Kara C White
The TBR Stack: April 2022
Spring is in the air, and my nose is buried in a book!
One of the pleasures (and pitfalls) of an active reading life is the never-ending stream of new books making their way onto store shelves each and every week. Two new arrivals at the library where I work caught my eye so I snatched them up faster than you can say "TBR!"
The bright and colorful book jacket art for When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo captured my imagination before I even considered the premise of this debut novel, which was just released in March 2022. Described as a mythic love story set in Trinidad, this work of magical realism introduces us to two people with complicated family pasts and uncertain relationships with death. When they meet within an ancient and massive cemetery, they will be forced to contend with their separate histories and their entwined fates.
Also released just last month, Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams is a sweeping historical fiction which spans the long life of one incredible woman. Loosely based on the author's real-life ancestors, Maryam Prescilla Grace is born in West Africa in the mid-eighteenth century. She will become known as Momma Grace during a life that knows the suffering and cruelty of enslavement, the life-giving craft of midwifery, and the strength of love and romance. An enduring sense of self sustains Momma Grace through hardship, and her fictionalized life reveals the power of the past on the present.
Another historical fiction secured a spot on my April TBR. The Storyteller's Secret by Sejal Badani weaves a tale of generations of women who face great personal odds as they lay foundations for their futures. Rocked by loss and the disintegration of her marriage, Jaya leaves New York for her homeland of India to answer questions about her family's past. Through her grandmother’s former servant and friend, Jaya starts to uncover the truth of her grandmother's life, and what lessons learned then mean for her own potential.
Switching to nonfiction, a book by a licensed therapist with a super popular Instagram presence. I don't read a lot of books that fall into the self-help category, but after seeing Nedra Glover Tawwab all over social media and hearing her on multiple podcasts, I thought I'd give her book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, a try. The book promises help in explaining and setting healthy boundaries in all aspects of our complex lives. The goal isn't to cut others out, but to enrich relationships with clear lines that reward everyone.
Can books be dangerous? Can stories be catalysts for change? These are worthy questions with book challenges reaching unprecedented numbers in the past year. New York Times bestselling author Azar Nafisi takes a fresh look at the import and potential of literature in her new book, Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times. The book is structured as a series of letters written from the author to her father. She explores what the works of writers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood can teach us about literature's potential for helping us engage and answer the pressing questions of our days.
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And now a few thoughts on my marvelous March reads!
Female power, creativity, and ambition center the historical fiction novel Matrix by Lauren Groff. Based loosely on the life of Marie de France, a teenaged girl is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished medieval abbey. Within the sisterhood of women, Marie finds purpose in her role as leader and protector and holds conviction in her own divine visions. Richly written, I thought this story was alive and tender, intimate at times. I loved the heroine Marie even in her most frustrating moments, but it seemed almost too easy for her to accomplish her goals given the realities of the world she inhabits. The ending of the novel had less force for me than the rest of the book, but this was still one of my favorite reads of the year so far.
Famed Chilean novelist Isabel Allende writes from the heart and her own experiences in her brief autobiographical work, The Soul of a Woman. She describes coming of age during the late 1960s and the second wave of feminism. Allende's book explores progress made and work yet to be done by the daughters of tomorrow. This book contains clear, sharp prose and acerbic wit. Allende covers a range of topics with candor, including violence against women, aging, and even dating. She declares her progressive views without apology and has little time for those dedicated to the ways of the past.
A collection of short stories captivated me this month! The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw uses nine short stories to introduce us to Black women discovering who they are and how they fit into the world around them. These women find their own paths between the sometimes competing demands of their church communities and their own passions. I found this collection to be all together beautiful. Each story, each character has such a "strong and clear" voice and perspective. Some stories are funny, others a bit shocking. There's pain and longing and disappointment, but almost always hope for the future despite the limits and mistakes of the past.
A mix of love and loss illuminate The Light of the World, the memoir by poet Elizabeth Alexander. The author unexpectedly lost her husband when he was just 49. This book meditates on the immensity of that grief as well as the comforts of home and family. It is a story of pain, but one also filled with joy, color, and light. It's a love letter to her husband and the family they created. The narrative shifts in time and space which could have been disorienting for the reader, but instead felt more like an accurate portrayal of the way memory often works, especially when someone is trying to make sense of the unthinkable.
Finally, I now know the whole story behind the slogan Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich first coined that now famous phrase in a 1976 scholarly article. In her 2008 nonfiction book, Ulrich examines how those words became a pop-culture sensation and looks back at the women who challenged history and how history is written. I found this to be a thoughtful and well-researched books with plentiful examples of women, famous and anonymous, who dared to speak or act in unexpected ways. Ulrich reminds us that some of these women paid a high price for their place in history, but their actions allowed others to dream and achieve new heights. While mostly centered toward a Western/European/white perspective, Ulrich does highlight women from across the globe and from varying racial and ethnic backgrounds.
What big ideas did you find in books recently? What stories drew you in and wouldn't let you go? Let me know in the comments. But if your reading life feels out of whack right now, check out my post 4 Ways to Get Out of a Reading Slump. You'll be back in your books in no time! And best wishes for further reading!
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