In which you should read this: CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora

Something you may not know about me: despite my fairly high degree of confidence in my own intellect in many domains, I actually don’t think I read very well. Which may sound really. strange, coming from someone who regularly reads well over a hundred books a year. The thing is, my greatest weakness as a reader is that I’m a very surface-level guy. While I can handle complex narratives, I have to be in the right mood for them, and the fact that I read so fast can really hurt my comprehension if I’m not deliberately paying careful attention to what I read. This means that I tend to stay away from anything that, broadly classed, might be literature, which I nearly spelled litratcher in order to convey a sort of condescension toward the entire concept. If a novel feels the need to tell me it’s a novel on the cover, that’s a sign that it may not be for me. You know what never says “a novel” on the cover? A book with a dragon or a space ship in it. Not once. Not never. The closest to an exception I can come up with is John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which some editions of declare to be “a novel with three codas,” and which I think Scalzi put on the cover more as a lark than anything else.

In short, whenever I read literature, I always feel like I’m missing something; that there is some theme or some Hidden Meaning or some Deeper Symbolism that I’m not seeing, either because I’m being sloppy or the book is just smarter than I am. Is it there? No idea. But I’m convinced it’s there and I just can’t see it. This may be a sign that I’ve been poorly served by my English teachers; I have a copy of A Tale of Two Cities from high school that has a big chunk of the first page circled and the word “foreshadowing” written next to it, and as someone who has read that book as an adult I have no idea what I thought the foreshadowing was or what it might have foreshadowed. I still can’t handle Jane Austen.

Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women needs to become part of The Canon, because it belongs next to books by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. That’s it. That’s the review. The book is magnificent. You should read it. I took my time with this one, because I wanted to savor it; normally it’s a good sign if I read a book in a day, and this one took several because I didn’t want it to be over with too quickly. It’s set in and around the Civil War, on a plantation, and the two main characters are mother and daughter, so the book alternates between the two of them, jumping back and forth between just before the war to just after it. A third significant character is Varina, the daughter of the former landowner, who has a bond with Rue, the daughter of the pair, and her story weaves in and out through theirs in a way that isn’t really typical of– here’s that word again– literature set in this time and place. Both Rue and her mother are … well, the title Conjure Women does the job to some extent; they are healers and midwives, and while Rue in particular is generally at some pains to think of her work as entirely natural and (though she doesn’t use this word) scientific, those around them generally don’t, and the book does have just a tinge of the supernatural around it to keep genre-obsessed dopes like me interested. Everything’s just a little better with a little hoodoo sprinkled on it, as my mom never once said in her life.

Every so often someone will ask me, generally not in especially good faith, why I do things like decide I think I’ll read 52 books by women of color this year, when I could … not, I guess. Well, this is part of it; I might not have looked at this book were I not focusing on a certain kind of author, and I’ll freely admit that had Afia Atakora been Ahmad Atakora I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (That said … a man couldn’t have written this book, but that’s not quite the point I’m making.).

In other words, the reason I work on diversifying my reading is that when you go looking for new and/or different reading experiences, you get them, and this book all by itself kind of pays off the whole experiment. Go read it.

On reading, 2018 and 2019

Alternate title: In which I write about something else. This was originally going to be a saleswanking post, which I haven’t done in quite a while and I wanted to do mostly for my own information and share with you guys because someone out there has to love spreadsheets as much as I do, but once I went through everything on Amazon and Squarespace just to figure out where I was at for 2018 and where (roughly) I might be for my sales since Benevolence Archives 1 came out in 2014, this was what my desktop looked like:

I’m still gonna do it, don’t get me wrong– I want this information, and I am exactly the kind of geek for whom “spend a couple of hours sorting through spreadsheets and pulling together an overall data set” actually describes a fun couple of hours. But I’m not doing this shit tonight. So, instead, since I’m no more than a day or two away from doing my 10 Best Books list, let’s talk about what I read this year. Which still involves spreadsheets. ūüôā

Assuming I finish the book I’m reading right now in the next three days, I’ll have read 104 books in 2018, which was four more than my goal of 100. Here they are, excepting only S. A. Chakraborty’s City of Brass, which I’m reading right now:

For the last several years I’ve been working on aggressively diversifying my reading after discovering that I was reading far more white men than I felt like I ought to be. I’ve had different goals for different years, but this year I decided to focus on making sure half of my books were from people of color. And, in fact, exactly half of them ended up being by PoC: 52 of the 104. In previous years I’ve set goals to read books by, basically, anyone other than white men, but I noticed last year that white women seemed to be the beneficiary of that policy so I decided to focus more on people of color this year. I did not specifically track books by women vs books by men, but a quick count indicates that I did pretty well there too– and, if anything, I think I read slightly more books by women than by men. 50 of these books were by authors I hadn’t previously read anything by, too.

The interesting thing is, while my 10 best list isn’t finalized yet– again, sometime this week– I have reason to believe that a substantial majority of the books on it will be by women of color, and this was a phenomenal year for reading. I read some fucking amazing books this year, and choosing the top 10 from this list is gonna be hard.

Damn near every book on the list– upwards of 90%, and probably above 95%– was read in print. Which is why next year I’m gonna pull back a little bit, and the only things I plan to track all year long, other than new authors, are rereads. My bookshelves are about to collapse on me, y’all, and they are on every wall in the damn house. I think I’m going to set a goal of 90 books, with 30 of those being books that I already own. At the end of the year, I’ll take a look at how I did in reading from diverse authors when I wasn’t specifically tracking it. I haven’t been doing a ton of rereading lately because it doesn’t really mix well with the notion of broadening the authors I’m reading work by.

What did you read this year?

#REVIEW: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

32075671One of our local radio stations does a bit called Group Therapy in the morning, which is usually airing just as I’m driving the boy to school. ¬†The general pattern is this: they pose a problem, submitted by a listener, that should generally be easily dealt with by anyone with an average middle schooler’s level of sophistication and emotional intelligence. ¬†They do not provide enough information about the problem to allow listeners to give useful advice, and people who like hearing their voices or names on the radio submit useless advice on Facebook or on the air so that the person involved can do whatever they were going to do anyway.

I’m going to start listening to Pandora more in the morning, is what I’m saying.

This morning’s problem was as follows: a parent’s 11-year-old has stolen their credit card, for the second time. ¬†It wasn’t made perfectly clear, but it seems that as of the time of the advice-asking, the boy¬†still had the card. ¬†He had used it to buy $50 worth of drinks and snacks from a local convenience store and not to, say, order hundreds of dollars worth of electronics from somewhere, which is what you’d think most kids would do with a credit card they’d stolen. ¬†Anyway, this parent had reported the card stolen, and apparently under the (incorrect) idea that¬†the police would show up if the kid attempted to use the card again– which, yeah,¬†right— was wondering if he/she should just talk to his/her kid or let the police “scare him straight.”

And all I could think of, listening to this, was that the person asking for advice and¬†every single one of the dumb motherfuckers providing (generally approving) advice for the latter piece of advice¬†had to be¬†white. ¬†Because every black parent in America knows that you¬†do not let the police anywhere near your child unless someone is guaranteed to die if you¬†don’t. ¬†There are no¬†optional encounters with the police. ¬†Fuck, I’m white and I live in a nice neighborhood and I’m never calling the police again unless somebody is under serious immediate physical threat. ¬†And you’re gonna call the police on your baby because of a $50 credit card bill? ¬†Your privilege is not only showing, it’s¬†leaking out of the dashboard of my car, and I ought to be able to charge somebody to clean that shit up.

(Leave aside the ridiculous notions that 1) the police care about a $50 fraudulent credit card charge because they have nothing else to do and 2) they have time to help you with relatively routine parenting decisions.)

Which brings me to Angie Thomas’¬†The Hate U Give, or¬†THUG¬†for short. ¬†The title of the book is a Tupac reference; Pac was fond of the backronym, explaining, for example, that “nigga” stood for “Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished.” ¬†“Thug Life,” to Tupac, meant “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” and the meaning of that phrase is discussed throughout the book.

The story is told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old black girl. ¬†Starr is the sole witness when a policeman murders one of her oldest friends during a traffic stop. ¬†Her friend, Khalil, was unarmed and unresisting when he was shot. ¬†The rest of the book spins out from that one moment; the different sections are even dated by it: “Three Weeks After It Happens,” and such.

You can probably predict the overall story beats from the premise, right? ¬†America knows this story pretty Goddamn well by now, and the tension here is less from what happens (anybody want to put money down on whether the cop is exonerated by the grand jury or not?) than how the people in the book react to it. ¬†Starr herself is a fascinating character; she lives in a rough neighborhood but her parents scrape and save to send her to a private school 45 minutes away, so many of her best friends aren’t black and she thinks of herself as being two different people, one at school and one at home. ¬† ¬†Her uncle is a police officer, her father a former gang member. ¬†Khalil himself has a complicated backstory, and the book dives into the inevitable attempt by the media and the police to slander him and make him responsible for his own murder. ¬†For a large portion of the story Starr’s school friends and her (white) boyfriend aren’t aware that she’s the anonymous witness the news keeps referring to, and the way she reacts to their treatment of Khalil’s death is complex and fascinating. ¬†Her navigation through the web of relationships and identities she’s struggling with throughout the book is a pleasure to read.

I recommend books here all the time; I rarely bother to review anything I didn’t love unless I think I can hate it in an entertaining way, but it’s not terribly often that I use the word¬†important to describe a book that I’ve read. ¬†You need to read¬†THUG, and you need to get¬†THUG¬†into the hands of as many other people as you can, particularly young people. ¬†Angie Thomas’ writing is crisp and clear, Starr herself is a wonderful character, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more work by this author. ¬†Go read this book. ¬†Do it right now.

Pre-review: THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas

I hav32075671.jpgen’t been around much lately– I’ve had a distinct lack of things to say, to be honest– and this post isn’t going to change things all that much, but at the moment I’m halfway through Angie Thomas’¬†The Hate U Give and I figure I may as well start right now: this book is a¬†big fucking deal, and a whole goddamn lot of people who aren’t reading it need to be. ¬† This book is fucking important in a way that nothing I’ve read in a while really has been, and I know I’m frequently all sorts of ebullient whenever I write about a book around here, but take this seriously.

Full post incoming once I finish it, of course. ¬†I can imagine a world where the back half goes pear-shaped, but I don’t know that it even matters. ¬†I can’t imagine it going sour¬†enough that I wouldn’t be recommending this to everyone I could find when I was done with it.

In which I’ve been reading

img_4968One of the more underrated aspects of the recent Netflix¬†Luke Cage miniseries was the attention it paid to black literature. ¬†In particular, a conversation about author Donald Goines during one episode instantly sold me four of his books– and by¬†instantly, I mean I literally opened the Amazon app on my phone and ordered the books in between scenes. ¬†Goines’ Kenyatta series–¬†Crime Partners, Death List, Kenyatta’s Escape,¬†and¬†Kenyatta’s Last Hit, have been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of weeks now waiting for me to finish the Hamilton biography and get to them.

I read all four of them today and yesterday. ¬†It sounds like an accomplishment, but they’re not very long– only¬†Last Hit tops 200 pages– and I’ve been off from work.

Imagine¬†Conan, but written in the 1970s– dear God, there is nothing more 1970s than these books– and set in the ghettos of Detroit and Los Angeles instead of Cimmeria, and you actually have a pretty good idea of what these books are like. ¬†The prose is occasionally, to put it mildly, terrible– see the excerpt above– but the books have so much energy and passion to them that I couldn’t put any of them down. ¬†Goines’ literary career lasted something like five years and he released over a dozen books during that time before being found shot to death in his home. ¬†I hate to bring in a Hamilton reference again, but it’s appropriate: the man wrote like he was running out of time, and his Wikipedia entry speculates that he wrote to stave off heroin addiction. ¬†The Kenyatta series is frantically-paced in the best way; it’s as if Goines physically needed to get the story out of him as best he could and barely glanced at it before moving on to the next one.

Think about checking them out, is what I’m saying, even if the page above makes you cringe. ¬†Do it anyway.