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Best Reads (and Book Gifts) for the Rest of Us - 2018

Best Reads (and Book Gifts) for the Rest of Us – 2018

This year I set out to read only books by womxn and focused on #OwnVoices books by BIPOC, TGNC, LGBTQ, and international writers.  

I’m on track to read 50 titles and have really enjoyed most of them. I even read a few by men (still #OwnVoices) that I would recommend (you can read those reviews here, here, and here).

In this post, I want to share with you my favorites, by womxn, just in time for gift-giving season! All of these would be great ideas to give to your friend or family member who enjoys reading #OwnVoices.

First, my favorite book of the year:

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Best Reads (and Book Gifts) for the Rest of Us - 2018

One of the first books I read this year, Freshwater blew my expectations away and set a high bar for my reading during the rest of 2018. Complex and unique, this coming of age story is set against a backdrop of Nigerian spirituality and tradition. With strong themes of gender, sex, relationships, identity, health, violence, and more, Akwaeke Emezi shares their journey and I am here for it.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Friends who enjoy literary fiction, creative memoirs, or symbolic and layered stories; queer or TGNC friends; those who like reading African writers and just magnificent writing.

And to round out the Top 5:

Best Reads (and Book Gifts) for the Rest of Us - 2018A Little in Love with Everyone by Genevieve Hudson

I adore this little book! I’ve read it three times already; it is my book girlfriend. It just really resonated with my own experiences in many ways and I dig Genevieve Hudson’s writing style. The book is genre-defying in that it is part history lesson, part memoir, part biography, part book review, part manifesta, and all homage to Alison Bechdel.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Writers, readers who enjoy memoir, creative friends, lesbian friends, fans of Alison Bechdel’s work.

 

Black Queer Hoe by Britteney Black Rose Kapri

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

I didn’t write reviews of these books (yet?) but LOVED them. I am skeptical that I could write reviews that could do them justice. I was so ready for the (often very different) tones of these books. Juxtaposing them makes sense to me; I feel both – sometimes in the same day.

Gift Black Queer Hoe to readers who like poetry, readers who don’t like poetry, fans of spoken word, queer friends, your best girl friend from waaay back who is apologetically strong and takes no shit. Also consider pairing this with José Olivàrez’s Citizen Illegal, which is equally amazing.

Gift Heart Berries to friends who enjoy creative memoir, poetic writing, and deep or emotional books; those looking to hear Indigenous womxn’s voices; those who don’t mind books that make them cry.

 

Best Reads (and Book Gifts) for the Rest of Us - 2018Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

This is a beautifully written book; Ingrid Rojas Contreras is just a fantastic storyteller. Her characters are fully and meticulously developed and I felt invested in them, their lives, and their survival. It inspired me to learn more about Colombia, its past and present, especially regarding womxn’s roles and rights.  An amazing debut based on the life the author.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Friends who enjoy historical fiction, creative memoirs, rich character and plot development, coming of age stories. Those looking for Latina/x voices and great writing will not be disappointed.

 

And the remainder of the Top 10:

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

I read this book very early in the year and was excited by its brave girl lead characters. This alone is reason enough to read the book but I knew it was important to push myself past the initial awe at this story of strength and resiliency. When I did, I experienced an even deeper story of multidimensional characters navigating their lives and attempting to balance tradition with self-realization.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Those who like international stories, stories of resilience and friendship; friends with girl children; those who appreciate rich characters and holistic plots.

 

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

Despite the premise of the book, I found this one fun! One of the strengths of Heng’s writing – and there are many – is her commitment to detail. Her ability to describe this near-future world is rivaled only by her presentation of it; while she is descriptive in her storytelling, Heng also trusts her reader to put the various pieces together.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Those who enjoy dystopian and speculative fiction and books that make you wonder what you would do in that situation; those who like family dramas, strong character development, and unique plots.

 

Unpologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene Carruthers

I haven’t reviewed this one (yet?) but it is an amazing resource. Accessible and pragmatic, the book explains the Black Queer Feminist (BQF) framework and provides examples of it at work.

Gift to: Your activist friends and your academic friends;  your friend who runs a local non-profit org doing imperative, yet largely invisible, work for amazing, yet largely invisible, people in the community;  you funder friends (with a card stuck inside the cover of your friend who runs the non-profit).

 

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

This is another one that I loved and didn’t review. Another one that I honestly got stuck trying to figure out how to do it justice. This book was not written for me and I am sure some of the nuances were lost. But it was one of the most important reads of the year for me. It deserves a second and third reading.

Gift to: Busy readers who dig powerful, witty short stories with meaning; those who enjoy really good writing; readers who like literary fiction with sharp corners.

 

Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists by Naomi Klein

While Naomi Klein’s book explores only one facet of the effects of Maria on Puerto Rico – disaster capitalists setting their sights on Puerto Rico in its vulnerable post-Maria state – it is an imperative issue to address. Only a brief (although necessary) introduction, the book offers a firm foundation to understanding disaster capitalism, the shock doctrine phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico was susceptible to more than just hurricane damage when Maria struck.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Anyone interested in Puerto Rico, the effects of colonialism, capitalism, and/or natural disasters, or the empowerment of local people to lead the efforts of rebuilding how they see fit.

 

Honorable mentions:

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

I hadn’t planned to read this one but when I received a copy from the publisher at a conference, I couldn’t help but race through this short but powerful work that feels like having a meaningful and candid conversation with a girlfriend.

Gift to: Queer or TGNC friends, accomplices who appreciate reading #OwnVoices books, friends who like reading memoirs, friends who want to understand more of the nuances of gender identity and non-comformity to established binary norms.

 

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This was the biggest surprise of the year for me. I knew it was going to be good but as one who doesn’t read reviews before I pick up a book, I was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected turns, the complex lead characters, and the surprising plot twists.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Those who enjoy historical fiction, engaging or epic plots, full character development, and underdog stories; science-y, adventurous, or fantastical friends.

 

And last, but certainly not least: 

When a Bulbul Sings by Hawaa Ayoub

I wouldn’t have known about this book if it wasn’t for the author herself reaching out to me and I am so glad she did! This is a case of self-publishing that succeeds. Based on Hawaa Ayoub’s own life experiences, this book is a brave retelling of a girl’s coming of age against a backdrop of forced child marriage in Yemen.

Read my review here!

Gift to: Friends who like creative memoirs, stories from international authors, tales of resilience and family drama; those who are passionate about gender equality and interested in understanding (or resisting) traditional gender roles; those who appreciate detailed character and setting development.

 

Have you read any of these? What are your thoughts?

What were your favorite reads of 2018?

 

This post contains affiliate links; I write what I like.

Review of Naomi Klein Battle for Paradise

Buy This Book! Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September of 2017.

And despite Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States, the US government has done embarrassingly little to assist the American citizens of this beautiful island.

Puerto Rico 2014

Taken on my 2014 trip to Puerto Rico (photo credit: Karla J. Strand).

While the absence of US assistance has been bad enough, there is a more malicious contingent at work. Naomi Klein takes aim at them – disaster capitalists – in her new book, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists. In it, Klein makes a strong argument for fighting against selfish outside influences trying to make a buck on the backs of traumatized local Puerto Rican communities.

Does this situation sound familiar? It should because it is essentially another colonization of Puerto Rico by the US.

Naomi-Klein-credit-Kourosh-Keshiri

The author, Naomi Klein (Photo credit: Kourosh Keshiri).

In this 96-page book, Naomi Klein gives her reader a short history lesson as well as reasons why Puerto Ricans would (and should!) be skeptical of outside actors (pp. 25-32). While lifelong Puerto Rican residents dig out from under the wreck of Maria, the governor and other self-interested players court the rich from the mainland US by offering major tax breaks to move there – tax breaks that residents do not get to take advantage of (pp. 18-19).

Often referred to as “Puertopians,” these wealthy libertarians seek to live tax- (and care-) free in Puerto Rico, all the while seeing themselves as saviors of the embattled island and its residents (pp. 15-25). As Klein explains, “In February 2018, [the governor of Puerto Rico] told a business audience in New York that Maria had created a ‘blank canvas’ on which investors could paint their very own dream world” (p. 25); never mind the over three million people who already call it home.

Klein explains how Puerto Rico was in such a vulnerable position, even before Hurricane Maria hit, with importing a staggering amount of fossil fuels (pp. 5-7) and food (pp. 32-37) while also incurring an enormous debt after the global economic downturn of 2008 (47-51). These deficiencies are in large part due to the legacy of colonialism and the plantation economy.

In addition, situations and events in Puerto Rico over the last twelve years have made it particularly vulnerable to “shock doctrine” tactics. According to Klein, the phenomenon of the shock doctrine is the “deliberate exploitation of states of emergency to push through a radical pro-corporate agenda” (p. 45). Klein lays out how Puerto Rico is the most distinct example of this since Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 (pp. 43-53).

But Klein is also intentional in giving inspirational examples of how some local residents are harnessing collaborative partnerships, renewable energies (pp. 8-11), and innovative agricultural practices (pp. 37-43) to challenge existing inequities, untenable structures, and malignant outside influences.

It is this entrepreneurial spirit that Klein encourages in Puerto Rico as this is an opportunity for them to transform their home into the sustainable paradise that they themselves envision (p. 12). Through organization and strength, they will be able to overcome the “Puertopians” who seek to resettle the island (pp. 30-32).

While Klein’s book explores only one facet of the effects of Maria on Puerto Rico – disaster capitalists setting their sights on Puerto Rico in its vulnerable post-Maria state – it is an imperative issue to address. Only a brief (although necessary) introduction, the book offers a firm foundation to understanding disaster capitalism, the shock doctrine phenomenon, and how Puerto Rico was susceptible to more than just hurricane damage when Maria struck.

This is a quick and worthwhile read for anyone interested in Puerto Rico, the effects of colonialism and/or natural disasters, or the empowerment of local Puerto Ricans to lead the efforts of rebuilding how they see fit. It’s accessible information to most anyone, even those with no knowledge on any of these topics or the history of Puerto Rico.

For more information on Hurricane Maria, its effects on womxn, and the role womxn are playing in rebuilding Puerto Rico, please see this Women in Puerto Rico Resource Guide that I’ve created.

An aside: as a librarian, I advocate for borrowing books as much as possible. But this time, I am making an exception and asking you to purchase this book from the publisher, Haymarket Books, as all the proceeds go to JunteGente, a group of Puerto Rican organizations “resisting disaster capitalism and advancing a fair and healthy recovery for their island” (p. vi). Also, it is an accessible analysis of this timely and invaluable topic, so you should probably just buy a copy if possible. [Links to purchase are below.]

Naomi Klein can be found online at http://www.naomiklein.org/main and on Twitter @NaomiAKlein 

Summary:

Battle for Paradise by Naomi Klein

 

Title: The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists
Author: Naomi Klein
Publisher: Haymarket
Pages: 96
Publication Date: June 2018
My Rating: Essential

 

 

 

Have you been following the situation in Puerto Rico? Have you been to the island? Have you read this book or plan to? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Puerto Rico 2014

Taken on my 2014 trip to Puerto Rico (photo credit: Karla J. Strand).

I received this book as part of my subscription to the Haymarket Book Club. This post does NOT contain affiliate links because I want you to purchase it from Haymarket for the benefit of JunteGente! Thank you!

Leaving the Queer Desert: A Review of Genevieve Hudson’s A LITTLE IN LOVE WITH EVERYONE

Can one be in love with a book?

Like, have an ongoing relationship with it in which you spend time with it, learn new things from it, appreciate and value it, grow from it?

And I’m not talking about being in love with a book like some of those women are in love with, like, bridges or the Eiffel Tower. (You know you watched that show too, don’t lie.)

I feel as bibliophiles, we are touched by books, especially those handful of favorites. Our understanding of them, ourselves, and others evolves each time we read them – and we read them many, many times over.

I think I had my first romance of this type with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I mean, I had many favorite childhood books such as A Wrinkle in Time, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and (like every other young, eager-to-be-grown-up white girl?) all the Judy Blume books, but this one was different. Perhaps it was because it was the first time I really understood Shakespeare. Or maybe it was spritish Puck. I don’t know but for some reason, I just loved it.

On the Road by Jack KerouacBut my longest and most in-depth book relationship is probably with On the Road. There is something about the way Jack Kerouac turned a phrase that perfectly captures my own desire for freedom and getting lost and finding my own way in the midst of an anxious and overactive mind. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve read it and will read it again.

I’ve never met another person whose heart melts for The Grapes of Wrath as mine does. Damn, I love those Joads. Jane Eyre and The Color Purple and The Awakening and Native Son…I have ongoing relationships with these stories and each time I revisit them, I pick up something new. I see a glimmer of some layer that I had previously missed. Perhaps it’s some small detail or the way a previously ordinary passage stands out to me when I read it again years later.

Life is So Good by George DawsonBut books certainly don’t have to be canonical “classics” to steal your heart. And just because one pulls at my heartstrings doesn’t mean it automatically will for you. In my adulthood, I sat down with Life is So Good by George Dawson and fell head over heels. I am full of gratitude every time I read it.

This is what I love about reading. I can get lost in almost any book with a rise and fall, a couple of complicated characters, and a setting I can envision. Simple, right?

But with really good books, I mean books that I really fall in love with, I don’t only want an escape. I want it to have meaning in my real life. I want to be there with it, with all it offers. I will stick with it through good and bad. I will visit and revisit it. I will read specific passages over and over and ruminate on them from different perspectives. I keep it for years…on my writing table for inspiration, next to the bed to annotate the margins when the feeling strikes, or even on the highest shelf of my wall of books because I know I will never part with it.

That’s the power of a really great fucking book. It endures. I give and it gives back. Over and over again.

I think this is the type of relationship that Genevieve Hudson has with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. And likewise, it’s the relationship I am growing with Hudson’s A Little in Love with Everyone.

Little in Love with Everyone by Genevieve Hudson

Simply put: I adore this book. It is a slim, adorable volume of only 142 pages which includes a kick-ass bibliography but by goddess, it packs a punch. It has all the facets I look for in a lasting book relationship and then some; I’ve already read it three times. And yes, it keeps on giving.

The book is genre-defying in that it is part history lesson, part memoir, part biography, part book review, part manifesta, and all homage to Bechdel. How Hudson included such variety in this one little book is a testament to her writing skills and is just, well, interesting as hell. Her examination of Bechdel and Fun Home is imbued with a curiosity and understanding that is enlightening and refreshing. While I have read Fun Home and really enjoyed it, it’s been a little while and sometime I’d like to read it again and then re-read A Little in Love with Everyone ; just to see Fun Home through Hudson’s eyes.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

 

 

As a memoirist, Bechdel’s job is to tell the truth about herself, and her father’s suicide and sexuality are intrinsically bound up in her own story. To read Fun Home is to see Bechdel wrestle with the question of truth – how well her father hid his, and what it means for her to tell her own (pp. 17-18).

 

 

As I mentioned above, Hudson is just a good writer. Her instincts are magical. She gives you glimpses into her life growing up questioning and exploring her sexuality and then eventually, her coming out as a lesbian. While using Fun Home and Bechdel’s life as a backdrop, Hudson examines not only her own life experiences but also topics such as embodiment, gender, truth, visibility, self-acceptance, and more. Her vulnerability spoke to me and I appreciated her risk-taking throughout the book.

I wanted to make out with S by accident. I wanted us to end up kissing without anyone having to consciously make the decision to kiss or be held accountable for it. I wanted the kissing to just start happening (p. 3). 

Clearly, any book that waxes poetic on the power of reading and storysharing to change lives automatically scores points with me. But Hudson does this really well, just sort of dropping bell hooks and Dorothy Allison and Maggie Nelson throughout. She also points to bookish details in Bechdel’s cartoons, such as specific book covers being drawn in panels where Bechdel is having sex or hearing life-changing news. The influence of amazing literature by womxn on Bechdel and on Hudson and their writing is gratifying and exhilarating.

In the corner of one panel, Bechdel has drawn the book Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, filling in the small queer details that had begun to infuse her life (p. 21).

Of course, the reader will understand her admiration of Fun Home and Bechdel more generally, but Hudson also explains her appreciation for reading lists provided by other authors. What I love is that in doing so, Hudson herself leaves us with her own illuminating reading list (the titles of which I quickly added to my own TBR list).

As bibliophiles (and the author clearly is), we get the importance of reading but Hudson teeters on the edge of full-fledged librarianhood when she discusses the importance of telling, sharing, and archiving our own stories. BIPOC, queer people, disabled people, women, and people of other underrepresented populations must tell their own stories.

Representation matters. Voice matters. And having heroes in whom you can see yourself is imperative.

There was no one to talk to about what I was going through. The only thing that seemed to know anything was books. In books, everything seemed to have happened to everybody already. There was peace in that, a kind of solidarity. Literature holds power (p. 125).

I love this about Hudson’s book. Clearly in Bechdel’s work, Hudson found stories in which she could see herself, in which she received validation and clarification, and in which she witnessed hope and celebration.

Genevieve Hudson

Genevieve Hudson

 

 

Are we, as queers, necessarily educators? Are we called to tell our truth by virtue of our identities? Are our bodies radical, our identities political, our work archive-able? Are we heroes just by existing?

I think the answer is yes (p. 105).

 

 

Hudson has paid it forward with A Little in Love with Everyone and she will undoubtedly inspire and comfort others as Bechdel did for her.  

 

Find Genevieve Hudson online at https://genevievehudsonwriter.com/ and on Twitter @genhudson. Her new book, Pretend We Live Here (Stories), will be published by Future Tense Books and released in July. 

Summary:

Little in Love with Everyone by Genevieve Hudson

 

Title: A Little in Love with Everyone
Author: Genevieve Hudson
Publisher: Fiction Advocate
Pages: 156
Publication Date: February 20, 2018
My Rating: Essential

 

 

 

 

A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home



Disclosures:
I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Genevieve Hudson and Fiction Advocate!
This post contains affiliate links. Please support independent booksellers!

Drink It In: A Review of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Drink It In: A Review of FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater is captivating, dynamic, and wise. At once, Akwaeke Emezi is able to frighten and confound their reader with a writing style that is intense and poetic. The raw honesty with which Emezi frames their debut book grabbed me by the throat and compelled me to continue reading, catching my breath as I turned each page.

Freshwater is the semi-autobiographical story of Ada, a Nigerian girl who was always a bit different from other children. She was a challenging child for her parents, who worried about her precocious and fractured existence. Throughout her life and the book, Ada speaks through her various selves, which Emezi frames within the Igbo (Nigeria) tradition of ogbanje. According to Sunday T.C. Ilechukwu, ogbanje is:

…a term commonly used to describe a child or adolescent that is said to repeatedly die and be repeatedly born by the same mother. The child is said to die before the next one is born in serial sequence. Ogbanje may also be used to refer to a living child, adolescent, or adult who was preceded in birth order by a child or children that died early in life and is thought to have this potential to ‘‘come and go’’. This is a malignant form of reincarnation. The Igbo believe that an ogbanje has ties with deities or agents of deities who are said to guard the interface between birth and a postulated pre-birth state and who are believed to mediate life processes.  

While I don’t recall Emezi referring to any babies or children dying before Ada was born, Emezi’s focus on rebirth in the book aligns with traditional notions of ogbanje. There are also traumatic events that occur to Ada and her siblings that are designed by her embodying entities to break them. The strength of Ada and her siblings as well as Ada’s ties to certain deities are imperative to get them through these trials.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Some reviewers of Freshwater have referred to ogbanje as demons or evil spirits that possess Ada and cause her to have a mental breakdown but I don’t agree with this. I see Ada herself as an ogbanje and Emezi as exploring their own identities through this character. Emezi has dealt with gender dysphoria their whole life, to the point where they wondered if they weren’t an ogbanje. They have had to examine their identities and determine how to navigate a world in which these identities may be judged as deviant or sinful. As Emezi made decisions about their physical body, they faced Nigerian (and, I’m guessing, Western) criticisms of what is sometimes seen as the mutilation of their body while in reality, it was what Emezi needed to do to authentically align their inner and outer selves.

Emezi is masterfully able to evoke the dark emotions and confusion Ada experiences and bring to light her complicated codependence upon her various selves or ogbanje. At times, Emezi conjured feelings of sympathy and understanding in me for them. By the time Ada gets to the US to attend college, a being called Asụghara is the most prevalent of Ada’s selves and is the most reckless and fearless of them all. Asụghara is content to live out their sexual compulsions through Ada’s body. As she grows, Ada surrenders to her various identities but it’s important to remember that surrender is not always weakness or loss. I believe Ada is finally able to make peace with her multiple selves and work with them in order to live a balanced and authentic life. Perhaps pathological in Western views, the truth is that most of us could point to multiple identities through which we scroll and choose the one which will serve us best at different times in our lives. Some of us though, like Ada/Emezi, may be more misunderstood and challenged than others to the point where it feels as though the dark side possesses a power over us that will not let go.

At times disquieting to read, Freshwater takes on challenging topics such as identity, mental illness, self-harm, sexual assault, suicide, and more. Emezi has a style of writing that is deliberate and exacting; I felt as though each word was painstakingly chosen so as to illustrate Ada’s splintered and exigent existence.

At times the book reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Toni Morrison’s brilliant Beloved in its fearful reverence of ancestral relationships, tradition, and spirituality. Emezi uses the Igbo tradition of ogbanje as a framework for a cogent exploration into identity formation and evolution, and for how we wear masks throughout life to deal with and make sense of pain and for how we exhibit bravery in the face of fear.  

In the end, I found Freshwater to be bold, challenging, and unique. It touched places of fear and pain within me but it also made me recall delicious moments of audacity and triumph. I gagged on the sticky, jagged chunks of this book and I long to read it again and swallow it whole because I know there is so much more there to be digested.

I can’t wait to devour more of what Akwake Emezi is serving up.

Find Akwaeke Emezi online at https://www.akwaeke.com/ and on Twitter @azemezi

For further reading:

Summary:

 
Title: Freshwater
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Grove PRess
Pages: 240
Publication Date: February 13, 2018
My Rating: Essential
Freshwater


Disclosures:
I received this ebook from NetGalley; thanks, NetGalley! This review is honest and my own.
This review contains affiliate links. Support independent booksellers!

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