Bookish Brains Issue 2

Letter from the Editor:

The end of the year is swiftly approaching and only two more Fridays remain in 2020! This will be the last edition of Bookish Brains until 2021 and features a list of the books I’m trying to read before the end of the year, as well as brief reviews of They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, and Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino. I’m aiming to end the year with the best of the best, so perhaps you will find some recs! Enjoy!

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

If you’re looking for romance recs, start with Talia Hibbert. The book community has been obsessed with Get a Life, Chloe Brown and its companion novel Take a Hint, Dani Brown—not to mention, we are all eagerly awaiting the release of the third Brown sisters novel, Act Your Age, Eve Brown.

My hold on Libby for the Get a Life, Chloe Brown audiobook finally became available, and so I’m just now indulging in the romance of Chloe Brown and Redford Morgan. The main character—Chloe Brown, of course!—is the sort of woman who likes routine and proper sense, but after a near-death encounter, she realizes how dull her life has been. To remedy this, she creates a “Get a Life” list, including items such as “go camping” and “have meaningless sex.” The superintendent of her apartment complex, Redford, enters the picture because while he and Chloe get on each others’ nerves, they seem to bump into one another an awful lot. It’s a romance novel, so as you can imagine, shenanigans ensue and their passion for one another blossoms from dislike to fondness as Red begins to help Chloe with her list.

Currently I am 63% into the audiobook and enjoying this so much! I love that this book has disability representation because Chloe has fibromyalgia and Red is extremely considerate of this. Their banter is playful and clever, and the narrator of the audiobook does a wonderful job of relaying the witty writing in hilarious intonations in her British voice. The sexual tension is exquisite and the characters are respectful of one another, so I fully expect to disintegrate into a bubbly heap of joy by the end of it!

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

  • YA Graphic Memoir / Nonfiction, black and gray
  • Published in 2019
  • 204 pages

Co-authored by Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker, this graphic narrative describes the four years of George Takei’s childhood during which his family was forced to live at a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Although his father had lived in America for twenty-five years and his mother was born in California, they had not been allowed to become citizens. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese propaganda circulated throughout the states, and before long, the government was rounding up Japanese families and transporting them to “internment camps” with no due process and no grounds for incarceration other than their race. Like many other families, George’s family had to leave behind almost everything they had worked for, including their house. They would spend the next four years behind barbed wire, making the best of the situations as they could.

In his narration, George reflects on these times with gratitude for his parents while also shedding light on the misdeeds of the American government. Because he was a child at the time and unaware of the political and social climate, many of George’s memories of the internment camp were happy and ignorant. Because of this childlike wonderment, the narrative avoids the overbearing somber tone that a story like this could easily adopt. Rather, George grapples with the knowledge hindsight affords us to understand his childhood better and what sort of sacrifices his parents had to make.

I loved the illustrations, as well as I loved the tone of the story. It is both critical and patriotic, sobering yet hopeful. It’s a beautiful graphic memoir, and I highly recommend!

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

  • Fiction / Literary Fiction
  • Published in 2020
  • 327 Pages
  • Trigger warnings: Sexual assault, rape, pedophilia

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, Real Life is a novel that follows Wallace, a gay Black man from Alabama, over the course of a weekend during the end of summer. Wallace is a grad student studying biochemistry in the Midwest, surrounded by a predominantly white populace which doesn’t quite understand him. He is introverted and deeply traumatized, and his depression manifests in the way he withdraws and dissociates himself from the world around him, which is often mistaken for arrogance or selfishness by his counterparts. He craves love and compassion, yet he has no hope for his own happy ending, and while he loves science, he is also questioning whether or not he should stick with the rigorous, demanding program.

To gain a better understanding of this novel, I think Brandon Taylor’s Buzzfeed article “Working in Science was a Brutal Education. That’s Why I Left” is helpful to read, in which he describes the love/hate relationship he himself had to the science field. This is his debut novel.

I think quite highly of this book, although it was a bit of a somber read. It portrays the nuances of racism and the casual, offhand way people can exude their prejudices. Although Wallace has “friends,” their compassion for him is often shallow or conditional, sometimes offering their shoulder to lean on, other times scolding him over a misunderstanding he is too numb to refute. It is lush with sensory details, descriptive settings, and profound musings. The dialogue is a bit quirky, characters often repeating one another. Some scenes are quite long, such as a chapter dedicated to a tennis match. Memory is a recurring reflection, how it holds power over us. The characters often allude to “real life”—life outside of academia—and what that term “real life” even means.

Again, I don’t want to say I “enjoyed” this book because it is rife with pain, trauma, and loneliness. It’s a very thoughtful body of work, however it doesn’t quite commit to anything at the end—which isn’t necessarily bad, but it does leave the reader sort of heavy yet empty-handed. There is so much to unpack with this book, so I recommend it to those who enjoy contemplative works that explore these topics.

I discuss Real Life in this reading vlog:

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino

  • Fiction / Literary Fiction
  • Published in 2020
  • 224 Pages

The week before her wedding, the unnamed narrator “the Bride” is visited by her deceased grandmother in the form of a parakeet. From there, this novel describes the week leading up to the Bride’s wedding and the strange twists that occur. Many people recommend going into this book “blind,” and I concur.

However, I will give you a teasing glimpse into what you can expect: at times a bit surreal, this literary work examines “dysfunctional” family ties, sibling-hood, and what it means to be married. It takes place on Long Island, as the Bride is staying in the inn where the wedding will occur, and during that week, a series of odd things happen.

I absolutely loved this book. Bertino is so clever with her wording, the writing often seeming disjointed, yet upon a reconsideration, fluid. The imagery is exceptional, imaginative, and honest. It’s artistic and gritty, and I imagine someone like Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel) adopting this to film.

This book will take you by surprise, but you just have to trust Bertino. If you’re a “realist,” you might not get all the answers you want, but this is a book unlike all the other books I’ve read this year. I highly recommend this if you want something different, something thoughtful, and something showing. This is the type of book that can be reread multiple times and still wow the reader.

Check out my Parakeet reading vlog on YouTube!

BOOKS I WANT TO READ BEFORE 2021

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Summary from Goodreads: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Summary from Goodreads: From the author of How Should a Person Be? (“one of the most talked-about books of the year”—Time Magazine) and the New York Times Bestseller Women in Clothes comes a daring novel about whether to have children.

In Motherhood, Sheila Heti asks what is gained and what is lost when a woman becomes a mother, treating the most consequential decision of early adulthood with the candor, originality, and humor that have won Heti international acclaim and made How Should A Person Be? required reading for a generation.

In her late thirties, when her friends are asking when they will become mothers, the narrator of Heti’s intimate and urgent novel considers whether she will do so at all. In a narrative spanning several years, casting among the influence of her peers, partner, and her duties to her forbearers, she struggles to make a wise and moral choice. After seeking guidance from philosophy, her body, mysticism, and chance, she discovers her answer much closer to home.

Motherhood is a courageous, keenly felt, and starkly original novel that will surely spark lively conversations about womanhood, parenthood, and about how—and for whom—to live.

How We Fight for our Lives by Saeed Jones

Summary from Goodreads: “People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’ ”

Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Summary from Goodreads: Luster sees a young black woman figuring her way into life as an artist and into love in this darkly comic novel. She meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage. In this world of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics, Edie finds herself unemployed and living with Eric. She becomes hesitant friend to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie is the only black woman young Akila may know.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

Summary from Goodreads: First published in 1945, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is an enigmatic and nearly indescribable book, a small classic of poetic prose whose author has been compared with Anaïs Nin and Djuna Barnes. In lushly evocative language, Smart recounts her love affair with the poet George Barker with an operatic grandeur that takes in the tragedy of her passion; the suffering of Barker’s wife;the children the lovers conceived. Accompanied in this edition by The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, a short novel that may be read as its sequel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept has been hailed by critics worldwide as a work of sheer genius.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Summary from Goodreads: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Summary from Goodreads: Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony– a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

I discuss a lot of these books in my most recent book haul!


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