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We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

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Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel

lastnightinmontrealI’m slowly making my way through reading other works by the authors who dominated the list of my 5 favorite reads of 2016: I’m currently reading an ARC of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest collection, We Were 8 Years in Power; I scooped up Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, in a bookshop last week; and I finally tackled Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel despite snagging it in February.

While I absolutely adore Mandel’s writing style (she has some of the prettiest prose I’ve ever stumbled across), this book was not as breathtaking as Station Eleven. I fell in love with several sentences throughout the novel, but the story as a whole simply didn’t move me in the same way. All of that said, it was still an interesting novel that I pored through incredibly quickly and didn’t find myself bored along the way… but if I was going to recommend one of Mandel’s works to you, I would forcefully push Station Eleven into your lap and leave Last Night in Montreal on the bookshelf for you to pick up on your own when the winds call you that way.

Is this review a little harsh for me actually enjoying the book? Yes! I think I just have a hard time comparing it to Mandel’s other riveting work, but this was still good. In the same way that Station Eleven weaves around narrators and individual lives, Last Night in Montreal largely shifts between four narrators and weaves in and out of the present and when a big event happened in the lives of one of the narrators.

Our main narrator, Eli, is perturbed when his girlfriend Lilia, another one of our narrators, abruptly disappears. But disappearing has been one of the only constants in her life since she was about seven years old and abducted from her home by her father. The private investigator attempting to track Lilia’s whereabouts is one of our other narrators, as is his daughter, Michaela, who is nearly the same age as Lilia. The main portions of the tale revolve around getting us to understand the nature of Lilia’s abduction, why she can’t seem to stay in one place, Eli’s grappling with Lilia being a loose thread, yet more connected to her purpose than the stationary Eli who talks about creating great things, but never seems to actually create anything, and Michaela who is attempting to understand her father’s motivations and the dissolution of her own family system. I was able to predict one of the bigger mysteries and felt like Mandel could’ve used her beautiful words to paint a more colorful picture instead of leaving the reader with a muted, vague, somewhat empty canvas of an explanation for one of the bigger questions in the novel, but I enjoyed the ride anyway. 

Not Quite a Genius by Nate Dern

notquiteageniusNate Dern, a comedian who has spent time at UCB and Funny or Die, wrote this compilation that is a blend of memoir and fictional, sometimes absurdist, pieces. I’m not gonna lie, it took me a while to warm up to this collection, in the same way it takes an audience member to warm up to a stand up comedian spewing jokes on a stage. Before stumbling across this book, I had never heard of Nate Dern and wasn’t familiar with any of his comedy bits. This also meant that his humor wasn’t easy for me to access initially because I was completely unfamiliar with his style. Reading Not Quite a Genius was the opposite of my experience reading Simon Rich’s The Last Girlfriend on Earth, a collection that is somewhat similar in style, but from a writer I was familiar with and thus was more easily able to dive into his kookier bits that may have been inaccessible otherwise. In the same way that an audience member must be warmed up at a comedy gig, it took me a few chapters to habituate to the writer’s humor and style, but once I did, I laughed to myself multiple times.  

For me, the collection picked up about a third of the way through… or that was how many pages it took to successfully warm me up to Dern’s humor. I thought the funniest bits were when Dern shifted more into humorous memoir territory (the first chapter is brilliant as he details his gawky young adult years). While the fictional bits were less my speed, I giggled several times while reading the “Bruce Lee Novelty Plate” and “How Many Farts Measure a Life” chapters.

That said, some of the funny bits just didn’t come across for me in print at all. In my head, I could imagine the fictional scenarios having more ~umph~ if I were hearing them performed live, but I experienced a disconnect while I was reading (specifically the chapter “I Like All Types of Music and My Sense of Humor Is So Random”). That’s the thing about these types of compilations: while this chapter was a swing and a miss in print for me, it might be a grand slam for a different reader. For any reader seeking a comedic collection, there will be a piece in Not Quite a Genius that is a grand slam for you. If you’re already a fan of Dern’s comedy, you’ll probably witness several grand slams. 

Not Quite a Genius will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on August 8, 2017! 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Simon & Schuster or NetGalley.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 1.43.58 PMThis book had me feeling some type of way: I had a nightmare the first night that I started reading the book AND it was the first book to make me cry in quite some time, so maybe my liquid emotions and anxiety dreams can speak for my feelings about the book? They’ll have to do.

We Are Okay, a novel that weaves a tangle of grief/becoming an orphan, desperately wishing for familial closeness that is lacking and desiring the loving families of your closest friends, was riveting in its details of the narrator, Marin, coming to terms with her new life and losses. While the story was beautifully constructed, I marveled at how well LaCour described Marin’s basic daily life, giving space to the minute actions and emotions one does as they navigate new life circumstances. The book hit close to home for me and rattled a lot of closed doors that live inside my body. Chapters 26 and 27 wrecked me in the best way. We Are Okay was good. Would the novel be good to someone who didn’t strongly identify with its contents? I don’t know. Would it hurt as much to read for someone who didn’t strongly identify? Hopefully not.

We Are Okay was gentle and brutal and beautiful simultaneously. I hope you give it a shot.

“I wonder if there’s a secret current that connects people who have lost something. Not in the way that everyone loses something, but in the way that undoes your life, undoes your self, so that when you look at your face it isn’t yours anymore.” (p. 68)
“The most innocent things can call back the most terrible.” (p. 65)

Mini Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 4.34.17 PMLandline, which is not the material that the new movie featuring Jenny Slate is based upon, felt like a romantic comedy film in book form. The storyline revolves around a landline that permits the main character to communicate with her spouse in a slightly mystical way that isn’t feasible otherwise. She communicates about her problems with her life, her relationship, and her general aura of lostness at her current point in life (mom, two kids, married, successful television writing career). The novel was sugary sweet and I found it to be a tad superficial with the problems of the main characters (in comparison to the other books I tend to gravitate toward anyway), almost like it skims the top of the feelings/emotions/situations I wish were explored more. However, this dosage is probably before for a lot of people — I’m just not the perfect patron.

That said, would I pick up one of Rowell’s novels when I was seeking a book that wouldn’t make me dive too deep into my own head or feel too many things? Probably. My boyfriend is convinced I’ll enjoy Fangirl, so that’ll probably be the one I give a shot next.

My 5 Favorite Books I’ve Read in 2017 (so far)

At the end of 2016, I made a post about my 5 favorite reads of the year that was a hit. Since I’m on track to read more books this year than last, I’ve decided to round up a list of my five favorite books that I read during the first half of 2017 (January through June). The books aren’t ranked in any sort of way, but they were all fantastic to me in different ways. I’ve given my favorite reads mini reviews here, along with linking to their fuller reviews too. Let me know the title of your favorite book you’ve read this year in the comments! I’m already nearly done with some new reads that I feel like will make this list in December (like Mandy Len Catron’s How to Fall in Love with Anyone and the widely adored The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas)!!

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Horseradish by Lemony Snicket

horseradishThis collection of tales and thoughts from the mind of Lemony Snicket is composed of “bitter truths you cannot avoid in this world” (p. 9). I decided to pick it up (from my local library since it’s currently out of print…) during my recent A Series of Unfortunate Events binge. It begins with a 10-page story about one character and I had assumed the rest of the book would be a series of similar vignettes, but they were actually short statements about life (at most spanning 1.5 pages). I ended up copying down so many quotes from the book that I finally started a quotes journal that will consist of all of my favorite book related quotes that I find.

While reading the collection, I noticed that one of my favorite quotes was directly lifted from The Wide Window, which I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t just finished re-reading it! As I continued, I noticed that other things were repeated quotes from A Series of Unfortunate Events. All was revealed when I finally read the inside book flap of the book, which described the collection as “a bouquet of alarming but inescapable truths from the work of Lemony Snicket, along with selections from his unpublished papers,” hence some quotes would clearly be repeats, but some would be entirely new to me. That said, I still loved rereading them and they felt revelatory, even out of context. I wish the book was still in print so that I could flip it open whenever I wanted! I’ve included some of my favorite quotes are below.

“Sometimes words are not enough.” (p. 78)

“One cannot spend forever sitting and solving the mysteries of one’s history.” (p. 141)

“Grief, a type of sadness that most often occurs when you have lost someone you love, is a sneaky thing, because it can disappear for a long time, and then pop back up when you least expect it.” (p. 112)

“Everyone disappoints everyone eventually.” (p. 26)

“Wishing, like sipping a glass of punch, or pulling aside a bearskin rug in order to access a hidden trapdoor in the floor, is merely a quiet way to spend one’s time before the candles are extinguished on one’s birthday cake.” (p. 62)

“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don’t read is often as important as what you do read.” (p. 71)

“She wondered if life was more than traveling from one place to another, suffering from poor emotional health and pondering the people one loves.” (p. 4)

And this quote which I plan to use with my undergraduate students before discussing a book that will encourage diverging interpretations of the text, “Entertaining a notion, like entertaining a baby cousin or entertaining a pack of hyenas, is a dangerous thing to refuse to do. if you refuse to entertain a baby cousin, the baby cousin may get bored and entertain itself by wandering off and falling down a well. if you refuse to entertain a pack of hyenas, they may become restless and entertain themselves by devouring you. but if you refuse to entertain a notion — which is just a fancy way of saying you refuse to think about a certain idea — you have to be much braver than someone who is merely facing some blood-thirsty animals, or some parents who are upset to find their little darling at the bottom of a well, because nobody knows what an idea will do when it goes off to entertain itself.” (p. 63)