Book Review

Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith

Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Red Bluff, Mississippi has both literally and symbolically been transformed by the kudzu vines that creep ever forward. This town provides the landscape for characters such as Colburn, a sculptor who was returned to his hometown vaguely searching for answers about his traumatic childhood; Myer, the older lawman who desperately believes that there is good left in Red Bluff; Celia, the bartender; and a family of vagrants who care little for one another.

These startlingly human characters all meet in Red Bluff and they are all impacted by the town itself—struggling against it, the encroaching kudzu, and themselves. Regret, violence, and hatred mark the landscape and make you wonder if any good can be found in Red Bluff at all.

Thoughts

This Southern gothic’s primary strength and weakness is its prose. I have never read a book that is written in quite this style before and I enjoyed it immensely. Its fragmented sentences create a frenzied sense of urgency while at the same time lengthening and slowing down the story, almost placing it in a realm outside of time. I read this book rapidly, even though each of the minutes spent reading it felt much longer than they should. The only issue I found is that this style lacks clarity. While this seems intentional on Smith’s part (since the style mimics the landscape itself), I did find myself having to reread passages to truly understand what was happening (or, at the very least, who was speaking).

Throughout the novel, Smith describes the “brutality of indifference.” The kudzu swallows towns without caring what it harms or who it leaves behind, Colburn struggles to find meaning and purpose, and the vagrant family who moved to Red Bluff is so marked by indifference that they barely even know their own names. These are the things that cause the most pain in the novel. I found it refreshing that the evil that lurks in the town is not malicious but rather apathetic, because I rarely read books that frame wickedness in this way. 

As someone who grew up in a small town—though not quite as small as Red Bluff—I can definitely relate to the apathy that can often permeate throughout them. I loved reading about a small town that was filled with such an evil caused by indifference because I have observed that for my entire life. It was a refreshing take on small towns, since most of what we read about them either glorifies the experience or asserts that they are filled with bad or crazy people. The people in Blackwood were not evil, but rather apathetic and stuck. However, the relationships that you form with others can still be meaningful despite all of this, something that the novel captures excellently.

I definitely recommend this novel to fans of gothic literature, people who grew up in small towns, and to people who are looking to reading something different and interesting!


Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

9 Important Books to Read on Anti-Racism

Following the horrific death of George Floyd, many of us are wondering what we can do to help. From protesting to signing petitions, and from contacting our representatives to donating, there are a lot of things that we can do to dismantle racism in our communities. Another essential thing that we can do from home is to educate ourselves—we can learn about the systemic racism and structures of oppression, and we can address our own privileges and complicity. There are many, many resources on this topic, so it can seem overwhelming, but these nine books are a place to start. 


Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”—Zora Neale Hurston. Though Hurston is typically known for her fiction, this work of nonfiction is equally brilliant. She interviewed the last person alive who had been transported from Africa along the Middle Passage and sold into slavery. This work illustrates the tragedy of slavery as well as its lifelong impact and its lasting legacy. The story is both incredible and immensely impactful and is crucial for understanding America’s abhorrent past.


How to be an Antiracist—Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi brilliantly weaves together his own personal experiences with history, morality, science, and so much more in this book. He guides the reader to a deeper understanding of racism and its consequences, and leads them through a series of anti-racist ideas. It also provides the information about how to go beyond simply learning about racism and towards eliminating systemic racism in our society. It is a must-read book when it comes to anti-racism.


Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race—Derald Wing Sue. This book in particular is about how to handle racism in day-to-day life. The author delineates how to have difficult and meaningful conversations about race. He insists that we need to drive through the resistance facing these conversations because remaining silent is being complicit. Derald Wing Sue gives realistic examples and his advice will stick with the reader and aid them in helping to produce an anti-racist society.


A Black Women’s History of the United States—Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross. Just as the history of black people is glossed over, the history of black women in particular is often outright ignored. This wonderful book centers on the stories of black women and their successes, despite their existing in a racist and patriarchal culture. Berry and Gross tell the history of many different types of women, from slaves to artists and activists. The authors present a complex and nuanced portrait, full of richness and detail. Understanding the history of oppression of black women will help create a fuller picture of the scope of racism in the U.S.


White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide—Carol Anderson. Following the 2014 riots in Ferguson as a result of Michael Brown’s death, many were critiquing the outpour of “black rage.” This is what inspired this book, in which Anderson responds to the idea of “black rage,” posing instead the idea of “white rage”—the response to major advances in civil rights, which frequently results in violence, backlash, and attempts to repeal the progress towards equality. Anderson examines important events in history to illustrate this concept, and it is particularly timely during this new time of protest after the death of George Floyd.


Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism—bell hooks. Of course, this list would not be sufficient without anything by bell hooks on it. The author examines the intersections of race, gender, and class in this critical piece of feminist history. In particular, it examines the effects of racism and sexism on black women in contrast to white society. Additionally, hooks examines how feminism has ignored BIPOC women and women of lower socioeconomic statuses and the effects of doing so. Ain’t I a Woman? is critically acclaimed and necessary to read.


The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther—Jeffrey Haas. This book is about the murder of a young, prominent leader within the Black Panthers. The lengths that the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, and the Police Department went in order to obscure how they murdered Hampton and to portray the Black Panthers as violent extremists is horrifying. This assassination was wildly influential in shaping how we view protests to this day, so reading this book will help to combat our unconscious assumptions.


Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition—Cedric J. Robinson. In this work, Robinson criticizes the inadequacies of the Marxist lens in understanding the history of black people. He also analyzes the development of black radicalism through lenses that are more appropriate, because they better take into account cultural and historical contexts. It is more academic than some of the other books on this list, but it is equally important.


The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics—George Lipsitz. This book addresses the history of the category of whiteness and its cultural significance. He discusses how whiteness has been used to ensure dominance—both socially and economically—as well as how our society encourages people to invest in whiteness in order to maintain their status. Though it was originally written over 20 years ago, Lipsitz has updated it to include more recent statistics and topics, ranging from Hurricane Katrina to Trayvon Martin. He also includes his potent analyses of domestic terrorism and ethnonationalism and their causes, making it just as relevant today as it was in 1998.


6 Best BookTubers to Watch During Quarantine

I started watching BookTube pretty recently and I have found that it is a great way to keep in touch with the literary community while we are all stuck inside. For those of us who are new to BookTube, it is the segment of YouTube that focuses on all things book-related. The content ranges from book reviews to book crafts, from funny to focused, and from YA books to classics. It is also an excellent way to find new books to read, or, to explore different genres. I picked these channels because they represent a wide range of BookTube styles. Whatever you are looking for, there is bound to be a BookTuber for you!


readwithcindy—First of all, Cindy is absolutely hilarious! Her self-deprecating humor adds a lot of flavor to her videos. She makes wrap-ups, which are summaries of all the books that she read during any given month and they are normally spoiler-free, as well as read-with-me vlogs. She also makes some artsier content, such as redesigning book websites or book covers, which are a lot of fun to watch.

What sets Cindy apart from other BookTubers is that she is staunchly against consumerism on BookTube. She only owns four books and gets all of her books from the library. She also promotes diversity in literature and hosts the Asian Read-athon. She is a bigger BookTuber who got her start pretty rapidly, but for every subscriber-count milestone that she reaches, she promotes smaller BookTubers. Cindy’s content is clever and engaging, so I definitely recommend watching her videos!

Here is a great introduction to Cindy’s channel: “i read my airplane seatmate’s trash romance book and it was a mistake.”


Merphy Napier—The biggest strength of Merphy’s channel is how focused it is. It centers strictly around “book” content and not “bookish” content, which means that she does not make videos about things that are only loosely related to books. She makes very typical BookTube content, such as reviews, wrap-ups, and rankings of characters and books.

Merphy is an author herself, so she also gives writing advice and has “Dear Author” videos in which she gives her opinions on tropes and book features. These videos can be pretty helpful for aspiring writers. I recommend her channel for people who enjoy more focused, book-related content.

Here is a great introduction to Merphy’s channel: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Doesn’t Make Sense?”


James Tullos—James’s channel mostly consists of very analytical videos. I love these because I get to learn so much more about the books that he reads than I would from most other BookTubers.

He mostly reads science fiction and high fantasy, such as Tolkien and Sanderson. Because the universes have such extensive lore, he makes a lot of in-depth videos about worldbuilding. James has a dry sense of humor that lends itself very well to his analytical content. He also does book reviews and top ten lists, all of which are very well made and entertaining.

Here is a great introduction to James’s channel: “Fantasy is very pro-monarchy (and that’s weird).”


Caleb Joseph—Caleb is one of my personal favorite BookTubers. His sense of humor is amazing and makes his rather lengthy videos worth the watch. His content is better classified as “bookish” because he will make videos about bad crafts involving books or about hosting a wedding for two of his books, in addition to traditional book reviews.

He will also make videos for book releases and do read-with-me vlogs, which are some of his best videos. Caleb reads a lot of “Bad Boy” romances, cringey Wattpad stories, and books that he knows he will dislike (which sounds strange, but all of this makes for absolutely incredible rant reviews). He mainly reads YA, so if that is your cup of tea, you will definitely enjoy Caleb’s content!

Here is a great introduction to Caleb’s channel: “Reading ‘The Worst Book of All Time.’”


paperbackdreams—Kat’s channel is absolutely adorable! She is the epitome of a classic BookTuber: she makes wrap-ups, book reviews, read-with-me vlogs, book hauls, and lots of collaboration videos with other BookTubers.

She has an awkward and adorable, yet calm sense of humor that makes her videos very watchable and enjoyable. Kat mainly reads YA books, like many other BookTubers, and the process of how she reads books is very relatable to many of us readers. For an introduction as to what a typical BookTuber is like, Kat’s channel is perfect.

Here is a great introduction to Kat’s channel: “let’s talk about ninth house…i guess.”


The Artisan Geek—I love Seji’s channel! First of all, she has the most lovely and relaxing voice to listen to which makes her videos super fun to watch! She also reads a lot of classics, which is interesting because many BookTubers focus on YA.

Seji makes a lot of videos about book hauls, her to-be-read list, wrap-ups, and she even reads stories out loud occasionally! She reads a lot of books from diverse authors, which is wonderful because BookTube can often lack diversity. I also love Seji because she knits and occasionally posts videos about her life. Her channel is really fun to watch and it is a great introduction to BookTube!

Here is a great introduction to Seji’s channel: “Diverse Classics Book Haul.”

Book Review

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

This novel follows three generations of an American-Jewish family in 1934 Atlantic City. Florence, the youngest daughter, is intent on swimming the English Channel but tragically drowns while training. Her mother, Esther, decides to hide her death to help protect her other daughter’s dangerous pregnancy. Their situation is complicated even further when Joseph, the father, helps a young Jewish woman emigrate from Germany for seemingly no reason. 

The web of secrets ultimately untangles, in the process both harming and freeing members of the family. Florence Adler Swims Forever provides a nuanced account of a family broken on many levels trying to endure, despite the racism, the effects of the Great Depression and the looming threat of Nazi Germany. 

Thoughts

There is no one who loves family secrets and dysfunction more than I do, and this book definitely delivers! It takes a softer approach than these types of books normally do, though. It was wonderfully intimate and heart-breaking, since we got to hear how Florence’s death impacted each member of the family. It was also very well written and was so enthralling that it kept me up well after 2:00 a.m. to finish it. Their lives are messy and the way their stories tangle together kept me wanting more.

It was fascinating to read about how the American-Jewish were reacting to Nazi Germany, as well. Normally, historical fiction set during WWII takes place in Europe, much closer to the action. Reading about the Nazi’s rise to power from a distance both minimizes the threat as well as making it more relatable to the audience, since that is how those of us today learn about the Holocaust. In a world still facing many of the same issues, seeing how such a large threat can seem somewhat small from far away—as well as the true scale of the threat from the perspective of a German Jewish woman—helps contextualize the issue and can help us better understand similar issues that still affect us. 

My only critique is that I wish we had gotten to hear more from some of the characters’ perspectives, because the point of view switched so frequently. Thus, some of the storylines were not as complete as they could have been. The storyline that left me wanting more was how Esther and Joseph’s tense relationship unraveled and came back together. 

Overall, though, this book is definitely worth the read and I recommend this book to lovers of fiction and family secrets. It will keep you reading until the last page!


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Lady of Sing Sing by Idanna Pucci

Genre: Historical Biography
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

The Lady of Sing Sing is a poignant retelling of the first woman in America sentenced to the death penalty and the women worldwide who came to her aid. In 1895, Maria was accused of killing a man who seduced and falsely promised to marry her. Her case lit New York City on fire, even attracting the attention of an American Countess in Italy, Cora Slocomb.

Cora works tirelessly on Maria’s case, seeing her as another poor Italian immigrant being treated unfairly by the American courts. Idanna Pucci, Cora’s great-granddaughter, expertly weaves together the struggles of immigrants, capital punishment, prejudice, violence against women, women’s autonomy, and the power struggles between those in power and women and ethnic minorities. She blends intimate characterizations with broader political machinations to tell a nuanced story of the trials of Maria Barbella.

Thoughts

What I most enjoyed about this book is how the author seamlessly blended fiction with history. It is impeccably researched, yet extremely engaging. As most students of history like myself can attest, that balance is incredibly difficult to achieve and many history texts end up bland and dense. These two characteristics are the opposite of The Lady of Sing Sing, which draws the reader in from the first chapter. I loved the intimate view of the historical figures and how well Pucci captured what their inner lives might be like during such difficult times.

The content of this book is also increasingly relevant today. The death penalty is still unfairly and disproportionately inflicted on minorities, and America is still obsessed with capital punishment. It is easier to reflect on these aspects of American culture when looking at them through the lens of the past. This book offers the chance for that reflection because of its personal characterization of the struggles and unfairness associated with the death penalty. I was shocked as I read about the ineptitude of Maria’s first trial and how the judge’s racist attitudes influenced his decisions, but I was filled with hope by the thousands of people who tried to help Maria. These ideas are not as foreign as they seem and it is interesting to see how the historical legacy of ideas on the death penalty have translated into our modern perspectives. 

Overall, it was a good read and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in history, social justice, or who just wants to read something engaging and different. Also, don’t forget to read the Afterword!


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

Like many readers before me, my main question after finishing Jane Eyre was about Bertha Mason: who was she and why was she driven mad? I am always skeptical of the “madwoman in the attic” trope. It is too often used to reduce women’s rich internal lives and ignore the cause of their supposed “madness.” It is this insanity that Jean Rhys explores throughout her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, giving life to a previously static character.

Who Was Bertha Mason?

An illustration of Bertha Mason from the second edition of Jane Eyre. The image says that it is public domain and I got it from Wikimedia Commons so I think it is alright to use this image. I am not sure though?
An illustration of Bertha Mason from the
second edition of Jane Eyre (1847)

Antoinette Cosway (whose name later changes to Bertha Mason) was born into a slaveholding family in Jamaica. Shortly after her birth, all of the slaves were liberated and her father died, presumably after drinking himself to death. Naturally, the Cosways were treated terribly after their slaves were emancipated and their house fell into disrepair. The former slaves hated the Cosways which led to Bertha’s mother going insane shortly afterwards. The tension escalated with the former slaves burning down their estate, in an event hauntingly similar to Bertha Mason burning down Mr. Rochester’s mansion in Jane Eyre.

It is quite interesting how these events are treated in the novel because Antoinette is relatively ignorant of her family history. Thus, she presents them as monumentally unfair. However, from a historical standpoint, the former slaves’ anger is arguably completely justified. Throughout the novel Antoinette is completely unaware of why things, particularly bad things, are happening to her. In many ways, she is a victim to the patriarchal and racial systems that determined her place in society and these effects drove her to insanity—this is typical of “madwomen in the attic.” Antoinette’s step brother viewed her as property and her husband viewed her the same way, only marrying her for her wealth. She was tossed around from house to house while being given absolutely no information, or choice, in the matter.

“They are both fighting each other for control of the other…”

However, it is incorrect to posit that Antoinette is only a victim, which seems to be the point of her character. Every character in the novel is morally gray, both harming other characters and being harmed themselves. After her relationship with Mr. Rochester sours, Bertha turns to her nurse, Christophine, for obeah magic so that she can rekindle their relationship. The novel insinuates that Antoinette sexually assaults him and he wakes up feeling violated. Later, Mr. Rochester sleeps with one of the maids within earshot of Antoinette in an effort to reclaim his freedom. They are both fighting each other for control of the other, both trying to remove the others’ sense of self. The actions that Mr. Rochester and Antoinette take towards each other are equal parts insidious and understandable.

Mr. Rochester arrived in Jamaica and was immediately lied to about Antoinette and her family so that she could marry him, and upon learning these lies, he felt betrayed and coerced. At one point in the novel, Mr. Rochester also begins calling Antoinette, “Bertha,” primarily as a means of control and separating her from her true identity as well as separate his mental image of her from the person who lied to him. This action is dehumanizing and, as Antoinette mentions, “names are important,” so changing one has a much broader impact.

“She cannot bring herself to see the truth: that they lost their way en route and, perhaps, never truly arrived.”

The prose in Wide Sargasso Sea is both beautiful and haunting, just like the novel as a whole. When Antoinette is narrating, her stream-of-consciousness style meanders through her various traumas. It mimics the landscape and her surreal relationship with it. Rochester’s prose begins as very proper English, but the more time he spends in Jamaica, the more his narrations resemble his wife’s and the more fantastical he becomes. Both of these characters feel as though they are in a dream world when they are in each other’s homes. When Antoinette is in England, she refuses to even acknowledge that they are in England because it defies her worldview so drastically. She cannot bring herself to see the truth: that they lost their way en route and, perhaps, never truly arrived.

Though the premise of this novel is fan fiction, the end result is a stand-alone work. The reader walks away confused, unsure if the characters are likable, or even telling the truth. Both Mr. Rochester and Antoinette’s actions are justified in some sense, but also hurt each other very deeply. Each character in the novel functions this way, leaving the reader wondering who is in fact reliable and trustworthy.

Ultimately, Wide Sargasso Sea provides a beautiful and terrifying picture of the effects of isolation. Mr. Rochester is a stranger in Jamaica, and Antionette is a white creole girl on an island surrounded by her former slaves. They are both out of place, but do not have a true place either, which drives them to hurt each other in insurmountable ways to escape from their drowning feelings of solitude. Overall, it was a wonderful read and adds rich new texture to Jane Eyre.