women–they’ve been raised to associate sexuality with sadism.

Shirley Jackson is a revolution, not only for her talent, but for peeling back the layers of women’s complex emotional histories. Her villains and victims are grandiose, petty, vengeful, sociopathic, meek, a full, glorious gamut of motivations and perspectives that aren’t tied to their hormones. In short, she treated her female characters like men.

Now that we are at the most glorious time of year, where everything is just a little bit spooky and every corner holds the promise of another worldly thrill, Jackson’s very human villains is a reminder that the darkness in all our myths and legends originated in our own minds. It’s a darkly delicious meditation on our own psyches AND an exploration of the feminist narrative.

The Recital by Kyle V. Hiller

Available for purchase here.

Witchcraft, whether the clear dichotomy between Glinda and the named-by-another-author-a-century-later Elphaba, the rich spectacle of Harry Potter, or the cheesy lightness of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, has been one of fantasy fiction’s primary go-to’s to illustrate not only female power, but how it is perceived by society (Both the “good witch” and the “bad witch” are outranked by a fraudulent balloon man, the most impressive witch of her generation is the sidekick to the famous main character, and the pretty, bubbly blonde is somehow a social outcast).

Small surprise then, that the dawn of witchcraft in the life of a previously perceived “muggle” girl, so often coincides with puberty. For all I love YA, I would never relive my teenage years. Teens have the bodies of adults and are pressured to have their same wisdom, but are constantly told to occupy the same roles they held as children. It’s just like witches–all the power, minus the free will.

Kyle Hiller writes a stunning first person narrative of a girl caught in the worlds of young adolescence and witchcraft, with incredible insight. In The Recital, Edith Solstice is an ordinary girl, with a father who is revealed to be less and less extraordinary through her eyes as the story unfolds. She’s a middle child living a life so typical of Philadelphia Catholic girlhood I could’ve been reading about my own family. Hiller nails how even in a city as large and diverse as Philly, neighborhoods function, for both good and ill, as small towns. Edith is sheltered and occasionally innocently insensitive, and her problems are the problems of typical kids: an unrequited crush, a dramatic falling out between her parents, the gawkiness of being torn between childish needs and adult desires. And she’s a witch.

Edith has two mentors on her path to mastering magic: her best friend Lenore, and Lenore’s mother, Miss Karen. The crux of the conflict in Edith’s story is both magical and mundane–she hurt a classmate with her powers during an argument, and seeks to make amends. It’s a telling theme for the story–we are responsible for cleaning up our own messes, even the ones we didn’t intend to make. Edith relays a microaggression she once showed this classmate early on, by the end of the novel recognizing it as such and owing up to the fact that she was a bully, whether or not she intended to be.

There are many intriguing subplots to The Recital: what qualifies as “good”, what grief does to our mindset, especially when left unprocessed, the agony of first romance, the double agony of a first romance being a recognition of one’s own queerness. There’s a sequel hook, perhaps even a series hook, towards the end, and I am eager to delve deeper into Edith’s powers.