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Book Review: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

Between the world and meLast week I had the opportunity to lead the book club discussion at the library I work at. I chose the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A few weeks before the meeting I was talking to a colleague about it, and it hit me: this could actually be a really, really difficult discussion because of where I live. (Deep in the heart of Utah County, where people say things like “all lives matter” without even flinching, where that trumpy way of thinking about race—oh, all those Black people are just overreacting and it’s not like slavery is still a thing so can’t we just move on?—is very prevalent.) Plus, what was I thinking, a white woman in a white community trying to a lead a discussion about a book that explores how racism impacts people of color?

But I had picked it because it still feels important to me, for all of us to have these conversations, even if my community doesn’t necessarily share my values.

There were no fireworks at the discussion, but it went about as I had expected. One member loved the book like I did, but the rest were some varying level of that trumpy thought process. One woman said something that’s stuck with me, about how the author seems to have a chip on his shoulder and is making himself miserable. If he’d just focus on what has changed instead of worrying so much about how things used to be, he’d be so much happier. He’s impacted by racism because he chooses to be, and if he just chose something different he’d be fine.

I didn’t say what I really felt about that, which is that that is a way she looks at the issue is also a choice. We all bring ourselves, our race and culture and religion and experiences, to every choice we make. I strive to choose to look beyond myself, to allow that others’ experiences are different than mine and that my role isn’t to tell them how they should feel or act or choose, but to listen and try to understand. (Actually, what I really thought was it doesn’t seem like you understood the point he was making but I remained professional and didn’t say that.)

Another question I asked, which is something I ask in all the book group discussions I lead, was “what other books by people of color have you read that have impacted your understanding of racism?” I listed some of mine: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Beloved, An American Marriage, Audre Lorde’s collected essays. Then: crickets. No one had a response to that question. Then one of the group members asked “but isn’t that racist? I don’t read books based on the race of the author.”


Sometimes life contradicts imagination. There was a part of me (the hopeful part that chose the book in the first place) that imagined a great discussion about what these white people learned about living as a Black person in America. But that conversation still can’t be had, at least not here.

I don’t know how to write that without sounding like I’m judging, or like I think I’m smarter or better than others, and that’s not my intention. I just don’t think in the same ways most of my community does, and I am so hungry for discussion that makes me feel seen instead of strange.

All of which is to say: Recently I reread Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read it when it was fairly new, and my memories of it were vague. I read a library copy before, but this time I bought my own, and it is full of underline and comments. While I don’t think Coates’s philosophies are without argument—he takes an awfully long time to realize that “the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know.” But I disagree heartily with the book club member’s idea that he should, basically, “just get over it.” “Look on the bright side” is, to my mind, a particularly Mormon way of thinking, and while yes, it is not great to always be stuck in the darkness and misery of human life, not looking at what is real is equally, if not more, damaging. It’s not about carrying a grudge, it’s about hitting up over and over against the fact that as an African American, he is treated differently, and I appreciate him sharing the details of what that is like so that I, at the very least, understand that all perspectives are not the same as my own.

I’m glad I read it if only so I could be reminded of this metaphor:

The right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

And the rest of that concept speaks directly to the book club member’s perspective:

There is no them without you [remember, this is a book written as a letter to his son, so the “you” isn’t you the reader but you, the author’s son], and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.

I’m not entirely outside of the Dream. (I’m not sure any white person can be.) But I am trying to be aware of how my life influences others in ways that lessen their divinity. The patron is still deep in the Dream and can’t (yet?) see that not everyone is there with her.

But I’m also glad I reread it, if just for what he wrote about writing. How writing is a way of thinking, of figuring out what you think about what you experience. And this line, which struck me hard not because I’m white and he’s Black but because we both love words:

All I then wanted was to write as those black people danced, with control, power, joy, warmth.

And this is me entirely taking out of context what he wrote. He didn’t write it for me, a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman. But as myself, I want that too. Not that I want to write like others, but that I want to do it with that control, power, joy, warmth. As an expression of who I am.

I’m glad and grateful that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this book and that I got to read it. (Reread, and also listen to him reading the audio.) It has helped me understand the world better, and that is a source of power.

Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever. I’d like to think that’s not true. But if it is, then no one on Earth survived this war. 

One of the cool things in my life right now is having an adult kid who likes to read (and has time to). My son Nathan and I have great conversations about books. I mean...I’ve always tried to talk to my kids about books and what they think about what they’re reading. Or to suggest things to them that I have loved. But it’s a different feeling when they’re adults and you don’t have to censor much, but can just talk about the issues. We recommend books to each other a lot, and it makes me happy!

World war zA few months ago he told me I had to listen to the audio version of World War Z by Max Brooks. It didn’t feel like holiday reading for me, though, and then I was just so stuck in the dark in the middle of winter that I couldn’t delve into a zombie war until spring had at least started to come our way. In fact, I started listening to it just a couple of days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The audio of this is excellent. It has a whole cast, rather than just one reader. Nathan Fillion is one of the readers, which kind of made my day. (I love him.) The structure of the book is perfect for this kind of reading. 

Listening to a novel about a war—even if it was with zombies—while an actual war was starting in the world was a strange feeling. (I was also reading a book about World War II, Still Life, and I actually had to set it aside for a bit because three wars happening in my head were just too much.)  It really drove home all of the ways that humanity is horrible to each other (both WWZ and the current war have vacuum bombs, for example), the way that we take so long to figure out this war that we’re in because we’re still fighting the last one. How leadership quite often moves too slowly.

But also sometimes gets it right.

Unlike the movie, the novel World War Z is told not in a straightforward narrative, but as an oral documentation, ten years or so after the fight against the zombies is mostly over. So it is a collection of people’s stories from across the world, told interview-style, of what they did and how they survived the battles. The stories that really stood out for me were these:

Father Sergei Ryzkhov, from Russia. He describes being a religious person in an atheist country, and his realization that the soldiers who were infected had to kill themselves was, in his mind, offensive to God. So he takes over the task, which becomes the act of Final Purification. Even just revisting this to write about it brings me to tears. It is so awful and so—noble isn’t quite the right word, but close. But then it devolves into assassinations in the name of purification and there it goes again: humanity’s consistent turning to inhumanity.

The burning of Kiev. Even if I hadn’t read this when Kiev was literally under attack, it would have stuck with me: the enormous statue Rodina Mat falling, “her cold, bright eyes looking down at us as we ran.”

Jesika Hendricks, from Wisconsin. She is a child who flees north when the infestation starts, with her parents who think it will only be a couple of months. The choices they have to make, and all that’s contained in something she says: “By Christmas Day there was plenty of food.” The will to survive no matter what, the struggle of being a refugee, the degradation of the natural world. So much of her story hit me hard.

Maria Zhuganova, also from Russia. She was already in the army when this started, and when her group refused to shoot someone who was infected—a rebellion of sorts—the Russian army instituted Decimation. They were divided into groups of ten and each group had to kill one of its members. The rest of her story, where she ends up after the war and what she does, is equally awful.

I just realized that half of the stories that really had an impact on me are Russian stories. And Ukraine isn’t Russia but on its borders. Is this because I read the book while Russia was invading? Maybe. In the book, many countries do horrible things. But that way of thinking…that, to me, is one of the masterful parts of the book. That he manages to get inside the thought processes of so many different nationalities, to show us both the differences and the similarities.

World War Z is one of those books that there isn’t a word for: a horrible, devastating story but so well written it must be called excellent. But how do you call “good” something that lays out so clearly the worst of humanity? Even if there are a few good moments.

So I just keep coming back to the quote I opened with, which really is what will stay with me from this book. The idea that wars actually never end, but continue feeding and influencing the next ones. True in fiction, true in real life (Putin claiming the war is to “denazify” Ukraine is him dragging the impact of what happened in World War II into the present day is only one example). If I have learned anything over the past half-decade it is that humans are less loving, kind, and good than I thought. From politics to health to very personal relationships, my faith in humanity has been broken, and this book confirmed those feelings.

And yet I am still glad I took Nathan up on his suggestion. I am glad I read this book, and glad for the timing of it. Not because it gave me hope, it didn’t. But because it helped me see that we all continue to be a part of this world, impacted by history as we make what will be history. It is a process we have always engaged in and maybe that is what it means to be human. Or at least a part of it.

Book Note: A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow

In that moment he reminds me of Charm’s parents, or maybe my own: A person whole love is a burdensome thing, a weight dragging always at your ankles. 

Spindle splinteredI absolutely loved Alix E. Harrow’s books The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches. So I was excited to read her novella A Spindle Splintered.

This is a contemporary retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. Zinnia is terminally ill, struggling with a rare condition that affected her after industrial pollution infiltrated the town she grew up in. No one else who contracted the condition has lived past 21, so her twenty-first birthday is a big deal: it’ll likely be her last.

In an attempt to live as much of her life as possible, Zinnia’s already completed her college education, majoring in folklore, and she’s obsessed with the Sleeping Beauty tale. So, to celebrate her birthday, her friend Charm finds an actual spinning wheel for part of the party decorations. When the party’s about to end, Zinnia spins the wheel—and is shuttled into an alternate universe, where a real-life princess is under a spell that matches the Sleeping Beauty curse.

How Zinnia, Charm, and Primrose manage to escape (or not) their fates is the bulk of the story.

While I loved reading this story, I wanted it to be more. It felt very much like a novella, in fact: a complete story, but not...not textured enough. A bit more shallow than her other works. Or, to look at it a different way: it’s a fun book, but I wanted it to have more substance.

But I’m still glad I read it because it was a puzzle piece for me. That quote I opened with: burdensome love that drags around your ankles. I’ve felt that about other people in my life, but I never really realized that *I* am that weight to someone else in my life. Reading those words didn’t take that realization away, nor did it fix an of this issue I’m struggling with, but it gave me a frame of reference. Word for the experience.

Which is all part of the magic of reading. 

Book Note: Outlawed by Anna North

I had work to do, and as I saw the possibility of doing it recede into the brightening distance, I grew ever more afraid that I would lose myself—not in the way Kid had, but slowly, every day blanking out a piece of my heart and mind, until I faced some sheriff’s gun or executioner’s gallows with no fear or sorrow, because that which was worth protecting had already ebbed away.

I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of westerns. I do have a deep and abiding affection for Lonesome Dove and True Grit and stories about the American West, pioneers and cowboys and Native Americans and just that enduring myth of the freedom of the time (we just finished watching the TV show 1883 as another example). But I don’t love the conventions of the genre, the black-hat villain and the white-hat protagonist, the bad Indians and the good white settlers. Which is almost saying the same thing.

It’s easier to say that I like historical fiction set during the settling of the West.

OutlawedAnyway, what I am always drawn to are genre mashups, and I’ve been meaning to read Anna North’s novel Outlawed for a while now. And I finally picked it up after the enduring experience of librarianship: seeing a book on a discard cart and remembering you wanted to read it, so you pick it up during a slow moment and fall instantly into the story. Yep, this one’s coming home with me. (Even if you already have 27 other things checked out.) 

The book is definitely not a traditional western, nor is it authentic historical fiction (based on all the things that actually might’ve happened). Instead, it is a feminist reinterpretation of the western genre. Ada lives in an America that was recently decimated by a plague. This has caused a shift in society, wherein fertility is highly prized. Indeed, if it seems you are infertile, you’re likely to be a witch and thus need executing (or at least being left to languish in a prison for the rest of your life). Ada’s mother is a midwife, so she’s grown up knowing about delivering babies, women’s bodies, and other medical issues. She never imagines she would be infertile, but to her surprise, she is.

Rather than live in a convent, and to escape the sheriff who is still searching for her to satisfy the community’s need to execute her, she flees West, to find the Hole in the Wall Gang, a notorious group of bandits lead by The Kid who steal and blow up trains and make all sorts of mischief.

I loved this book so much. It plays with the conventions of the western genre in such an amusing and educated way, and I loved how vividly the setting (Hole in the Wall is an actual place in Wyoming, which I now want to visit, that was the fabled hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) comes to life.  But mostly I love Ada. She is intelligent and brave but she also makes a bunch of mistakes. Her pain over her marriage gets to be soothed in a surprising way. And the path she takes to discover herself, dusty and rocky and stumbling, felt authentic to me.

I’m glad to add another western to my list of “I don’t like westerns.” 

Book Review: The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood

She became aware of a presence in her own mind. The touch of the Siren was quite unlike that of the Unspoken Name. This felt like a caress of warm water, rising slowly among smooth stones. Like the Unspoken Name she promised oblivion, but more softly. How sweet and soothing it would be to give way to her. Her voice curled around Csorwe like coils of vapour, gentle, ethereal.

Unspoken nameAfter reading two romance novels that fell flat for me, I decided to go back to a book I started in late December. I had enjoyed the first fifty pages but then gotten side tracked for unknown reasons. A good fantasy was exactly what I needed, I thought, to get back into a good reading groove.

The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood is a high fantasy novel set in a universe composed of different worlds that are connected by gates one passes through via airships. This made me think a bit of Laini Taylor’s novels, but here the worlds and gates aren’t hidden or secret. Moving between the worlds involves going through a gate, then traveling through the Great Maze, a place I imagined as a gigantic landscape made of canyons in volcanic stone; one must know how to move through the maze to get to the next gate and thus to the next world.

Some of the worlds connected through the maze are dead or dying, but others are vibrant.

The story starts with Csorwe, who lives in a sort of convent. In her community, she is the chosen Child Bride; when she turns 14 she will be sacrificed to this world’s god. A few weeks before this is to happen, a traveler stops at the House of Silence and asks for a prophecy, which the Child Bride has the responsibility of giving. This man, Belthandros Sennethai, ultimately changes Csorwe’s life by offering her a choice: she can go into the cavern and be consumed by the god, or she can leave with him. She makes the latter choice, and the story takes off.

This was exactly what I needed: a book I loved falling right back inside of. Csorwe’s transformation starts with her choice to abandon the god she was pledged to, and works toward another sort of choice. I loved the layered worlds, the adventures Csorwe experiences, and the changes she makes as she grows. (I am keeping the summary purposefully vague as I think it is best, as with almost all fantasy novels, to just read it and discover the story as you go.)

While the book has the characteristics that make it fit within the high fantasy genre, it still felt fresh. I can’t say the worldbuilding is entirely unlike anything else. The Great Maze is similar to the Wood between the Worlds in Narnia, and Echentyr’s dead city reminded me of Charn. The influence of so many gods made me think of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, and there is a character who is killed when her body is transformed into different jewels (which happens in another of Jemisin’s works). There is that bit of a feel of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and maybe The Ten Thousand Doors of January although the books were only published a year apart so maybe that is just coincidence. 

But I didn’t have that “here I am, reading someone else’s take on Tolkein” feeling. Maybe because this is a high fantasy story that also includes libraries and one of the main characters is a librarian? Oranna (the librarian) is actually my favorite character in the book, perhaps because she is also an older woman. She is supposed to be the antagonist but I couldn’t read her that way—instead, she was just a person who refused to follow everyone else’s rules. (She must be in her forties.)

What I didn’t expect was that there is also romance in the story. It isn’t the focus, but is definitely one of the motivating factors. And after having been disappointed by those two romance novels I read earlier this year, once I realized that is where the story was going I got a little bit leary. But it was excellent (perhaps because it wasn’t the main focus), slow to build and never overly romantic romance.

While it wasn’t perfect (I think the conflict between Csorwe and Sennethai was not built up enough, for example, and Shuthmilli’s choices felt too abrupt) this was a good book to get me out of my slump. And: when I picked it up, I thought it was a stand alone, but turns out there is a sequel. A sequel that was released on the same day I finished The Unspoken Name. I’ve already requested the library to purchase it and am looking forward to going back into Csorwe’s layered world. (Hopefully with more Oranna.)

Book Review: Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

Happiness is tricky. Sometimes you have to fight for it. Sometimes, though—the best times—it sneaks up behind you, wraps an arm around your waist and pulls you close.

One of my favorite movies when I was a teenager was Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, a very 80s flick starring a pre-SITC Sarah Jessica Parker, about a Catholic school girl who sneaks out to dance with a boy so they can be in a competition together. (Actually it might’ve been my favorite movie, at least until Heathers came out.)

And I also loved Footloose quite a bit. 

Instructions for dancingI thought of these two little affections of mine while reading Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon, even though their only connection is “redemption through dancing.” (I actually want there to be more novels with the theme “dance redemption” but have yet to find any. Please send suggestions.) This YA novel tells the story of Evie Thomas who, as the story opens, is cleansing her book shelves of any and all romance novels, even though they are her favorite genre. This is because her dad cheated on her mom and thus broke all of her ideas about what love is.

When she leaves her books at a little free library she discovers, a woman hands her another book, Instructions for Dancing, and insists she take it. When she gets home, she realizes something has changed in her: When she sees someone kissing the person they love, she has a vision. She sees how the couple got together, a scene or two of their happiest moments, and how they will break up. It takes her awhile to figure out what’s going on, and the assistance of one of her best friends who assures her she’s not going crazy, she’s just been bewitched. Kind of like the character in the movie Big, she’s got this temporary magic power because she needs to figure something out.

So she takes a chance and goes to the dance studio whose address is in the book she got from the lady at the little free library (who she has since figured out was the one who bewitched—or maybe cursed—her). This is where her real adventures begin, and she gets convinced to learn how to ballroom dance so that she can enter a competition. 

To dance with X, the very tall, handsome boy whose grandparents own the studio. 

This is problematic because she has sworn off romantic love ever since her dad’s cheating. The visions have only made this worse as she now knows that all love eventually ends. 

So then we go through all of the usual romance-novel things and the touched-by-magic things. Which makes it sounds like I’m mocking the book, which I’m mostly not. It lives up to its romance-novel ideals while also creating characters I really loved and rooted for. I mean, cynical, romance-novel-hating moi read this book in two days, so: yeah. Not too bad.


This book made me so mad!

First off because the responsibility for her dad’s choice somehow ends up becoming Evie’s. In the sense that for her family to move on and to heal, she has to do all of the forgiving. She has to carry the burden of his secrets to protect her sister. She doesn’t want to see him or spend any time with him, but he muscles his way back into her life anyway. She learns that the woman he cheated with (who he is marrying) went through some vague “really hard stuff,” as if that justifies the cheating. He kind of apologizes to her, admitting he probably shouldn’t have cheated, but all of the emotional work in the relationship is processed through Evie, rather than the adult who caused the heartache in the first place.

This might be my own anti-cheating prejudice. I know cheating happens, in romance novels and in real life. I know several readers who won’t read novels with cheating because they’re morally opposed. I am OK with reading books with cheating characters, but I usually struggle having compassion for the cheaters. So Evie’s dad’s sort-of apology just rang...not exactly false, but weak. 







Eventually Evie kisses X with her eyes open, and she sees a vision about their future. Their romance won’t end with them breaking up because one of them gets bored or one of them cheats. Theirs will end when X dies. 


And of course that’s the spin that allows for the break-up-then-get-back-together trope, because Evie realizes what she needed to learn. Namely, that yes, while all love eventually ends, what matters is what happens right now, in the midst of the relationship. Which is of course a great thing to learn.

But that she learned that X is going to die but then she doesn’t do anything to prevent it (like, even insisting on a complete physical check up?) made me finish the book with disgust. He doesn’t die in a totally unpreventable way—car crash, house fire, random shooting. Nope, he dies from a bad heart valve he’d had from birth that no one knew about. Which: if his valve was bad enough to kill him in eight months, it would’ve been bad enough for a doctor to hear it with a stethoscope. 

Absolutely preventable death.

It’s not often that I want to do physical violence upon a book, but when I finished this one I did. I wanted to throw it into a wall. Then I reminded myself that it’s just a story, a fantasy story at that. A romance, which is the height of unlikely anyway.

My response is at least testament that the author created characters I cared about. But the ending ruined the magic of the rest of it for me. 

Book Review: Last Night at The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Perhaps one day she’d get used to the way it made her feel: dislocated and dazed, never quite certain if the other half of her would stay offstage as directed. But tonight she felt as if she were constantly on the edge of saying or doing something wrong, and the effort of keeping that unwelcome half silent was making her sick.

Last night at the telegraph clubI am trying to pin down why I didn’t love Malinda Lo’s YA novel, Last Night at The Telegraph Club.

I loved so many things about it! It tells the story of Lily Hu, an Asian-American girl in 1950s San Francisco who is slowly realizing she is a lesbian. She doesn’t, as the story starts, even really have a concept of what that is, or even how it might be expressed through her, but as she has experiences—seeing an advertisement for a cross-dressing singer who performs at a bar, bumping into a queer pulp novel in a drugstore display—she begins to question, explore, and act. With the aid of her new friend Kath, she sneaks away at night sometimes, to see Tommy Andrews sing. This is where is is exposed to the underground world of lesbians that is hiding in plain sight in San Francisco. There is also tension at home, as her father is under investigation for perhaps being a communist.

This book had so many things that resonated with me. Lily’s discovery of who she is coincides with her discovery of allies. The romance that develops is sweet and authentic. The way her relationships change with her other friends is, too. It brings to life how terrifying it was to be gay, pre Stonewall. (It is really hard to even imagine, honestly, although some current politicians seem bent on pushing us back that way.) San Francisco (a city I’ve admired since I visited when I was 12 or 13 and loved since I ran the marathon there) comes to life, as does the Asian-American culture of the time.

Taken in parts, there is everything to love.

But I can’t say I loved it. 

To be fair, it might just be because of the place I was in all winter—down in it and not even trying to fight it. And it also could be that it just doesn’t matter...I just don’t love romance novels, even when they are well-written like this one is. 

Part of it, though, is the ending. I never need a happy ending, or even one that isn’t ambiguous. But so many stories are left hanging that the ending felt abrupt. The more I think about it, the more it is also that I didn’t love it because it didn’t really all come together and I had many unanswered questions.

But! I am glad I read this. Lily is one of my favorite YA characters. She makes mistakes but she isn’t flippant or ditzy about it. She is brave and honest. And she reminded me that we must keep fighting for human rights, even in our contemporary society, because life in the years before gay rights and civil rights and the feminist movement was rough. No one should have to live with such fear and loneliness.