January 2021 Book Reviews

2021 started with a serious reading month. A number of these books lead to serious reflection and deep thinking. I usually try to spread this kind of reading out with some lighter fiction, but January was just right for hunkering down. So here are notes on a selection of titles in the order that I read them.

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

Before I tell you about this book, a confession: I am suspicious of book hype. The more people get excited about a book, the more likely I am to pause or stay away from it. There is no logic in this behaviour and in this case it was definitely my loss. This book moved millions of women in 2020, a year when many of us were called on to do more hard things than ever before. I’m one of them.

I adore Glennon and her wife Abby Wambach. I listened to Abby’s book The Wolf Pack in May 2020 and heartily recommend it. These two women represent female power rooted in honesty about yourself and your feelings. They lift others and share a wonder for life and each other that makes me smile. They also share the petty disagreements of married life on Instagram that help me feel remarkably seen. My favorite category is their “buy your own treats” debate.

Untamed book opened me up and lifted me up. It spoke to me in a deeply personal way and gave me courage. It reminded me that I’m the expert on me the same way you’re the expert on you. It was hard to choose one choice quote for you, but here’s where I landed. It’s actually Glennon quoting someone she spoke to at an AA meeting because she isn’t just an honest writer she’s a good listener. It goes like this;

Feeling all your feelings is hard, but that’s what they’re for. Feelings are for feeling. All of them. Even the hard ones.

I recommend this book if you’re looking for courage and doubting yourself and your ability to carry yourself through. I recommend this book if you’re convinced that this “way” everyone thinks you should live by is messed up. Have a read. I think you’ll thank yourself.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me felt like a follow-up to White Fragility. It’s an opposite kind of book, a memoir where White Fragility was theory. A Black author where White Fragility was written by a white author. In short, another side of a story that I want to continue learning more about. 

Between the World and Me is about what it means to grow up and live in a Black male body in the United States and to then have a son who is about to embark on the same mortally dangerous journey. Because let’s be clear, to grow up Black and male in the United States is to be seen as a threat because you live and breathe.

I cannot overstate the emotional and physical complexity of the experience Coates describes or the fears he rightfully has for his son. Talking about bodies is uncomfortable and intimate, as it should be. But this is a necessary lesson if we want to understand the depth and breadth of systematic racism and how it impacts individual lives. We cannot understand the urgency of antiracism work if we do not fully understand what systematic racism does to individual lives. 

I wrote a longer, more detailed review for the December issue of the SIETAR EU Journal. Click here to access the Journal for free.

De Avond is Ongemak by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

The Discomfort of Evening, the English translation of Rijneveld’s novel won the 2020 International Booker prize. Our book club was thrilled, so it went right on to the reading list. I chose to read the Dutch version before the English translation because I wanted to have an opportunity to assess the translation starting from the original.

This is an uncomfortable book. It’s about grief and loneliness and pain and longing. It doesn’t let up, there are no light interludes in between the pain because grief doesn’t work on a schedule. It doesn’t give you a breather before the next blow comes. This book works the same way. It’s also a very physical book with lots of human and animal bodies throughout. Bodies are not precious vessels in this book. They are objects of curiosity.

I have a huge appreciation for Rijneveld’s writing. They started in poetry and it shines through the prose. The writing would lift you if the subject matter were not so heavy. So, it was a huge surprise to me when my book club met to learn that nearly everyone who read the translation didn’t like it. They found it almost an affront. Incredibly difficult to deal with the material and the quality of the writing didn’t shine through. I looked at the English translation and found it disappointing. There was word play that could have shifted to English but didn’t. It felt like there were many lost opportunities. I can only conclude that Rijneveld and her translator were trying to accomplish a tone rather than take the richness of the language with them.

I can recommend this book in Dutch, if you’re ready for an intense reading experience. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the translation, prize or not.

Raising Multiracial Children by Farzana Nayani

Read that title one more time. Raising Multiracial Children. It’s taken me weeks to not read that middle word as “multicultural.” We talk a lot about multicultural: melting pots, salads, mosaics and so forth. We don’t talk so much about multiracial. Multiracial is less common than I thought, only 3% of the US population in 2010. Yet here I am, multiracial woman and mother of multiracial children.

This book is a resource Frazana Nayani has created for parents who want to give themselves and their children language for talking about being multiracial in today’s world. Why does it matter? Watch and listen to Traffic Stop, a Storycorps video about the moment the Black son of a white mother learned that he was living in a Black skin. Conversations about race with children, even young children, matter because the world sees and responds to the way we look, even if we claim we do not.

I loved the part where she pointed out that there’s no need to live in percentages, meaning I don’t have to discount my claim to an identity, mark it 50% off as it were. Nope. I can be Taiwanese and American. Nayani quotes an interviewee who puts it beautifully,

I’m trying to use the language of both or two because it makes me feel like I have a gift instead of a deficiency.

There’s so much to unpack there. But I’ll leave it to you to read and think through on your own.

I particularly recommend this book for monoracial parents who are raising multiracial children. Nayani offers unique insights into the particular challenges and dilemmas that multiracial people of all ages face and offers constructive alternatives to “just ignore them.” We aim to raise children who can fend for themselves in the world. Giving them tools to address their own evolving identity matters.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

Rising Strong is about what Brown calls the rumble. The rumble is the wrestling you do with yourself about your initial, automatic response to painful situations. Do you blame someone else? Do you blame yourself? Do you get angry? Do you defend yourself? Do you attack? Brown is challenging us to stop, gather more information, thinking deeply about our feelings (you notice a theme), and use this rumbling as an opportunity to grow.

I saw parallels here between the way Brown talks about gathering information about emotions and the way Amy E. Herman writes about visual intelligence. Both are about realizing that we use shortcuts to understand our world efficiently and that those shortcuts don’t always serve us. The challenge is to dig in and try to understand a situation in its fullness so you can find better understanding and a response that fits.

Brown writes that “In the absence of data, we will always make up stories.” She’s referring to situations we get into with people we work, live, and inhabit this Earth with. Instead of making up stories, we need to work on collecting and analyzing data so that the story we work with is accurate.

The storyteller in me takes this one step further. If you don’t tell your story, people around you are going to fill that story in for you. They need the story. You’ve got to tell your story if you don’t want other people making up stories in order to try to understand you.

I enjoyed Rising Strong. It wasn’t as impactful as Untamed for me, but a good read. Brene Brown has a particular way of thinking and her books tend to remind me that this life is full of hard emotional work and conscientious choices – and that is good.

Posted in Books.

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