RHC 2018: Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book about nature. 

I love rainy days. Obviously, there’s nothing like a downpour to compliment a good mope, but rainy days are wonderful for good moods too. Nothing short of winter precipitation makes an interior cozier than the sound of rain on the roof and the sight of it running down the window panes. Imagine the perfect summer afternoon spent with a favorite beverage and a good book and tell me it isn’t raining outside.

Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is beautifully written, and I had the good luck of reading it during a very rainy early spring week. The book is organized into five sections – Elemental Rain, Chance of Rain, Capturing the Rain, American Rain, and Mercurial Rain. My favorite section was the first, particularly the chapter on rain in religion (“Praying for Rain”). It included all kinds of fascinating interpretations of rain, including a hilltop temple goddess whose three day period kicks off monsoon season. Crowds gather to dip cloth in her sacred menstrual fluids at the Ambubachi Festival. It’s wonderful to see a period get celebrated, you know?

RHC 2018: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book of true crime. 

My second job post-college was a part time circulation clerk position in the library where I’m now a fancypants real live librarian. That was where I first encountered Ann Rule’s books–lurid titles and book jackets that caused a hopeless mess over in 364.1 as patrons constantly picked through them trying to figure out which ones they’d already read.

I didn’t think much of them. They looked tacky.

But after my fourth challenge read this year, I realized I had accidentally read four male authors in a row. I wanted to restore some balance. Ann Rule isn’t the only female true crime writer out there, but she was the first name that came to mind, followed by a deep sigh of resignation. Fine. I’d read her. It would indeed be pushing my own boundaries and “reading harder.”

But I’d never heard of The Stranger Beside Me. I did not know that Ann Rule had worked a suicide hotline next to Ted Bundy. I didn’t know that they’d maintained a friendship even as Rule landed a book contract for several of his unsolved murders before Bundy had surfaced on anyone’s radar as a suspect. I didn’t know that she had sent him money for his commissary almost up to the day of his execution. This book was fascinating.

RHC 2018: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published posthumously.

Alternate: Read a book set in one of the BRICS countries (Russia).

There is so much to love in this book–anthropomorphic gun-wielding cats, gloriously unrepentant witches, mass public nudity, vampires, pirates, hellish torment in the form of involuntary chorales, literal blood baths, etc. Woland and Co. are some of the finest emissaries of the Pit since Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and I spent most of the novel thusly:

That said, in spite of how damn funny the book is, I was painfully aware of how little of its satire I was able to unlock. I got some of the low-hanging fruit, like the poor bastard who asks Satan for an attendance certificate proving he was at a Walpurgis ball with all the company of Hell (even Satan himself bows to bureaucracy). I could chuckle at the ongoing sendup of the Moscow literati. I thoroughly enjoyed the bizarre episode in which a man is packed off to Hell (presumably), leaving behind his suit, which continues handling business from his desk. But there’s clearly so much more happening that I don’t have the context for that makes it such an enduring favorite in Russia.

That didn’t stop me from having a wonderful time reading this, but I feel like I should acknowledge how much likely went flying over my head. And speaking of flying, I knew there was an anthropomorphic demon cat, which I’m always happy to show up for, but I did NOT expect so many little spikes of what certainly appeared to be feminism. I’m also pretty sure that a lot of academic ink has been spilled on this topic, and probably in a much more nuanced fashion.

But here’s my hot take anyway. When Margarita finds herself transformed into a witch with powers of flight, I assumed that we’d be headed toward a storyline in which the Master sought to rescue her from Satan’s clutches.

Nope. Margarita decides that flying around in the nude wreaking (fairly nonviolent) havoc is a blast, and she quite happily agrees to perform hostess duties at “Satan’s ball.” While there, Margarita meets a woman condemned to hell after strangling the baby that resulted from a rape. “And where is he?” she asks pointedly.

She never repents, either. For anything. And things end well for her (peace, if not light, which isn’t half bad). It’s delicious to read.

RHC 2018: Leonard by William Shatner and Vacationland by John Hodgman

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a celebrity memoir.

This is my second year doing this challenge, and I’m off to a great start. I’m only two months late getting started (compared to four last year), and I accidentally read and thoroughly enjoyed two books that fit the task I was least excited about. It’s gonna be a great year.

Leonard by William Shatner (chosen for the book club I facilitate at work) made me finally feel like I have a handle on Star Trek. I hate to admit this, but I have only the barest cultural-consciousness-level understanding of Star Trek. I mean, I like the idea of Star Trek, but Star Wars wins out for me on the technicality that I’ve actually watched the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Trek felt like a project on the level of learning Tagalog–the kind of thing that would require substantial dedication, time, and repetition to get a true handle on.

And so I just sort of know character names, that there were whales in one of the movies, and that I have to be careful to remember that Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are different people (I KNOW, stop throwing things at me!).

RHC 2018: The Devourers by Indra Das

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (India).

Oh my goodness. This magnificent beast of a book. This beautiful, stinking, terrifying love story. Just go read it right now.

Okay. A college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger at a baul performance in Kolkata. The stranger claims he is “half werewolf,” and wants to share his story. After a tantalizing tale, he gives Alok two manuscripts and asks him to transcribe them.

If you’re thinking, oh, cool, an Indian werewolf version of Interview with a Vampire, you’re not exactly right, but if that sounds fun to you, you will enjoy this. Greatly. It’s hard to avoid Anne Rice comparisons. This, like Rice’s work, is a book where you see, smell, touch, and taste something in every sentence (and often something very unpleasant, at that). It is a very different sensory palette than the one that Rice uses, though, and Das has a very distinct style. It’s also a much more measured story than Rice’s sprawling multivolume epics, clocking in at just over 300 pages with generous amounts of white space.

That sensory palette includes a lot of excrement and rotting meat, incidentally. Das’s werewolves are messy.

Read Harder 2017 Challenge – My Finished List

Read Harder Challenge 2017

I did Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge last year (okay, fine, and the first two months of this year), and I can’t recommend it enough. For me, it was a way to keep my adult brain at least intermittently online during our Planet Baby year, but it also pushed me out of my comfort zone and introduced me to a lot of stuff I might not have encountered otherwise.

You should try it (2018 tasks here).

There are plenty of normal ways to track your progress that don’t involve, say, personal blogging like it’s 2007 for a total of some 22,000 words, but here we are, if you have some time to kill and a high tolerance for lengthy tangents.

  1. Read a book about sports: My Losing Season by Pat Conroy
  2. Read a debut novel: American War by Omar El Akkad
  3. Read a book about books: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa
  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative: My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci
  6. Read an all-ages comic: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Volume 1: BFF
  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950: Cane by Jean Toomer
  8. Read a travel memoir: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
  9. Read a book you’ve read before: Maus by Art Spiegelman
  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location: Lightning Bug by Donald Harington
  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location: Touching My Father’s Soul by Jamling Tenzing Norgay
  12. Read a fantasy novel: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  13. Read a nonfiction book about technology: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
  14. Read a book about war: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill on War and Society by Dave Grossman
  15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+: Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz
  16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country: And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  17. Read a classic by an author of color: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead: America Volume 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez
  19. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese
  20. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel: The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody
  21. Read a book published by a micropress: Beneath the Surface of Things by Kevin Wallis
  22. Read a collection of stories by a woman: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
  23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love: Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry
  24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

RHC 2017: The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017(ish) for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.

Okay, technically I finished this in February 2018. But this challenge isn’t graded, so I’m counting it. No one can stop me.

The War of the End of the World is a kaleidoscopic novel about the War of Canudos in the sertão region of Brazil near the turn of the century. It includes a staggeringly large cast of characters, a slippery timeline, and rich, dense writing. The translation I read was beautiful, but man was it chewy. I shot myself in the foot by being in a hurry to finish this in order to finish the 2017 challenge (which literally no one asked me to do, and no one even more emphatically ever asked me to write twenty-four term papers while I was at it). This isn’t the kind of book you can read in a hurry, and I wouldn’t recommend tackling it on a deadline.

In case you’re as unfamiliar with this history as I was, the War of Canudos was a bloody civil war fought between the thirty thousand or so followers of Antônio Conselheiro and the nascent Brazilian republic from 1895-1898. Antônio Conselheiro, simply the Counselor in the novel, was a charismatic religious figure who managed to amass a huge following by wandering around rural and extremely economically depressed regions of the state of Bahia. From there, an armed encounter between a small group of soldiers and a band of the Counselor’s followers led to a rapidly escalating conflict between the government desperate to quash anything remotely monarchist-leaning and a huge doomsday cult waiting for a prophecy involving King Sebastian of Portugal returning from the dead to be fulfilled.

RHC 2017: Victims of a Map: A Bilingual Anthology of Arabic Poetry

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love. 

Okay. This selection of fifteen poems each by three of the most prominent modern Arab poets is wonderful. I’ve read it several times since I ordered it in May 2017, but I haven’t had any idea where to even start with this post.

I’m going to try to write out some of my thoughts about this, but I feel a little bit like a gerbil trying to explain Shakespeare (and working from a translation of Shakespeare’s English into Gerbish, for that matter). Oh, and in this analogy I’m a gerbil that knows absolutely nothing about the social context of Elizabethan England, or, like, what a stage is.

But here’s what I’ve got. The poems of Mahmud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim, both Palestinian, ache all over the page. Both poets tackle personal and cultural displacement and shattered identity. Darwish’s imagery is very physical – soil, seas, sky. The phrase “the country” is frequently repeated. He also repeatedly uses the land as a medium for birth and death, and several of his poems call forward and backward across generations.

al-Qasim’s style, on the other hand, is incredibly spare. Several of his works are extremely short–some are only two lines long. While the dominant emotion I picked up on from Darwish was profound grief (“We Are Entitled to Love Autumn”), al-Qasim’s work read to me as defiantly hopeful (“Don’t Waste the Tickets”).

Adonis appeared to me to be the most formally adventurous of the three, and the most (technically) challenging. Dreams and mirrors are frequent figures, and several poems are structured as dialogs. His range also includes very brief poems (“Worries” was one of my favorites) and one quite long poem “The Desert” that reminded me a bit of Walt Whitman.

Most of the books I read for this challenge made me really chatty. This one didn’t. I strongly recommend it–it’s powerful stuff. But this was a listening read for me rather than a talking one, if that makes sense.

How I ‘Became a Writer,’ or alternatively, Buckets of Unicorns

overshare, writing

I decided to be a professional writer in kindergarten. Inspired by the Whisper the Winged Unicorn series, my best buddy and I made a pact to produce books of interest to both kids and adults. I would be responsible for the words and she for the illustrations. At the time, the pictures were the much more salient portion, and I remember feeling grumpy about being stuck on serif duty. But you couldn’t have a book without words, and she was the better artist, so I went along with it.

Whisper the Winged Unicorn combined the two most desirable traits of my My Little Ponies (favorites here and here and here and here). Who knew what other worlds could be imagined in a universe of such infinite possibility?

So, yeah, writer, speculative fiction, early on. Settled.

RHC 2017: Beneath the Surface of Things by Kevin Wallis

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published by a micropress.

I put this task off for a long time, until I was basically down to a couple of comic books, three poems, and a really long Mario Vargas Llosa book that I’m still not sure I’m going to finish by the end of the year. I’m ashamed of the reason. It’s not that I think micropresses don’t publish incredible work. They do. Frequently. But I have an unfair bias toward them involving me being afraid of assuming more risk in my reading selections. Bluntly, I didn’t want to read something awful.

I know, I know. This is a terrible attitude that’s hurting markets willing to take risks that more commercial enterprises can’t or won’t, and that’s hurting me by limiting my reading pile. I’m working on myself. Bear with me.

I’m happy to report that I did not read something awful. I read Kevin Wallis’ collection of short stories, Beneath the Surface of Things, which was not awful. I somehow missed in the book’s description that these were straight-up horror short stories, and as such it made a wonderful warm up exercise for my upcoming course on writing horror fiction through the University of Colorado.

I particularly enjoyed the first story in the collection, which had some legitimately freaky imagery involving a dead jogger and an unexpectedly upbeat ending. There was also a Lovecrafty story involving geocaching gone terribly wrong that I thought was quite a bit of fun, as well as a very sweet Civil War ghost story that opens with a severed foot in a stocking (seriously, it’s a sweet story), and a spooky possession/haunted house tale. There’s a theme of failure to protect loved ones running throughout the book. It’s not the cheap chauvinistic “protect the women and children” trope that horror so often uses as such a cheap crutch, either. It includes brothers, best friends, and other loved ones all over the spectrum of human relationships. So points awarded there.

I did wish that the author hadn’t mentioned in his author notes which stories had been rejected, which stories he wasn’t confident in, etc. It’s so easy to influence a reader’s opinion. The same story can be eye-rollingly bad when it’s freshly yanked out of the slush pile and mind-bendingly amazing when it’s nicely formatted and headlining a major journal. There’s no reason in letting a reader in on the writer’s uncertainty about a piece, because it colors the perception of a story that the reader might have liked the best otherwise.

More generally, I feel weird about author commentary on short stories. Sometimes it’s nice background information, but sometimes it’s deeply unnecessary and uncomfortably narcissistic. If it’s important to the author that I know something, it needs to be in the text itself. The commentary in this book wasn’t overly navel-gazely or anything, but there were a few where it felt like Wallis was shooting himself in the foot for no good reason.

So yeah. I’d like to get a little more comfortable with small presses and micropresses, because I know there’s a ton of interesting stuff happening there that I’d like to explore. This book was a solid start.

RHC 2017:My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration theme.

I attended a Montessori school through first grade. One of the most hotly contested activity stations involved tracing and coloring enormous maps, and I have strong sense memories of sitting on the brown carpet, laboriously outlining Paraguay. Unfortunately, my sense of world geography remained strongly rooted in those memories, which were made in the mid-1980s before the U.S.S.R.  and Yugoslavia dissolved.

I recently started trying to be a less terrible American and one who generally knows where things are in the world (Seterra is the site I used – it’s fun, if humbling), and I was shocked to find myself in better shape with the Middle East and Africa than I was with Eastern Europe. I remember reading Zlata’s Diary in fifth or sixth grade and being profoundly shaken by the thought that a fellow child diarist of the waning twentieth century could be in a war zone. That horrifying realization that universe could randomly drop someone into a violent conflict like that stayed with me, but unfortunately the details of the Bosnian War or the larger sociopolitical landscape of the Balkans did not.

I’m an adult and I’m embarrassed by how much googling I had to do to piece together the context of this Finnish novel, though I am glad to have been prodded into nailing down very, very broad strokes. My Cat Yugoslavia consists of two narrative strands. One is told from the perspective of Emine, a young Albanian woman in Kosovo, and follows her from the abrupt end of her childhood through her marriage to a difficult, borderline abusive husband to her family’s emigration to Finland, where they find a less than warm welcome as Balkan refugees.

RHC 2017: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.

Here’s a confession. I wish I were more outdoorsy. Or, more accurately, I wish I was as outdoorsy as the fictional version of myself. I’m from a beautiful part of the world, and I did grow up within easy driving distance of the Buffalo River, which my husband and I try to float as often as we can. There were always blue green hills rising and dipping around the horizons of my childhood. I’ve hiked up and down my hills and I’ve crawled around inside them in an old tee shirt, muddy knee pads and helmet with a headlamp. Give me enough time and eventually I will get a tent pitched. So it’s not like I’m completely outdoors-illiterate, but, truthfully, I would be worthless in a survival situation, and I don’t like to spend too much time away indoor plumbing.

I do love to read about people with serious outside skills, though, and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese delivers on that in a big way. Its taciturn protagonist Franklin Starlight can rig a night line, drop a grouse with a rock, shoo off a grizzly, and set up a shelter without even realizing he’s doing it. Wagamese can also write the hell out of a landscape. Medicine Walk is set in the mountains of British Columbia, and it’s some of the most beautiful nature writing I’ve ever read.

Franklin was adopted by a character referred to as “the old man,” though his identity in flashback sequences is pretty immediately obvious (which is fine – this isn’t a thriller) and raised on a farm out in the backcountry. His father, Eldon Starlight (known as Twinkles to the town’s bar regulars), is dying of cirrhosis, and asks Franklin to help him get to a remote ridge where he can die in peace and be buried in the traditional Ojibwe style, sitting up facing the east. Along the way, Eldon shares his life story (the surname Starlight signifies storyteller) and the three prongs of tragedy that left him drunk and alone and led to Franklin’s existence and abandonment.

Franklin, who has very little use for conversation, emotion, or any sort of social impulse, is about as opaque a character as I’ve ever met. That said, his relationship with his adopted father is illustrated through some of the most touching parts of the book. When nine-year-old Frank returns from his first solo trip into the wilderness (a four-day affair) with some small game and a deer, the old man grins, claps him on the back, and shows him how to cook it. It’s one of the sweetest scenes I’ve read in a while. But Frank is pretty understandably hostile toward his biological father. There are a number of flashbacks in which Eldon ruins important occasions with his alcoholism – the worst being a birthday fly-fishing trip, which is a train wreck in slow motion. You know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you can’t help but hope that it won’t go that direction.

What Franklin does communicate through Wagamese’s narration is a bone-deep love of the land, Franklin’s most tangible connection to his Ojibwe roots. The old man is not Native, and Eldon himself spent very little time exploring his own heritage during his peripatetic childhood spent chasing work from one logging camp to the next. Frank clearly hungers for some sort of connection to his history – personal and cultural – and his conversations on the trail with his dying father finally put some pieces of the puzzle together for him. He has a vision of a group of Ojibwe men and women traveling through the valley at the very end of the book, which I took to mean that he did ultimately gain some connection to the past by learning more about his father. For his part, Eldon is seeking forgiveness on a number of fronts before he dies. Franklin is a pretty tough customer on this front, and never verbally forgives his father. At one point, he bluntly points out that it’s not for him to absolve Eldon for a number of his past sins.

Those two parallel emotional journeys are far more fraught with tension than the physical journey. Frank knows his mountains as well as I know my Dewey ranges, and the wilderness itself doesn’t present danger. What it does present is an opportunity for some of the most lyrical writing I’ve read in a long time. I found this to be a calming, wild, and lonely read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I hope to read more of Richard Wagamese soon, and I also hope to spend more time by myself outside. This book makes a powerful case for the importance of solitude in a wild place.

RHC 2017: Cane by Jean Toomer

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published between 1900 and 1950.

I recently rediscovered poetry as a civilian (as opposed to as an English major). There was something exhilarating about reading a poem without needing to construct an essay around it. I could just like the way something sounded or the way it made me feel. There was something a little rebelliously anti-intellectual going on, I admit, but it was/is fun to just walk up to a poem and ring its doorbell with no plan whatsoever in mind.

However, reading Cane by Jean Toomer reminded me that there is also value to studying literature and to having a knowledgeable guide to a difficult text. I could have used some help with this one. This was the only book I read for this challenge where I kept finding myself looking at words on a page without getting much meaning out of them. This isn’t a critique of the book; it’s a critique of my own lack of internal resources for really engaging with the work. I definitely looked at the whole thing, but I’m not sure that I really read it.

Cane is a collection of short sketches, poetry, and something resembling a one-act play that add up into a portrait of the Jim Crow South. Overall, There’s no unifying narrative thread beyond the imagery of Georgia’s cane fields, and the whole thing adds up to an impressionistic something that I have a hard time putting my finger on (I haven’t read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – I know just enough about it to know that it might be relevant here, but that’s it). The first section focuses on rural lives and landscapes, the second urban, and the third consists of one piece, “Kabnis.” “Kabnis” is written nominally as a drama, though the levels of psychological and symbolic detail in the stage descriptions would be practically impossible to stage – it’s a neat formal experiment. Its protagonist Kabnis has moved to rural Georgia from the North to teach (this is also a line from Jean Toomer’s own biography). Kabnis finds himself profoundly alienated from both white and black Southerners as a black Northerner, and the show wraps up in a hallucinatory drunken identity crisis (I think?).

But even this relatively more straightforward section of the work was tough going for me. I felt really frustrated reading this. It’s been a long time since I got the sense that I was being thoroughly outfoxed by a text. It’s good for me and builds character, I suppose, but it made me oddly homesick for academia.

I wish I had more I could write about this, but I would welcome insight from anyone else!

RHC 2017: The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin by Colette Moody

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.

I used to be a jerk about romance novels. I’m not proud of this. I think romance bothered me because it was associated with almost exclusively with femininity (this isn’t to say that there aren’t male readers and writers of romance, but I don’t think it’s controversial to claim that the majority of the readership is female). There are plenty of genres out there that aren’t my thing – I don’t read many westerns, thrillers, or mysteries. But these genres never offended me quite like romance used to. In retrospect, my loud hatred for romance stemmed from exactly the same place that used to bleat about how I  just preferred having guy friends to girl friends (shout out to my friendwomen here who somehow remained my friendwomen throughout that really unfortunate Anne-era).

To be fair, romance also bothered me because I thought it reinforced toxic gender norms, the most noxious of which being the assumption that the only plot a woman would be interested in is one that involves falling in love with a hot dude.

And lastly, I flipped through a Nora Roberts book once, and a character was described as wearing her hair pulled back “with some kind of band,” which to this day absolutely enrages me. THE BAND IS IMPLIED BY HAIR PULLED BACK. IT IS NOT SIGNIFICANT TO THE PLOT AND IT’S TOO VAGUE TO OFFER ANY DESCRIPTION. “Her hair was pulled back a thin strip of her enemy’s cured skin” would be compelling and necessary information. You know? Jesus Christ.

But look, god knows I require copious copy editing (and if you’ve read any of these posts, you know that too). And so in my old age, I’ve decided to forgive Nora Roberts at long last for this one sentence-level lapse, and I’ll also stop judging the entire genre because of it.

RHC 2017: America Volume 1: The Life and Times of America Chavez

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a superhero comic with a female lead.

I love comics. I even co-wrote one! But I never really read superhero comics, excepting Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and a few Batman trades of my brother’s.  I never collected single issues of anything, and I’m mystified by all of the parallel timelines, dimensions, and reboots in the Marvel and DC Universes (and I also think that their cinematic equivalents are a pox upon the box office). It’s always made me feel as though my nerd cred is deficient.

But I truthfully don’t have anything against superhero comics. My gateway comic was The Sandman, which a friend (the same one!) introduced me to in tenth grade. I’d never thought much about comics – they were a thing that I didn’t much care about, except for Batman, because to this day I hero worship my big brother and want to be just like him. But The Sandman changed everything. Preacher was next, followed by pretty much the entire Vertigo line, and then every non-superhero comic I could get my hands on. But The Sandman itself has roots in the genre (there were a few different Sandmen before Morpheus started brooding up the joint), and Gaiman understood the mythic underpinnings of superhero-dom and spun them out to an almost impossibly large proportion with full-throated late eighties/early nineties Gothed-out flair.

So I don’t mean to sound snotty about superheroes in and of themselves. But I also remember clearly receiving the message that most superhero comics were not written for people like me. Not-boy people, I mean (X-Men was a notable exception). If I were something besides white, I’m sure I would have felt even further alienated (again, X-Men being a notable exception). Comics are grappling with issues of representation, with thrilling results (Kamala Khan! Lunella Lafayette! Doreen Green!).  And there’s stuff out there like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda, Ice Man (an openly gay superhero), and America (America Chavez is queer and Latina [I mean, technically she’s not from a Latin American country, she’s from the Utopian Parallel, but still]).

Unfortunately, all of those books in that last sentence just got cancelled.

RHC 2017: My Losing Season by Pat Conroy

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book about sports.

Okay, this one is definitely a book about sports, unlike my first effort to complete this task.

I have a dear friend who’s kind of a big deal in the basketball writing world. I’m not naming him because it feels sort of gross to name drop my legitimately well-known buddy on my blog that I’ve been writing for eight months behind a privacy wall and that is prooooobably going to have a very small audience when and if I ever let someone read it. I don’t want to embarrass him. But I asked him for recommendations, and I got a great list, including Tuff Juice by Caron Butler, Writing on the Wall by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew.

And he also texted me, “My Losing Season by Pat Conroy is incredible. It’s about being on a team that just sucked. SUCKED. It is the opposite of ‘Determination and heart conquers all!’ Well, no, it turns out that if you suck at basketball, it doesn’t really matter.”

RHC 2017: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a nonfiction book about technology.

I needed a chaser after the book profiling the psychological impact of the act of killing, and this was just the thing. While Grossman’s book made me very uncomfortable (and that’s fine), this funny, fascinating death tour From Here to Eternity was oddly comforting.

Caitlin Doughty is a hero of mine. If you’re not familiar and you’re up for the subject matter, her YouTube channel Ask a Mortician is wonderful. She’s also the founder of the Order of the Good Death and Undertaking L.A., a funeral home whose stated mission is to return deathcare to the hands of the bereaved.

Doughty is a very passionate advocate of bringing death back into the public consciousness by bringing mourners closer to their dead loved ones, whether it’s through witnessing cremations, washing and preparing bodies, or spending unstructured, unpressured time with deceased loved ones. She argues that as a culture we’ve developed an unhealthy inability to process or honestly confront death. 

RHC 2017: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a fantasy novel.

Alternative: Read a book set more than 5,000 miles from your location. 

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is being developed by HBO and executive produced by George R.R. Martin. This isn’t the only reason you should read it, by any means, but it’ll put you in a good cultural position when the show comes out. Trust me, it’s satisfying to be the one who knows the Red Wedding is coming the entire time and then gets to kick back and laugh at how upset everyone else is.

But again, there are many other far worthier reasons for you to read this. At its heart, it is admittedly the most basic of fantasy plots – the chosen one must undergo rigorous training from a supernatural mentor before embarking on a quest to fulfill her destiny and save the world. But you know, it’s not an intrinsically bad plot. Seeing it driven by a protagonist of color in a world drawn from a history and mythology that’s not that of the United States and/or western Europe felt like a necessary counterbalance to the many, many, many other iterations of that story I’ve encountered. It was also propulsive reading.

RHC 2017: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Vol. 1 BFF

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an all-ages comic.

Alternatives: Read a superhero comic with a female lead. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color.

I read this during my maternity leave a very long time ago and never got around to posting about it. I’d had a ton of stuff to say about Touching My Father’s Soul and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which arrived in the same Amazon order, but I didn’t have the same reaction to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Please don’t misinterpret that–I liked this comic quite a bit. It just seemed so self-evidently good and its magnificent black nine-year-old girl main character so obviously important that I just didn’t know what else to say about it. So here we go.

Lunella Lafayette is a terribly precocious child heroine who is desperate to unravel the alien technology implanted in her DNA that leaves her vulnerable to a sudden transformation should she comes into contact with a terrigen cloud. There is also a time-traveling dinosaur.  That, right there, is a hell of a premise, and it gets better.

Lunella has some superhero abilities involving consciousness swapping, but her real superpower is her brain. At first, it’s a liability. It’s hard to be a brilliant young girl. She doesn’t fit in. She struggles with parents who don’t understand her and with classmates who make fun of her. But she’s fierce, practical, and resilient. In one of my favorite scenes, she takes a stab at the Hulk, who has just introduced himself as the eighth smartest person in the world, saying, “I don’t need my smarts ranked – like some people.” The Hulk proceeds to be unbearably benevolently paternalistic–and wrong. It’s clear that you should always, always, always listen to Lunella, who unfortunately lives in a world where no one seems to default to taking her seriously. The great thing about her is that she doesn’t let that stop her.

I knew going in that Moon Girl is officially the smartest person in the Marvel Universe. I had no idea where she fit into it though (as discussed elsewhere, the Marvel/DC Universes sort of exhaust me). Thanks, Wikipedia, for informing me that Devil Dinosaur is a Jack Kirby creation from 1978. His original humanoid companion was the furry, apelike Moon-Boy. However, Moon Girl isn’t exactly a reboot of that character–she’s much more interesting (and this reboot kills off the original Moon-Boy).

I adored the way that Lunella was drawn. She wasn’t presented as “cute,” but as a messy and awkward pre-teen (and she is incredibly cute, really, but not in the way that involves having eyes bigger than her wrists). Similarly, Devil Dinosaur looks like a giant red T-Rex, an uncute apex predator (who is totally adorable and acts like a puppy).

Overall, this was an excellent and extremely fun read. Lunella is one of the best preteen badasses I’ve ever met in comics, and I enjoyed spending time with her and her enormous sidekick.

RHC 2017: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book about war.

“Looking another human being in the eye, making an independent decision to kill him, and watching as he dies due to your action combine to form one of the most basic, important, primal, and potentially traumatic occurrences of war.” (Loc 883)

Well, this one was about as much fun as it sounds. I really wanted to just read Grunt by Mary Roach, but I accepted the mandate to read things that challenged me, and so I wound up with this book-length study of what killing someone does to a person – On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and in Society by Dave Grossman.

There were a number of things I appreciated about this book. Grossman is a former lieutenant colonel and West Point instructor, and this stuff is not theoretical for him. He writes with deep sympathy for the men and women who carry out violent orders (as well as for soldiers who are unable to do so) and recognizes the immense physical and psychological distance between the people giving those orders and the soldiers carrying them out.