The most popular books can make me a bit weary before I read them. I don’t have the best track record, you see. Normal People, which dominated the first half of 2020 both in written word and on TV, left me depressed and confused. Last year, I dived into three critically acclaimed novels — Queenie, Tell Me Lies, and The Female Persuasion — that, while I didn’t dislike them, left me unfulfilled. Even when I read The Overstory, which I rated four flames, I didn’t see quite what the critics did. Then I have books like City of Girls, the kind that completely enrapture me but some have called boring and bland.
Why can’t I connect with literature that means so much to critics and fans alike? Is this a me problem or a them problem?
So I did wonder if Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half would live up to all the hype. This one will surely be on all of the “Best of 2020” lists and win many awards (if it hasn’t already) because it’s already received so much praise since releasing in June. Given that I’d read her debut novel, The Mothers, and completely loved it, I had confidence that this wasn’t just a book I’d obsess over. This would also be a novel that the U.S. — with its systemic racism and struggle with identity — desperately needed and needed ASAP.
Thankfully, Bennett washed away any and all doubts about it living up to the hype. And I can’t wait to see it on all those lists and with all of those nominations at the end of this year.
So Normal People wasn’t one of my favorite book of the past few years; really, it wasn’t even close. But it did provide a lot of great content to discuss. It only made sense, then, that I’d discuss it on The Biblio Files with one of my best friends and the woman who bought the book for me: Layne Coffman.
In this episode, Layne and I chat about a lot of topics, including the light Normal People sheds on mental health, my weird feelings about existentialism, the mark of a good book, and even our first kisses. That’s right: It gets deep on this episode. (Don’t worry; I promise it’s completely relevant to the book and associated conversation.)
Click on this link to listen to this episode or search for The Biblio Files on your go-to podcast platform. If you do the latter, make sure you still check out my Anchor profile to learn how you can support your favorite bibliophile.
PSA: This episode contains explicit language and obnoxious laughter that no amount of editing could subside. This is just who we are.
- What: Normal People
- Who: Sally Rooney
- Pages: 273, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
Quite a few friends have sent me books during COVID-19’s social distancing mandate. For that, I’m eternally grateful. Normal People was one of those books. (Layne Coffman, you’re a gem.)
You can’t really escape this book in 2020. It’s everywhere, including on Hulu. And in the past six months, a few friends have recommended this book to me, especially now that there’s a miniseries of it. So after receiving the book in the mail, I decided to hop on the bandwagon.
I may have fallen off though. It’s true that I couldn’t put down this book while I read it; it had an intoxicating grip on me. However, this wasn’t enough to eclipse the confusion and aloofness I felt (nor my frustration at an immense grammatical transgression). I also think part of the reason I wanted to keep going was to obtain some kind of clarity. Sadly, that never happened. In that way, maybe I was just another lost character wanting some normalcy and happiness.
Let’s call it how it is. 2020 has been a garbage fire. Phase 1 of COVID preceded a phase 2 of COVID that’s grounded in people basically giving zero f***s anymore. Mix this with an unbearable allergy season. Furthermore, our president is more delusional than ever. And sparked by several recorded incidents of police brutality, social tensions are at an all-time high (or maybe we’re just watching and listening now), which begs the question: Are race relations worsening?
The Black community has always faced prejudice and discrimination in America. They’ve been treated as “others” or less than, and white people as a collective have continually refused to listen and evaluate the role they play in our racist, white supremacist society. The murder of George Floyd seems to be changing the tide: The fog is finally being lifted, the curtain being pushed back on this country’s true history and present reality for people of color.
White people seem more willing to educate themselves on this — myself included. With that comes a bevy of anti-racism literature, most of which has been around for years but is now in the spotlight. This brings me to White Fragility, a book that, although written by a white woman, provides a telling perspective on why it is so difficult for white people to discuss race — which contributes to why white supremacy has reigned for so long in the “western” world — while also providing examples and guidance to challenge it.
City of Girls is one of the best books I’ve read in 2020. I laughed and smiled while reading it more than any other novel in recent history, and I’m very grateful this five-flame book came into my life. I have my dear coworker and friend, Sakshi, to thank for that.
Back in April, at the beginning of quarantine, I called Sakshi to have a lovely conversation about this book that we bonded over. During our chat, we covered the literary and New York gamuts. From the contradictory idea of being both a good person and an interesting person and how our literary opinions can change over time to our obsession with New York City and our personal stories of moving to this new place we call home, we covered it all.
Click on this link or search for The Biblio Files on your favorite podcast platform to listen to our conversation. And make sure you subscribe and check out Anchor to see how you can support this podcast.
- What: Three-Fifths
- Who: John Vercher
- Pages: 240
- Genres: Contemporary fiction and crime
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
Winter 1995. Pittsburgh. A hate crime occurs and intense arguments ensue over race relations. Racist undertones permeate conversations between any two people of different races, and a young man with a mixed identity is afraid to be himself and live his truth.
June 2020. We have a global pandemic that has everyone at home and unable to avoid current events. Because of that, nobody can ignore or deny the atrocious and racially motivated death of George Floyd. It sparks protests and conversations about race and white supremacy (both explicit and implicit forms), and it ignites hate crimes and defensive attitudes from white people about racial disparity and inequality in America.
Twenty-five years is the only thing marking the difference between present day and the fictional tale told in John Vercher’s debut novel, Three-Fifths. Sadly, inequality still exists to the same degree today as it did 25 years ago, and white supremacy, hate crimes, and racist remarks aren’t just fictionalized. Vercher’s story could have happened in 1995, and we certainly know it still happens today. The only difference, as Van Jones remarks in the Netflix documentary, 13th, is that today these offenses can be filmed on phones. It makes you question if we as a society and as individuals have grown at all in 25 years. It’s hard to see how.
With everything happening in the world right now, it’s important that we don’t forget an important celebration: Pride Month!
June has to be the most loving and colorful month of the year. That’s because for 30 days we celebrate that love is love regardless of gender or sexual orientation. And it occurs in June, so that we can remember and celebrate the Stonewall riots that happened 51 years ago, giving rise to equality for the LGBTQ+ community.
Despite those riots and the progress that they catalyzed, it would be misleading and ignorant to assume the LGBTQ+ community can love and live the same way straight, cisgender people can. Narrow-mindedness runs rampant in the world, including in our own backyards with a president who doesn’t govern for all people. In addition to outright discriminations, social constructs still make it difficult for people to come out and love freely.
That’s why we need books like Red, White & Royal Blue, a 2019 novel that throws all harmful conventions out the window and asks what some will definitely perceive as a radical question: What if an immediate member of the first family were gay?
If you read this book and did not root for Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry, please leave this blog or challenge yourself to understand why their relationship is the fictional tale we need to make all love equal.
Happy Pride Month!
Source: Vanity Fair
- What: Such a Fun Age
- Who: Kiley Reid
- Pages: 305, hard cover
- Genres: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
One of the greatest gifts that The Biblio Files has given me is the light it has shed on my own microaggressions — how my own whiteness leaves me completely ignorant sometimes. And it’s truly a gift because it forces me to see where I can grow and improve even if it’s hard to accept.
There have been many editing sessions where I cringe at something I say. I never intend disrespect, and sometimes it’s really just nerves; however, I recognize that intent and meaning are two different things. And sometimes it’s the way I say something. I have, for example, a nervous laugh that usually accompanies something uncomfortable. In a recent episode, I deleted about 10 seconds of a conversation about catcalling because I was laughing about being catcalled while leaving the gym. When this happened, I didn’t find it funny at all, and I still don’t today. So why do I laugh at something so terrible?
Because I’m human, not perfect, and far from woke. Hearing yourself after you say something is the greatest way to recognize your flaws (that whole hindsight thing), and boy, am I observing and trying to rectify mine.
Microagressions, intersectionality, being “woke” in the 21st century, and ignorance all play key roles in Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, a 2019 novel that’s getting all the rage. It could not come at a more perfect time — for me and for the entire world.
Let me start by saying diversity and literature go hand in hand.
- Diversity is the foundation to learn new perspectives from literature.
- Literature proves the value and necessity of diversity.
We are coming full circle here, people.
Diversity wasn’t really part of my upbringing, though. I grew up in a mostly white community and knew very few people who looked or lived differently than I did. I don’t even remember talking to a person of color until high school. Even then, my school was mostly white kids. On top of that, I barely knew any non-Christians or non-straight people. I definitely didn’t know anyone from the trans community.
That changed a bit when I went to college. I was definitely one of those people, though, who had one or two black friends and thought that made me an ally and not racist. I would even say that out loud. “Oh she’s my black friend.” And I shamefully remember commenting once that one of these women didn’t “act black.” I’m embarrassed now to write that and of my 20-year-old self, and I feel immense guilt.
Thank God for growth, for New York, and for literature.
When I found out my colleague Sabrina loved books as much as I do, I knew I’d found a new soul sister. Now we spend many minutes during our work day chatting and calling via Skype about the books we’re reading. This often carries over to text after we complete our work day.
Many of those chats, calls, and texts in the past two months revolved around one book in particular: The Shadow of the Wind.
Sabrina was a superb guest in a preceding episode of The Biblio Files when we chatted with her friend Meghann about our shared love of libraries. I knew I’d have to snag her for another episode to discuss this superb book. In the latest, we explore the themes of family, friendship, love, mysteries, loyalty, book culture, and Barcelona in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s masterpiece. We also go on a travel tangent about European churches. You certainly don’t want to miss that.
Click on this link or search for The Biblio Files on your favorite podcast platform to listen. And, as always, don’t forget to subscribe and check out Anchor to see how you can support your favorite bibliophile.