I spend a lot of time defending chick lit against negative high-brow bibliophiles. I’ve started many a post about how strongly I feel about the importance and enjoyment of this genre. You’d think with how often I defend it that I would also favor the genre against all others. It doesn’t, however, quite take the top spot. That belongs to another genre that I also frequently defend and one that critics despise almost as much as chit lit: historical fiction. Why is the best kind of reading criticized the most??
I’ll never be able to answer that question, but I can tell you that, when done right, historical fiction novels have me flying through them at lightning speed. Usually, I lean toward war-related reads when perusing this genre, but — as you know — I’ve been slightly obsessed with learning about Russia and the Cold War lately. So after Red Sparrow failed to live up to my impossibly high expectations, I figured I needed to draw back into a genre that rarely lets me down, so that I could get my Cold War fix.
I came across Our Woman in Moscow a few months ago in a Buzzfeed books newsletter discussing new novels that were sure to make a splash. It seemed to have everything I was looking for: historical fiction, a Cold-War era timeline and World War II, and an intriguing plot. I didn’t realize I’d also get some badass female characters written with City of Girls-like characterization. I cannot sugarcoat it: This book made a giant splash, and I absolutely devoured it.
I’m a wuss. This isn’t news to anyone familiar with BLL. In 2019, I vowed to read more thrillers, but I only succeeded on some technicalities. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading thrillers or mysteries per se, but I have a feeling the nightmares they catalyze have something to do with the fact that I don’t gravitate toward the genres.
Ironically, I’ve read more thrillers and mysteries in the past six months than in the past few years combined. But bringing in “horror” elements takes it a bit too far. I notoriously refuse to watch any kind of horror flick because I know how I will react, and why would I intentionally scare myself? No no. I can read a thriller every now and then, but I stay far away from anything horrific.
That is unless you throw a critically and culturally acclaimed novel in my face.
Enter: Mexican Gothic, a book that is equal parts thriller and mystery with a whole lot of horror happening on top. If you know me, then you know this is not a typical read for Beth. However, I do like to challenge myself and try new things, and more importantly, I have to see for myself if a book lives up to the hype, and Mexican Gothic had a whole lot of hype. So I put on my big girl pants to read this terrifying book, which did indeed give me the heebie jeebies. You have been warned.
If you’ve never watched The Americans, I suggest you drop everything and go watch the first few episodes ASAP. When I tell you to stop reading my blog to go do something, you know it must be a pretty big deal. I started watching the show over a year ago after some friends recommended it — though it came with a warning that it can get pretty gruesome. (I can confirm: The warning was warranted.)
The show follows Cold War Russian spies living as normal U.S. citizens in the DC metro area. Now, I’ve never been a huge spy fan when it comes to books, movies, or TV. There are no hard feelings; the genre and themes just never did much for me. But The Americans. GAH it is so good. It has history, psychology, action, sociology, politics, family, fear, love, and so. much. more. It ranks at the top of TV for me. Yes, it even rises above One Tree Hill.
I told BLL fave, Dana, to watch it, and she and her husband agreed that the show kicks total ass. It even sparked some Russian fascination in us both. Seriously, our society teaches us only to fear and despise Russian with little context; I want to know why. Therefore, Dana recommended I read Red Sparrow, which also focuses on Russian spies. I provide all this context for a reason. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Our personal lives and where we are on any given day affect our experiences with books. I have an inkling that my obsession with The Americans and learning more about the Cold War may have influenced my opinion of Red Sparrow. Had I read the book before watching the show, I may have opined a bit differently.
I happened to be reading Stay with Me Mother’s Day weekend, which was interesting timing as the book chronicles the pressure and pain of trying to become a mother. I have friends who are currently mothers (some through careful planning and some by accident), friends who recently gave birth or are currently pregnant, friends who are struggling to conceive, and friends who don’t know if they want children. Then, there’s me — someone who’s known since college that she did not want to be a mother.
I get very frustrated on the topic of motherhood because, while there’s so much damn pressure to become one regardless of how difficult it may be for someone, society certainly doesn’t support women once they become mothers. Women are expected to have it all and to be everything all at once. The expectations are incredibly illogical and unjust. So even though I personally don’t want to a mother, I get fired up for all my female friends and family suffering from impossible expectations and challenges.
These thoughts stayed with me while reading Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s debut novel, which makes profound statements about the various struggles of motherhood. I can’t say that I absolutely loved this book, but I was captivated by everything it had to say and the cultural context in which it made its statements. And if you were wondering, yes, the hypocrisy and criticism that the main character faces definitely evoked some angry emotions from me.
- What: Passing
- Who: Nella Larsen
- Pages: 120 pages
- Genre: Classic literature
- Published: 1929
- The lit: of 5 flames
The year 2020, as awful as it was, did have a few silver linings. Growth was a big one, especially because I finally acknowledged my own racism. I’ll be on this journey for the rest of my life as I learn something every day, but in the past year, I’ve done a lot of listening and learning to become a true ally. Of the many things I’ve learned, one thing sticks out in particular, mainly because I’m ashamed I’d never heard of this and never thought about its impact before: the concept of passing, where a Black person with light skin tones consciously passes as a white person.
I first learned about this in the novel Three-Fifths written by John Vercher, and when I interviewed him, he spoke about the topic as his main character — passing as white — struggles with his mixed identity. Passing is also a core theme in The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett‘s second novel, which took the literary community by storm last year and was one of my favorite books in 2020.
In reading and researching both of these books and in speaking with Vercher, there was one book that continuously came up: Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s the original book about the passing literary canon, and it allowed this topic to be pursued in scholarly settings, as well as pop culture. To say it’s had an impact is an understatement. So I finally did my due diligence and bought this classic novella. With its themes and its setting among the Harlem Renaissance, Passing provides an extraordinary look into a life so few understand — including the main character herself.
My love for Jasmine Guillory has been well-documented. (It may even exceed that of which I have for Emily Giffin at this point.) In my three previous reviews of Guillory greats, I’ve praised her female characters who have needs, are not afraid to have those needs met, and are multi-dimensional. She gives us real people with real problems rather than characters who society deems worthy of literature. You know who I’m talking about: the quiet, demure, modest, and white gals.
In her writing, Guillory seems to protest every wrong notion about women, and her fourth novel, Royal Holiday, is no different. Once again, Guillory gives us characters and a love affair not promoted enough in literature, especially chick lit: that of the middle-age love story. Sometimes it feels like in pop culture, we’re expected to no longer have wants and needs after marriage and children and once we reach the “ancient” age of 40. Hollywood, for example, has been criticized for years for its apparent ageism and sexism, though many female actresses have spoken up with eventual change hopefully on the horizon.
I don’t know how Guillory manages to fight a different female stereotype in every single book she writes, but I know she’ll keep doing it. And as someone who’s dreading turning 30 in less than 12 months (ridiculous, I know), she definitely puts me at ease with what’s to come in the next few decades.
When I first moved from Missouri to the northeast, I lived “right on the edge of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights” in Brooklyn, as I would tell people. If you look at a map, my first apartment lies not even a half a block from the imaginary line separating the two neighborhoods, so it makes sense that I would describe my apartment’s location that way, but if I’m honest, there was another reason why I felt the need to define my address.
I knew very little about Brooklyn when I moved here, so I didn’t know which neighborhoods were “bad” versus “good.” It didn’t take long, though, to figure out what those two adjectives actually meant. I also learned quickly that Crown Heights had a reputation for getting “worse” the further into the neighborhood you went — i.e., the further away from Prospect Heights, which was a very wealthy and a very white neighborhood. So even though geography was on my side, so was my racism when I told people I lived on the edge of those two neighborhoods. I’m ashamed to say it, and books like When No One is Watching reflect that attitude directly in my face.
This thriller written by a Black woman, who we do not see promoted enough in this genre, may seem like an extreme version of gentrification, but with the rate Black people get displaced in the cities white people originally fled, it’s not far off. Gentrification benefitted me by giving me a sense of safety — which was of course steeped in the racist lies others told me and that I told myself. So I did a lot of self-reflection while reading this one — as well as trying to calm my nerves, which were extremely frayed by the end.
Immigration is a political and social issue whose solutions have always seemed nebulous to me. It’s immensely complex, and I admit I’ve done little research to understand its intricacies. But from the surface and from a few immigrant friends, I know a few, very general things. First, it’s very hard to obtain citizenship in the U.S. Second, and contradictory to my first point, it’s just as hard to maintain any type of visa. Lastly, and most importantly, the way we treat immigrants — be that through policy or social interaction — is incredibly inhumane, leading to the “othering” effect with unhealthy stereotypes.
The odd thing is that people who set and maintain devastating policies or who speak such harmful words about immigrants likely have never talked to an immigrant — documented or undocumented — to understand their struggle and the heartbreak that led them to pursue the illusive American Dream. This point illustrates how storytelling — or qualitative data if you will — is just as or even more important than statistics and how storytelling can shape our morals and beliefs. Stories like Patsy are integral for our society to progress and for us becoming a little more compassionate.
Patsy tells a story that few of us probably know but one that exists all too frequently, that of the undocumented immigrant. The eponymous main character gives up her heartbreaking and unfair life in Jamaica for love and freedom in the States only to be deceived by those who promised her so much — including Americans and their precious ideals.
All this time at home has given me ample opportunity to think in the past year — probably to my detriment. One thing I can’t help thinking about it is how much I’d love to move to another country — literally any country — to avoid the racism, xenophobia, and ultra-conservative viewpoints in the U.S. I know running away doesn’t fix problems; it just puts them further at bay. And deep down, I know no country is perfect, and every place has its own set of issues. It’s just been so upsetting to see how much our country has reversed in the last five years that it’s easy to think the grass is always greener.
That idea came to me while reading A Burning but probably not for the reason you’d expect. This contemporary fiction book, which takes place in India, certainly demonstrates that no place is perfect. But it made me wonder what someone in another country might think of America, especially after the year we’ve had. I can’t imagine it’s anything too positive. Furthermore, by viewing the parallels with a country we often deem inferior (hell, we deem every country inferior), I was reminded that the ideals the U.S. loves to cling to are shadowed in hypocrisy. I doubt that was author Megha Majumdar’s intention, but it certainly struck a chord, which all great books do.