The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (Review)

The House on Mango StreetOne day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I’ll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house.
From The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street is one of those books that I’m surprised to have gotten so far in life without reading. It seems like every elementary and junior high school assigns it at some point – but apparently not the classrooms I was in. Anyway, this was an interesting experience for me not just because I listened to the book on recording, but also because I listened to it in Spanish to brush up a bit. However… that also means that I might have missed some critical plot points as my brain tried to get back into the groove.

From what I understood, The House on Mango Street is both a coming-of-age story for a young girl up to the edge of her teenage years, as well as a voice for growing up on the less-than-perfect side of life. The main character, Esperanza explains how she her family is first able to buy their own house on Mango Street – a big achievement – but that at the same time the neighborhood that Mango Street sits in has a lot of poverty and strife, and is clearly a majority-minority area, with white folks as “others” to the area.

Until I looked it up I didn’t catch that Sandra Cisneros herself was the one to read the audiobook. She does a good job not only of writing in the voice of a child, but capturing a young tone and character in her recording. I felt like I got to really sense how important Esperanza’s family is to her, and how some of the things that happen in her neighborhood are things that she doesn’t quite understand yet but clearly will later in life. I like that there is also a clear feminist streak throughout the book as Cisneros seeks to point out the differences between how Esperanza experiences the neighborhood and how the boys and men in her life navigate Mango Street and its environs.

Given that this was such a fast read (or rather fast listen – at about 2 and a half hours), I wouldn’t mind going back someday and reading it in English to get more from the story. I’m glad that this book is out there for teenagers and young adults of color to access, even if it wasn’t something that I got to until now.

3Stars23/5 STARS

October Book Finds

What’s next up on my bookshelf? Not quite sure, but I did find these awesome books this month that I’m excited about reading:

When My Brother Was an AztecWhen My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz.
Someone in my book club messaged me the other day and asked about reading this book for one of our next meetings. I’d never heard of it, but went to look it up and was excited to learn that it’s a work of poetry. I haven’t been reading nearly enough poetry in my opinion, and I always welcome poets of color to my shelves. I’m excited to compare this one with the works by Louise Erdrich, another Native American author that I’ve been reading lately.

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae.
I know everyone likes to say this, but I knew about Issa Rae before she was popular. Yep, that first web series had the same name as her book Citizen An American Lyricand was HILarious. I remember pretty vividly laughing my ass off as her character jams away to ratchet music in her convertible and then tries to get away from her stalker coworker who pulls up next to her at every stop sign. Rae’s book won’t be out until February of next year, but I can’t help but hope that it’s just as funny as her shows.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.
Last, but not least, I was excited to learn about Rankine’s work through a reference on The Rumpus’ email list. Another work of poetry, it looks like Rankine is making an unabashed exploration of all the ways racial rhetoric and stereotypes have impacted her life. Brand spanking new, it already has almost five-stars on Goodreads, which seems pretty tricky to achieve.

Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields (Review)

Fear of judgment stifles our ability to embrace uncertainty and as part of that process delivers a serious blow to our willingness to create anything that hasn’t already been done and validated.
 --from Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields

You know that thing that you’ve been wanting to do forever, the passion that pushes you to get up a little early or stay up a little late to work on? Jonathan Fields is here with his book Uncertainty to tell you to just go for it with whatever it is you want to accomplish.

While this is certainly a quick read (I got through it in about 2 days of less-than-furious reading in my spare time) I really appreciated Fields’ enthusiasm and understanding of both the opportunities and challenges that arise in striking out in uncharted waters. Fields himself is a several-times-over entrepreneur who has hopped around from blogging to yoga to starting several companies and much more.

While start-up terminology and a focus on creating your own business is present, I was happy to see that it isn’t all that the book is about. Fields goes out of his way to make sure to appeal to the artists and writers and other multi-passioned people who might pick up his work – probably a smart move for him financially.

Another thing that I like about Fields is that he doesn’t try to sugarcoat the process of doing something new. He’s the first to admit that it’s hard work and that other people may very well judge you as rash or irresponsible or simply out-of-touch with reality. And he’s not going to tell you that everything you do will succeed. To the contrary, Fields provides a few exercises to help you work through what it would look like to “fail” and why it still might be worth pursuing your dreams in spite of that.

He understands that uncertainty and fear about the outcome of our work is the main barrier to really doing the work to move forward your creative ideas. As an aspiring writer who often deals with writer’s block it was quite a refreshing to hear Fields’ encouragement. Still, since the reading was so fast and I find it hard to give top stars to a self-help book, I’ll leave this work with at three, but it is a three I would recommend to any of my fellow creator friends.

3/5 STARS

A Welcome and A Bookish Update

Bookmark BookstoreThanks for joining me here at the new home for the Keep It Wordy book blog! I’m excited to have a self-hosted home for the blog and to be integrating all of my interests into one site. You can find my full list of book reviews and the review policy as dropdown menus in the Keep It Wordy tab above. Currently, I’m planning on releasing a book-related post every Tuesday, as well as a new book review each Thursday. Welcome to the old readers and new!

Besides reorganizing the website, I’ve been frequenting way too many bookstores these days, but really it’s not my fault… The Friends of the Oakland Public Library bookstore, Bookmarks, was having a 30-50% off sale this past weekend – and their books are already only $3-5 dollars usually so of course I had to drop by. I found Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, which looks like it will be a great book about the writer’s life, with various witty meditations and advice. I also picked up a completely silly book, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, which I’ve wanted to read for a while and promises to be an entertaining mix of ridiculously drawn comics and wit.

But after this I’m staying out of bookstores for a month, honest! (*crosses fingers*)

The Self-Help Shelves

By Helga Weber via Flickr Creative Commons

For some reason the last time I went to the library I binged out a little on self-help books. There was Uncertainty, a book about working through your fears around creative endeavors; as well as The Highly Sensitive Person, which talked about how to navigate the world as someone who is easily overstimulated by common activities; and finally The 4-Hour Work Week, which will supposedly teach me the magic formula to work productivity.

I’m not in any particular crisis, and I didn’t feel any deep need to be reading self-help books this October, but for some reason these all piqued my interest. I realized that I enjoy breaking up my fiction and heavy nonfiction reading with a little supportive, easy-to-follow self-help. Sure, these types of books seem to start repeating each other if you read too many of them at once, but every now and then it’s nice to get a little reminder of ways you could be making your life run just a tad more smoothly.

Do you ever find yourself browsing the self-help section for no real reason?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Review)

There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.
From Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The more I read of Adichie’s work the more I fall in love with her prose and the type of characters she creates. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie takes us to Nigeria at the beginning of a devastating civil war in which one half vies for independence from the other.

Enter three main characters (yep, not one, not two, but three) — Ugwu, a servant from a small Nigerian village; Olanna, an attractive, wealthy Nigerian woman whom he serves; and Richard, a white British expat who finds himself involved with Olanna’s family.

I was sure at first that I would get incredibly confused and bored by the number of main characters Adichie brought into the book, plus a number of ancillary and important secondary protagonists. But Adichie wields her characters with ease, developing them through long sections in the beginning and then interspersing them with each other more freely as the novel progresses.

Olanna and her twin sister Kainene remind me of Ifemelu from Americanah, for those who have read other books by Adichie. But they are also subtly different, with different baggage and ambitions in life. For a work that is over 400 pages, the words really flew past, and I found myself halfway through before I realized it.

The war itself is fascinating and horrifying. I was surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) that I had never heard of Biafra (which fought for independence from Nigeria) or much at all really about internal conflicts between different ethnic groups in the country. It makes me remember how limited of a history education we Americans receive in grade school.

I love Adichie for fully absorbing me into another place and another time with her well-crafted work.

5/5 STARS

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Review)

In An Untamed State, a Haitian-American woman named Mireille is kidnapped on a visit to the country of her heritage and held for ransom. Her father refuses to pay the ransom and as a result she is subject to all manner of atrocious cruelties. When she is finally set free, she must figure out how to find her way back to herself.

Almost as soon as I started reading An Untamed State I wanted to know if Roxane Gay was writing from fact of fiction. And while I may never know the full answer to that question, there is definitely some fact involved. Gay was gang raped at a young age, and I can’t but imagine how creating this book must have been both incredibly challenging and incredibly necessary for catharsis.

I am almost unsure how to review this book. I can’t quite say that I liked it, given the terrible situations and subject matter that surrounds Mireille. But at the same time, I’m am glad that I read it. The book is about not just the terrible things, but also how to come back from tragedy and trauma in an ever-uncertain world. Mireille is not someone who gives in to life easily, and she strays from the typical “damsel in distress” female protagonist.

One interesting aspect of the book was the way it was able to engage in a class, race, and gender conversation. Mireille and her husband are deeply in love, but at times their different cultures divide them. Mireille loved the Haiti of her childhood, but she also knows that it was coated in privilege and the necessity of keeping others out. Mireille’s gender makes her vulnerable to men in a way she will never be able to completely control. Gay explores all of these tensions with compelling, clear prose.

I also love the cover on this work. The image of an attractive woman looking backward while running away from something that you can’t see captures the essence of what the book is about. I’d love to know how others felt about reading this work, particularly women. I will definitely be reading Gay’s other book out, Bad Feminist.

4/5 STARS

Virunga by the Stanford University Graphic Novel Project (Review)

I’m going to preface my review by saying that this book was put together almost entirely by a bunch of undergraduates taking a class in college. I say that not because I’m about to give it a bad review, but because I’m actually about to give it quite a good one, and I want to acknowledge that it means a lot.

I’ve owned a copy of Virunga for a loooong time. I picked it up for free at the release party years ago, but, while it seemed interesting, I pretty much put it on a shelf for years until rather recently when I watched the documentary of the same title (but no affiliation) and re-remembered the graphic novel. The movie had struck me with the visual beauty and scale of the giant national park, as well as the intensity of the conflict over resources and money in the region.

The graphic novel follows a young girl named Malika who lives in a refugee camp. Her uncle makes coal from old growth trees, which is illegal, but helps keep the refugees alive by giving them much needed heat for cooking and other life needs. Malika draws gorillas and the people she encounters to help deal with the loss of contact with her parents and the daily stresses of the refugee camp.

She meets a bunch of rangers one day in the forest, rangers who are keeping tabs on a different armed rebel groups and trying to stop poaching. All of these characters rely on each other in some way in a complicated ecosystem where right and wrong are hard to decipher.

The book would have been interesting even as an ordinary novel, but the fact that it is a graphic one of course adds something extra. The illustrations lend extra personality to each of the characters and help control the pace of the story — when to pause over a dramatic moment, and when to keep reading onto the next frame.

After reading Virunga I really want to pick up another graphic novel, maybe Persepolis, which I’ve been meaning to get to for a while as well. Anyone else got suggestions for graphic novels that are must-reads?

5/5 STARS