dies · happy dance · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

35721123Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the New York Times. With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

I will tell you right now that I was in Michael’s buying fancy writing/drawing pens when I got a DM from Rachel Fershleiser (bless you, lovey) asking me if I would like an early galley of Alexander Chee’s new book. Which I had been coveting hardcore. Pretty sure I shrieked out loud in the checkout line.

I have been waiting since DECEMBER to tell y’all about this book.

“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it.” – “On Becoming an American Writer”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a collection of essays – some previously published elsewhere, some brand, spanking new – that outline Chee’s development as a writer and provide a peek into his experience growing up as a queer, biracial kid in Maine. Meditative pieces such as “The Curse” and “The Querent” give way to heart-breaking examinations of identity and lost love in “Girls” – a powerhouse essay anthologized in The Best American Essays 2016 – and “After Peter.” (Note: I will never not weep reading “After Peter,” it is sublime.) Chee then takes us on a tour of the Struggling Writer’s Life: jobbing as a yoga teacher, tarot reader, and cater-waiter (“Mr. and Mrs. B”), getting an MFA (“My Parade”), various living arrangements (“Impostor”), and creating a garden (“The Rosary”). At times, he is wry and cheeky in pieces such as “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” And then, if you have read his previous novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, he quietly turns you inside out with “The Autobiography of My Novel” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.” (Side note: if you haven’t read his novels get on that because you are seriously deprived of amazing sentences.) The order of essays builds over the course of the book to a moving examination of what it means to be an American writer, especially at this present time, in “On Becoming an American Writer.” 

Alexander Chee has a gift – he can write sentences that just stick in the mind like tiny bits of grit, to be worked over and polished and revisited.

“That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.” – “The Autobiography of My Novel”

These are not complex sentences nor filled with over-flowing description but are complex and beautiful in their simplicity. It is such a privilege to read his words. I could read them forever.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is out on Tuesday, April 17. Bravo, Alex. Thank you so much for your beautiful book. I look forward to making as many people as possible buy this book.

ETA: I would like to introduce you to another writer, Brandon Taylor, who stans for Alexander Chee even more than I do and writes far more eloquently and intelligently about Chee’s work than I could ever possibly hope to write. Please read his essay about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, “Sad Queer Books: When You’re a Queer Person of Color, Writing is Tough Yet Vital,” at Them. Keep an eye on Brandon, by the way. He’s going to blow us all out of the water.

Dear FTC: You know I rubbed this galley all over my eyeballs when I got it.  I’ll be buying a copy whenever Alex manages to get himself to Iowa for a reading so I can be weird and awkward in person and gush all over while he signs it (and the galley, too).

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mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

35297351Summary from Goodreads:
Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Díaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Another outstanding short story collection for 2018. Thompson-Spires has bookended darkly comic and satirical stories about being black in America, including one about two feuding mothers who communicate through notes in their daughters’ schoolbags and another about an able-bodied woman who develops a fixation on men with physical disabilities – I found this to be ingenious commentary about white men who fetishize/objectify women of color), with two moving pieces about the violence perpetrated on young black men by law enforcement. The writing and form are superb.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy for my nook because the digital galley file wouldn’t open.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi (Tangled Axon #1)

18214164Summary from Goodreads:
Alana Quick is the best damned sky surgeon in Heliodor City, but repairing starship engines barely pays the bills. When the desperate crew of a cargo vessel stops by her shipyard looking for her spiritually-advanced sister Nova, Alana stows away. Maybe her boldness will land her a long-term gig on the crew. But the Tangled Axon proves to be more than star-watching and plasma coils. The chief engineer thinks he’s a wolf. The pilot fades in and out of existence. The captain is all blond hair, boots, and ego . . . and Alana can’t keep her eyes off her. But there’s little time for romance: Nova’s in danger and someone will do anything—even destroying planets—to get their hands on her!

Jenn at Get Booked also has recommended Ascension multiple times. So when I had a hankering for a space opera, I remembered that I had this on my nook.

Koyanagi created an intriguing world both inside and outside the transport ship Tangled Axon. Ascension itself as a book is somewhere between a three and a four star read. Primarily, it could use a bit of editing since the plot is a little poky and unnecessarily convoluted in places. But, damn, I really enjoyed what the author was getting at with found families, faith, chronic illness, and metaphysics. Alana is such a wonderful character, very complex, and she plays against Tev so very well.  I’d love to read more in this world, with these characters (uh, one of the characters is a humanoid male who either is also a dog or has a dog spirit or something and I have questions because this is interesting), so I really hope that Koyanagi writes more.

Dear FTC: I read the copy on my nook.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Summary from Goodreads:

Selected by Emma Watson as the Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick for March/April 2018

“Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot is an astounding memoir in essays. Here is a wound. Here is need, naked and unapologetic. Here is a mountain woman, towering in words great and small… What Mailhot has accomplished in this exquisite book is brilliance both raw and refined.” ―Roxane Gay, author of Hunger

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Mailhot trusts the reader to understand that memory isn’t exact, but melded to imagination, pain, and what we can bring ourselves to accept. Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story, and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people, and to her place in the world.

“A sledgehammer. . . . Her experiments with structure and language . . . are in the service of trying to find new ways to think about the past, trauma, repetition and reconciliation, which might be a way of saying a new model for the memoir.” ―Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“I am quietly reveling in the profundity of Mailhot’s deliberate transgression in Heart Berries and its perfect results. I love her suspicion of words. I have always been terrified and in awe of the power of words – but Mailhot does not let them silence her in Heart Berries. She finds the purest way to say what she needs to say… [T]he writing is so good it’s hard not to temporarily be distracted from the content or narrative by its brilliance…Perhaps, because this author so generously allows us to be her witness, we are somehow able to see ourselves more clearly and become better witnesses to ourselves.” ―Emma Watson, Official March/April selection for Our Shared Shelf

I don’t know what got into Spring 2018 publishing, but Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is another knock-it-out-of-the-park book. I cannot even begin to tell you how beautiful and heartbreaking this slim memoir actually is (and I mean slim – barely 150 pages). Mailhot’s use of contrasting style and tone is perfection. Her critique of how Native women’s language is taken from them and twisted is breathtaking. An early forerunner for best memoir of the year.

My only critique is that the extra-textual information contained in the flap copy above really does not figure directly into the narrative that Mailhot is working through in this book.  Details flit around the periphery. The reader has to work to piece everything together, right along with Mailhot. And I don’t think the extra-textuals are needed because then we spend the whole book searching for the matching details.

If you are following #metoo, Sherman Alexie did provide an Introduction to this book (not sure if it will stay for future editions/printings). But it really adds nothing to the book. If he bothers you, you can safely skip it, read Mailhot’s writing, and then read the Afterword by Joan Naviyuk Kane, which is a Q&A with Mailhot and amazing.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book because YES.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva

35082451Summary from Goodreads:
A haunting, diverse debut story collection that explores the isolation we experience in the face of the mysterious, often dangerous forces that shape our lives

Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection spans centuries, continents, and a diverse set of characters but is united by each character’s epic struggle with fate: A workman in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills is irrevocably changed by the brutal power of the furnaces; a fisherman sets sail into overfished waters and finds a secret obsession from which he can’t return; an online date ends with a frightening, inexplicable disappearance. Her story “Pleiades” was called “a masterpiece” by Dave Eggers. Sachdeva has a talent for creating moving and poignant scenes, following her highly imaginative plots to their logical ends, and depicting how one small miracle can affect everyone in its wake.

Lordt, y’all, All the Names They Used for God is face-meltingly good. The stories in this smallish collection all turn on the juxtaposition of the real with the fantastical, one-click off from traditional fairy tales in feel. I got a little brain-tickle as each one reminded me very subtly of an older tale but without retelling any one in particular. “Killer of Kings” is flat-out gorgeous, “All the Names Used for God” is quietly mind-blowing, and the final story “Pleiades” is devastating. Another outstanding collection from an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum.

This collection is kind of flying under the radar so if you’re looking for a story collection, go pick this up.

Dear FTC: My digital galley expired so I bought a copy on my nook to finish reading it.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Graphically · stuff I read

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

34506912Summary from Goodreads:
Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride―or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia―the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances―one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

Do you want a beautifully drawn original graphic novel about a teenage prince in Belle Époque-esque France who secretly does drag and the dressmaker he finds to both dress him and keep his secret? Oh, you do.

The Prince and the Dressmaker written and illustrated by Jen Wang is gorgeous novel about identity and friendship and dreams. Sebastian and Frances are such wonderful characters, one trapped by gender expression and the other by class, and their story is so sweet. I love how Wang explores artistic expression and gendered clothing style. I feel like she’s noodling with the concept that what clothing one puts on one’s body is separate from one’s sexual orientation or gender. The reader is never shown WHO Sebastian is attracted to – whether men or women or both (or neither, since he’s only sixteen) – or if he doesn’t identify as male or is genderfluid. In the space of this book, Sebastian just loves to wear beautiful clothes and Frances is the one who can make them. In my opinion, the Lady Crystallia persona is really only used when Sebastian is hiding that portion of himself; once his secret is discovered, the persona is no longer necessary for him to dress in drag (FYI, there is a very cruel “outing” scene). I really like how Wang left the specifics unfinished and fluid. Fluidity in gender identity or expression still isn’t often found on the shelves. The art is lovely – fashionistas should be very, very jealous that these gowns do not exist for real.

The Prince and the Dressmaker is out now!

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book since I wasn’t cool enough to get a galley.

Reading Diversely · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals, #1)

35271238Summary from Goodreads:
From acclaimed author Alyssa Cole comes the tale of a city Cinderella and her Prince Charming in disguise . . .

Between grad school and multiple jobs, Naledi Smith doesn’t have time for fairy tales…or patience for the constant e-mails claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince. Sure. Right. Delete! As a former foster kid, she’s learned that the only things she can depend on are herself and the scientific method, and a silly e-mail won’t convince her otherwise.

Prince Thabiso is the sole heir to the throne of Thesolo, shouldering the hopes of his parents and his people. At the top of their list? His marriage. Ever dutiful, he tracks down his missing betrothed. When Naledi mistakes the prince for a pauper, Thabiso can’t resist the chance to experience life—and love—without the burden of his crown.

The chemistry between them is instant and irresistible, and flirty friendship quickly evolves into passionate nights. But when the truth is revealed, can a princess in theory become a princess ever after?

About two chapters into my galley of Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory I started squealing. Ledi is a grad student in epidemiology! Specifically, infectious diseases!! *heart-eyes emoji* And she talks about the research and the writing like she knows what she’s doing!! *many more heart-eyes emojis* (Turns out Cole used to work as an editor for a science journal, yaaaaaas, girl.)

So here’s the deal: if you were looking for an update-ish of Coming to America with a stronger female main character, a prince who is concerned with doing right by his people, strong and intersectional secondary characters, science, social commentary, and excellent fashion descriptions, A Princess in Theory is for you.  If you weren’t looking for a story like this, you still want this book.  You’re welcome.

I lurved it. All of it. Ledi is a smart, streetwise heroine from the school of “no one wants a foster kid no matter how much she tries to be the Perfect Kid.” You just want to smack so many adults on her behalf, both from her childhood and from her current adult life (there’s a post-doc in her lab that deserves some Draino in his coffee). Thabiso is a literal Prince who gets his life turned upside down when he determines Ledi’s his long-lost fiancé – his plan to show her what she missed out on (chiefly, His Awesomeness as a Prince) when her parents fled Thesolo is just the most delightfully wrong-headed idea ever. Once Thabiso decides to get to know Ledi (although he does that as some dude named Jamal, so also not the best plan in the long-term), Cole brings in some great commentary about colonialism, big-government jacking around with global disease prevention funding, and the foster system. There are some steamy sexytimes, too. (What? This is still a romance novel.) My only criticism – and it’s a minor one – is that I could smell the villain coming from miles away, which is probably my own fault for having read so many Agatha Christie novels.

I know Cole probably didn’t intend the juxtaposition, but when she described Thabiso’s beard as being trimmed to accentuate his sharp jaw my brain went immediately to all the pictures of Chadwick Boseman dressed in his T’challa costumes. So if this ever gets made into a movie, they’ll have to cast Boseman. Sorry not sorry? (I mean, there are worse people you can resemble, I’m just saying. I was reading this in the two weeks prior to the release of Black Panther in theatres and Instagram just kept parking ads and trailers with Boseman’s gorgeous face all over my feed. Ledi was a little harder to headcast – Letitia Wright is obviously a good choice with her recent turn as awesome scientist-princess Shuri in Black Panther.)

I would like to ask the Romancelandia Fairy-godmother for a book for Likotsi – she quickly went from Thabiso’s enigmatic assistant to an awesomesauce lady frand and she needs a story of her own. (Also, I want all her suits, even though I do not have the body type for them, because they sounded so damn gorgeous.) But next up is a book for Ledi’s bestie Portia who goes off to Scotland for an internship in swordmaking (y’all, Portia is something else) and finds a duke along the way. PS: Avon, any time you want to park that galley on Edelweiss I’ll read the crap out of it.

A Princess in Theory is out today! Whoop whoop!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss and I had a copy pre-ordered on my nook. So hah.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

35069544Summary from Goodreads:
From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’ highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today—perfect for fans of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists.

Morgan Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

I was super excited to see that Morgan Jerkins had an essay collection coming out. I’ve really liked her writing that I’ve read in various publications.  I won’t be able to do my reading of her writing justice, but I’ll try.

This Will Be My Undoing is Required Reading for everyone. Jerkins may be writing as a black woman to other black women, but the rest of us are privileged to see her thought processes. She writes about the politics of black hair, black women’s sexuality and how that sexuality is policed, the portrayal of Michelle Obama by the media, dating, and color-blind racism. It was really interesting to be read Jerkins’s thoughts on love, dating, and sex as I was also reading The Wedding DateHaven, and A Princess in Theory (out 2/27, review to come), three pro-black women, consent-positive, romances written by black women. The juxtaposition of what black women want and deserve to have with Jerkins’s experiences as a black woman and a black girl and her reading of how black women’s and girls’ sexuality are policed was just mind-blowing. A few of the early chapters have maybe rough starts where it takes a bit for the form and the subject to gel, but by the time Jerkins hits “Who Will Write Us?” she is absolutely firing on all cylinders. I really look forward to everything else she’s going to write. So glad this got picked up by the BN Discover program.

Dear FTC: I read a paper galley of this book we received at the store.