This post is a wrap-up of the books that I read in 2017. At this point, all reviews for 2017 have been written and from here on out, you will be seeing reviews for books I read in 2018 by month. To begin with, I will publish these posts a week apart. Once I catch up, those posts will be published during the last week of the given month or during the first week of the following month. I'm excited to see how this will work! If you have any feedback, I'd love to hear it!
Towards the end of the last year, I had the privilege of going to hear Kao Kalia Yang speak at the humanities center in St. Paul. I had heard her speak once before when she came to my summer job (Breakthrough Twin Cities) in 2016 during out wrap-up week. She is related to one of the students in the program, which I thought was a really neat connection. At that point, I hadn't read anything by her by after hearing her speak and after obtaining a ticket to hear her speak again, I knew I needed to (and really wanted to) read at least one of her books. It made sense that I start with her first. I don't think I finished this book in time to hear her speak, but nevertheless, I was fascinated. The woman who wrote a blurb for the front cover of Yang's book, Anne Fadiman, wrote an ethnography called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down which highlighted a Hmong family. It was, I think, the first book I read about Hmong culture and I thought it was really fascinating and an amazing read. But Anne herself is not Hmong. So to hear about different experiences related to being Hmong from someone who is Hmong is truly invaluable. Kao Kalia Yang is a wonderful speaker and when she writes, it's like a direct line to her heart. You make an instant connection with each word she says and each feeling she describes.
Reading her book and hearing her speak is only enhanced by the fact that a number of my students are Hmong. So I felt like I was connecting with them and building my understanding of the backgrounds their families come from. It's heartbreaking, but I think when you know the heartbreaking things that happen to people and when you take the time to educate yourself without them having to tell you the traumas they hold or that they have because their families hold them... it makes your connection that much deeper and more meaningful.
You can easily enjoy this read whether you are connected to someone who is Hmong or not. It's a lovely read that is, yes, at times difficult to read, but it's also a really encouraging read at times.
I give 'The Latehomecomer':
American Born Chinese for one of my education courses. Ultimately, it was his talk that convinced me to take the plunge and try and teach that book to my students, but I was also inspired to read his series Boxers and Saints (this review and the one below) because it was such a different project than the ones he attempted previously. I know that I saw the book before, but the size of it was rather daunting to me, especially since I had no context for the Boxer Rebellion that took place in China.
When I started reading Boxers, I was armed with a little bit of information about the Boxer Rebellion and that was enough to get me started and push through to the end. I think I ended up finishing Boxers in a day and then moved on to Saints. I love how Gene Luen Yang incorporates Chinese folklore into his stories whether they're historical like these two reads or more fictional like American Born Chinese is. I think hearing the stories of a culture is just as important to understanding a group of people as it is to learn a language, learn the customs, the history, etc.
Reading this book is an interesting experience because you get one side of the story but you know the other side is available. I had a moral struggle about the amount of violence Little Bao was willing to inflict on others in order to obtain the outcome he was looking for because... well, I just don't think violence makes sense as a long-term solution. But maybe I'm naive and I'm showing my lack of experience. It was also a struggle because I tend to see religion, Christianity especially, since that's the background I come from, as an oppressive force and I have very strong feelings about people of one religion trying to convert people of other religions or no religion to their beliefs. So it was strange to feel my heels digging in about both sides of this story. I felt very much like I was being dragged along for the ride. That doesn't reflect poorly on the quality of writing, just what a difficult time in history this was.
I'll talk a little more about this story in the section below because it allows me to tap into a different part of this conversation. In the meantime, I give 'Boxers':
To continue the conversation from above, I have to say that I liked Saints better than Boxers. Length of the story has nothing to do with it. I liked being able to see this other side of the story that was begun in Boxers. But this part of the story is more faith-based. One issue that I have is that I struggle to see why anyone has religious beliefs. I just have never understood what benefit they have. So it's stories like this one that helps me see why other people might take a leap of faith. Four-Girl or Vibiana was really hurting. She had a family, but they didn't treat her like family and she struggled to have successful relationships... until she met a preacher who had come to her village. Suddenly she began to see her life in a new light and she was meeting others and feeling a bit more comfortable with herself. I don't think this would have occurred without the help of her faith and the connections that being a Christian afforded her. I liked reading this and being familiar with Joan of Arc and her role in this story. I liked being able to see a positive side of having religion and seeing what it can do for people. I thought it was really great to hear the story of a character that you really only paid attention to twice while reading Boxers.
This was a wonderful read and a great end to the series. The ending made me think. I'd like to read this series again in the future and make it so that my students can read the books too.
I give 'Saints':
My first exposure to Kwame Alexander was during BookCon in New York in June 2017. He was on a children's fiction panel. I came to hear Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) speak, but I was just as intrigued by Mr. Alexander. On top of participating in the panel, he was also plugging his new book Solo whenever he could (I promise it was in a funny and tasteful way rather than an annoying way-- at least that was how I took it!). Upon returning to Minnesota, I pre-ordered the book and waited excitedly for it to be released and to arrive.
I was surprised that this book was made up of poetry. In the past, poetry books (not anthologies, but poems put together to tell one complete story) have been kind of hit or miss for me, but they still intrigue me to the point where I check them out from the library or in this case buy them for myself to be passed on to my classroom.
I loved that this book was largely based around music. I haven't experienced that with a book like this before, but it makes so much sense seeing as songs are poetry in and of themselves. I feel like writing in a series of poems helped me see Blade in a different light. It did something that prose writing just can't do as well. It kind of reminded me of how Green Day has structured some of their albums in the past-- they have a specific story to tell and the entire message is sent through their completed album. I really like that style, so I was glad to see this here, even though I don't think Mr. Alexander had Green Day specifically in mind as he was writing. You never know though.
I also love reads that take you to new places. In this case, it took me to Ghana. And it was a sensitive image of Ghana. Not one where everyone is struggling and no one knows what to do about it, but a Ghana that is struggling, yet is vibrant in its culture and works with what they have and works with others to, slowly but surely, get what they need. I recently found out that Kwame Alexander does work in Ghana as well as a few other countries around the world to built literacy and healthcare programs. Knowing this made me truly believe that I was seeing Ghana through someone who knows and understands Ghana. I really appreciated that authenticity.
This story is honest and digs into those feelings that we'd sometimes rather forget we have. I give 'Solo':
I don't know or understand how I found myself wrapped up in this world where I was burning with curiosity about this disastrous, uncomfortable, and awkward film called The Room. This was something that my husband first became interested in and then suddenly we had this movie in our house and we were watching it together. Every part of me was screaming "Stop watching this movie!! It's so bad! Why are you doing this to yourself?!" But just like when a car accident happens, you can't help but want to look and see how things will shake out. So suddenly I was sucked into this strange world of The Room. And then we found out there was a movie coming out about The Room called The Disaster Artist and that it was first a book. We have been looking for more things we could do together and we decided that reading was one such activity. And since we were both familiar with this movie, this was a natural first couple read.
This book is hilarious. The description says that you don't need to have seen the movie in order to appreciate this book, which I agree with. But I also think that if you have seen The Room (rated R for VERY good reasons, I'll add), your reading of this book is enhanced. Especially since the main character is the director and screenwriter who came up with this entire movie, you get to see what he's like and suddenly you become intrigued as to what he's like as a person outside of the camera's eye.
My favorite parts were by far the parts about the actual shooting of the film and the events that led up to it. Reading about Tommy Wiseau's potential past wasn't as interesting to me, but nevertheless, it was still attention-grabbing. I think it'll be hilarious now that I've read this book to see it in movie form (soon I hope!).
I read a lot of really great books at the end of 2017 and this read is no different. I give 'The Disaster Artist':
Thanks for Reading! Let me know what you think about this layout. I personally quite like it.