People love to hate on February. “The longest shortest month!” they say, wishing to see the back end of it as quickly as possible. If you live in the northern climes, it can feel interminable, its creeping sunlight tempting you to fantasize about green lawns and trees in bloom*, which are still so far away. But this year I found another reason to lament this tiresome month: it robbed me of days to read! That heretofore pleasing difference between January and February resulted in my not reaching my goal for the month and has set me one book behind (well, half, as I managed to get that far into my eighth book) in my goal for the year. Alas, it is with a slightly heavy heart that I now give you the SEVEN books I read this month.
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang
This is one I’d been meaning to read for a while, mainly because, despite living in St. Paul, Minnesota (where Yang lived when her family moved to America at age 6), I’ve long felt rather ignorant about the history and culture of the Hmong people. I knew that they are an indiginous group who were persecuted for having fought on the side of the Americans during the Vietnam War, but even that wasn’t completely true. The Hmong were actually recruited by the C.I.A. to fight in the Secret War, a covert operation against communist forces in Laos (which, it was agreed, would remain neutral during the Vietnam War, hence the “secret” part). After U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam, the Hmong were made the target of systematic genocide and persecution. Yang’s memoir tells the story of her family fleeing Laos for their lives, their treacherous crossing of the Mekong River into Thailand, where they lived for many years in refugee camps, and finally, their journey to Minnesota. Yang’s biography alone is fascinating, but her agile storytelling is what makes The Latehomcomer so poignant. As she describes her family’s difficulties adapting to the reality of trying to get by in America, her own struggles to find her voice at school, and her heartbreak at being separated from her grandmother, Yang’s lyricism and imagery weave a gorgeous path for the reader to follow, leading eventually to a description of Hmong funeral practices that is so vivid and immediate, I felt like had taken part in a sacred ceremony myself.
Release by Patrick Ness (YA)
Patrick Ness is definitely on my Top 5 list of favorite YA authors; I will read anything he writes (and try ceaselessly to get my students to follow suit). I love how his teen characters have all the complexity and passion and ennui and humor of the real ones in my life. Truly, no one I’ve read writes teens as authentically as Ness does. In the notes for this, his latest YA novel, Ness says that Release is inspired by both Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Forever by Judy Blume. In other words, my favorite book as an adolescent and my favorite book as an adult. Indeed, the novel begins with a send-up to the first line in Mrs. Dalloway (“Adam would have to get the flowers himself”) and takes place throughout a single day in the life of Adam Thorn during the summer before his senior year of high school. He feels caged by the expectations of his religious family (his father is an Evangelical minister), whose oppressive conservatism make it impossible for him to be openly gay – even though he knows they know. As if that weren’t enough for a teen to deal with, he also has to avoid the sexual advances of his predator boss, cope with the impending separation from his best friend, and attempt to reconcile his love for his ex-boyfriend (who seriously didn’t deserve him) with his feelings for his current boyfriend (who does). Adam’s narrative is complemented by interludes involving some forest spirit queen inhabiting the body of a girl Adam’s age who was recently killed in a fire caused by her meth head boyfriend and there’s this faun who travels with her and I honestly wasn’t on board with all of it, but kudos to Ness all the same for trying to weave in something supernatural and imaginative. The effect is still cool and Release is another lovely addition to the coming-of-age genre.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
This title had been on my list since the fall when my colleague Susan (who doesn’t like nonfiction) told me that she couldn’t put it down. Then when my reporter crush Jeffrey Brown on PBS News Hour announced that it would be the February selection for the Now Read This Book Club, I knew it was time. First things first: this book is fantastic. I’m not sure I’ve read nonfiction that does a better job of synthesizing years of meticulous research into a narrative that humanizes its subjects with such compassion, dignity, and justice. Justice really is the central concern of Killers of the Flower Moon, which brings to light a little-known chapter in 20th century American history, when members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, made wealthy by their headrights to the oil-rich land designated as reservation, began to die of mysterious causes. Headrights could only be passed down through inheritance – unless the owner of them died without an heir. This system was the cause of a string of murders of the Osage (as well as some of their friends and allies) during the 1920s. Grann’s book follows the investigation of these murders by the fledgling Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI. As the Bureau’s methods are developed and refined, so is the detectives’ understanding of the plot to murder Osage people and claim their inheritance. The truly shocking part of this shockingly true story is that the handful of cases that appear to be solved three-quarters through the book are just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to Grann’s dogged research, we now know the extent of these crimes – if not the full extent, then enough to rank the killing of the Osage in Oklahoma as one of the most calculated and expansive mass murders in modern American history.
Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (YA)
I am a sucker for the irreverent, sarcastic teen narrator, so I immediately loved Simon Spier, the 16-year-old narrator and protagonist of this gripping, funny, and heartfelt teen drama. Plus, the kid’s an Elliott Smith fan, so there’s another reason we got along. Simon is fairly popular at his suburban high school, where he is active in theater and goes to parties and has what seems like a wonderful and diverse group of close friends – none of whom know he’s gay. The only person who does is his mysterious email pen pal, whom Simon only knows by the moniker ‘Blue’. It’s a delight reading their back-and-forth, as they grow closer and flirt and finally admit their feelings for each other. But the sweetness of this developing relationship is set against the backdrop of bullying and blackmail. Early in the novel, a fellow thespian, Martin, discovers the emails and threatens to expose Simon if he doesn’t set Martin up with one of his best friends, a girl named Abby. This fear of exposure looms throughout the story, culminating in an event that is as heartbreaking as it is, sadly, believable. But stronger than this childish act of cruelty is the outpouring of support from Simon’s family, teachers, and friends, and the courage he discovers within himself.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Please allow me to brag about Minnesota for a moment: this book, by Minnesota author Emily Fridlund, was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. I won’t bore you with why that’s a big deal… BUT IT’S A BIG DEAL! And this novel is her DEBUT. Incredible. I completely loved History of Wolves from beginning to end. Linda, the novel’s 14-year-old protagonist, lives in a remote rural community Up North (as we say), where her parents’ benign neglect causes her to question whether she really is their child. She is known as Commie or Freak at school because she spent her early years in a commune before it was abandoned by all but her parents. She spends her days exploring the woods on foot, or the lake in a canoe, and is fascinated when a young family moves into the seasonal place across the lake from her house. There, Patra and her 4-year old son Paul will spend the summer while Patra’s astronomer husband Leo finishes writing a book. Linda becomes Paul’s babysitter and Patra’s helpmate and companion, distracting herself from her own unhappy home and school life by allowing herself to become insinuated into theirs. Fridlund’s prose enthralls; the reader know from the very beginning that Something Bad is going to happen to Paul, but 100 pages go by before you begin to understand. Fridlund also does a wonderful job of capturing an essential contradiction of the Upper Midwest – we are often intensely private, independent, and solitary at the same time as we thirst for company and human connection. This often leaves us awkwardly reluctant to meddle in others’ business, and indeed, much of the novel is Linda reflecting on all the moments when she should have seen red flags, should have alerted someone and prevented the very preventable tragedy. But she never does, and Fridlund’s subtle treatment of the effects of that regret on her development is extraordinary.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race Edited by Jesmyn Ward
I chose this collection because I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing in January, and was deeply impressed by both. In Ward’s introduction, she describes what a comfort it was to her as a teen to read Baldwin’s essay Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, and was inspired to create a new collection of voices to likewise support and inspire another generation of young black women and men. So although I’m not part of the intended audience of this book, I really wanted to read it because I think it’s so important, especially now, for white people to just shut up and listen, to actively seek out and make space for diversity of voices and perspectives; to just listen, LISTEN, and try to understand. The essays and poems in this collection are divided into three sections, Legacy (past), Reckoning (present) and Jubilee (future), and all confront in some way the experience, tensions, and concerns surrounding race in America. Most react to or attempt to process in some way the daily, pervasive injustice of police violence against black people, and indeed, I found these essays the most poignant. My favorite was probably “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau, which documents a project of the same name by Chilean painter Cekis, who was commissioned by a community organization to paint a series of murals throughout four of New York City’s boroughs in response to police misconduct. The murals depict acts of violence or unconstitutional treatment by police, but they also show citizens responding – by speaking out or bearing witness – and include explicit statements of civil rights, writ large. The project is such a bold and inspiring example of what citizens can do to confront injustice and a reminder that it’s not only our right but our duty to do so. To (white) me, that’s what all the essays in this collection call for – action, personal investment, and a refusal to ignore problems that you think don’t affect you. As Baldwin wrote in his letter to his nephew James, “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free”
Juniper Leaves: The Otherworldly Tale of a Lonesome Magic Girl by Jaz Joyner (YA)
I probably never would have found this wonderful book if not for the recommendation of my teacher friend, Andy. The novel tells the story of a Juniper, a 15-year-old African American girl who has recently lost her beloved grandma. Her father, a scientist researching the healing properties of rare herbs, brings her and her grieving mother from New York to rural North Carolina for the summer, where Juniper feels lonely, isolated, and strange. She begins to notice odd things that others don’t seem to see – glowing lights and talking animals to name just a couple. Along the way she befriends the daughter of her father’s research partner, falls in love with an androgynous (trans?) young woman named Sen, and discovers that she, like her grandmother before her, has special powers that allow her to interact with beings from parallel dimensions. The epic magic battle part wasn’t as well-executed as the friendship/growth/self-discovery aspect of the novel, but I love that this book exists if only for the representation it provides. Author Jaz Joyner crowdfunded the money to publish their work because, in their words:
“Visibility is a powerful thing and without it, so many kids and teens will go through their formative years developing the thought that they possibly don’t matter as much as the visible do. Juniper Leaves can be just a tiny part of the movement towards positive representations of PoC and queer youth simply because reading it will show how relatable an awkward teen girl can be, no matter her race or sexual orientation.”
I love that. Thank you, Jaz.
And that’s been February! Thank you for reading, and special thanks to my student Riley Sagmoe for the rainbow heart book art I used for the featured image. Next up is March, which means… Spring Break! I’ll be asking for your favorite vacation reads, so get ready with your recommendations!
* Extra Credit to the A.P. Lang student who can correctly identify this type of phrase and parse the sub-phrases within it