2015 Reading Challenge: 3rd Quarter Check-In

by E.B. Bartels

Believe it or not, it’s already been three months since the last check-in on my 2015 reading challenge, and I must admit that I’m struggling a little over here. As you can see, I’m a few days late posting this––both because I was being busy with work and also because I may or may not have been stalling while I crammed in finishing a few more books to keep up with my reading schedule. *insert gritted teeth emoji face here* But for the future, I think I’m done with the rushing and the cramming. I want to enjoy and absorb the things I’m reading, not blow through them, and if that means I don’t make it to 50 by the time January 1 rolls around, so be it. As a wise man pointed out, I set this goal for myself before I knew I would be teaching this fall.

In case you have forgotten and have no idea what I’m going on about: My goal for 2015 is to read 50 books by women, with the majority of those by women of color.

In terms of numbers, 75% of 50 is 37.5 books, and by the last day of September I had read only 34. Luckily, this weekend I didn’t have much going on, so I got to practice my favorite Saturday morning pastime of drinking coffee in bed while reading, and I finished a few things I had been reading simultaneously and brought things up to 37.

You see, not only did I start working full-time at a school this fall which leaves me a) with significantly less time for personal reading and b) pretty wiped out when I try to read before bed a.k.a. fall asleep with a book on my face, but I also got sidetracked reading a really awesome but really long novel (a casual 592 pages), plus I had to read two books over the summer for work that were by men, so that took time away from my ladies. (Men! Ruining everything! Typical!) I’ve decided to try to bring up my numbers by taking time to appreciate some great graphic novels/memoirs, plays, and poetry by women.

So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve read since my 1st Quarter and 2nd Quarter Check-In:

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27. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan: Last I left you I was on page number five of Boylan’s memoir and already had a good feeling about it. The remaining 283 only got better. Boylan is an incredible memoirist––conversational, thoughtful, accessible, and funny as hell. She leaves you reflecting on your own life and also the entire world, and I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for weeks and weeks after I finished it. Definitely read it! Though I may be biased… I got to interview Jennifer Finney Boylan for my Non-Fiction by Non-Men column on Fiction Advocate, and I think she is the bee’s knees.

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28. Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Shannon Watters: File this under books that I wish had been around when I was a teenager. A thoroughly fun read, Lumberjanes follows a group of friends at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. I loved that the graphic novel is all about friendship between girls and that it puts queer girls, girls of color, and not traditionally feminine girls at the center. (No sexy Wonder Woman outfits in this series!) The diversity of the characters shows the many ways there are to be a girl in the world, and each girl brings her own personality, style, background, talents, and flair to the group. Every adventure they have is only possible because of the power of their differences and their unity. I think this series perfectly executes the Audre Lorde mantra of how, in a group, our differences shouldn’t be divisive, but they should make us stronger.

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29. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde: Oh, hey, speaking of Audre Lorde, as I promised I would in my 2nd Quarter Check-In, I went and read more Audre Lorde, and I love, love, LOVED Zami. (Thanks for the recommendation, Cris Beam!) In her poetic, story-telling style, Lorde goes through the history of her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. She perfectly balances that mix of adult-in-the-present-looking-back and child-wonder-and-confusion-in-the-moment. Zami is an exemplary memoir, plus it has all that great Lorde feminist ideology tucked into it as well. Just go read it. Right now. Stop reading my blog and go get a copy of Zami, okay?

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30. OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu: Haydu is another Nobles graduate (class of 2001!) and young adult author. While reading OCD Love Story this summer, all I could think about was how badly I needed this book when I was a kid. The story follows a teenage girl, Bea, as she battles chronic anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, while she also deals with a huge crush on a boy, Beck, whom she meets in group therapy. Haydu is masterful in her portray of mental illness and anxiety. She manages to bring awareness to the issues, lay out clearly what they are, and give a very powerful experience of what it’s like to cope with anxiety on a daily basis, but this is also not a Book About Mental Illness. It’s also a goofy, fun, teenage love story with all that good ol’ adolescent drama, which really hammers home the point that people are more than their mental illnesses. Anxiety, depression, OCD, all that––it’s just like someone having to manage diabetes or arthritis or hearing loss. It shouldn’t define who you are, and you shouldn’t be afraid of people with a mental illness. Haydu’s book tackles that concept head-on. It’s great. Read it. Unless maybe you yourself suffer from anxiety and OCD… sometimes Haydu’s portray of what it’s like to live with anxiety was a little too real for me… Also, trivia: Haydu has written a stage adaptation of OCD Love Story, which will be performed by students at Nobles this fall!

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31. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston: I also promised in my 2nd Quarter Check-In that I would read more stuff by Kingston, and I was not in the least disappointed by The Woman Warrior. In fact, I may even like it more than China Men, because I’m partial to narratives about multiple generations of women, but also because Kingston was so much more present in this memoir. Again, she blends family legend and cultural commentary and global history and myth and fairy tale all into one magnificent thing. I’m obsessed.

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32. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: This is Morrison’s most recent book, and it is her first novel to take place in a contemporary time. It’s a riveting story, fast-paced and engaging, and Morrison’s commentary on the modern United States is fascinating. However, I was frustrated by the length of the novel. It felt like it ended too soon, and I kept thinking about loose ends that I wish had been addressed. Morrison’s characters are complex, and I was so intrigued by their stories that I was annoyed when I didn’t get to hear everything about all of them. So I guess all my whining here is to say that I really liked the book and am just upset there wasn’t more of it.

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33. The Big Green Tent: A Novel by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, translated by Polly Gannon: This is that little 592-page novel that ate up a bunch of my August and September. It was totally worth the effort, but, whew, did it take a while to read. I’ll save my comments on this one as I have a review of it forthcoming at The Rumpus[EDIT: Here is the link to the review on The Rumpus!]

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34. Alone Forever: The Singles Collection by Liz Prince: I panicked after spending so much time on The Big Green Tent and grabbed a short and sweet comic collection by local writer and artist, Liz Prince. I read her Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir last fall, and I loved it. I enjoyed the standalone comics of Alone Forever, but I definitely preferred Tomboy. Prince can do a really great job at managing a long, connected storyline, and I think that’s why my favorite part of Alone Forever was the multi-part series about Prince’s OK Cupid dating history. (Though I do love that Prince is local, so I got a little thrill every time she would try to make eyes at a dude on the Red Line or go on a blind date at Diesel Cafe–I’ve been there! I’ve done that!) I think that Alone Forever doesn’t show Prince’s full potential as an artist. Still, it’s fun, and I would recommend reading it, especially if you’re currently going through Tinder Hell.

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35. The Mountaintop by Katori Hall: Shout out to Dan Halperin who recommended a whole list of women playwrights for me to read! His suggestions did not disappoint. I’ve spent a lot of time this fall remembering just how much I love theatre and how helpful it is to read plays to help think about dialogue in prose, and, on top of all that, Hall’s The Mountaintop was an incredible play that made me think about how to incorporate real people into fictional work and how to carry a play with only two characters and how to write about history in a personal way and how to put magical realism on stage and and and and my mind was blown. I’m writing this from a coma. I’m a pile of mush. Bye.

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36. The Worrier’s Guide to Life by Gemma Correll: I started reading this while standing in Newbury Comics, waiting for a certain wise man to finish browsing the records, and I had to buy the book to bring home to finish because I was making a scene in the store laughing. I was already familiar with some of Correll’s work from Twitter, but this whole book is a gem. Look at her website for a sampling, but go get the book and laugh-cry over it in the privacy of your own home.

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37. The Other Side of Dark by Sarah Smith: This was another book I read for work, as it was summer reading for the 8th graders this year. Smith is another local writer, and I got that same thrill as I did reading Liz Prince whenever her characters did things that I have also done, such as walk by Jamaica Pond or go to Starbucks in Brookline or drive down Blue Hill Ave. The story tackles the intense, complicated issues of reparations, Boston’s kept-quiet ugly history of slavery, how race and class play into relationships, and how history shapes everything we do in the contemporary world. It also is a ghost story/mystery, which makes for fast-paced reading.

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38. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson: This is what I’m currently reading. I pre-ordered this book and picked it up on the day it came out, September 8th, but am just getting to it now. So it goes. The author of this memoir is my beloved professor and thesis-reader from Columbia’s Writing Program, and I already have good feelings about this book, because Margo is the best. If you don’t believe me, read my Non-Fiction by Non-Men interview with her from this summer.

And now it’s time for those horrible statistics! Out of the twelve books above, only five are by women of color, and three are by out members of the LGBTQ community (I never want to assume anything about anyone’s sexuality or gender identity). Basically, I’m a mess, and I need to really plan out everything I’m going to read for the rest of the year, because when you grab random comic books at Newbury Comics, the odds are they’re usually by white women, if they’re by women at all. So. I’m ashamed, but I’m going to keep at it.

I’ve also realized something: while I really want to hit my 50-books-by-women goal for 2015, either way it doesn’t mean that in January 2016 I’m going to go back to reading only books by white dudes all the time. Sure, I’m looking forward to reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari, but I think trying to read mostly-to-only books by women is going to be a goal of mine for the rest of my life. One of my fellow teachers has said that she feels that diversity and inclusion goals are a mindset, not a set curriculum. It was never as if I read 50 books by women and *poof* I would suddenly just get it. It’s an ongoing, life-long process.

Still, I’m going to try my hardest to hit my 50 books by January 1, 2016. Wish me luck!

P.S. If you can’t wait until the end of the fourth (LAST!) quarter to see what I’m reading, follow me on GoodReads.

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