I keep an ongoing to-do list on my phone. Every time I finish a book, I add the future review to that list. Every time I think of an “Extra Extra” idea, I add it as well. For the last six months, the top of that list has read “Why I Don’t Have One-Flame Reviews.”
It’s not that every book I read is five-flame fabulous or that I go too easy on books. On the contrary, I tend to round down if I initially want to give a book half of a flame. Earlier this year, I realized that the reason I don’t have any one-flame reviews is because I likely wouldn’t even finish a book if I felt that harshly toward it.
Well, that all changed when I picked up a book that’s received quite a bit of attention in 2020 and that was written by an author whose previous work I thoroughly enjoyed. Before reading The Book of Lost Friends, I knew that — in addition to liking the author — this novel fell into the historical fiction realm, took place after a war, and had powerful themes about literature. All things considered, it was certainly poised to be a top contender for my annual “Ranked” list.
Not long after I started it, though, I heard that familiar echo of the white savior and the tone-deaf decision for a white woman to write from a Black person’s perspective, and it irked me in every single way. To a lesser degree, I also was bothered by incongruent storylines, stereotypes, unfulfilling foreshadowing, and an overabundance of detail. I guess there’s a first for everything.
When I started The Biblio Files in February, I made a goal to interview one author in the first year. Thanks to the amazing book Three-Fifths and its author, John Vercher, I’ve reached that milestone.
In the first author interview of this podcast, I had the pleasure of chatting with John about everything from racism in America and the unfortunate circumstances that make his book “timeless” and to his complex characters and their heartbreaking ending. We had a fascinating and enlightening conversation, and I’m excited for his future work to hit the bookshelves.
You can listen to our conversation wherever you consume podcasts or via Anchor, the platform I use to publish every episode. While on Anchor, you can also subscribe to and support The Biblio Files. Check it out now!
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.
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.
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.
One of the greatest gifts that The Biblio Fileshas 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.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a coworker about the memories books create — how it doesn’t matter how long it’s been, you still remember the exact feeling a book gave you and the exact spot you were when you read it.
It doesn’t happen with everything I pick up, but it did with Colson’s Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I barely put down this moving and creative novel the minute I picked it up, and I’ll never forget how I could barely move from the bed in my Brooklyn apartment in the few days it took to read it. I remember being so incredibly in awe of such magic, triumph and heartbreak. And in my subconscious, I think the feelings that book evoked helped inspire Big Little Literature.
Because of these strong feelings, I was a bit skeptical to read Whitehead’s latest The Nickel Boys. I mean, there’s just no way anything can compare, right? Well, his 2019 novel brings the same emotions and power, and I finished this one in a matter of hours (as I descended into Denver accompanied by some devoted speed-reading because no way was I waiting to finish it until I got to my hotel). The verdict is in, and let’s just say it gave The Underground Railroad a very good run for its money.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t fully understand white privilege until a couple of months ago. I’m ashamed of this. I knew it existed, and that it had been a part of my life as much as any other white person’s, but I didn’t really get it. It’s important to admit ignorance and more importantly to overcome it.
I was running on a hot, humid July day and listening to Armchair Expert, a fantastic podcast with Dax Shepard, when it happened. He was interviewing one of my favorite humans — and one of the most woke — Sophia Bush, the genius who gave the world Brooke Davis. As she explained that white privilege is not meant to diminish anybody’s suffering but rather to illustrate that suffering as a white person has never been the result of the color of our skin, it clicked for me.
It is so blatantly clear that white privilege exists.
And it’s this theme, along with feminism, humor, and mental health, that brings us Queenie, a 2019 novel that author Richard Roper recommended to me. This book is the epitome of intersectionality (don’t worry: I had to Google that term too) and all sorts of sociological terms rolled up into a few hundred pages, but author, Candice Carty-Williams, injects plenty of laughs into it as well. That means we should have a compelling novel on our hands. Unfortunately, I only felt connected and drawn to half of this book, leaving me confused about my feelings. Carty-Williams tackles a lot of topics and their complex relationships with one another in Queenie, and it’s certainly a book we need in 2019. But is it the novel that fully delivers on it’s worth? I’m not sure.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the first book reviewed in a new Big Little Literature series, Storied, a personal initiative to read the greatest books in American literature.
PBS’ The Great American Read had me regretting never experiencing so many magical pieces of American literature. One of those was not only so far ahead of its time but is also — and sadly — still relevant in today’s society. To Kill a Mockingbird took me back to being eight years old, the same age as its main character, Scout, and on a deeper level, it was a reminder that we still have a long way to go in accepting others and being more loving. It also proved that genuine souls are around us everywhere we go. They’re just too humble to announce it.