Mockingbirds, Nabokovs, Body Horror, Dual-Self Gods | What We’re Reading

It's all "What We're Reading" this time out, with a subway snub and a friendly group of LJ, SLJ, and alum readers and writers.
Last week, I was on the subway heading into work when I spied a frequent co-commuter sitting across from me. This person always has a book in his hands—never a mobile or tablet, or even a newspaper for that matter—and it’s usually more literary fare. Being a nosy book inspector, I leaned over, gestured to his copy of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, and asked him how he liked it. His reply was somewhere between a grunt and a groan but it seemed mostly positive, so I persisted, commenting on the book I’d seen him reading previously, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I then fished Joe Ide’s vastly entertaining Righteous out of my book bag and waved it around a bit, saying, “This is what I’m reading right now.” He looked down his nose at me and said something about “a book for everyone.” Well! I bit my tongue before I could reply that I had already read both the Whitehead and the Saunders, thank you very much, and even nominated Lincoln as an LJ Best Book of 2017 (it made the cut). Instead, I smiled broadly and retreated to my side of the car. Below is a much friendlier grouping of reading reporters (no watchers this week). Have a nice day, stand clear of the closing doors, and keep on reading! Mahnaz Dar, Reference & Professional Reading Editor, LJS Like so many of my colleagues, I’m pushing myself to read outside of my literary comfort zones. I’m delving into sf, starting with Octavia Butler’s Kindred (Doubleday), a book about a black woman who travels back in time to early 19th-century Maryland, where, again and again, she’s called upon to save an ancestor. It’s smart, poignant, compelling, and making me realize how silly it is to assume that the sf label could never apply to my reading habits. I also recently read Ibram X. Kendi’s astute Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation), which has shattered so much of what I thought I knew of history. Kendi follows Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis, showing the evolution of racist thought throughout the ages. He demolishes the idea that prejudice is the result of ignorance and that it leads to systemic injustice. Oppression comes first, and racism is the justification for injustice. Kendi’s work is sobering, and he points out that even esteemed historical figures such as DuBois and Frederick Douglass held beliefs mired in racism. His ideas are nuanced and his arguments strong. In one of my favorite passages, the author critiques Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: The novel's most famous homily, hailed for its antiracism, in fact signified the novel's underlying racism. “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” a neighbor tells the lawyer's strong-willed daughter, Scout. “That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The mockingbird is a metaphor for African Americans. Though the novel was set in the 1930s, the teeming Black activism of that era was absent from To Kill a Mockingbird. African Americans come across as spectators, waiting and hoping and singing for a White savior, and thankful for the moral heroism of lawyer Atticus Finch. There had been no more popular racist relic of the enslavement period than the notion that Black people must rely on Whites to bring them their freedom. Della Farrell, Assistant Editor, SLJ Reviews I recently finished Leah Thomas’s remarkable YA novel When Light Left Us (Bloomsbury). Told from alternating perspectives, the plot follows the three Vasquez children (Hank, Ana, Milo) and their mother, Maggie, as they each grapple with the recent absence of their father/husband and of Luz, an amorphous alienlike lifeform who secretly inhabited (and controlled) different body parts of the siblings to devastating effect. Thomas’s writing is extraordinarily strange and tender. The loss and trauma felt by the characters is palpable, but buoyed by deep friendships and allusions to classic alien movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. (The irresistible nature of Luz and the small amount of body horror reminded me ever so slightly of the “markers” from the “Dead Space” franchise, which I thought was very cool.) This is a book to set aside an afternoon and get lost in. Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews After I completed my historical fiction reading binge for LJ’s Day of Dialog 2018, I went crazy with reading what I want to, no work strings attached—but that didn’t last for long. Immediately after devouring Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World (Ecco: HarperCollins), I begged LJ true crime editor Amanda Mastrull to let me write the review. It draws many parallels between the true story of Sally Horner’s kidnapping by a pedophile in the late 1940s and Vladimir Nabokov’s troubling classic Lolita. I’ll just say this: I was amazed at Weinman’s tenacity, empathy, and advocacy, not to mention her erudition. The story is sad piled on sad, but it doesn’t wallow, it captivates. I also got my hands on Joe Ide’s second "IQ" novel, Righteous (Mulholland), starring Isaiah Quintabe, an African American Sherlock Holmes character, who solves crimes both petty and dire in his neighborhood in Long Beach, CA, and beyond. This one takes place in California and Las Vegas, where the half sister of Isaiah’s love object Sarita is up to her neck in trouble. Isaiah’s Dr. Watson is Dotson, a former hustler who’s trying to go legit. There’s a lot of humor tied up with a large body count, human trafficking, evil loansharks, gangsters, bad love and unrequited love, and a mellow pit bull in this readymade book for the movies. A would-be perfect screenwriting 101 project, except it'd be difficult to take out anything (maybe a miniseries?). Tyler Hixson, WWR/W emeritus Right now I'm engrossed in Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater (Grove), an enthralling exploration of the self and people's souls and spirits. Born in Nigeria, Ada has always been a strange child. That's because gods accidentally fused with her during her birth, resulting in the creation of vague, whimsical beings that eventually crystallize into two distinct entities—Asughara and Saint Vincent—after a traumatic college event. What makes this story beautiful, besides the gorgeous prose, is that it's largely told through the perspective of "we"—the dual-self gods that live in Ada as a child—and later Asughara. They are vindictive, often cruel, but loving and tender toward Ada, portraying the many facets of our own personalities. I'm about halfway through, but I was hooked from the beginning and it's turning into one of the most profound reads of the year for me. Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, LJ Last week, I read Adrienne Celt’s just released Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury), which hit the perfect note between literary and beachy (not that I was within miles of a beach unless you count the East River, which I don’t). It was total fun: set in the 1930s with boarding school, mean girls, Russian émigrés (including Vladimir and Vera Nabokov stand-ins), high literature (including a mysterious missing manuscript), the politics of entitlement vs. deprivation, both male and female varieties of ambition, and murder plots (plural!). The writing is smart but never heavy, and the story leaps along to an enjoyably wicked ending. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes any of the above. And just for the hell of it, after I finished I went ahead and pulled Nabokov's 1935 Invitation to a Beheading off my shelf, because what good is that overstuffed home library if you can’t grab what you want whenever the need arises? Currently my before-bed book, it's contributing to some odd dreams.      

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