Book Review: Such A Fun Age

Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age opens with Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old black woman, being called to babysit for the white Chamberlain family during a late-night crisis. Emira takes the Chamberlains’ older daughter, Briar, to the supermarket to distract her from the commotion at home, when she is accused by the store’s security guard of kidnapping the white toddler. After the incident is resolved, two white people in Emira’s life – her employer Alix Chamberlain, and a customer named Kelley who witnessed and videotaped the racist supermarket incident – take it upon themselves to help Emira in whatever way they can.

The book: Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I had a great time reading Such a Fun Age. The novel is fast-paced and highly readable, with riveting scenes that engrossed me in the way that a TV drama would. I thought the characters were compelling, too; although they weren’t always relatable, I found them complex and believable.

Where Such a Fun Age excels the most to me, though, is in the social commentary and criticism that is packed throughout the story. The book features two well-intentioned white characters (Alix and Kelley) who claim they want to help Emira – yet they both repeatedly subject her to microaggressions, and manipulate her in their attempts to help. By portraying Alix and Kelley as simultaneously well-intentioned and harmful, Reid brilliantly illustrates the concept that good intentions can still be problematic and have damaging effects. Through Alix and Kelley’s actions, Reid also demonstrates how white people can recognize others’ actions as racist, yet fail to see their own racism.

Spoilers in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!

My main complaint about Such a Fun Age is that the drama feels heavy-handed at times. One of the major plot drivers is an unrealistic coincidence where two high-school enemies are reunited as adults when one shows up as a plus-one at the other’s extravagant Thanksgiving party. The novel also ends somewhat abruptly with a dramatic blowout that is being televised in realtime for the local news. These excessively dramatic scenes were only a minor problem for me, though. Drama isn’t inherently bad (in fact, sometimes it’s really entertaining – that’s why soap operas are a thing!), and the over-the-top scenes effectively heightened characters’ inner conflicts and interpersonal tensions.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Such a Fun Age. I found the novel addictively compelling, and the characters realistically complex. I also appreciated the novel’s blend of entertaining drama and thought-provoking social commentary. I would recommend this book, with the caveat to also read some of the more critical reviews if you’re unsure.

Month in Review: July 2020

It’s the first of the new month, so you know the drill: time to look back on another month of reading! I’m slightly changing the format of these month-in-review posts by incorporating a small section dedicated to things I’ve cooked/baked. During a conversation with Melanie at Grab the Lapels (who I highly recommend following!), it came up that I don’t really post about baking, despite my blog being called “Books and Bakes.” So the new section is an attempt to bring baking back to Books and Bakes.

Books read:

  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas – DNF
  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell – 4 stars out of 5
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh – 2.5 stars out of 5
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman – 3 stars out of 5
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe – 3.5 stars out of 5

Books in progress/August TBR:

Apparently I’m the type of person who sets a July reading goal of 9 books, doesn’t come close to completing it, then sets the same unrealistic goal for August! We’ll see how it goes. This month’s TBR is influenced by the Booker Prize longlist, which I’m going to try to read through (more or less) before the winner is announced.

  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. I’m currently reading this short book of essays about how the act of “othering” people allows those in power to abuse their authority without feeling guilty about it. It’s very powerful.
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Still reading this for a book club! It’s also incredibly powerful so far.
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. After absolutely loving Hunger last month, I’m excited to read Difficult Women. I’ve heard that Hunger is Gay’s best work, but I want to explore more of her books and decide for myself 🙂
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zheng. This is from the Booker longlist, but it was already on my list of books that I wanted to finish before the end of 2020. Its place on the longlist is giving me the push I need to prioritize it.
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Another one of the Booker-longlisted books that I was already really excited about (thanks in large part to Emily and Gil‘s glowing reviews).
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. This is also on my radar because of the Booker prize. The third book in this trilogy (This Mournable Body) got longlisted, but since I haven’t read the other books yet, I’m starting here.
  • We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. This has been on my radar ever since reading Melanie’s excellent review, and I’m really excited to read it for myself!
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Honestly, this is one of the Booker-longlisted books that I’m less excited about…but I’m reading it anyway because sometimes I end up really enjoying books that I “wasn’t excited about.” We’ll see.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Hahaha I was saving the best for last. I have been anticipating this release for so long and I’m SO excited for this read!!!

Some recommended posts:

  • Stargazer’s clever review of Circe in the form of a fictional interview! It was super creative, and perfectly captured Circe’s character.
  • Stephanie’s moving post about how reading “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride helped her out of a really (mentally and emotionally) rough place.

Things I baked!

This month I baked red velvet cupcakes with cookies and cream frosting, rhubarb pie bites, and a birthday cake for my husband!

Other July photos:

Book Review: Big Friendship

Co-written by best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship is a memoir of the authors’ friendship. Using their friendship as a model, Sow and Friedman explore why friendship is so important, how and why certain people become friends, why those friendships sometimes end, and the (oftentimes invisible and unspoken) work required to maintain close friendships. Ever since I moved over 1,000 miles up the coast, I’ve wondered how to make new friends in a new city – but I’ve spent considerably less time thinking about how to maintain those friendships. Big Friendship seemed like something I needed to read.

The book: Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The first couple chapters of Big Friendship left me feeling skeptical, because the authors didn’t seem relatable at first – and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to connect with the authors’ advice if I couldn’t connect with them. Sow and Friedman clearly value ambition and success, and they spend a lot of time in the early chapters talking about their professional achievements. This made me worry that the book was aimed for a more professionally ambitious audience, with an emphasis on #girlbosses and #squadgoals. While there certainly was some of that, and while the authors seem to care about climbing the professional ladder in a way that I probably never will, I still got a lot out of Big Friendship (including the chapter that focused on female camaraderie in the workplace).

One of my favorite things about Big Friendship was its emphasis on the importance of respectful but honest communication between friends. Sow and Friedman point out that many women have been socialized to avoid “drama” at all costs, but that there’s an important distinction between avoiding “drama” and sweeping issues under the rug in a way that may ultimately be harmful to a relationship. They also talk about how jealousy can turn ugly, but how jealousy can also be used as an opportunity for good communication. For example, if I’m feeling jealous that my work friend got an incredible promotion that I wanted, instead of being salty that I didn’t get the promotion, I should reach out to that friend for advice!

While I gained some great insights from Big Friendship, I think the book would have been even stronger if it hadn’t used Sow and Friedman’s friendship as the model for all their ideas about friendship. I’m inspired by the co-authors’ ability to maintain a deep and rewarding long-distance friendship, but at the same time, they are just two people, and not every friendship is going to look like theirs. In fact, many friendships cannot look like Sow and Friedman’s, because most people probably don’t have the resources to resolve rough patches in a friendship by going on a luxurious spa weekend, or paying for expensive couple’s counseling (two things that the co-authors talk about in the book).

While Big Friendship certainly isn’t perfect, I still enjoyed it. The book is highly readable, and surprisingly not too heavy despite its focus on maintaining deep, interpersonal relationships. And even though I found many of the authors’ anecdotes unrelatable, I still gained valuable insights from their book.

Book Review: Hunger

Roxane Gay’s Hunger is a collection of the author’s complex thoughts about her body. In the memoir, Gay explores how a traumatic childhood event led to her weight gain, and examines how having an “unruly body” (as she calls it) has affected her self-image, relationships, and life experiences.

The book: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

One of my favorite things about Hunger was Gay’s honesty and vulnerability. Throughout the memoir, Gay unapologetically portrays herself in all of her complexity, including her moments of pettiness and insecurity. Gay takes ownership of her body and her experiences, but she balances that self-possession with honesty about the ways in which she still struggles to accept herself. Listening to Hunger as an audiobook – which is narrated by Gay herself – especially accentuates her vulnerability.

In addition to being deeply moved by Hunger, I also learned a lot from it. Early in the memoir, Gay mentions that the upper-end of the “normal” BMI range was lowered in 1998. This infuriated me, because I have heard so many fear-mongering claims that the obesity “epidemic” in the United States has dramatically increased in the past 30ish years. None of those claims were accompanied by an acknowledgement that this “increase” is likely an artifact of the way we classify overweightness.

Hunger also opened my eyes to more obvious problems with the way fatness is treated in the United States; problems that should have been obvious to me, but that I had never considered before reading this book. An example of such a problem is the fact that overweight people experience eating disorders too. This hadn’t occurred to me before, because (as Gay points out) health class textbooks and the media generally don’t talk about eating disorders as something that overweight people struggle with. Another example is TV shows – like The Biggest Loser – which portray fatness as a problem to be combatted by any means necessary. Taken together, these examples paint a disturbing picture of how American society actively encourages unhealthy weight loss strategies. This hadn’t explicitly occurred to me before, but as Gay pointed out these problems, they immediately rang true.

Without summarizing the entire memoir, here are a few more of Gay’s critiques that really resonated with and moved me. First, I loved Gay’s idea that women in particular are pressured to be thin because thin women literally take up less space, and American society certainly isn’t ready for women to take up as much space as men. I also appreciated Gay’s point that no matter how powerful a woman becomes, she will never be exempt from critiques of her body (she cites Oprah as an example of this). Finally, I loved Gay’s idea that it is possible to know logically that your body doesn’t define your worth, yet simultaneously feel insecure about your body in a society that harshly judges appearances (especially women’s appearances).

My one critique of Hunger is that some of the chapters ended a bit abruptly, giving some of the stories an “unfinished” quality. Still, the writing was incredibly moving, and the chapters came together to create a beautiful and powerful memoir. I loved Hunger and would highly recommend it.

Trigger warnings: eating disorders, r*pe. Even if these aren’t normally triggers for you, Gay’s accounts of her experiences are so deeply personal that they might shake you up a bit.

Book Review: Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands is about an elderly widow named Vesta, whose mundane life is disrupted by a note that she finds while walking her dog in the woods. The note says “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Vesta’s curiosity about this note slowly begins to consume her, and she starts spending the majority of her time trying to solve the murder mystery with what limited information she has.

The book: Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

If you’re looking for a fast-paced mystery novel, you won’t find it in Death in Her Hands. Although the novel has some elements of mystery, the real focus of this story is the narrator’s mental and emotional state. Vesta is elderly and lonely, and without much factual information about the mysterious note she found in the woods, she spends most of her time pondering hypothetical situations that could have led to Magda’s death. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with Magda’s death, Vesta’s grip on reality – and therefore the events of the novel as described by Vesta – becomes hazy.

Conceptually, I think what Moshfegh did with Death in Her Hands was clever and interesting. Humans are extremely good at telling stories, and we are especially prone to telling ourselves stories to make sense of situations that don’t have an obvious explanation. When we do this without enough factual information, however, we can get lost in spiraling thoughts that are no longer based on reality. I find the stories that people tell themselves fascinating, and I can appreciate the ideas behind Moshfegh’s detailed exploration of an elderly widow getting lost in her own mind.

While I appreciate what Moshfegh was trying to explore in Death in Her Hands, I didn’t actually enjoy reading it. This 270-page novel takes place over the course of a couple days, and most of that time is spent inside Vesta’s unreliable mind. The combination of slow pacing and an unreliable narrator who may or may not be losing her mind just didn’t work for me – especially since I had expected the book to be more of a mystery than it turned out to be. I kept waiting for the mystery to pick up, but it never really did.

Although Death in Her Hands didn’t work for me, I still recommend checking it out if you were previously interested, or if it sounds interesting to you based on this review. Many of my issues with the book are the result of my own expectations, so if you go into this book knowing that it is not a typical mystery novel, you will likely have a better time with it.

Trigger warnings: fatphobic narrator and an animal abuse scene that I wish I could unread.

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is, as you may have inferred from the title, an essay collection and memoir from stand-up comedian W. Kamau Bell. If you haven’t seen his work, I highly recommend his Netflix comedy special “Private School Negro” or his CNN show “United Shades of America.” In his memoir, Bell dissects the various components of his identity – fatherhood, Blackness, activism, nerdiness, and more – and how they shape who he is as a person.

The book: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Before I get into the content of the book, I want to mention that I read this as an audiobook, which probably influenced my opinion in some ways. Bell has a deep, clear voice which is pleasant to listen to and well-suited for audiobooks. Beyond enjoying the sound of Bell’s voice, I enjoyed the experience of hearing his stories in his own voice. From now on, I will try to listen to memoirs and autobiographies exclusively as audiobooks.

I also enjoyed the book itself. W. Kamau Bell’s comedy is political with an emphasis on intersectional racism, and so is his memoir. The book isn’t exclusively about racism or politics, but as a Black man in America (or more specifically, a 6’4″ black man married to a white woman, with two interracial children), Bell’s perspectives are influenced by the racism that he has witnessed and experienced. Even the chapters about “apolitical” things – such as Bell’s love of superheroes, Denzel Washington, and the movie Creed – eventually touch upon race, subtly demonstrating the ways in which racism seeps into virtually every facet of American culture.

In addition to offering excellent commentary on intersectionality, Bell describes his life experiences with brilliant transparency and authenticity. He proudly talks about his nerdiness, his love for his family, and his personal and professional growth. He is also very open about how his shortcomings and failures shaped him, discussing failures in the early stages of his stand-up career, his unconscious sexist biases that he unlearned with the help of a friend, and even a rough patch in his marriage where he and his wife lived apart. Of course, celebrities aren’t required to present themselves in all of their complexity to write an enjoyable memoir, but I found Bell’s honesty refreshing.

My biggest critique of The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell is that it could have been considerably shorter. The book is repetitive in places, and his elaborate build-ups to important moments didn’t always work for me. One story in particular focuses on an incident at a gas station that took place over the span of a few minutes, but Bell spends over twenty minutes telling the story! I also took issue with a comment Bell made that “some kids are just jerks. After all, where else do adult jerks come from?” The comment was probably a joke, but it was one of his jokes that really didn’t land for me, especially because it contradicts Bell’s own assertion that jokes at the expense of innocent people aren’t that funny.

Overall, though, I had a great time with The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. This deeply personal essay collection strikes a great balance between funny, sincere, and serious. I also learned a lot from Bell’s stories, with one of my biggest takeaways being that racism subtly invades just about every facet of American society (even things that white Americans think of as “apolitical”). I would recommend this book – especially as an audiobook so you can hear Bell’s stories in his own voice!

Book Review: So We Can Glow

This post is a couple weeks late, but I recently read Leesa Cross-Smith’s short story collection So We Can Glow. Actually, as I learned from Melanie at Grab the Lapels, this is a flash-fiction collection: most of the stories are just a few pages long. The stories in this collection feature women in moments of obsession, longing, and fantasy.

The book: So We Can Glow: Stories by Leesa Cross-Smith
Genre: Contemporary, short-stories
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

While the stories all center around similar themes, they are different enough from each other to make for a varied and interesting reading experience. So We Can Glow is a book about obsession, but the stories are also about loneliness, longing, grief, fear, fearlessness, and friendship. The stories also vary in tone – some are whimsical, some are heavy, and some are endearingly weird. That variety in theme and tone really worked for me: it made most of the stories distinct enough from each other to be memorable, and it also allowed me to experience a full range of emotions as I read through the collection.

And even though the stories in this collection are short, Leesa Cross-Smith made them unbelievably captivating in just a few pages. It normally takes me a while to “get into” any new story I’m reading, but with So We Can Glow I instantly felt connected to the characters and their worlds. The writing is lyrical, immersive, nostalgic and also super readable.

I also appreciated how the characters’ emotions are given validity no matter what. Even when the characters behave in challenging ways, Cross-Smith never judges her characters or goes into lengthy explanations to justify their behavior. Instead, she unapologetically shows her characters as they are in the brief moments of their lives that the stories capture. In this way, the collection kind of reminded me of Amber Sparks’ And I Do Not Forgive You or Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, but Cross-Smith’s stories were much more compelling and accessible to me.

Finally, I want to mention that some of the later stories in the collection follow up on earlier stories. Continuity in a short story collection isn’t a necessity for me, but in this case I really appreciated the opportunity to follow up on old characters and to see their stories from new perspectives.

My overall impression was that the stories in this collection are beautifully written, emotionally evocative, endearing, and unapologetically authentic. I loved and highly recommend So We Can Glow, and can’t wait to read more of Cross-Smith’s work.

Month in Review: June 2020

It’s July! This INSANE year is halfway over! I’m a little late posting my June wrap-up, and that’s because I finally started a job after 4 months of unemployment. As a research technician, I work with lab equipment that can’t be taken home (for many reasons), which means that I am physically going into work. It is risky, but I feel pretty safe at work – everyone wears masks and the lab I work in is spacious enough to achieve 6 feet of distance between employees. Anyway, I’m mentioning the new job because, until I adjust to my new schedule, I will be posting less on here. Now, onto the monthly wrap-up!

Books read:

Books in progress/July TBR:

I’m not sure if reading 9 books this month is realistic, but I want to try! I bought two of these as audiobooks, which should help. I’m currently in the middle of Catherine House and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell (seriously struggling to finish Catherine House, though). Other books that I want to read this month include:

  • Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh: I pre-ordered this AGES ago, and it finally arrived last week! I’m so excited for this (hopefully not too excited, though – sometimes I hype up books too much in my mind, and end up severely disappointed).
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: I’m reading this for a book club this month. As much as the internet and tough conversations have been great resources for unlearning some of my subconscious racist biases, I’m also eager to read a full-on book about race and anti-racism.
  • Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid: this has been on my TBR forever, and doing the Midyear Book Freakout Tag reminded me that I really need to read this!
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman: This was my BOTM pick for July (and yes, I’m still supporting BOTM – at least for now – since they appear to be using their platform to promote authors of color).
  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. Really looking forward to this short non-fiction book about how literature contributes to the narrative on race/racism.
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay. I’ve wanted to read Roxane Gay’s works for a while, so I’m finally committing to it. I hope to read all of her books within the next year or so.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This one has been on my “TBR” since my TBR was just a mental list of books that I wanted to read. It’s about time that I actually read it!

Blog posts/anti-racism resources:

Instead of my favorite wordpress posts of the month, here are some anti-racism resources that helped me this month 🙂

  1. This extensive list of anti-racism resources, including funds to donate to.
  2. This Google Doc full of resources for taking action against racism.
  3. Etiquette for white people at BLM protests.
  4. A list of anti-racist movies and TV shows.
  5. This article (from 2015) about why it is ignorant and harmful to say that you “do not see race.” If you know people who say this and aren’t sure how to talk to them, this article might help.
  6. This article about how to talk to people who always focus on “the riots and the looting!!!” in conversations about race.
  7. This article about how white women unintentionally center themselves in conversations about race, and ways to stop doing that. This one is controversial, and I have friends of color who don’t entirely agree with it, but I’m still including it because reading and discussing it with others really helped me.

June photos:

The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag, 2020 edition

I can’t believe 2020 is halfway over. To celebrate a solid six months of reading, and the books that have helped get me through a ROUGH first half of the year, I’m participating in the Mid Year Book Freakout Tag for the first time! If you haven’t participated yet, please feel free to post your answers to this tag too!

1. Best book you’ve read in 2020 so far:

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This book about a young person with a fractured sense of self was absolutely incredible. I loved the way this book blended psychological introspection with Igbo folklore, and the lyrical prose really moved me too.

2. Best sequel:

I haven’t read any sequels in 2020 yet, but I do hope to get to Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery – sequel to Who Is Vera Kelly? – by the end of the year.

3. New release you haven’t read yet but really want to:

A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang, and Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh. I’ve heard excellent things about the first three novels, and although I haven’t heard much about Death in Her Hands yet, I love Otessa Moshfegh and have high hopes for her latest novel.

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year:

I have way too many, so I’m “narrowing it down” to the following six:

  1. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. After reading Freshwater (AKA the best book I read in 2020), I am a huge Akwaeke Emezi fan! I can’t wait to read their next novel.
  2. Memorial by Bryan Washington. I really liked Washington’s Lot, so I’m excited to read more of his work!
  3. Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos. I don’t read very much mystery, but this one sounds really good!
  4. Luster by Raven Leilani. The Goodreads blurb has me sold. Bonus points for positive reviews that compared the Leilani’s writing to that of Gillian Flynn (although Leilani is an ownvoices Black author, and her writing likely holds its own without the comparison to white authors).
  5. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwaab. This is another novel where the Goodreads blurb has me sold. I’ve heard so much praise for V.E. Schwaab and would love to finally read her this year.
  6. Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh. I have been awaiting this book’s release for like five years now. I am so freaking excited that it’s finally happening!!

5. Biggest disappointment:

Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Part of the reason why I was so disappointed by this novel was because I had pretty high hopes going into it. Based on the Goodreads blurb, I thought that it would be one of my favorite WP longlist reads. Instead it was trope-y with underdeveloped characters.

6. Biggest Surprise:

Circe (by Madeline Miller) surprised me because I didn’t think of myself as a “mythology person” prior to this novel, but it was so compelling that now I kind of am. Red at the Bone (by Jacqueline Woodson) surprised me because I didn’t expect much from such a short (<200 page) novel, but it turned out to have more character development and commentary than some 500+ page novels I’ve read.

7. Favorite new author:

Akwaeke Emezi and Leesa Cross-Smith. Neither are 2020 debut authors, but they are both new to me and I’m looking forwarding to reading more of their works!

8. Newest favorite character:

Stubborn Archivist wasn’t a perfect read for me, but I really admired and felt for the novel’s protagonist! I’ll definitely read more of Rodrigues-Fowler’s work in the future, and her compelling characters are part of the reason why.

9. A Book that made you cry:

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. There were other books that made me tear up or cry a little bit, but these three wrecked me to the point that I had to stop reading because I was getting so emotional.

10. A Book that made you happy:

So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith. Although not all the stories in this collection are happy, there is so much hope, joy, and love in this book about female obsession and desire.

11. Favorite book-to-film adaptation.

Definitely Hulu’s adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The show was heavy-handed with the drama at times, but I still thought it was well done. I especially appreciated that the producers/writers made Mia and Pearl black, and another one of the MC’s gay, because it added valuable commentary.

12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought or read:

Hamnet or Hex. Both of these book covers look simple at first glance, but are actually quite intricate when you take a closer look. Plus, I’m a sucker for botanical designs.

13. book you want to read by the end of the year:

THERE ARE SO MANY!!! Ideally I would get to everything that I listed for questions #3 and #4 by the end of this year, although I don’t know if that’s realistic. In addition to those ten books, I also want to read How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe, and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.