An Exciting Announcement

Did you ever stumble upon one of my rambling reviews of a book that came out 10 years ago and think, “Man, I wish she did this with movies, too!”

WELL GOOD NEWS, FRIENDS.

You’re looking at the new Managing Editor of the soon-to-launch film site, The Cinessential!

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A passion project between a few like-minded movie nerds, we’ll be dissecting one of the world’s great films each week. You’ll get a series of essays exploring each flick-of-the-week’s themes, histories, and impact on pop culture. Oh, and I’m really excited about it.

Don’t worry, though—I don’t plan to stop posting here!

Book reviews should still be appearing more or less monthly, but I might start directing you to the new site from time to time as well.

As soon as the site’s live, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll still be here reading and writing for you and no one at all.

-S

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Wild

mourik-web1I’ve loved Cheryl Strayed since before I knew who she was. While her work moved me profoundly, the name “Cheryl Strayed” meant nothing to me. To me (and countless others), she was simply “Sugar.”

“Dear Sugar” to be precise.

The now famous letter “The Truth That Lives There” was one of the very first I’d read, and I remember the way it shook me to my core. A collection of readers all looking for a way out, wondering if they deserved one, if they were right to want one, and instead of judgment or rationalizations, Sugar boldly says,

“Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.” (Emphasis mine.)

In one letter I understood that readers spilled the darkest parts of their hearts to Sugar because Sugar would do the same. She’d talk about her past, her divorce, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s death and the rocky road it took to get her here, to you. Her words were mesmerizing. Her responses were always more than just advice; they felt like poetry. So who was this mysterious woman who could tell strangers baring their souls to her what they needed to hear all while baring her own as well?

Finally, in 2012 she revealed herself to us and the world as Cheryl Strayed.
In 2012 she released Wild.

I read Wild, Strayed’s debut memoir, in about three days, though “read” is putting it mildly. I devoured it.

Wild is the story of Strayed’s experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail—a 2,659-mile hike that winds its way from Mexico, through the Colorado Desert, over the Sierra Nevadas, all the way to Canada. Her decision to hike it is made almost on a whim. She sees a travel book in the grocery store and can’t stop thinking about it until before she has time to second-guess herself, she’s buying gear at REI and selling off her belongings in preparation for three solid months in the wilderness. Too little time to hike the whole distance, but enough to still be a mind-bending feat.

The real “why” behind it all is the most interesting part. Having just entered a particularly dark period of her life, Strayed is looking for answers anywhere she can find time. Instead of being a recent college grad with the world at her feet, she’s a young college dropout whose marriage has disintegrated, whose mother is dead from a sudden and aggressive cancer diagnosis, and whose self-destructive behavior has her spiraling downward fast.

In short? She’s lost and it’s clear that it’s the trail she hopes can ground her, whether she realized it at the time or not.

And so her adventure begins. As she takes one heavy step after another, stumbles on one obstacle after another, falters at one crossroad after another, Strayed uses her trademark style to put us there right alongside her. Her writing is effusive and lyrical and it never lets up, which made every moment of her journey a joy to read.

Her words wormed their way into my heart in just the same way that her responses would when she was Sugar. I felt like I was growing with her. It felt like we were in it together.

“Until now, I hadn’t even truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.”

It’s hard to express just how much I loved this book. Watching Strayed go from this terrified and confused woman to someone braver and stronger and more confident and accepting of herself than she ever thought possible resonated with me profoundly. This book made me want to live. It made me proud of my own journeys. It made me feel a kinship with the author. It made me want to get out into the wild and breathe the same air she did.

I would read it again and again. Maybe one day I’ll even read it on the PCT. When I was done, anything seemed possible.

The Buried Giant

buried giantFor fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant was two distinct things at once: the author’s first novel in a decade and a sharp departure from the rest of his oeuvre. For me, though, it’s all I know. Despite the massive success of both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, it was The Buried Giant that served as my introduction.

Over the course of the novel, we follow an elderly couple (Axl and Beatrice) as they search for their son while grappling with a mysterious and pervasive amnesia that they refer to only as “the mist.” The mist blankets the post-Arthurian world that they inhabit, preventing them not only from remembering where their son has gone or why he’s disappeared, but even things that only happened a few weeks ago. All of it hangs in an impenetrable fog.

We watch their relationship shift as they fight to remember their past, while at the same time facing a question with the power to change everything: will they still be the same people—and more importantly, will they still love each other—when they remember their history?  

I can’t say if the sparse, purposefully flat writing I encountered shares any similarities with Ishiguro’s previous work. I can say, however, that my first thoughts were of Gawain and the Green Knight, courtly love, and Arthurian folklore. If his goal was to capture the feeling of those 14th-century tales, then job well done (though let’s set aside the fact that I generally don’t enjoy writing like that for now).

There was something about the world created in this book that I absolutely loved. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table never felt more real or more unique to me than in this story. The mythical king’s history seemed less like fairy tale and more like fact.

And yet it pains me to admit that overall, The Buried Giant was a bit of a slog.

Despite being a slim 317 pages, it took me a solid month to get through it. Every time I picked it up, I’d find myself intrigued by the world building, but it was always, always a struggle to pick it up in the first place.

By the end, I was desperate for a book club to discuss it with. I couldn’t help but feel that whatever there was to unpack was whizzing by over my head.

As I think about the book now, despite having only read it little more than a month and a half ago, I’m beginning to wonder if the same mist plagues me. I remember so very little about the book. The overall gist, sure, but what I was supposed to get out of it? How it made me feel? What I honestly liked, what I didn’t?

None of that has stuck. I forgot it as soon as I closed the cover.
I’d definitely read more of Ishiguro in the future, but The Buried Giant isn’t something I’d come back to.

If Beale Street Could Talk

51iwxnuoqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Is there anything that makes a book heavier than the ideas, emotions, and notions we attach to them before we’ve even cracked the spine? Once again, my overly enthusiastic attitude has led me to a sharper pang of disappointment with James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

In it, Tish (inexplicably short for Clementine) and Fonny (really Alonzo) are young, black, and deeply in love in 1970s-era New York. But Tish and Fonny are also in deep, deep trouble. Fonny’s been accused of rape and thrown in jail with his chances of getting out growing slimmer by the hour. Their wedding dreams dashed, Tish is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. Now as Fonny faces a lifetime away from the love of his life,  Tish faces raising a baby alone.

Learning about Tish and Fonny’s New York is to learn about a New York that gets too often forgotten. A crueler New York. So forget the Hotel Chelsea and Patti Smith and forget Manhattan and forget Love Story. That’s not the New York you’ll find here.

Tish’s hatred of the city comes from a different place entirely:

“I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

As we watch the city and its laws pummel the young lovers, it’s hard to see it any other way. It’s not the 1940s, it’s the 70s and things are supposed to be better, but Baldwin wants us to see just how slow the change has come.

It was a refreshing (and sorely needed) perspective to get—a kind of necessary slap in the face.

But the novel isn’t some dour tome full of nothing but the most brutal and unflinching realities. Tish and Fonny’s love is intoxicating. Baldwin captures the feeling of young love completely. There are passages you can’t help but smile at as you read. It’s hard (if not impossible) not to be invested in their futures. You want them to be together; you want them to succeed, to overcome, to triumph.

Unfortunately, every now and then I’d stumble upon a note of sexism in a passage that would give me pause. So much so, that I had to do a little digging once I was done to see if I was alone in my concern (I wasn’t).

But each time this happened, I was surprised for some reason. I’d find myself thinking, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Who invited you?”

As the story progresses, it soon becomes abundantly clear who the real center of the story is. Stacia L. Brown said it best in her piece for Gawker, “It’s clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin’s main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny.”

And she does, over and over and over again. All while the novel draws your attention to Fonny—will he be released? Can the charges be dropped? Will he see his baby born?

These questions just seem to matter more to Baldwin than what Tish will do, how she’ll survive, how she feels. They matter more than whether Tish can be anything except a mother and a lover.

She’s characterized as naive, and in desperate need of Fonny’s chauvanistic protection. It couldn’t help but leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

“Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.”

To put it ineloquently: gross.

It was hard not to be disappointed. It didn’t stop my enjoyment, though. Baldwin was using this highly specific scenario to explore so much about family, African-American families in particular. To show a loving, caring relationship. The strength of the black community. To applaud it in light of white society’s attempts to snuff them out.

I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed Beale Street more without the weight of my own expectations? I’m not sure how to get them under control, to be honest. Excitement over a book is so exhilarating and lovely. It’s just difficult when you’re eventually confronted with something that’s not in any way explicitly bad—just disappointing.

That said, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Baldwin, but I’ll know to temper my expectations. Not because Baldwin’s not capable of exceeding them, but because I’ll take a happy surprise over frustration any day.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

My baby loves me, I’m so angry
Anger makes me a modern girl
Took my money, I couldn’t buy nothin’
I’m sick of this brave new world

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Corin, Carrie, & Janet, Lollapalooza 2006, the first time I saw them live

I was 18 and driving back to the ‘burbs when I first pressed play on a Sleater-Kinney album. It was 2005 and The Woods had just been released. I remember the screech and howl of the first track “The Fox” and how it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I’d never listened to music like this, I didn’t know how to approach it. I knew I felt something, but I didn’t know if I liked it. I skipped ahead and I heard “Modern Girl” and that was that. I was hooked.

Sleater-Kinney stayed with me through college.
Sleater-Kinney got me through my anger.
Sleater-Kinney was there when I became the only version of me that actually liked herself.

When they reunited with a surprise album last year, I bought tickets to their Chicago show the same minute they went on sale. It was one of the best concerts of my entire life. Their presence lit the stage on fire.

25065629All of this goes to say that I am more or less the ideal audience for Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

I’ve never read a celebrity memoir (it’s been almost five years and I still haven’t finished Bossypants). I felt it smart to temper my expectations, as impossible as that seemed to be. But from the opening sentence, Brownstein smashes your expectations:

“I only wanted one thing on tour: to slam my hand in a door and break my fingers.”

By the end of the prologue, you already know what’s coming:

“Sleater-Kinney was my family, the longest relationship I had ever been in; it held my secrets, my bones, it was in my veins . . . And I was about to destroy Sleater-Kinney.”

Just like “Modern Girl,” by the time I read this far, that was that.
Hooked.

If you only know Brownstein from her work on Portlandia, I’m not sure I think this book is for you. Its slim 241 pages take you from her youth in the suburbs of Seattle to the college music scene in Olympia and through the rise, fall, and resurgence of Sleater-Kinney with nary a mention of Fred Armisen in sight.

And as much as this is Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, it’s also the story of the band and the music. I would never tell someone not to read it. I think I’m just having a hard time imagining how reading a detailed description the way “Dig Me Out” was written could mean very much without knowing what it sounds like. Though that might just be the fangirl in me talking.

Reading Hunger made me feel closer to an artist responsible for creating some of the most important music of my life. When she describes growing up, it was so easy to see myself in her:

“I resented parts of myself that were late to adopt coolness, late to learn—I wanted to have always possessed a savviness and sophistication, even though I clearly had neither.”

The desire to belong and to create and the frustration of trying to craft an image of yourself that actually feels like you all resonated deeply with me. The inside look at the Riot Grrl scene (a scene I always believed would have suited me wonderfully) was a peek behind the curtain that left me feeling thankful for and reinvigorated by all these amazing, smart, angry women.

I could keep going on, but I think it’s pretty clear that Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was a slam dunk for me. It’s a must-read for every Sleater-Kinney fan and wannabe Riot Grrl. I don’t know if it’ll resonate anywhere near as strongly for those new to SK, casual fans of Portlandia, or general music-memoir readers, but thanks to Brownstein’s clear, thoughtful writing, I think it’ll still be worth their while.

Fates and Furies

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is ostensibly a story about marriage. It spans more than 20 years, taking us through its hills, valleys, and plateaus, making sure we see everything through both sets of eyes. But it’s also a bizarre kind of fairy tale with mermaids, knights, and passion plus a delicate dusting of the Southern Gothic—just don’t expect some kind of typical “happily ever after.” There’s far more to the story than that.

Lotto (somehow short for Lancelot) and Mathilde meet at the end of college in the late 1980s or early ’90s and marry almost immediately. Lotto shines, living life as the sun around which everyone he meets can’t help but orbit. Mathilde, dark and beautiful and mysterious, shines specially for Lotto—“He loved her first for the stun of her.”

Groff’s use of language performs a delicate dance over the course of the book’s nearly 400 pages. She’s poetic and playful, often twirling toward the edge of overwrought without ever really falling over. She has a wonderful knack for creating vibrant, visceral images, several of which I expect might stay with me for quite a while.

I braced myself going into this book. I was ready for the themes, the topic, the deep exploration of a relationship, of love to strike a chord and send me reeling.

I’m less than seven months away from my own wedding. From marriage. I’ve always been an emotional reader and it helps to be a little prepared when touching on themes I might heavily relate to. I was sure that something in Fates and Furies would set me off, but nothing ever did.

It had sadness, to be sure. It had joy. But I never really related to it in that way. Nor did I need to to enjoy it, but I was surprised none the less. It was sort of an odd expectation to have on my part, but I couldn’t help it.

I did enjoy it overall. But something held it back from greatness for me. To start, I think the first half (“Fates”) is undeniably stronger than the second. And second, I thought that Groff left some strange loose threads. The plot moved forward and I could see that she was setting events in motion in order to explain the relationships between characters or their motives, but when all was said and done I’d look at what I’d read and think, “Well… okay but that didn’t actually explain anything. I still have no idea why these people relate to each other this way or why this happened that way.”

And that was frustrating not because I needed to have everything explained away, but because I could see Groff was trying to explain something to me, but was failing. I wasn’t getting out of it whatever it was she wanted me to. I was still lost.

Not constantly, but most instances of such confusion came in the second half of the book as things were winding down and working towards a conclusion. That put this extra weight on everything—the first half had me primed to learn more, to have the gaps in my knowledge filled in. The second half couldn’t deliver all the way. I also have to admit that some of what it did deliver was extremely unsatisfying. I felt like I deserved better and so did the characters.

Ultimately, I had a good time with Fates and Furies. It was even hard to put down at times. But overall, it only ever made it to “pretty good” for me. I was hoping for a standout, but this just wasn’t it.

The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

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If Mark Z. Danielewski is known for one thing and one thing only, it’s that he isn’t afraid to put his readers to work. With House of Leaves, my mind reeled as I held the book sideways and upside down and flipped back and forth from footnote to footnote. And if that book taught me anything about Danielewski’s writing, it’s that the payoff will be worth it.

And so I tore into The Familiar, Vol. 1: One Rainy Day in May—the first of a proposed 27-volume series—like a child on Christmas morning, devouring almost 900 pages in just a couple of weeks. Granted, it’s the fastest 880 pages you’ve ever read thanks to Danielewski’s love of inventive page layouts, spacing, and fonts. But trust me when I say that this book puts you to work.

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An example of a page layout playing with the recurring imagery of the rain

Inside its pages you’ll find the story of nine intersecting lives that span generations and languages and take place around the world from LA’s Echo Park to a high-rise in Singapore. At its heart, though, is the story of a little girl named Xanther who heads out one rainy May morning to get a dog. What a terrifyingly simple premise to kick off the thousands of pages to come.

And One Rainy Day in May—like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses before it—covers just that: a single rainy day in May.

Aside from Xanther, we hear the voices of jingjing, a drug addict in Singapore; Luther, an LA gangbanger; Anwar and Astair, Xanther’s parents; Cas, a computer scientist in Texas; and Isandòrno, whose chapters I couldn’t understand at all (Wikipedia tells me he’s an existentialist in Mexico, which I personally think is about as good an explanation as none at all).

It’s unfair to expect the connections between these characters to be obvious this early on—after all, there are 26 volumes to go with this tale. So I did my best to cut the book some slack there. Sometimes I could see the threads, however thin, that were tying things together, but when I couldn’t I resolved not to focus on it and to simply plow forward.

That seemed to be my motto during this book: forward, ever forward. At first, I’d get hung up on the details, pushing myself to make sense of them and often trying in vain to understand whatever I felt I was missing. But then I remembered that I wasn’t reading this to punish myself.

No one was going to quiz me at the end of the day. No one would mock me for my imperfect understanding. No one would hate me for finding it difficult or, dare I say, unenjoyable at times.

So I moved forward.

I picked up whatever crumbs I could along the way and arrived at the end with a sense of accomplishment.

Ultimately—and I’m hesitant to admit it—I think I’m a bit disappointed with Vol. 1. I had such high hopes, but I found so much of this volume inscrutable. The first time I met jingjing, I had to scour the internet for some kind of summary because I just couldn’t make sense of what was happening or even who was talking. An excerpt will help illuminate my struggles:

“they saysay she tutor demons, lah. saysay mice dance to her finger snap and a pelesit :.Animistic spirit frequently aligned with Polong.: does her bidding. saysay sa-rukup rang bumi :. World Coverer .: fly to her window and call her mother. they saysay a lot.”

In rereading a portion of that chapter just now, I’m delighted to discover that I found it infinitely easier to parse out. But I’m not here to theorize on the potential benefits of rereading. I’m here to talk simply about what I’ve read.

And I just couldn’t wrap my head around this book enough to see the meaningful connections I know Danielewski wanted me to find. A second pass appears to be mandatory for me if I’m to truly get everything I can out of this and I’m unsure how I feel about that.

I don’t mind putting the work into reading a book that I feel deserves it, but I’ve never encountered one that seemed to ask quite so much of me. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to consider that a fault or a flaw.

Still, I am far from all sour grapes and disappointment. On the contrary, I couldn’t be looking forward to reading Volume 2 more. I know I’ve only just entered a labyrinth and that it’s here that it feels the most daunting. But I’m willing to let Danielewski lead me deeper because right now? I still trust that what I’ll find at the end will be well worth it.

The Sympathizer

nguyen-sympathizer-jacket-artViet Thanh Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer was one of the most surprising books I read last year. It’s told from the perspective of a Vietnamese communist sympathizer—a spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army. The story begins with what should have been an ending: the fall of Saigon. The nameless spy follows his general to Los Angeles, all the while reporting back to the Viet Cong and struggling with his own feelings of guilt, loss, and loneliness.

Everything we see, we see through his eyes and his alone. Everything we know is only what he tells us. And there’s a thought rests at the back of your mind: how can we trust anything from the mouth of a double agent? This is his confession, but who is he confessing to and how can we know if he’s telling them the truth?

Reading The Sympathizer was a true roller coaster ride. From the start, I found the style of writing, and thus the narrator’s voice, somewhat cold. Distancing. I was enraptured with the descriptions of the last days of Saigon, then as the dust settled and I heard more from the narrator, I found myself frustrated with him. I found him unlikeable and irritating.

At times selfish and even sexist, I couldn’t help but pull away from him. His Communist leanings I could understand, his spying I could understand, instead it was his oftentimes shitty behavior that grated on me. But just when I thought I knew what I was in for, I would suddenly find myself sympathizing with him, rooting for him and against some other oppressive force.

For 367 pages, I teetered back and forth on this emotional seesaw. I wish I could say the ride was a joy, but it was so often frustrating for me. It was so difficult to be engrossed, and even harder to want to pick it up again every time I set it down. I was thankful with every page turned because I knew I was one step closer to the end.

I wanted off this ride.

The thing carrying me through as I read this book was the sense that I was getting something out of it. I was learning something, and not just anything, but something I needed to know. The Vietnam War is another area in our history where my knowledge is woefully lacking. (I’m pretty sure watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket doesn’t exactly count as an in-depth study.) It’s fiction to be sure, but there was something that felt sort of . . . important about reeducated myself through the perspective of the Vietnamese.

I might have hated the way it felt to have my emotions yanked back and forth, but there was never a doubt in my mind that it was being done with purpose. Nguyen hammers it home just how hard it is to understand where you loyalty truly lies as he toys with your own.

I think it was only in learning about the war this way that I could have stumbled upon the single, obvious truth that was so perfect, I was shocked at not having encountered it sooner.

Simply, that history is written by the victor . . . except when it comes to Vietnam.

Vietnam’s history was written by the losers.
It was written by us.

It’s in contemplating Hollywood that our narrator realizes,

“I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over.”

This was of course, one of those moments where I was on the uptick of my teeter-totter. Disgusted with Hollywood and even with myself for letting Hollywood educate me on this war, I was rooting for our narrator. “Fuck Hollywood,” I heard myself say—turning on one of my own passions without even realizing it.

I of course came crashing down again with his next repulsive move.

Finally—thankfully—I reached the conclusion, the culmination of all my emotional work, and I could hardly believe what I found. It was almost like a different book entirely.

The last few chapters were such a whirlwind of emotion for me. I was compelled and repulsed and overwhelmed all at once.

My god. The ending of this book pushed it from three stars to four. It made the nightmarish roller coaster and all the dragging of my feet to finish this thing worth it. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen proves he’s one of those voices truly worth hearing—just don’t expect him to do the work for you.

2015: Year in Review

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My last post detailed the success of my project, but I wanted to give an overview of the works themselves. It’s hard to admit that I once again failed in my attempt to post reviews of everything. I know I was wavering in my commitment to this blog sometimes. It was never that I wanted to abandon it, but more that I had a difficult time getting myself to sit down and write.

But I was always happy to be reading.

Here’s the full breakdown (comics included) of everything I read in 2015:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons
  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  3. Ultimates 2: Volume 2 Grand Theft America by Mark Millar
  4. Sula by Toni Morrison
  5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
  7. Secret Avengers Volume 1: Let’s Have a Problem by Ales Kot
  8. Secret Avengers Volume 2: The Labyrinth by Ales Kot
  9. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Wicked + the Divine Volume 1: Faust Act by Kieron Gillan
  11. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
  12. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  14. Secret Avengers Volume 3: God Level by Ales Kot
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  16. The Round House by Louise Erdich
  17. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  20. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. Native Son by Richard Wright
  23. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  24. Sexcastle by Kyle Starks
  25. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (spillover into 2016)

Most thought-provoking: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Most disappointing: The Intuitionist
Funniest: The First Bad Man
Most surprising favorite: Native Son
Least favorite: The Wandering Falcon
Most over hyped: Station Eleven

All-Time #1 Favorite: Everything I Never Told You

Overall, it was a very good year for me. Though there were a handful of titles I didn’t especially enjoy and only one that I actively disliked, there weren’t any that I found truly, objectively awful—a marked improvement considering I had to contend with both The Good Girl and Hell House last year.

As for next year? I plan to continue making a serious effort to read more POC, though with less stringent rules. (No more hardcore tracking of percentages!)IMG_4111 (2)

The book I’m looking forward to the most is certainly Mark Danielewski’s 
The Familiar
. It’s currently sitting next to me at the moment, just waiting begging me to finish The Sympathizer or cast it aside and start reading it immediately.

There are a handful of book clubs I have my eye on (including a tiny one of my own), a host of new titles that I missed in 2015, and—thanks to Christmas—some fantastic comics with my name on them.

I’m feeling reinvigorated. I feel more ready to tackle this blog with the dedication it deserves, and I’m looking forward to it all.

I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy reading!

-S

2015: The Experiment

2015 books collage

I began 2015 with a singular goal in mind: I wanted 75% of the books I read to be written by people of color. When I realized that the only book I read in 2014 written by someone who wasn’t white was The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I saw that something was terribly amiss. One out of 19 books—that’s a measly 5%. I went out of my way this year to do better. A lot better.

So, you might be wondering, where do I stand now?

[Drumroll, please!]

With 14 out the 19 books I read this year written by people of color, I am achingly close to my goal, but no dice. I fell just shy of the mark at 74%.

74%! I can’t believe how close I came. I probably wouldn’t be so frustrated if I didn’t know for a fact that it would have been 79% if I hadn’t been seduced by the lure of a book club that I didn’t even end up attending. Instead of reading the next diverse title on my list, I skipped it to read Station Eleven (which I hated, by the way) under the impression that I could do so and still reach my goal. Gah. So irritating! But oh well. I still came damn close.

I should also add that I’ve continued my practice of not including graphic novels or comics in my final count. I didn’t count them last year as part of the total number of books I read, and continued that this year. Mostly because I can read one in about an hour so it feels like cheating somehow?

I admit that’s an arbitrary distinction. I think I’ll have to look into changing that for 2016, but for now, I haven’t been counting them in my tally.

Numbers aside, the real question at the heart of this experiment is… did it work? Did I notice a difference in reading mostly people of color for an entire year? Do I feel different for having done so?

In this I am happy to report only complete, unabashed success. It changed everything. Americanah opened my eyes in ways no book ever had. Everything I Never Told You literally strengthened a friendship. The Sympathizer and The Wandering Falcon highlighted my own ignorance about two completely different parts of the world.

Never has reading left me feeling so incredibly, incredibly alive.

And I don’t mean to say that as a way to disparage any of the amazing books I’ve read in the past. Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy will always hold a special place in my heart. They’re brilliant. There’s no questioning that for me. It’s just that it’s impossible to see the ways in which your picture of the world is incomplete until you start hearing the voices that had been silent to you.

This little project has completely changed the way I intend to read for the rest of my life. I realized that I just can’t afford not to consciously seek those voices out. I can’t afford not to think about it.

I really encourage you to attempt this project in your own life. If 75% seems daunting (maybe you only read five books year), then try seeking out just one or two. When you add a book to your to-read pile, take the extra second to see if the author is white. If they are? Then go out of your way to add a book by someone who’s not.

And if you ask me why? Then I answer, to add new sounds to the symphony of your literary canon. To hear the full orchestra of the world.

And because it’s worth it.

Trust me.