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.

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.

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.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle

Available for purchase here.

Imagine for a moment that the Westboro Baptist Church had major political power. That the “divine fusion” of spirituality and capitalism that fuels the megachurches of men like Joel Osteen were the majority. Children are actively kept out of school for fear of exposing them to secular teachings, girls marry young and get pregnant within seconds of the vows. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are considered virtuous.

It’s not hard to imagine, because between rampant police shootings, permissive sentences for convicted rapists, and bigoted, bullying laws that prohibit people from using almost any service, up to and including public bathrooms, because of their sexuality or gender identity, Katie Coyle’s novel Vivian Apple at the End of the World feels like nothing so much as the extreme logical endpoint for where our society is headed.

There’s a lot to like about Vivian Apple. The title protagonist is partying away on “Rapture Eve” with her fellow skeptics, dancing with other teenagers and toasting the strike of midnight, assuming that when the new day dawns and the world remains as it was, her parents and the rest of the world will disavow their cultlike fanaticism with the fictional Church of America and she can slip back into a semblance of normalcy.

When she gets home, Vivian discovers that her parents are gone and there are holes in her ceiling. News begins to pour in–the Rapture has apparently happenedon a significantly smaller scale than the Church’s devotees had planned, and the rest of the country is left to pick up the pieces. Some hunker down with renewed zealotry, some philosophize, some plunge into a second coming of Caligula’s court, while a final few continue a strong strain of denial and disavowal that the world has changed.

Vivian, lifelong meek girl defined by her good grades and 10 star rating on the parental likability scale, is tired of the world gone mad. She pairs up with her recently acquired best friend, Harp, a character that smashes about a thousand and a half stereotypes, and a boy with the most beautiful blue eyes (this is a YA novel, after all) who has insider information about the upper echelon of the Church.

The ensuing road trip takes the trio on a literal quest through the US, and a philosophical one on the nature of love, mortality, morality, motherhood, and our place in the world. It sets up a real stunner of a sequel hook while being a fully contained story in and of itself. But in a world where a 70 year old toddler brags about not paying his billionaire business taxes to thunderous applause from working class supporters, a man who opposes the very existence of most Americans and pushes for the continued and extreme marginalization of the already marginalized, who could become our president, it reads a lot like horror.

 

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Available for purchase here.

Wow, was this book ever brutal to get through. It reads more like a memoir to the teenage years I’d rather forget, the days when unsolicited sexual attention, both in real life and the burgeoning, hazy scape of cyberspace, was something I responded to positively, both because I thought I should be grateful for it because I was big and awkward (Barb from Stranger Things spoke to me on a spiritual level), and because sexuality was something I was still acclimatizing myself to owning.

Now, my teenage years are not something I think about on the day to day. My current friends, habits, hobbies, and work are far richer and more prescient–although my paycheck is disturbingly similar. But within pages of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, those feelings came rushing back, and I felt seventeen again, not in the good way like when I listen to Green Day, but in the frail, insecure way that made me wonder if anyone would ever find me worthy of taking notice of.

Lizzie, the protagonist, has the story of her teen years and early to middle womanhood told in thirteen vignettes, some from her perspective, some from friends, family, and lovers. Her actual weight is never mentioned–one entire chapter is from the perspective of a drunk wannabe rock star with Nick Cave ambitions and a lack of equivalent talent who refers to her as “The Fat Girl”–but it’s somehow the most important thing about her. She lives in the suburbs, her job is uninspiring, her ambition is to be thin.

The closer she gets to thinness, the less of a person she becomes. Food becomes less of a source of pleasure, the things that once gave her joy are secondary to her regiment of eating and exercising. No matter what though, she’s defined by her weight, either its presence or the threat of its return. Any western woman between ages 16 and 60 would be hard-pressed to not find a sliver of herself within Lizzie’s story.

The story ends with neither hope nor condemnation. Lizzie is not here to shame or inspire, she’s simply existing within her own purview, and the whole world feels the need to weigh in. It’s a mirror to how we perceive both ourselves and each other, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro

Available for purchase here.

Sometimes I feel like a walking garbage heap of a human being. This feeling usually surfaces while I’m reading the memoir of a contemporary woman, one who has spent our equivalent time on earth seeing the world, creating art, and fighting for the rights of humanity while I’ve spent that same time acquiring massive student debt and failing to master parallel parking. Yes, I can also throw myself a mad pity party.

Then there are memoirs like Tig Notaro’s, which details not her accomplishments (star of comedy, podcast, film, and music, not to mention her recently released Amazon series One Mississippi, which I binged over the weekend, thankyouverymuch), but rather the brief period of her life when she was assaulted with personal tragedy every time she turned around.

To wit: she was diagnosed with Colistridium difficile, a bacterial intestinal infection that can range from uncomfortable to fatal (Notaro’s nearly killed her), breast cancer showed up to attack while her immune system was still compromised, and her relationship was falling apart. And then, the ultimate tragedy, from which no medical treatments could rescue her–a freak accident claimed her mother’s life.

Notaro deserves a medal and a standing ovation for still standing after all she managed to pack into her 200 plus page memoir, and she exhibits enormous kindness towards the important people in her life, even as she bares open and dissects her complicated relationships with them in order to make some semblance of sense of her life.

She’s also bracingly honest. She treats herself as a character in her own story, and bares open her own flaws–the beginning concerns a lot of her early childhood, where she ditched school and ultimately dropped out, while still caring for her hard-partying mom.

I was raised to believe that the airing of dirty laundry spoke poorly of the one shaking the sheets, but I grew up to be a writer. Words are powerful and important. When written down, they are meditative and long-lasting, giving a voice to lived experience and creating a community across space and time, a collection of letters that let us know we are not alone and others are hearing us, listening, empathizing. Notaro’s words will prove healing for generations to come, but it is her unique voice that saved her from succumbing to the tragedies she was surrounded by. It’s important to share a story for the sake of others, but it’s equally important to speak for your own sake.

Bone Black by bell hooks

Available for purchase here.

If you only read one bell hooks book in your lifetime, first of all, don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to my friends, and in the event I ever buy nice clothes, don’t talk to my dry cleaner. But assuming you are a person who has a strict one book per author limit, Bone Black is not the bell hooks for you. Her most famous work is Feminism is for Everybody, but if asked for a personal recommendation, the one that changed my life is All About Love. Either of these would be better, as would her numerous other works, but not because Bone Black is lacking in either quality or beauty, but because the lens through which it must be read can’t be fully appreciated without understanding the important role bell hooks has played in shaping the core feminist movement.

bell hooks frequently writes in such a way that makes reality more magical than the realms of Hogwarts and Narnia, and though she’s writing through the framework of adulthood, academia, and the shifting paradigms of time itself, hooks identifies so cleanly and clearly with her child-self, and children in general, especially with her own foibles and temerity that ousted her completely from fitting the mold of proper sixties girlhood, that she unveils, without ever stating it, how one small twist of fate could’ve turned her into a woman like her mother, trapped and tragic, serving the needs of a man who had no consideration for hers.

How many fine minds and hearts have we lost to just such casual cruelty? There’s no way to overstate the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, and their goal to end police violence towards communities of color, but our society is inherently flawed in how we structure human worth around a given system of race, class, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and the myriad smaller ways that elevate certain people above others for something absent of merit.

People born at the top of the pyramid are presumed worthy, those holding it up must prove their worth, and we accept this as function of a society that prizes equality when nothing could be less equalizing. bell hooks may have a singular mind, but what other talents and gifts have we as a society deprived the world of because they existed in someone we felt didn’t warrant opportunity?

hooks had some advantages–she was taught to see her black skin as beautiful and regal, even knowing society did not. But it was hooks herself, her strong sense of determination and self-advocacy, that placed her on the trajectory that lead her–and us–to a revitalized and revolutionary way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

The Never Weres by Fiona Smyth

Available for purchase here.

Minor spoiler: the buoyant tone of Fiona Smyth’s The Never Weres pretty much establishes from page one that the dystopic setting is destined for a happy ending. It’s riddled with charm and a satisfying amount of quirk for a graphic novel that deals with a reproductive crisis, genetic cloning, and mythic camps where responsible parents send their children to prepare for the troubles brewing in the immediate future.

At the heart of the story are three city kids: Mia, a gentle artist whose family is wary of the liability her sweet and generous nature will prove to be, Xian, an orphan whose brother/caregiver is a planet away, leaving her to roam the city in search of materials for her science experiments, and Jesse, a budding geneticist hoping to follow in the footsteps of his brilliant but distant mother.

The teens are the youngest and final generation of humanity, living in a post-virus world which has all but condemned them to witness the last days of the human race, but they remain hopeful, Jesse and Xian devoted to their scientific pursuits and Mia entwined in her dual passions of art and community service, spending most of her afternoons with the elderly Mrs. C.

Of the many ways that The Never Weres hits all the feminist high marks–fully fleshed female characters, male characters who aren’t intimidated by powerful women, a diverse ethnic makeup of a major city, full marks on the Bechdel Test–one of the greatest ways is the way traditional male and female archetypes are treated: Mia is the most stereotypically feminine, Xian is fairly masculine, and Jesse falls somewhere in the middle, yet all of them are equally important to both the story and the resolution–and no one is made out to be less than for not fulfilling their predetermined archetypes.

The salvation of the human race turns out to be found within scientific endeavors, inspired by artistic ones, and made possible by an act of (non-romantic) love. It’s also in the hands of the youngest generation–much like real life. And I’m pretty confident in the teens of today, given how much passion they show despite how routinely they’re criticized for being lazy and entitled. Especially if they read The Never Weres.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

Available for purchase here.

There’s a thought experiment involving monkeys, a banana, and a ladder that highlights the absurdity of following tradition for tradition’s sake. Taking it literally would be a mistake, but the moral is that we often go through life without examining our behavior, and end up going against our own best interests in the process.

Enter Deshi, a thoroughly unremarkable young man living in northern China whose equally unremarkable older brother (though the jewel of their parents’ eyes) is killed, and in a convoluted way, Deshi is held responsible. His mother sends him to acquire a “ghost bride” for the dearly departed, an old custom wherein a recently deceased young woman is symbolically wed to a late groom so that they will be spiritually whole in the next world.

In his journey south to find an appropriate bride, Deshi fails to find a woman who meets the standards that will exonerate his guilt and redeem him in the eyes of his parents. He finally finds the perfect woman in the form of Lily Chen, who is problematically very much alive.

Lily is the only child of a man who would stifle his daughter under the weight of traditional gender roles, and seizes the opportunity to take the reins of her life by taking the reins of Deshi’s mule and fleeing the oppression of her father’s house. It should be noted that Lily has no idea that Deshi’s idea for her future are even worse than what’s in her past.

Lily is irrepressible and freewheeling. She could easily be interpreted as a manic pixie dream girl, but instead, she represents the possibilities of a society unimpeded by irrelevant conventions, while the parents are the dogmatic adherence to the current social mores. Deshi, poor soul, is strung between them, besotted by Lily and stayed by his own morality, but tempted by the rewards inherent in playing the role of dutiful son. The end isn’t happy, it’s just the best of what can be expected.

As a side note, I am someone moderately obsessed with skull imagery and the art for The Undertaking of Lily Chen is achingly gorgeous.