Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Picture this: 

I’m driving and listening to a section of Real Life where descriptions of social anxiety pull situational tension to a stiff tautness; then it winds the tension into a tight growing ball of layered description — one speaker tearing her cuticles raw and bleeding, the other taking in elements in the room — all slowing down the stressful conversation on the page, stalling direct speech.

Finally, when the sharp angry words that break this descriptive tension are uttered  — “women are the new ni**ers and fa**ots” —  they are so vile and violent that I audible gasp at their delivery and miss my turn.  This was just one moment where the way this novel builds and releases tension literally took my breath away and disrupted my sense of direction. 

Real Life is a campus novel, drawn from Taylor’s own experiences and written from the perspective of a queer black biochemistry graduate student, Wallace. The action of the novel centers around the mundane weekend activities Wallace participates in with his “friends,” fellow graduate students — a Friday night lake hangout, Saturday potluck dinner, Sunday brunch. His friends with one exception are white; they are all nauseatingly self-absorbed but also defensively frightened about their futures in ways that make them awful retaliatory people. Among the striking things about this novel is how it departs from conventional ways of depicting microaggressions. It doesn’t so much tell us how Wallace feels or why in the didactic way we have become accustomed to in narratives that engage racism. Rather it serves up thick and layered situational descriptions, through Wallace’s eyes and actions. 

We see him being affected; we see him try cope silently; we see him injured over and over again by people whose feelings he ironically struggles to protect. They are his friends. Wallace literally eats his feelings. Through conversations the reader witnesses how painful it is for Wallace to occupy the world of academia that is arrogant about its own progressiveness, even as it does quotidian violence to underrepresented students. Did I mention these people are terrible? It is a terribleness that is all the more compounded by Wallace’s constant awareness of himself —  his body, his gender, his race — , his inability to safely articulate to “his friends” how it feels to be him among them, to properly name and call out the offenses the reader observes first hand, and defend himself when they lob microaggressive jabs. There’s one instance where when he tells a friend about his father’s death; after chastising him for not sharing this news sooner, she cries so hard about it that he has to comfort her. 

And then there’s the fraught sexual relationship with one of his colleagues that begins on the weekend of the novel’s events. I won’t spoil it by saying who, but this book shines in its descriptions of sexual tension between them, the conflicted tenderness and violence that characterizes their coupling, and the pleasurable raciness of well written sex scenes. The titillating descriptions of this relationship reminded me of Tracker and Mossi in Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf; though Taylor’s couple is more dysfunctional.  

This is one of the books I want to win. If you saw my predictions for the shortlist in the previous post, you know I am only 2/6 and thus absolute rubbish at book prize predictions. But still. The violence that Wallace has endured and even sought out himself, throughout his life just to be, is heartbreaking. That Real Life communicates this by showing rather than telling contributes to this book’s cumulative devastations. The astonishing way it produces circumstantial accounts of microagression that are neither judgmental nor preachy lays bare just how fucked up academia can be. 


Review: Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Review: Apeirogon by Colum McCann

I was certain Apeirogon was going to win The Booker Prize. It was at the top of my shortlist.

The structure of the book is fascinating: 1001 fragmented sections, modeled from One Thousand and One Nights (a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age), and built around a gathering at a monastery where two fathers — one Palestinian, one Israeli — talk to an audience about how the occupation cost both of them their young daughters. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan are actual people, and their daughters Abir (10) and Smadar (13) were actually killed by a rubber bullet and a bomb respectively. The book’s sections count up to 500 and then in the exact middle, after a section numbered 1001, it counts back down to 1 from 500. At the literal and figurative middle of the novel are Bassam and Rami’s individual testimonies about what the occupation and consequent conflict has cost them as fathers and ‘citizens.’ 

The first five hundred sections, organized around the journey to the monastery detail how the girls died. These details include how bombs are made, the history of rubber bullets and the weapons that fire them, descriptions of internment, and the transformations in the natural world as Israel develops its fortification apparatuses against Palestine. The second 500 take up their journeys home after speaking at the monastery and the sections counting back down to one detail more of Rami’s and Bassam’s friendship and their time together on an international speakers’ circuit.  In this way, Apeirogon structurally inhabits the ethos of its title and casts the complexity of this particular conflict as a polygon with an infinite number of sides. 

Lest we think though that the symmetry in the novel is about conflation and sameness between the plights of Israelis and Palestinians, its parallel treatment of Bassam and Rami instead demonstrates how a reality of institutionalized and quotidian violence contrastingly impacts each of their families. At the level of plot this looks like heads of state wanting to sit shiva with Rami and his wife Nurit when Smadar dies, and Bassam’s wife Salwa being strip searched in the airport — in front of her children — when the family returns to Palestine from England. The young children are also stripped searched after their mother. Beyond Rami and Bassam, this book isn’t so much about equity in suffering as it is about widening the scope of conflict globally and historically in a contrasting ways. 

Apeirogon takes the reader through a range of emotions: rage, grief, frustration, and surprisingly often, awe. For me, it was at the ways a much longer history of global conflict, beyond Israel and Palestine, contributed to the creation and fraught existence of occupied territories. This and its worlding of quotidian violence is what made me think it would win. But alas, it didn’t even make the shortlist.

This is not to say this is a loss for the prize. 2020’s shortlist is monumental in part because the literary field that Apeirogon exists in is far more expansive, and dare I say inclusive, than it used to be. That is, the net of great books has grown wider. We know McCan’s work in this novel is brilliant, but this year, the collective strength of the field meant that even with its impressive structure, there are six other books, just as gorgeously structured and transfixing in ways that tell us definitive things about what the novel is able to do in our present. Read Apeirogon because its weaving of fiction out of nonfiction, across centuries and continents, is cinematic and rhapsodic.


Review: The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Review: The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Actually, I finished reading The New Wilderness two weeks ago and am only just sitting down to write this review. My delay is a mixture of the semester starting, me being distracted by the work that pays bills, and not being super enthusiastic about this book overall. Now, don’t get me wrong, this one is another strong debut novel that earns its place in a field of peers. It’s complex and timely in its treatment of the alternatives to a life dependent on burning fossil fuels. 

Like Doshi’s Burnt Sugar and Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, The New Wilderness is also about a beguiling mother who makes questionable choices for her fierce and independent, though vulnerable child. It too is about navigating parenthood amidst an apocalypse of sorts. Or put another way, The New Wilderness is the book of the group that made me attentive to the ways the others are about parenting amidst apocalypse. (There are a lot of books about parenting in this longlist field). In Burnt Sugar the apocalypse is divorce; in Shuggie Bain, it’s alcoholism. In Cook’s novel it is a climate crisis that sees air quality in the city diminished by industrial pollution to levels that make children sick and die. Bea’s only choice in keeping her ailing daughter Agnes alive, is to agree — reluctantly — to leave the city with Agnes and her husband Glen as participants of a wilderness survival study. 

In this study supposedly led by Glen, the family is a part of a pilot program that tracks how humans interact with nature in a cordoned off Wilderness state, where they have strict orders from rangers to live as nomads, keep moving, and leave no trace of their presence behind in the landscape. When the novel opens three years into their lived as wilderness nomads, Agnes is better — hardy even, but Bea is burying a miscarried baby, Glen doesn’t have a firm grasp on the group’s leadership, the group has been in one spot for too long, and the study is falling apart. The group, once 20 people strong,  loses members to hypothermia, a cougar,  a climbing accident, and within the first few pages a log in a rushing river. Against the backdrop of vividly drawn wilderness scenery, the novel unfolds a suspenseful story of will they stay in the Wilderness State or will they take their chances back in the toxic city, what exactly is the deal with the hostile rangers, and is life in the wilderness the unmaking of Bea’s relationship with Agnes. 

This process of reading the Booker Longlist has taught me that I have stronger preferences than I realized though. Post apocalypse isn’t among my preferences. Nonetheless, Cook’s descriptions of breathtaking wilderness scenery are gorgeous and impressively researched to resemble the Oregon landscape the narrative is modeled from. It portrayal of the dual power of nature to sustain and to maim is well worth a trek through this novel about the not too far away future of climate crisis.


Review: Redhead by the side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Review: Redhead by the side of the Road by Anne Tyler

To be honest, I don’t know why this made the Booker long list. It’s a fine book, but unlike Reid’s Such a Fun Age that builds up to a wickedly smart commentary on racism,  Redhead By the Side of the Road does not pivot into anything provocative. In a field with as many American novels as there are this year, I just haven’t figured out yet how Tyler’s novel fits in with this cohort. It stays, like its protagonist, safe in the calm safety of routine.

Of course, who couldn’t use a quiet soother of a novel right now? We all could, right? The story centers around a fastidious geeky oddball, Micah Mortimer who is 43 years old, lives alone and rent-free in the basement apartment of a Baltimore building where he works as the super, while also moonlighting as tech-help dude for his own company called Tech Hermit. Get it? Because Micah is a bit of a hermit. The action of the novel happens around Micah. Or more accurately he walks into it, observes it, and relays it to the reader. Like when he goes to his sister’s house for his nephew’s engagement party, or he goes into customers’ homes to repair their computer equipment, or when an ex-girlfriend’s son mysteriously shows up on his doorstep. 

This quiet novel gets its momentum from unravelling the plot of why this young man, Brink Adams, has sought Micah out. It also comes from trying to figure out Micah’s deal. He’s a bit of a goofball, going about his scheduled housekeeping chores with a German accent and cooking hamburgers for him and Brink with a French one. But where he can have a witty repartee with a young woman who needs to find the password for a fancy computer inherited from her grandmother, he has zero introspection about his role in his failed relationships with women. You don’t get the sense that this novel bothers itself too much with this lack of introspection though, because this isn’t a thing it unambiguously resolves at the end. 

In such tumultuous times as ours though, it is absolutely worthwhile to read quiet and calm fiction. Micah’s dedication to his routines are comforting in a present where all our routines have been upended in traumatic ways. I like to think of this novel as a lovey in book form and as the Booker’s nod to appreciating narratives that offer comfort and ease. 

All that said, in this particular literary field that contemplates economic downturns on a national scale, the settling of the American West, and the vagaries of casual racism, this navel gazer seems out of its depth. This is not to say there isn’t room in this field for highly individual and personally centered narratives. Reid and Dashi crush it in this regard.  But also that Redhead By the Side of the Road centers on a middle aged white dude pushes my generosity on this to its limit. I mean, there are a lot of non-white, non-cishet, non-male characters who could use a soothing plot to rest in, but that’s probably not where we are in life or in fiction right now. 

Depending on what you like, Redhead By the Side of the Road may be a soother or a snoozer. I go back and forth on my thinking on this. There are more than a few heart to hearts that leave the reader feeling warm and fuzzy, and are genuinely lovely to read in their sincerity. The dialog in this novel is entertaining. But I’ve read one too many books about white dudes contemplating themselves, in ways that dont get far enough outside of themselves, to fully appreciate this one. 


Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

One might wonder why a novel that is as invested in portraying a glamorous and spirited, yet troubled woman isn’t named after her instead of her son.  “Every day, with the make up on, and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high,” is how her son Shuggie describes his mother Agnes. And sure, Shuggie Bain’s descriptions of its titular character, a refined and sensitive boy who struggles throughout with being different from the other boys, are very well done, but it is Agnes who is all things in this novel. There’s a scene where she’s on the invincible side of drunk and she throws a garbage can through a window. As the reader, you root for her refusal to be derided and discarded, even in its futility. The book’s beginning tells us things don’t end well for Agnes and so it is all the more devastating when for a small section of the novel, she is sober for a whole year. Her banter with Eugene in the Texas-inspired restaurant is brilliant because of how she molds kitschiness into delightful wit. She is cautiously happy. We already know it won’t last.  

The story is retrospective, looking back at 1980s Glasgow, in the wake of wide scale coal pit and shipyard closures. It all has the feel of a wet and dark postindustrial, post-apocalyptic hellscape. Children roam and hide from their abusive households in deserted palette yards; they salvage copper from abandoned warehouses. They are abused by predatory men. If the unemployed men form a huddled indistinguishable mass, going off to the bar along the same schedule that was once for work, the women are vividly drawn in individual ways as vivacious, proud, inventive, and intrepid in their pursuit of alcohol. There is so much pain in this novel. The slow deaths from alcoholism are intense, but also inflected with a sad humor that makes the circumstances seem all the more heartbreaking. The novel is drawn largely from moments of vulnerability and so when there are tender, happy moments, they are intense and joyful. 

The novel is called Shuggie Bain because Shuggie is the last man standing at the close of the novel in 90s Glasgow. Despite Agnes’ prolonged neglect and shortcomings throughout his childhood, Shuggie isn’t overwhelmed into escape in the same way his older siblings are, and neither does Agnes’ painfully slow suicide by alcohol completely crush the joy and music in his spirit. He inherits the best of her; this is perhaps why he survives as he does. At the end we hope he fares better than Agnes did.

It is easy for a novel as intensely focused on postindustrial economic fallout as this one is to fall into the trap of poverty porn, but it redeems itself through rich descriptions. Even as it brings the bleak and damp coldness to a landscape pocked with ruined warehouses and coal pits to such vivid life that you’ll want to put  sweater on, the novel also diligently and gorgeously seeks out every single moment of love, tenderness, and humor that its families can afford. 


Review: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Review: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

A cold and dark narrative, Burnt Sugar is about an aging mother, Tara, who is forgetting. It is told from the perspective of her daughter, Antara, who desperately needs her mother to remember how she neglected her as a child. 

The novel unfolds as Antara speaks her thoughts on the page, relating details of her childhood and the relevant details of her mother’s life, as her mother forgets them. That these two are mirrors of each other is obvious with their names, but it isn’t until Antara has a daughter of her own that the similarities between them are carefully and almost surgically drawn in unsettlingly mirrored ways. 

I’m not as crazy about Burnt Sugar as I am about Reid and Zhang, but it is undoubtedly another strong debut. In a swirl of vivid imagery — not the least are the olfactory ones that do so much heavy lifting in terms of portraying corporeality — it probes questions about maternal and filial love, invoking in the process a sense of impending doom that is cyclical and generational. 


Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Ok. So for the first third of Such a Fun Age I thought, “this is entertaining. Yass, supportive girlfriends. Great random toddler stuff, but why is this on the #BookerLonglist, and what is with Emira, an assertive, yet unambitious young Black woman character?” 

And then someone does something shady & this novel shifts from breezy to sinister & Emira’s characterization starts to make sense.  With sly brilliance, it lures the reader into thinking it’s about a Emira’s finding herself through soul searching & climbing ambition, but it withholds the narrative of a Black striver to shed light on other things. It is sharply critical of the banal racism at the core of white suburban domesticity. It’s like one minute we’re kekeing and in the next we’re in the sunken place. I thought the novel would stay in the safe zone of woke white people, but this abrupt shift is part of the novel’s cleverness about complacency and the sinister side of white wokeness. 

Emira’s positioning between Alix & Kelly — the former Emira’s boss, the latter Emira’s current boyfriend (both white) — represents far more than a trifling love triangle. It is a nuanced exploration of the age old themes of racist & sexist power imbalances in domestic work places & sexual relationships, as well as how these themes are complicated in the digital age of social media & momtrepreneurs. 

One could think of this book as the novel & female version of Get Out. I found myself yelling — out loud — at the audiobook, “run, Emira, run! Dont go in the sunken place!” Book yelling aside though, one bad actor does come off way worse than others in the novel. Given our current moment of civil unrest & protests over racist police violence though, this 2019 novel, that is set in 2015, is prophetic in its anticipation of the hot mess that is 2020: this Covid age of Ken & Karen under Trump. 

Such A Fun Age is a strong debut novel & my favorite so far because it’s unassuming but hella shy, and it left me shook.


Review: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.

Review: C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.

So, I decided just under three weeks about, when The Booker Prize Long list came out that I was going to read or listen to all thirteen novels before the short list came out. The first one I read was C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold

Set in the nineteenth century, as the American west is swarmed by gold prospectors, coal mines, and railroads to connect it all, this book tells the story about a pair of siblings who are orphaned at eleven and twelve years old, and have to make their own way in an unwelcoming landscape. 

The novel is atmospheric and foreboding. Personal treat, natural disaster, and a mind boggling array of other dangers populate its pages, leaving the reader on edge almost for its entirety. This book is as haunted by the ghosts of Lucy’s and Sam’s parents, as it is by all the animals, landscapes, and people destroyed in westward expansion. It is also arresting in the ways it reveals secrets. Just wait until you find out what Sam packs to take with them in their mother’s trunk, when they have to flee the mining town where their father dies. 

While it begins in a way that’s evocative of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it eventually leaves this predecessor aside, striking out into its own literary territory. Another striking thing in a book so rich in textured language are the things it withholds, like the word Chinese and Lucy’s wish that is cut off by the end of the novel. How Much of These Hills is Gold is surprising and devastating.


2019 by the Books : Not Work

2019 by the Books : Not Work

I read 63 books in 2019. 

29 for work

34 for not-work

Of the not-work books:

28 audiobooks. 6 in print. 

This list doesn’t include any of the theory or criticism I also read, because largely boring. 

Before you dig into this list though, if you’re interested, there’s a whole preamble to this two part project in the Part One post. You can scroll down to it, or click here. 

Books I Read Not For Work

The books I read that are not for work are either ones my husband buys me — he makes sure I always have a towering pile — or things that strike my fancy as I come across them in my various social media feeds, like the two Choi books and the Moshfegh.

I began listening to audiobooks after our son was born, because pregnancy and infant care shot my brain to shit, and listening to books helped me train it to be still and focus for extended periods again. Audiobooks are also why I can get through the volume of things I do along with all the other things that have to happen in any given day. 

These are the ones I read in print: 

36D69CEE-6D26-45CA-A52B-1E781C696A01_1_101_o30. Oyeyemi, Gingerbread (2019) – I have no idea what to think about this book and am hoping one of my grad students, Kate Harlin, writes about it in the intro to her dissertation, like I told her to, so she can in turn tell me what to think about this bewildering queer fairy tale. 

31. Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black (2018) — Stories set in the near future, many of which riff on the consumerist horrors of Black Friday. 

32. Serpell, The Old Drift (2019) – The best book I read this year, by a lot. Multi-generation and LONG AF. As in it begins in the early 1800s in West Africa and ends in the near future and took me the whole summer plus tax to read it. But it’s such a smart and ultimately brain busting narrative about Zambia primarily, and the ways technology shapes our lives. And mosquitoes. It is also about mosquitoes. 

33. James, Black Leopard Red Wolf (2019) — The first installment of the Dark Star Trilogy, wherein James demonstrates that along with everything else, he is also a genius at world making. Holy moly the world making in this novel! Because it is as vulgar and violent as everything else he writes, perhaps even more so, it is also absolutely surprising that at the core of this novel is a beautiful and devastating same-sex love story that moved me in ways nothing else in James has to date. 

34. Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) — I’m not sure I like poetic novels, but as poetic novels go, this one about the colliding devastations of a gay Vietnamese man, his mother and grandmother, amidst the violence of war and turmoil of the opioid crisis, is as beautifully written as they come. The metaphor of migrating monarch butterflies is also quite beautiful. 

35. Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (2019) — Evaristo shares this year’s Man Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood and I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other so much I can forgive that it mixes up Jamaica and St Lucia. I marked the pages. Don’t @ me. Its structure recalls James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings where a multivocal cast of 12 narrators/characters tell stories about themselves that will culminate in a single event shared by everyone. I’m not thrilled about how neatly it wraps up Penelope’s narrative, while leaving the others so frayed, like Amma, Dominique, and Shirley. It reflects a troubling unevenness around race/colorism, sexuality, and class that bugs me. But perhaps I’ll save my theories about that for a nerdier forum.

These are the ones I listened to on audiobook — All hail audiobooks!

AC058B7A-2C40-4F7F-9ED8-912723A9B245_1_101_o36. Senna, Caucasia (1998) — Coming of age story of two multiracial sisters, with a white mother and black father. 

37. Luiselli, The Lost Children Archive — This. Book. Another hitta and favorite this year and a Luiselli is now a McArthur genius fellow to boot. This book demonstrates what it might take to capture the experience of migrant children traveling alone, and what it means for us to consume these experiential narratives — whether it be through news stories or works of fiction. An assemblage of narrative, literary texts, sounds, and objects, Luiselli’s book is a deep and complex archive that purposefully disorients and is surprisingly moving. 

38. Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (2014) — It’s as it says and every man I know should read the title essay of this collection because 2019 was your last year of explaining my own shit to me. #thatisall

39. Nguyen, The Refugees (2017) — A haunting collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees who continue to live with the traumas of war and migration, some more successfully than others. 

40. Hartman, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019) — This book is masterclass in methodology and praxis and is what you get when you take the best of black feminist theory and apply it as a method for an archival history of violently undervalued and marginalized black girls and women. The power of Hartman’s book for me is in how its history of its subjects, in turn of the century New York, is unflinching in its treatment of the violence of their realities, yet does not render them as victims; it is also as careful with making visible their agency without absolving the systems that oppressed them. This one is also another super favorite from this year that changed how I think and work.  

41. Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (2017) — Building on her work on feminist killjoys, Ahmed takes on in this collection of essays, among other things, some of the material costs of living a feminist life. This is also another masterclass in methodology, because it intentionally centers scholarships and work by women and women of color in particular. 

42. Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) — Could not get down with this satire — it is satire right? — of a wealthy blond who sleeps and drugs her way out of her sadness. I hated it. Barf. 

43. Woodson, Another Brooklyn (2016)— Retrospectively, an adult protagonist, August, tells the story of growing up in Brooklyn and the friendships she once but no longer shares with three other girls. 

0E272D80-84CD-4C7E-A2BA-150394880E18_1_101_o 44. Ross, Oreo (1974) — Just in case I was tempted to think Paul Beatty and Percy Everett came out of nowhere with this black satire business — (I wasn’t, but still), writer and one of my grad students, Donald Quist, told me about Fran Ross and Oreo and behold, one of the earliest contemporary works of black satire was written by a woman. 

45. Rushdie, Quichotte (2019) — I only read this because I have a thing for the Booker shortlist. If you’ve never read Rushdie, you might enjoy this book. If you’ve read Rushdie you might find its hyper contemporary-ness a bit like an old dude working entirely too hard to remain relevant. It’s a rewriting of Don Quixote, in the shape of a road trip narrative, that is also a book within a book, within a book, and is so utterly excessive and ridiculous it is actually funny in the moments when it isn’t pandering. Do I think it’s a good book? No. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Can a book be terrible and I still enjoy it? Heck yeah. I like reality tv and that shit is straight trash. 

46. Shelley, Frankenstein (1823) — Because Beloved. That’s all you need to know about that right now, because I’m still thinking the thoughts, and I’ll let you know when I’m done. 

47. Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936) — A story about three families in the South, before, during, and after the Civil South, that centers on this oddball named William Sutpen, who among other things, wrestles naked with his slaves. Faulkner is a trip and a half, y’all, and he doesn’t leave you with anything to make your way back. 

48. Faulkner, As I lay Dying (1930) — Narrated by 15 different characters and an inspiration for James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, this crazy ass book tells the story of a family returning the body of their mother to her hometown for burial and all the hyjinx that ensues along the way — like a broken leg that gets cast in concrete — , as well as all the before things that brought the family to this moment where they are hauling a rotting corpse (with vulture accompaniment) across the rural South. And the ending. Sweet baby Jesus on a cracker, the ending.

49. Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)  — Tells the story of the Compson family that explains why one of the sons, Quentin, is as obsessed as he is with the Sutpen family in Absalom, Absalom!. Quentin is one of the narrators from over in that other novel you see. Faulkner love di mix up bad bad. 

8733AEE9-7916-42DB-AE5C-0EB9224D1913_1_101_o50. Woodson, Red at the Bone (2019) — I don’t know why I’m always surprised when a contemporary novel set in New York become 9/11 narratives, but I read more of those than I usually do this year and was caught off guard every time. 

51. Choi, Trust Exercises (2019) —Because it beat Black Leopard Red Wolf for the National Book Award. Come for David and Sarah’s angsty teenaged romance and stay for when the story becomes Karen’s. 

52. Choi, My Education — A story about professors having sex with grad students. I’m concerned I think it ended vengefully rather than sentimentally. 

Books I Read to Mourn Toni Morrison 

Finally, starting the day she died, with the first novel I could borrow from the library on audiobook, Tar Baby, I kept a four month long wake for Toni Morrison. During this time I learned that I adore a retrospectively told novel. All of Toni Morrison’s novels work in this way, where it teases you early with terrible things that happened, and then unfold the whys and hows slowly. In the case of The Bluest Eye and Beloved, the why is never really satisfying or even a successful justification, the how is just horrifying, and what remains are the terrible things suffered by the vulnerable in her novels, especially children. I only just realized this year, even though I’ve been reading Morrison for years, how much bad shit happens to children in all her novels. Faulkner and Shelley are here this year too because they’ve been helping me think through some things in Morrison. 

Among the things I want to look into more, as I continue to think about Morrison’s work and how it influences contemporary writers of color, is how it portrays war and real estate. Morrison thought a lot about real estate and property ownership.

I’ve started listening to these novels again. This time, chronologically according to publication date. I’ve already finished The Bluest Eye again and have another three weeks before Sula arrives in my library audiobook app, because apparently, I’m not the only one keeping this vigil. 

21C1F605-0E50-48C6-AF4A-BFE65104D5CB_1_101_o53. Tar Baby (1981) — The present of this novel is almost Christmas in a vacation house in the Caribbean, where the house guests include a fashion model and somebody who wasn’t actually invited. He’s hiding in the closet. As with all of Morrison’s novels, what Tar Baby is really about is all the bad shit that went down in the past that brought all the players to this present in the first place. The bad stuff is really bad in this one, y’all. 

54. God Help the Child (2015) — Morrison’s eleventh novel and the only one that I think ends happily. And that’s all I will say about that.

55. The Bluest Eye (1970) — My. Favorite.  Morrison. Hands. Down. I could read this one over and over and over again into perpetuity. I actually listened to it a second time just before the year ended. Morrison’s first novel portrays an eleven year old girl named Pecola, who becomes a dumping ground for her family’s and community’s damaging internalizations about racial beauty and inferiority. 

56. Sula (1973) — Morrison’s second novel and a devastating story about conformity, womanhood, and female friendship. I’m going to use variations of this to describe all of Morrison’s novels. Can’t say I didn’t warn you. 

57. Love (2003) — A story about the women who loved and who were forced to love a hotel owner named Bill Cosey, who is deceased at the time of the story’s telling. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! pops up in a couple of Morrison’s novels and I think this is one of them. 

58. Home (2012) — A Korean War vet travels south to rescue his sister who is in the employ of a liberal but horrifyingly cruel doctor. I still don’t know what all he did to her, but the descriptions of her recovery at the hands of a community of women is of a piece with Morrison’s vision of healing and care across her fiction. 

59. Jazz (1992) — My first invited lecture at MU was on this novel. I’d never read it before and at the time was still working solely on the Caribbean, so the invitation, though welcomed and appreciated as a brand new assistant professor of color, was nonetheless a weird one that is telling about how unis think about the scholarly purviews of their faculty of color. But you aren’t here for the nostalgia are you? Jazz is a short novel that musically and with improvisation — per its title —  tells of the circumstances that led a married man to kill his young lover at a party in 1920s Harlem. 

60. A Mercy (2007) — I’ve heard this one called Morrison’s Absalom, Absalom! in its depiction of the women who are left behind in the wake of the death of the family patriarch and pioneer in early America. 

61. Beloved (1987) — I read and listened to this one simultaneously. I started the print copy first and never went beyond where I was in print when I listened. It took me so long to read it — three months — because I knew it was all leading up to the telling of why a runaway slave woman slashed her toddler’s throat. Bad shit happens to children in all of Morrison, y’all. All of it. 

62. Song of Solomon (1977) — I wanted to like this one, but I don’t know if I do. I might after another listen. It follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead, whose entry into the world coincided with the suicide of an insurance salesman. It’s a quest for origins of sorts that has Milkman traveling south from Michigan to find out about his father’s people. 

63. Paradise (1997)— Along with Song of Solomon this one is also not my favorite; my brows are still furrowed. It begins with a woman getting shot and killed by a group of men and even after reading how and why it happened, this is all I can think on that one for now. 


So there you have it. All 63. See you again next year. Maybe. 

2019 by the Books: Work

2019 by the Books: Work

I’ll spare you the apologetic preamble about resurrecting the blog after two years, as well as the promises to do better about providing content more frequently going forward. We all know how this goes.

We’re here today because I’ve been making a long ass annotated list of all the books I read in 2019 and I needed to organize it, reflect on it a little bit, and then after I did all that work, I wanted to put it somewhere that wasn’t my documents file. 

So, here is Part One of two: the 29 books I read in 2019 for work. Why two parts? Because ain’t nobody got time, all in one go, to read an annotated list of 60 plus books some random person read last year. But anyway …

I read 63 books in 2019. 

29 for work

34 for not-work

Of the not-work books:

28 audiobooks. 6 in print. 

This list doesn’t include any of the theory or criticism I also read, because largely boring. 

My absolute favorites that I read for the first time this year are in order of appearance below:

Laymon’s Long Division (2013)

Coval, A People’s History of Chicago (2017)

Sidibe, This is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare (2017)

Sylvester, Everyone Knows You go Home (2018)

Gambito, Loves You: Poems (2019)

Serpell, The Old Drift (2019)

Luiselli, The Lost Child Archive (2019)

Hartman, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019)

You can also follow @sherireadsbooks on Instagram, where I’ll eventually post a less essay-like rundown of all 63 and what I will read going forward. 

Highlights from 2019 reading includes:
  • listening to all of Toni Morrison’s novels, as read by her, and throwing in a little Faulkner and Mary Shelley too, because I’ve been thinking about intertextuality and gothic horror. 
  • Morrison reads all her novels in a tone just above a whisper. It is intimate, as though you’re being taken into a conspiratorial confidence and hearing her read her words have been among the highlights of my year. 
  • bad things happen to children in every single Toni Morrison novel.
  • thinking through African American satire in a way that lead me to Fran Ross and (surprisingly) Mark Twain. Who knew Huck Finn popped up I’m so many places? 
  • I’m in a phase of reading that is preoccupied with death. According to one of my grad students, I’ve been there for a couple years now, based on the books I’ve been assigning for classes. Students in the freshman lecture also asked why I picked such morbid bummers. 
  • Reflecting on all the things I’ve read over the last year has helped to shape the directions my work will take in the next year.
 Books I Read for Work

I taught four courses this year: a grad seminar called “New Black Iconoclasm”; an upper division undergrad class called “Glow Up Literature”; an honors tutorial organized around the authors who would attend a local book festival; and a freshman lecture called “Coming to America”. 

New Black Iconoclasm

I’ve taught New Black Iconoclasm now three times, to help me think through what I hope will be my second, maybe third academic book. Both book and course are inspired by Marlon James first novel, John Crow’s Devil, and examine authors and texts that are puzzling in their sometimes-irreverent rejection of the beliefs, institutions, and practices normalized in black discourses. This time around, I think I had a much better sense of what I was doing. I divided the course into four areas: post-blackness, humor and satire, experimental fiction, and queer post-backness. None of these categories are mutually exclusive but serve as a way to bracket different theoretical and critical approaches that I think are relevant to how this new book — if I ever get it written — will think about iconoclasm in contemporary black fiction



1. Jones, The Known World (2003) – The saga of a black slave owners. I fux with long books, but whew, this one is long, and have one bag a people in it, and it’s cool in how it thinks about the imbrication of race, capitalism, and slavery, but did I say this was a long-ass book? 

2. James, The Book of Night Women (2008) – A neoslave narrative that’s a mash up of Mary Prince, Jane Eyre, and Wide Sargasso Sea, and where James writes all the violence, sex, and sexual violence in ways that would make its predecessors gasp and clutch their pearls. I’ve read this novel so many times and I am still shocked and even scandalized by everything Isobel. 

Humor and Satire 


3. Laymon, Long Division (2013) – A hilarious satire that will make you feel ashamed for laughing, about a time traveling preteen boy name Citoyen, (City for short) and is one of my favorite books of all time right now. Come for City’s wit. Stay for the allusions to Huck Finn.

4. Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) – An absurdist narrative that presents an alarming anti-racism strategy. Someday I’ll be able to write intelligently about how in Long Division, the scene where City watches his grandma take a bath after she and his uncle beat up a guy she has locked in the shed out back, is an affective allusion to the scene where Psycho Loco showers at Gunnar’s house after killing a bunch a people in The White Boy Shuffle, which furthermore, is somehow connected to the affective registers of sentimentality that Mark Twain was also working with in the scenes where Tom and Huck play at helping Jim escape from the shed, while ultimately terrorizing him. Today, clearly, is not that day though. 

5. Everett, Erasure (2001) – This book was the first Christmas presents Andy ever gave me. It was ten years ago and it was a way to show me how the mind-boggling things going down in James’ novels were also going down in other ones as well. In Erasure, a disaffected black male professor holds the esoteric and lathers on the popular to write a book that makes beaucoup money. This absurdist narrative includes satirical versions of Sapphire and Oprah and a novel within a novel titled My Pafology and Fuck. 

6. Johnson, Pym (2011) – A satirical fantasy inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In Pym, another disaffected black male professor (there’s a pattern, more soon) experiences a collection of apocalypses, each one more absurd than the one before. After this third rereading, I’ve decided it’s an allegory for diversity work in universities. All of it. Even the parts that come after Chris gets fired from his job as a professor.

7. Beatty’s, The Sellout (2015) – This first ever American winner of the Man Booker Prize is framed as the backstory that leads up to the contemporary Supreme Court case “Me v. the United States of America,” on the charge of slave ownership, me is a black man named Bon Bon and his slave is a guy who played Buckwheat’s younger brother on Little Rascals. Even after three readings, I still can’t quite wrap my mind around what all it is in aid of yet, but it’s mind bending and wickedly hilarious nonetheless.   

8. Senna, New People (2017) – Because women write satire too and this one, in the spirit of Fran Ross’s Oreo and haunted by Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, skewers ideas about racial authenticity, by filtering them through themes of wealth, love, and belief. 



9. Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl (2005) – Oyeyemi was working on A-Levels when she wrote this novel that asks is eight year old Jessamy Harrison haunted by her dead twin? Does she have a personality disorder? Both? Other? Oyeyemi certainly does not tell.  

10. Oyeyemi, What is Not Yours Is Not Yours (2015) – I have yet to read any of Oyeyemi’s writing without feeling paradoxically enthralled yet utterly perplexed, and this short story collection is no different. 

11. Emezi, Freshwater (2018) – A startling and contentious book about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, told from the perspective of the spirit beings occupying the protagonist’s body. Though, now that I write that I want to think some more about what it might mean to call their brother/sister spirits protagonists too. 

Queer Post-blackness

BDB738F3-B985-4B87-B5AE-1C199774DCA712. Thompson-Spires, The Heads of Colored People (2018) — A haunting collection about race, gender, love, and culture, with stories that I still can’t shake. Like a wickedly funny one told entirely through letters between two black mothers fighting, with zero chill, about their daughters, that includes a satirical take on the class quirks of the Jack and Jill social club. 

13. Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (2017) — A collection of short stories, some of them horrors, wherein the ones that have stayed with me are the ones about the husband stitch, Benson and Stabler from SVU, and a boutique where the ghosts of women are sewn into the seams of dresses. 

14. Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2019)— A story about the Ashanti-Fante wars that center on a girl sold into slavery and her defiant mistress, who is a daughter of a chief. I’m inclined to agree with one of my grad students who described it as a western. Shoutout to Elrom Nutakor for that gem. 

Glow Up Lit 

This was/is a weird reading phase that was stalled a little bit by Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I’m going to think about this while I teach Becoming this semester alongside Mary Prince, Saidiyah Hartman, Angela Davis and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. This is the anti-Glow Up Lit course, I think, largely because I want to be careful in parsing how things that entertain me, that also give financial independence to women who otherwise wouldn’t have it — independence that extends to their families, also contribute to a dangerous “you can do it too if you work hard enough ethos.” The fact is, this isn’t true, and success stories from the exceptional few who get through, work as a safety valve that also to keep the rest of us on the hamster wheel.

In any event, before reading Obama’s memoir, which I love ambivalently, I was super into how black women make it big through successful social media and cable tv self-marketing. I still am to some degree, but more critically these days than celebratory. From Tiffany “New York” Pollard’s beginnings on VH1 to Issa Rae parlaying YouTube success into 4 seasons of an HBO series, I’ve been mulling — largely from my couch — the convergence of social media and reality tv success and how it creates spaces for the entrepreneurial success of black women for years . Of course, as with everything else, access to the channels of success isn’t entirely democratic. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing proliferation of book deals for these women to write about how they found success in markets that have long discriminated against them. They’re triumphant and inspiring, yet ultimately a dangerous placebo.

Anyway, enough of the song and dance about how this is all just complicity with a discriminatory system; you’re probably still with me on here for the reads and not the soapbox.

My absolute favorite book from this self-described genre where women write about how they achieve success either professionally or self-developmentally isn’t one I read this year. If I’m honest, I think I even like it better than Becoming. It’s Retta’s So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know, because it is not self helpy, is completely funny, and so full of joy, it is exactly the pick me up you didn’t know you needed. 

But anyway, here are the ones I taught in 2019, not to gain the keys to building a successful media empire like Shondaland, but rather to consider black femaleness as a brand; to learn about how black women are writing about race, gender, and politics in the popular rather than literary sphere; and to think about what is conventional or not about this writing.

CD3EB187-C501-4C17-9288-F76B5A27D39D15. Sidibe, This is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare (2017) — Sidibe is funny and honest about her journey to success and the challenges that persist even after making it big because of her race and her dress size. This one is among my favorites. 

16. Ramsey, Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist (2018)  — I like Ramsey’s narrative about moving from clueless viral stardom to informed activism on social media. Especially useful is the glossary of terms associated with social justice discourses at the back of the book. 

17. Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl  (2015)— She’s a pioneer of YouTube to mainstream crossover stardom, but I’m still too mad at Issa Rae for the glam bomb of Insecure’s 3rd season that felt less like the shows early grittiness and more like HBO’s sexpot glossiness. This book is ok. Her tv is better. I am also going to watch Season 4 of Insecure, because FOMO is real and how can I possibly be out here in these streets blabbing like I know shit, without doing this kind of home work? 

18. Rhimes, The Year of Yes (2015) — I didn’t expect to identify with Shonda as much as I did, but I low key love this book and how it thinks about the intersections of success, beauty, race, gender, marriage, and motherhood. But much like Obama, Rhimes’ antiracism is too invested in the system to be revolutionary. 

19. Robinson, You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain (2016) — I want to like Phoebe and her work, but I may just not be the audience for her stuff, and maybe my thoughts on this book say more about me than it does about the book. Her narrative voice and the oral quality of this book, while true to its writer’s persona, is among its most annoying aspects. From the belabored obsession with Bono and U2 to her insistence on neologisms every third word, pop culture digressions every fifth, and I. Just. Can’t. I dig excess in writing, done properly. Haterade aside,  the essay where she talks about what it means to be the only person of color in an art school (Pratt Institute) senior workshop is gold, I think largely because the persona is dialed back a lot.

Honors Tutorial 

20. Bauer, American Prison: A Reporter’s Underground Journey Into the Business of Punishment (2018) — Part history of America’s prison for profit system that begins with its slavery roots and part undercover expose, reporter Shane Bauer writes about his experience going undercover as a guard in a private prison. Come for the eye opening history, stay for the ways Bauer struggles against devolving into violence and cruelty. 

21. Coval, A People’s History of Chicago (2017) — Have I ever told you that I don’t really like poetry? It’s not poetry’s fault. It’s me. I’m a bit too thick for it. I don’t understand it. Plus, I’m *still* traumatized from an instructor’s public derision at a not so spot on reading of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in undergrad. So traumatized that while I remember all my UWI tutors, for the life of me cannot remember who this person was beyond his public ridiculing of me for incorrect homework. I haven’t always been this erudite, you know. It’s been a journey. But this collection! As the title suggests it’s a history of Chicago in poems and it is one of my favorite collections. I only have like five of those when it comes to poetry. The other collections that I like are by Tanya Shirley, Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison, and Sara Gambito. Notice how I didn’t actually talk about Coval’s poems there? I cant with poems.  

22. Imarisha, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015) — If you like sci-fi, this is an eclectic collection of stories that work in multiple ways at thinking through just and equitable survival and futurity. If you don’t like sci-fi read it anyway, because this is a cool book. Among my favorites are the ones with the scary wave that kills people, the one with Sun Ra, and all the ones with badass women warriors. 

23. Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) — Sure, a book about a dead boy isn’t the best choice of first book to start reading after giving birth, but despite the misguided choice, I like this polyvocal story that takes place over the course of one night, in a graveyard, among ghosts. I’ve taught it a couple times and think the audiobook version is among the best of this genre. With a cast of so many characters voiced by the likes of Nick Offerman — who kills at reading Mark Twain’s books btw —, Carrie Brownstein, Keegan-Michael Key, Lena Dunham and Don Cheedle, the audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo is a theatrical feat of sorts.

I also moderated a session at the Unbound Book Festival and had the absolute pleasure of talking with the authors of these three books on stage in front of a whole-ass audience: 

24. Sylvester, Everyone Knows You go Home (2018) — This one is another of my absolute favorites from this year. It begins on the Day of the Dead, also the main characters’ wedding day, when the bride’s dead father appears in the newlyweds’ car between the ceremony and reception. Unlike other narratives about border crossing journeys, this one lingers longer and beautifully on the quotidian and the mundane in the lives of its characters — a mother playing with her children for example — than it does on the horrors endured during border crossings and immigration precarity. It made me rethink what I wanted to see in this kind of narrative and why. It helped me be even more deliberate about the books on these subjects that I assign to students. 

6632F239-BCE4-4390-B78E-4303C8E517C025. Gambito, Loves You: Poems (2019) — Another all time favorite collection of poems. It’s made up of poems as recipes and recipes as poems and my favorites include one about not eating Filipino cookies and an incredibly detailed recipe for French macarons at the end. I continue to think about how Gambito juxtaposes traditional Filipino recipes alongside critiques of imperialism, in order to suggest a new ethics of informed consumption that neither marginalizes nor fetishizes. I’m also totally going to make macarons from that recipe.

26. Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016) — Among the things that struck me about Orduña’s account of his own journey to naturalized American citizenship was the chapter on the uses of biometric data and its wandering quality that reminded me of Teju Cole’s Open City. When I asked about this — brownie points to me — Orduña said he was thinking about Cole and Sebald (who inspired Cole) and I was the first person to notice how he models his own movement in the book through the figure of the flaneur.

Freshman Lecture: Coming to America

Because immigration narratives are now so familiar that they are conventional — immigrant arrives, struggles, and then assimilates into happiness — in this course, I wanted to work with texts that thought counterintuitively about immigration, and this conventionality. It was tough going. You should have seen my students’ gymnastic efforts to make a happy ending out of Brother, I’m Dying 

27. Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (2007) — This one is one of the few books that I teach over and over again and it’s about how Danticat’s elderly uncle ended up dead in ICE custody after fleeing Haiti, and requesting asylum. It is a devastating narrative that makes me weep every single time I read it, but it’s a really good way to teach students about the longstanding relationship between Haiti and the US. 

28. Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) — A super short book introduced to me by one of my colleagues, in which the myth of Mictlan stows away in a narrative of a young woman crossing the border from Mexico into the US. But also, Mictlan, Mexico and the US are never mentioned in this novel. 

29. Hamid, Exit West (2017),  — A pair of almost lovers escape their war-torn country through magical doors. The author thinks he’s written a hopeful vision of our time’s refugee crisis. He’s wrong. As someone who grew up in the poorest parish of a postcolonial Caribbean country, I like indoor plumbing and electricity far too much to be about Hamid’s vision of a hopeful life. 

Next up, click here for the books I read for fun.