A recap of all February book reviews from @overeducatedwomenwithcats.
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1. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey
CW: domestic violence. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey is a truly heartbreaking memoir. The memoir is focused on the most traumatic moments of her life- the murder of Trethewey's mother (Gwen Grimmette) by her ex-husband, and Trethewey's ex-stepfather. We can honestly say that the facts surrounding Grimmette's death made us sick to our stomachs, especially reading the transcripts of the last recordings between Grimmette and her killer, all being recorded by the Assistant DA, which led to an arrest warrant hours before the murder. Despite the anguish you will most certainly endure reading this book, it is well worth it for the reckoning and reflection on the author's part. Her attempts to make meaning of the course of her life and how her trauma shaped who she is as a person and artist really made the devastating portions of this memoir worth it. Moreover, the context of living in the South as a child of a Black mother and white father further deepen her story. Overall, we recommend, but aforementioned trigger warnings apply.
2. Just Us by Claudia Rankine
Just Us: An American Conversation is a very unique piece: a series of essays and ruminations that combine photography, historical documents, poetry, and prose, with footnotes that add further depth to the work. Many of the essays draw inspiration from a personal anecdote - a dinner party conversation, an airport interaction, seeing a play with a friend - and expand from there. The throughline of all the essays is the necessity of addressing whiteness, and confronting uncomfortable conversations around race. Rankine highlights how difficult it is to approach these conversations, even for someone well-versed in race and rhetoric; the defensive reactions they trigger, the burden of being the lone voice in the room that disrupts people's comfort. While the book can be a bit academic and cerebral at times (there are *three* chapters titled 'liminal spaces' - Rankine is a Yale professor, after all), there is also a wry humor throughout. There's no solutions found here, but the book is still an interesting addition to the American conversation about race.
3. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Red at the Bone is a generational story that begins with 16-year-old Melody at her coming of age ceremony. This event is a long standing tradition on her mother’s side, but Melody is wearing the dress her mother, Iris, should have been wearing over a decade ago. In a twist of fate, Iris unexpectedly conceived when she was 15 years old, irrevocably changing the course of her life and everyone’s life that touched hers. This novel is a poignant examination of motherhood, family, class, and the sometimes ephemeral love between teenagers. The story line alternates between characters' point of view and oscillates between decades, spanning from the 1920’s to the 2000’s. While these fluctuations can leave a reader floundering at times, once the pieces are put together you’re left with an emotional look at mother’s search for identity and the wake that’s left behind.
4. Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
In The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans proves through her prose and storytelling that we are not worthy of her brilliance! These short stories and novella blew us away; each story had a distinctive voice but they were all thought provoking, immersive, and unpredictable. If we were to summarize the collection (truly it defies reduction but we are here to do a review after all), these stories are reflections on what it is to be a young black woman in contemporary America, with a vein of dark, sardonic humor throughout that balances the heartbreaking and infuriating.
Evans is examining history in this collection by shifting the perspective from which stories are told and illuminating the intentions of victims and villains, however flawed. This is the rare 5 star OWC Fave, so if you are looking to scratch your short story itch, let Danielle Evans do it for you!
5. The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper
The Beauty in Breaking is a memoir be Michele Harper. Harper is an emergency room physician- and thus a lot of her stories are centered around the challenge of being an African American female in a white male-dominated profession. Harper details various patient cases, highlighting systemic issues present in our healthcare system- and the systematic racism that permeates our society beyond the medical setting. However, this memoir is much more than just about practicing emergency medicine. As appropriate for any memoir, Harper also interweaves her own story throughout- discussing her upbringing in a family with an abusive father- and the decades long process of coming to terms with the pain he inflicted and forgiving him. Given her family situation and her failed marriage, Harper also tries to apply lessons learned from work- from healing others- to herself. While we did enjoy this memoir, it was at times a bit preachy and at other times a thinly veiled venue for self-promotion. However, if you’re interested in self-transformation, healthcare or any of the systematic issues present in modern-day America, then pick up this memoir.
6. Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World, Retold by Bolu Babalola
Love In Color is a really fun experiment - a re-imagining of folk tales told as modern love stories. Bolu Babalola draws from African, Middle Eastern, and Asian legends and remixes them for the present day. Female characters get more agency, pleasure and enthusiastic consent are prioritized, and love manifests in different ways. It’s an interesting undertaking that falls short of its possibilities; the relationships were still largely heteronormative and monogamous, and this book could have been an opportunity to broaden those horizons. The writing also felt more at the YA level at points. We recommend reading a story here and there instead of all the way through, since they can blend together a bit. But if you're into romcoms, you might be into this!
7. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys is based on the horrifying history of the Dozier School, also known as the Florida School for Boys, that operated for over a century, from 1900 to 2011. In 2009, the institution failed a state inspection that lead to a full-blown investigation and the discovery of 55 burial grounds and innumerable unmarked graves. Following the investigation and discovery, victims from that era came forward to recount their stories of brutal beatings, r*pe, t*rture, and m*rder. While The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction, Colson Whitehead exhaustively researched and interviewed individuals to create this piece of American History, later earning the Pulitzer Prize for the novel. While the content is heavy and the blind eye turned by authorities to the atrocities happening in their own town is unforgivable, The Nickel Boys is both a devastating story of trauma and a powerful rhetoric of perseverance. This recommendation comes with a content warning.
8. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heart wrenching, epic novel of struggle and magic. The story is told through alternating perspectives as a mother, son and grandfather work through their past and present pain. Ward's poetic style of writing transforms what could have been just another character-driven dysfunctional family drama into a multi-dimensional, weighty exploration of poverty, race, and trauma in the Deep South. The settings - both points in times and physical locations - seem to become characters and the narrative masterfully walks the line between the magical and the unbearably real.
9. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
This is the second Colson Whitehead book we're featuring this month! Harlem Shuffle, his eighth and latest novel follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman in Harlem who is continuously striving to make a better life for himself and his family. Burdened by the pedigree of his wife, part of the Harlem crème de la crème, his desire to escape his poor and troubled upbringing, and the lure of his cousin Freddie’s antics, Ray ventures into some illegal territory. Ray serves as the middleman for the sale of “definitely not stolen” jewelry Freddie occasionally brings by the store, but Freddie’s poor decisions lead Ray to deal with the fallout from a large heist gone wrong. This brings him in contact with some of the more unsavory characters in Harlem, and the problem-solving, investigating, and clean-up that follow ultimately drive the plot forward. We thoroughly enjoyed this multifaceted book- it alternated from a crime/mystery story to a family drama to a character study on human duality to historical fiction. A great choice if you are looking for a lighter book for Black History Month!
10. Night Wherever We Go by Tracey Rose Peyton
Night Wherever We Go is an intimate novel set against the backdrop of a struggling Texas plantation in the Antebellum South. Six enslaved women - Junie, Patience, Lulu, Alice, Serah, and Nan - are doing whatever it takes to protect each other and endure their situation. They refer to the plantation owners as ‘The Lucys,’ referencing the spawn of Lucifer and their grim situation. When the plantation loses another harvest to bad weather and bugs, Mr. Lucy decides to bring a “stockman” to “breed” these women to create a different stream of income. As the situation becomes more dire, the women become more desperate. Nan, elderly and therefore spared, provides cotton root for the women to chew on, a known natural remedy for curing a woman “caught” with child. This act of defiance leads to unintended consequences and harrowing repercucssions. While the premise is undoubtedly solemn, there are moments of hope, love, and strength. The author moves from a third person point of view to the collective “we” many times in the story. The “we” narrative captures the empowering motif of these women, standing in solidarity against the horrors of plantation life. This debut novel is an absolute standout of 2023, and we highly recommend it.
11. Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
Heavy is a propulsive memoir that leaves the author more vulnerable and exposed than we often reveal even to ourselves. In it, Kiese Laymon recounts his childhood in Mississippi being raised by a brilliant and harsh mother and subject to various abuses, through to his adulthood as a professor at Vassar struggling with addiction and disordered eating along with disillusionment of academia. It is a heart wrenching letter to his mother, her flaws laid bare for us to read. Laymon will bring you to the edge of discomfort and make you sit in it, to feel everything fully. His writing is absolutely beautiful and powerful. This coming of age is not straight forward nor linear with a neat bow and happy ending, but we highly recommend reading it.
12. The Peach Seed by Anita Gail Jones
✨Advanced Readers Copy✨
The Peach Seed by Anita Gail Jones
Publication Date: August 1, 2023
The Peach Seed is a multi-generational story of the Dukes family of Southwest Georgia and their longstanding tradition of presenting a monkey, carved from a peach seed, on every sons thirteenth birthday. This is an expansive story that undulates through time; each chapter told from a different character perspective, from 1800s Senegal to the civil rights movement of the 60s to present day Georgia and Michigan. There are many threads of this story that weave itself together over the 450 pages of text. Present day Fletcher Duke, is reconciling with his past when his first-love, Altoviese returns to Georgia after decades away. Their story takes us to the riots of the civil rights movement and the repercussions of peaceful protests turned violent. Fletcher’s sister, Olga, a retired professor and researcher receives an email from an adopted man in Michigan, claiming to have a peach seed monkey from his birth mother. Then you have Bo D, Fletcher’s grandson, who’s heavy substance abuse prevents him from being the man he wishes he could be. Lastly, you have Malik in Senegal. The chief’s son and expert wood carver who was captured on the shores, thrust into the caverns of a wooden ship, and enslaved in South Carolina. Through these many stories, an enduring family legacy of both despair and strength become evident and as their choices ripple across generations. The Peach Seed is a deeply character driven novel, with numerous story lines that occasionally felt discordant, but ultimately we were invested in the saga. We recommend this book for those that love dialogue driven, multi-generational stories and interested in learning more about the peach seed monkey talisman.
Thank you @netgalley for this advanced readers copy!
13. Liberation Day by George Saunders
Liberation Day is George Saunders’ latest short story collection and we were very excited to read it as our bookclub pick for the month of January (especially since it fulfills one of our #owcreadingchallenge2023 prompts!)
It is packed to the brim with Saunders’ casual, stream of consciousness-style internal monologuing that is always such a treat to read. Yet this collection is also tied together by some darker motifs of exploitation, oppression, and even brainwashing. We enter the minds of characters convincing themselves they have done all they could in the face of Evil, some succumbing to The System, and others becoming trapped in self-serving daydreams. Much like his previous work, these stories are set in a world adjacent to our own - a dystopia that feels like it could exist in a potential future rather than a wildly fantastical distant universe. As a group we didn’t agree completely on whether or not ALL stories hit their mark, but we did walk away with the recommendation to truly savor each one rather than devouring the book whole in a sitting. It can feel disorienting if you allow them to blur together, especially since many of the stories overlap in tone and narrative style. Also - those of us who listened to the audiobook were happily surprised by the star-studded cast - it was a truly well-curated experience.