#BBAW: Book Recommendations

Today is the hardest topic of all the topics for Book Blogger Appreciation Week (hosted, again, by me and Ana and Andi and Heather, over at the Estella Society); or I should say rather, the very easiest. To wit:

Day 3 What have you read and loved because of a fellow blogger?

What haven’t I read and loved because of a fellow blogger? Before blogging, my reading life was on its way to becoming a tragic wasteland. I had exhausted the recommendations of my friends and relations and was reduced to — this is not a joke — examining college syllabi for various English classes, under the assumption that they would contain recommendations for New Classics.

Since then, all my newly acquired favorite authors have been by way of fellow book bloggers, and I am basically dead from gratitude. Perhaps I would one day have discovered Helen Oyeyemi, because she wins the prizes and is a literary darling (in a minor way); but who can say if ever I would have discovered some of the, for instance, YA authors that I now cherish? Maggie Stiefvater, Kekla Magoon, Patrick Ness? Would I only have discovered them when movie adaptations of their books were made?

Not to mention (but oh, I shall mention it) the curating of comic books done for me by my fellow book bloggers! Where would I have learned which Marvel comics to read? Would Paper Girls be on my TBR list now? (Doubtful.) Would I know about the Tamakis? Princeless? WOULD I?

Stop by the Estella Society to see what else people have been reading because of other book bloggers! And as usual, I love you all. Kisses!

 

It’s the End of 2015 (as we know it)

So here we are at the end of 2015. I had this idea that maybe in 2016 I’ll get really good about writing down all the super-excellent things that happen to me that year, and that way I won’t be struggling to think of them when the end of the year rolls around.

My best thing of 2015 (brace yourself for a shock) was the musical Hamilton. Not a full week after I whined to my friends that I feared there would never be another musical that made me feel the way Wicked and Rent made me feel, and maybe my feelings about those musicals (and the others I love) were just a function of youthful emoness, lo there came Hamilton into my life. If you haven’t listened to the cast recording yet, find a way to do it. Then come back and tell me how much you loved it. Please and thank you.

In books, I’ve picked out a few faves for the year. Some of these I’ve talked about ad nauseam already, so bear with me.

Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson, was the first webcomic I read for my “Read More Webcomics” resolution of 2015 (which went brilliantly for me, if you are wondering). Also probably my most-recommended book of 2015.

How It Went Down, by Kekla Magoon, has been inexplicably overlooked, and I cannot understand why. In addition to being painfully topical, it’s also a beautifully written, thoughtful look at some of the issues that arise when a black child is suddenly dead and nobody can understand why. I can’t say enough about this book and this author. Check it out.

And now for a total change of pace, I loved Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, when I didn’t remotely expect to. It’s witty and tender, and full of characters you just want to see succeed.

Congo, by David van Reybrouck, laid out the history of a huge, messy country in a way that was perpetually readable and relied as much as possible on the testimony and memories of the Congolese people themselves. If historians like David van Reybrouck could write histories of all the African nations, I’d be done with my Africa reading project in just a few years.

Touch, by Claire North, kept me up late trying to guess what was going to happen next. At least one book a year reminds me why I love reading so much, and Touch was that book for me this year.

Predictably, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, has arrived on my best-of this year. I didn’t review it in this space because it was hard to feel that I had anything to add about this book, after so many glowing reviews have emerged of it. I’ve admired Coates’s writing for years for its measured insights and unwillingness to rely on easy answers. Between the World and Me is a tragic, beautiful, necessary book.

The Scorpion Rules, by Erin Bow, did absolutely none of the things I expected it to do. It was a perpetual surprise, and it’s made me excited to see what Erin Bow will do next with this world.

As with the Coates book, I don’t feel I have anything super valuable to add about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which has basked in plenty of accolades already and doesn’t need my additional input. However, I will say that I had no expectation of liking this book and only read it so I could get to Bring Up the Bodies, which I also didn’t especially expect to like. But there you go. Life is full of surprises.

Finally, a shout-out to 1796 Broadway, a monster of an epistolary fanfic which, like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in its time, kept me up late on several occasions where I kept saying “oh I’ll just do one more and then I’ll go to bed.” Ha, ha, Jenny. You know that’s not what’s really going to happen.

In statistics, female authors were far more heavily represented in my reading than male, and I continue to be fine with that.

I read 18% of my books because I was familiar with the authors from previous books I’d read of theirs, while another 45% of my book recommendations came from you lovely people! If that number seems low, please note that many of the books in the “author fondness” category became favorites of mine due to your unfailing advocacy. So actually I got closer to 53% of my books from bloggers. Another 15% I picked up based on professional reviews; 6% were books I spotted in publishers’ catalogs or that publishers pitched to me; and a small sliver, 3%, were books I picked up randomly at the library.

84% of everything I read came from the library. Lovely, lovely library, please never change. I cherish you so much. I borrowed two books from friends, owned eight, read seven online (from apps like Marvel Now and Comixology), and read fifteen in ARC format (either ebooks or physical). About a fourth (27%) of my reads were ebooks, and the rest were physical books. That is how I roll when subways and purse heavinesses are not a consideration.

I read less SFF this year than I think is typical for me, only 26%, whereas fiction-not-otherwise-classified accounted for 30% of my reading. Actually, that seems okay. Maybe I’d like to read slightly more SFF than ungenre fiction, but those percentages seem fine. 10% of my reading was comics, which I’d like to see go up a bit in the new year, and 14% was nonfiction, which rocks. I read more books in translation this year, seventeen, than I’ve probably ever read in a year before.

My goal for 2015 was to read no more than 65% white authors, and no more than 60% American authors. These stats are probably a little off, because I couldn’t always find interviews where the author self-identifies as one ethnicity or nationality over another, but anyway, employing US census categories, I ended up with 44% authors of color, and 50% authors hailing from countries other than America. I read books by authors from 38 different countries, and it was glorious.

How was your reading year? Did you meet your goals? Did you read anything of exceptional wonderfulness?

In which I am too pensive to write a real review of Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down

I had to read How It Went Down in sections. It’s about a black teenager who is shot by a white man, and all the different characters — the witnesses, the families, friends — tell their perspectives of what happened on the day of Tariq’s death and in the aftermath of it. If any other author in the world had written this book, I wouldn’t have read it. But I trust Kekla Magoon from her wonderful, wrenching The Rock and the River, which is about teenage brothers and their participation (or lack of it) in the Black Panther Party.

I read the first third in December, and then the grand jury decision came down in Ferguson, and then the one for Eric Garner, and I didn’t want to read the fictional sad version of the real-life sad events, so I took a break. Then I picked it up and read the remaining two-thirds in one evening.

Magoon does something that I think is tremendously clever, which is that she makes her characters want the same things her readers want, i.e., Meaning. Everyone in this book wants to know why Tariq died, and the answer can’t be — because it would be unbearable — that there was no reason.

The day after I finished How It Went Down, I learned that a college friend of mine died last year. We were flatmates the year I lived in England. We didn’t stay in touch after I left. I hadn’t even known he was ill. When I thought of him, I imagined he was still playing drums and making dead-baby jokes, like he did when we were twenty and stupid. Forever probably, I thought. Except I was wrong about that. He was having cancer (and presumably also playing drums and making dead-baby jokes), and in October, he died, and I didn’t know.

These are some things about him: He made jokes always, at everyone’s expense, but if one of them hurt your feelings, he was swiftly and utterly sorry and would buy you a box of biscuits next time he went to Tesco, to make up for it. When I was too tipsy to do my own head counts, he was the one I asked “Where’s Ed?” and “Where’s Flick?” and he always knew where they were, which I realize now was because he was keeping track of everyone. He played drums and bought rounds of drinks when it wasn’t his turn to buy them. He made sad stories impossibly funny. It is pointless and unfair for him to be dead.

When I heard this news, I thought: Spooky. I had just finished reading that book about death and what it means. I had just been talking to Alice about how nobody in my life had died for a while. That same day.

You will most likely notice that neither of those two things is, in fact, spooky. They would barely be spooky even if you accepted their implicit premise that my college friend was a supporting character in my life, rather than the lead character in his own. But this is how people behave, when something inexplicable has happened. We cluster together everything that has happened surrounding the inexplicable thing, and we try to find the magical ways that it actually isn’t inexplicable at all. Actually it makes a weird sort of sense. Actually it makes so much sense that you should have known it was coming, because the universe was telegraphing it to you all along, if you had just bothered to listen.

Death isn’t actually like that. Stories are like that. If a character mentions a knife in a red leather sheath, you expect that knife to come around again and be significant. Every part of the story is important. Every part of the story has Meaning. The characters in How It Went Down expect that they will, at some point, find the answers that will explain Tariq’s death; we readers know that they are missing crucial puzzle pieces. But Magoon doesn’t end her book with any grand revelations or moral lessons. There is no final missing piece that can explain everything to the characters, or to the reader. Tariq’s death doesn’t matter differently if he was in a story of racism or a story of gang violence or a story of stupid misunderstandings. The fundamental thing is the tragedy that a person is gone who was loved. Sometimes that’s all there is.

Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

If I may borrow a phrase from Renay, this book punched me in the soul. I have a thing where anything about slavery and civil rights struggles and that business immediately makes my heart hurt and then when the inevitable family member dies or gets sold or whatever, I cry and cry, and that’s why I don’t really read that many historical fiction books from those periods. But Jill said The Rock and the River was good, and I happened to see it at the library, so there you go. I had the hugest lump in my throat from page 3 onward, and towards the end of the book I was bawling messily.

(My puppy came into my bedroom while I was crying and rested her head on the side of my bed. And I thought, Oh, Jazz is worried about me, what a good dog; so I got off my bed and put her in my lap and snuggled her, and after about two seconds of this she ran away and got her tennis ball and spat it onto my lap. After that I had a hard time not suspecting her motives.)

The Rock and the River is about two brothers, Sam and Stick, the sons of prominent (but fictional) civil rights figure Roland Childs. When one of the boys’ friends is brutally beaten by the cops, Stick becomes involved with the Black Panther movement. He has to do this more or less covertly, because his father is part of the nonviolent peace movement and disagrees with the Panthers’ aims. In the midst of all kinds of 1968 racial violence, Sam is trying to figure out who he is and what he stands for.

In the afterword to this book, Magoon notes that schools tend to lionize Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach to attaining civil rights while criticizing the Black Panthers for violence and general unruliness. This, um, happened in my education. So for that alone, I’m really glad I read this book, which casts a critical eye on gun violence while still spending time on the social activism of the Black Panthers (opening health clinics, working as advocates for black people accused of crimes, etc.). I shall now go forth and read more about the Black Panthers and then presumably have a less cartoony view of how they worked.

What a great book. The relationship between the brothers (I have a thing for sibling relationships too) is so strong and moving. Good sibling relationships in books reduce me to mush, and I want to run around flailing my arms and sobbing “They love each other! They want to protect each other!” Basically, Kekla Magoon should write lots more books, which I will only read when I am willing to have my soul punched.

Other people who read it:

Rhapsody in Books (thanks for the recommendation!)
Page 247
Maw Books
bookshelves of doom
The Happy Nappy Bookseller
Readingjunky’s Reading Roost

Anyone else?