Recent Books I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: January 2020

It’s been a rough couple of months for finding new books that I wanted to read past the first chapter. Oh well; that’s January, right? 

(Did it end yet?)

So these last couple of months have been all about licking the cream where I could find it, re-reading old comfort books and—and I realize how incredibly late I am to this game—starting to listen to podcasts. I’ve gotten in the habit of either listening to them at night when my eyes hurt from work (hello old age) or walking and listening on my way to pickup one of my kid’s from school; it turns out to be a fabulous way to ignore January. 

February should at least be shorter, correct? 

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

One of the reasons I sometimes like watching otherwise mindless action movies is that they help me travel around the world to unfamiliar, fascinating places. Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible—would they be any good if they were set in Ohio? (Answer: no—no high speed trains.) So I especially appreciated Kwok’s international scope to her story. The main characters are from Queens, by way of the suburbs of Amsterdam and, more distantly, China, and the story takes us to all these locations. Plus, there’s a jaunt to Venice and time on a rocking houseboat. So, we get around. To be clear, the story about cancerous family secrets and a woman improbably in bloom would be fascinating regardless, but the juxtaposition of New York fish market, Dutch apple pie, gondolas and jade heirlooms, makes it even more compelling; my personal killing someone with a pen moment. This is a wonderful dark months read (which would be year-round in Holland, if I’m not mistaken? Yes?).

The Wives by Tarryn Fisher

Searching for Sylvie Lee feels like the future of women’s fiction in the U.S—a good thing, for sure (a very good thing). The Wives, on the other, may be the most perfect distillation of the classic women’s fiction novel I’ve ever read: a white women in a polygamous relationship jealous of the other wives (sex right from the get go), a violent husband, psychological trauma over a miscarriage, gaslighting, baby envy, trips to the mental asylum and, ultimately, shocking acts of violence. I mean, it really doesn’t get more classic women’s fiction-y. Yes, I probably sound like I’m putting the book down and, indeed, in a lesser author’s hands, this would almost certainly be incredibly tired. But Fisher knows her stuff, cold. The twists will keep you gasping all the way to the very last page. This is the ding an sich of women’s fiction, and it’s fun.

The Iron Trial (Book #1 of the Magisterium series) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

I picked the book to try purely on the basis of its cool title. The Iron Trial. The Trial of Iron. Iron, in Trial ... I’d dig all of those. Frankly, the prologue of this book should have been edited out; I’ll leave it at that. But everything else was awesome, and I love that the twist wasn’t that the main character was The Chosen One. Instead, (SPOILER ALERT) he turns out to have the soul of the evil baddie. He’s the awol Evil Overlord, and he didn’t even know it. Didn’t see that one coming. Yet, I think it’s an important story line to pursue these days as our white sons need to come to grips with the negative parts of white boy culture that they’ve inherited. It’s a pretty gentle book, but if you’re going to do a white boy hero discovers magic book, this is the storyline that feels right to me. My kid ate it up.

The Splintered Light by Ginger Johnson

Ah, the Splintered Light. This book is a delicious warm, strawberry scone and pot of fruity tea on a dreary day. One of my kids is super into color. She methodically picked out all the yellow Legos when she was one, started referring to “warm colors” and “cool colors” in everyday conversation when she was, maybe, four? Five? She talks about how to make certain colors like other people talk about video games, and she’s constantly making art. So when I saw this book on the shelf, I immediately wanted to read it to her. It’s about a boy born to a gray world who discovers he can see color, and the journey he takes to reconcile his new gift with his family’s pressing practical needs. We’re still making our way through, chapter by chapter at night, but so far I love Johnson’s warm, gentle writing and wondrous painting of a special realm in the boy’s world where all creative pursuits bloom. Absolute rainbow scones for days.

Integrated Schools

I’m planning on writing a separate post on these podcasts at some unknown point in the future, so for now I’ll just say that Integrated Schools should be required listening for any white parent in the process of selecting a school for their kid(s). This is white parents talking to other white parents about some of the myths and practices that we participate in, and how they harm brown and black kids as well as our own kids. I’ve learned so much from listening; it’s rocked my world in a really fundamental way, and I'm just really grateful.


Similarly but also not, Miseducation is a podcast created by students of all races in NYC public high schools in order to capture the disparate experiences kids have in that system; NYC turns out to have the most segregate school system in the country. I appreciate this podcast for the way it breaks down the very specific inequities that NYC (and other large cities that consider themselves otherwise progressive) has allowed to flourish. We’re talking sports teams, school newspapers, specialized test admissions, etc. It has been a real education for me.

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