BRL Best Books of 2018

Some of you may remember that I keep a paper book journal in addition to my Goodreads account for book tracking. When I read a book that particularly moves me I give it a star in my paper journal, which equals a five-star rating on Goodreads. As I looked over my 2018 reading I realized that TWENTY books had rated a star this year! So I had some choices to make as it came time to make my Top Ten List for the year. Without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2018. (Note: I’m a huge backlist reader so not all of these books were published this year.)

In no particular order:

  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams (2016). This was a life-affirming, uplifting audio book that truly inspired me. I learned a lot about the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu, and how each man approaches life’s challenges with grace and equanimity.
  • How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston (1974.) Set in Ireland in WWI, this beautifully written novella explores the growing friendship between a young member of the landed gentry and one of the workers on his family’s estate as they both set off to fight in the war. Truly moving with a devastating ending.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018.) Just a gorgeous, emotionally probing book about two people who fell in love with the best of intentions – and then life throws them a horrific curveball that reverberates for years. It’s a beautifully told relationship story with well-drawn, believable characters. Unforgettable.
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015.) What a surprise! A book that had been on my TBR list for a few years and I’m so glad I decided to read it. It was one of those absorbing reads that made me want to ignore my family for a few days. Linked short stories, all centering in some way around the character of Eva, a young woman in Minnesota with a passion and a gift for cooking. Foodies will love it, but anyone who just wants a good story will enjoy it too.
  • Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016.) The BEST AUDIO BOOK I’VE EVER LISTENED TO. Funny, surprising, illuminating, moving. I learned so much about South African history through this story of Noah’s unlikely existence. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s one I would read (or listen to) again for sure.
  • Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956.) This novel is exquisitely written and emotionally tough. A portrait of a man utterly in denial about who he truly is. David, a young, rootless, white American living in Paris in the 1950’s, has a fiancee he’s running away from when he meets a handsome Italian waiter and falls in love. His denial sets off a tragic chain of events for everyone involved. Baldwin is a genius! I intend to read everything he’s written.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018.) I recently wrote about this one, but it’s just a gem of a nonfiction book, about the importance of libraries today and Orlean’s emotional connection to them through her late mother, as well as a gripping true-crime account of the devastating library fire in L.A.’s Central Library in 1986. Lots going on here, but Orlean weaves all the strands together beautifully.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017.) That rare super-hyped novel that is worthy of all the praise. What starts off as a quirky portrait of a lonely young woman who doesn’t connect well with other human beings becomes a moving and warm-hearted novel about unexpected connections and the capacity for change and growth. A lovely book that I will definitely read again someday.
  • Brother by David Chariandy (2018, first published in Canada and the UK 2017.) Not one word wasted in this slim but powerful novel about two brothers growing up in a poor, multi-cultural part of Toronto in the 1980’s. There is tragedy here but there is also terrific beauty and great love, especially in the character of the boys’ Trinidadian immigrant mother, who works herself to the bone to provide for her sons and tried to give them a better life. I just adored this.
  • The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton (2018.) Another book I recently read and can’t stop talking about – thank you Oprah! Hinton’s ridiculous sham of a trial for crimes he didn’t commit will make you angry, and his emotional journey living on death row in Alabama for 30 years will move you, inspire you, and make you question your beliefs about the death penalty.

51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_Honorable Mention: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (2017.)  Linked short stories, a companion piece to Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. Spare prose and heartbreaking, real characters in small town middle America. Strout is a hell of a writer.

 It’s been such a good reading year. Have you read any of the books on my list? Do any of these pique your interest?

Some Reading Stats and Numbers for 2018

Hey friends! I hope that everyone has been having a wonderful holiday season. It’s that awesome time of the year when voracious readers like us are taking stock of what and how much we’ve read over the year. I’ll post a Top Ten Favorites soon, so this post is purely about the numbers and whether or not I completed any pre-set reading goals. (Note: I’m counting the three books I’m currently reading in my tally, as I plan to finish them before Jan 1.) My numbers come from my 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge (which I more than doubled – I deliberately chose a low number.)

img_3346Total Books Read: 118 (This includes chapter books I’ve read with my son, otherwise the total would be lower!)

Fiction: 94

Nonfiction: 24

Chapter Books/Middle Grade/Picture Books: 42 (although I’ve not listed picture books on Goodreads, except for one, and I’ve read a GAZILLION over the course of the year with my son.)

Poetry: 0 (Really dropped the ball this year.)

Mysteries/Thrillers: 13

Romance: 2

Short Story Collections: 2

Graphic Novels/Comics: 3

Audiobooks: 7

YA: 2

Authors of Color: 24 (20% – not good! Although if I only count MY books, not my son’s, the percentage goes to 31%, a bit better. I have to say that I find kid’s books are even more white than grown-up books.)

Rereads: 8

Classics: 12

Goals Completed: You may recall I only made two small reading goals, since I don’t like to read from lists and lots of goals make reading feel like homework to me.

I completed one out of two goals: to read at least 12 of my own books from my own bookshelf! I read 22 books from my own shelf! (The rest came from the public library – either the one where I work or the one in the county in which I reside.)

I did NOT, however, complete the other goal, which was to read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. You may be asking yourself if I really WANT to read this book after all, now that it’s been a goal of mine for two years and I haven’t read it? Well, I’m asking myself the same thing. So my solution is, since I already own a copy, I’m going to start reading it on Jan. 1. It’s so big and intimidating, I’m going to try to read just 3 or 4 chapters a week. We’ll see how I like it. I’ll keep you posted!

Other Blog Happenings This Year:

It’s been a terrific reading year. I’ve got some ideas about how I’d like to shake up my reading a little bit next year. Nothing too crazy, because I am a Mood Reader Supreme. But I’ll post about that early in the new year.

How about y’all? Did you accomplish any reading goals? Anything  in particular you want to do differently next year?

Excellent Nonfiction to End the Year

So far in 2018, of the 114 books I’ve read (which DOES include the chapter books I read with my son at bedtime!) only 20 have been nonfiction. This is pretty representative of my reading habits. I am interested in nonfiction, especially memoirs, but nonfiction takes me longer to read than fiction, which makes me hesitant to pick it up. I keep feeling all those books on my TBR list looking over my shoulder as I take my time with a nonfiction book – on average, I’d say it takes me a good week longer to read one than it does a novel. This is all to say that it surprises me that my last three reads (one of which I’m currently reading) are all five star nonfiction reads, and they’re all published this year.

51LSDwIJIUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_First up, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. I LOVED this book. Mr. Hinton spent 30 years on death row in Alabama for crimes he didn’t commit. The police and prosecution shamefully railroaded him in a sham of a trial and his court-appointed lawyer was disinterested at best. He only came up on the radar of the police because of an old grudge by a man who’d been interested in someone Hinton had dated. On Death Row, initially angry and with a heart full of vengeance at the injustice of the world and his situation, Hinton had an epiphany while hearing another man on the block crying in the night.

I didn’t know his story or what he had done or anything about him that made him different from me – hell, I didn’t know if he was black or white. But on the row, I realized, it didn’t matter. When you are trying to survive, the superficial things don’t matter. When you are hanging at the end of your rope, does it really matter what color the hand is that reached up to help you? What I knew was that he loved his mother just like I loved my mother. I could understand his pain.

… I realized the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. 

This book not only taught me about the power of forgiveness and the indomitable human spirit, it also made me question my thoughts on the death penalty. To Hinton, every man on death row with him was a child of God, and was not only the worst thing he ever did (or didn’t do, as his case showed.) He showed up for every man he watched walk past him on the way to the electric chair over the years by banging the bars of his cell and yelling, as did the other men in the block. It was a way to show them that in their darkest moment they weren’t alone, no matter what horrible action or circumstances led them there.

They called all of us monsters. But I didn’t know any monsters on the row. I knew guys named Larry and Henry and Victor and Jesse. I knew Vernon and Willie and Jimmy. Not monsters. Guys with names who didn’t have mothers who loved them or anyone who had ever shown them a kindness that was even close to love. Guys who were born broken or had been broken by life. Guys who had been abused as children and had heir minds and hearts warped by cruelty and violence and isolation long before they ever stood in front of a judge and jury.

There are so many parts of this book I made notes on, so many quotable passages. The story of his legal battle to freedom takes many twists and turns and kept me turning the pages just as his struggle to remain sane and humane on death row did. Eventually he ends up being represented by Bryan Stevenson, who wrote the bestseller Just Mercy and heads the Equal Justice Initiative. While in prison, Hinton forms a book club as a way to gain some mental freedom for himself and his fellow inmates. Funnily enough, the first book they choose is James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is my current Classics Club Spin pick! I just loved this book and I feel like it deserves a wide audience. If you have any desire to read books about social justice issues, the persistence of the human spirit, or just a page-turning memoir, please give this one a try.

51wZq9rEc8L._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_My next five-star nonfiction read was Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. This is a far-reaching book, part true crime, part memoir, part history, part exploration of the role of the public library in today’s society. It was fascinating! Starting from the event of the largest library fire in the history of the United States, the devastating 1986 fire at Los Angeles’s Central Library, Orlean branches off from there to discuss her own history with public libraries and the special connection to her mother who always brought her there growing up. She investigates whether or not the main suspect in the fire, Harry Peak, actually started it. (I admit that by the end of the book, I couldn’t decide!) She delves into the formation and colorful history of the L.A. library system, and follows current department heads today to see how the library is impacting the community right now. All these strands are braided together beautifully. Anyone who cares the least little bit about public libraries should read this.

In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of  life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.

9781524763138_p0_v6_s550x406And last, I’m currently reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and I’m confident it will also earn five stars from me. Not surprisingly, she’s a beautiful writer. I’m about 130 pages in, or a third of the book. She’s dating Barack and they’re starting to realize just how serious the relationship is. I loved reading about her childhood growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her steady, loving parents and her close relationship with her older brother. I loved reading about her shy, buttoned down personality and her growing sense of confidence in herself. One tidbit I found fascinating is that in her kindergarten class picture, it’s about 50-50 black and white kids, but by fifth grade, it’s all black kids. She grew up right in the heart of the “white flight” of the 1960’s. I have enjoyed her reflections on her extended family and their journeys from the South to Chicago during the Great Migration. I’ve also liked getting to know our former president a little better, her first impressions of him and what drew them together. I admire her vulnerability and openness in this memoir and can’t wait to read more.

What was your favorite nonfiction book of 2018? 

 

Mini-Reviews: A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths and Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

I’ve been doing some good reading lately, although so far this weekend I’ve barely cracked open a book (gasp!) I’m about halfway through Anthony Ray Hinton’s memoir The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row and it is SO GOOD, people. This man has an amazing spirit, despite being condemned to die in an utter TRAVESTY of a trial. I need to finish it quickly, because it’s a library copy and there’s still a waiting list. It was due Thursday (yikes!) But I’m NOT turning it back in until I’m finished with it, so too bad. (Confessions of a bad library assistant.) Oh well. Both of the books I’m writing about today were also library books, written by two of my favorite authors.

The fourth book in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, A Room Full of Bones, was a good,download (1) solid read and a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Elly Griffiths has thus far written a series full of multi-dimensional, interesting characters. Even the secondary characters are delightful (especially everyone’s favorite warlock/shaman/pagan Cathbad!) In this installment, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is trying to balance motherhood and work, gently dipping her toe into the dating world again after a long absence, and getting ready for her daughter’s first birthday. She is supposed to be supervising the opening of a coffin containing the bones of a medieval bishop. But when she arrives at the museum, she finds the young curator dead on the floor. There’s another death not too long after, someone else associated with the museum, and Ruth and DCI Nelson are once again drawn into an investigation. Aboriginal bones, cultural appropriation, ancestral curses, horse racing, and snakes all play a part in this page-turning mystery. I love how Griffiths seems to find an element of the supernatural to add to her stories, making the rational Ruth and Nelson (and the reader) question the rigidity of their views. I also love the complicated nature of the relationships in the primary and secondary characters. For the first time we see Ruth and Nelson’s wife interact on a deeper, uncomfortable level and it’s compelling stuff. I continue to really enjoy this series and am quite addicted! It won’t be long before I pick up the next book. Four stars.

downloadBarbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered was a delight. She is one of my very favorite authors. I flew through this book because I simply liked spending time with the characters. That is one of Kingsolver’s greatest strengths – she knows how to create compelling, sympathetic characters. Willa Knox is the heart of this book. She’s a free-lance journalist, a wife, mother, and new grandmother who has had to uproot her life in Virginia and move to an old inherited house in New Jersey. The college where her professor husband had tenure unexpectedly closed, leaving the couple grasping for financial security. Not to mention that they have recently taken in her husband’s seriously ill father, Nick, who is a raging bigot and fan of Fox News. Her two grown children, Zeke and Tig, have come back home after trials of their own, and Zeke is now left with a baby to care for on his own after tragedy strikes. As financial troubles mount and the house starts to crumble around them, Willa must find a way to right the ship. She starts investigating the history of the house, hoping for some kind of historical grant that would at least enable restoration.

Enter the second story line, set in the same town in the 1870’s. A young science teacher, Thatcher Greenwood, lives at the same address with his young bride, her mother, and her younger sister. Thatcher is passionate about opening his pupils’ minds to the new teachings of Darwin and other like-minded scientists, but his principal forbids it. We follow Thatcher’s journey as he comes to know his next-door neighbor, the spirited and scientifically minded Mary Treat (a real-life biologist who corresponded with Darwin) and butts heads with the town’s leader.

Kingsolver alternates the two story lines, drawing parallels between them among the forces of stagnation and progress. Both main characters are caught in times of intense change, whether it be climate change and an increasingly interconnected world or a new place for humanity with the dawn of evolutionary theory and archaeological discoveries. I was more drawn to the contemporary story line because I loved Willa so much. Kingsolver always knows how to write a mother/child relationship, and some of the best stuff is the back and forth between Willa and her independent daughter, Tig. Willa is reckoning with mistakes she made as a mother and trying to see her adult children as they really are now, not as the roles she assigned to them when they were growing up. I also love that Willa and her husband have such a physical, sexual relationship – it’s nice to see older characters explore that dimension of marriage.

Some reviews have mentioned Kingsolver’s tendency towards preachiness. At this point, after having read and loved so many of her novels, I don’t even care anymore if she’s preaching to me – the story she’s created here mattered more to me than any notion that I was being taught a lesson. I feel like Willa is representative of a lot of people in the Baby Boom generation; she’s asking legitimate questions and trying to figure out how and why things have changed so much in the last 30-40 years in terms of climate, technology, economic instability. I came away from this book with a sense of hope, which is not a small consideration in 2018. I’m torn between four and five stars for this one, but I’m going with five because I feel such tenderness for Willa and her family. (And because Kingsolver writes with such heart and sincerity.)

 

Library Checkout, November 2018

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Library Checkout is a monthly library-use meme hosted by Rebecca at Bookish Beck. Please do visit her blog, she always reads so diversely (and in massive quantities, too!) Here is a snapshot of my library usage in November:

LIBRARY BOOKS READ:

There There – Tommy Orange ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Death of Mrs. Westaway – Ruth Ware ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The House at Sea’s End – Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway mystery #3)                 ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ I am LOVING this series!

Dark Sacred Night – Michael Connelly (Harry Bosch mystery #31/Renée Ballard #2) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ I don’t know how Connelly does it. He’s a MASTER of compelling, propulsive writing. I still care about Bosch 31 books later. I’m excited to see the new direction he’s taking now that he’s partnering with Ballard.9780062368607_p0_v3_s550x406

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life – Ed Yong ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Review to come)

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times – Pema Chödrön ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

CURRENTLY READING:

51LSDwIJIUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row – Anthony Ray Hinton

A Room Full of Bones (Ruth Galloway #4) – Elly Griffiths

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ:

Dare to Lead – Brené Brown

Spy School – Stuart Gibbs (middle-grade fiction – I’ve been meaning to get back into reading MG fiction for a while now)

IN THE HOLDS QUEUE:

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Fox 8  – George Saunders

Gmorning, Gnight!:Little Pep Talks For Me and You – Lin-Manuel Miranda40854717

Go Tell it On the Mountain – James Baldwin (My Classics Club spin book!)

Plus, 6 more books on hold that I’ve had on hold for a while now and keep pushing back using my library system’s “suspend” function. I’m starting to wonder if I really want to read these after all! It might be time to let some of these go.

Anything from my selections look interesting to you? What have you checked out from your local library lately?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood #MARM

Marcie at Buried in Print and Naomi at Consumed By Ink have been doing such a lovely job hosting Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM.) When I heard that they were doing this it was just the prompt I needed to reread her earliest novel, The Edible Woman. I first read it pre-Goodreads, which for me means before 2007. I remembered that the main character had some kind of eating disorder, but that was really I remembered. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it very much and it was definitely worth the reread.71t3FqjWmoL

Published in 1969, this quirky novel centers on Marian, a young working woman who lives in an apartment with her roommate, Ainsley, and dates the handsome and respectable Peter. She has a less than thrilling job at Seymour Surveys, revising questionnaires designed for housewives. Four months in she’s asked to join the pension plan, which shakes her in a big way.

It was a kind of superstitious panic about the fact that I had actually signed my name, had put my signature to a magic document which seemed to bind me to a future so far ahead I couldn’t think about it. Somewhere in front of me a self was waiting, pre-formed, a self who has worked during innumerable years for Seymour Surveys and was now receiving her reward. A pension. I foresaw a bleak room with a plug-in electric heater. Perhaps I would have a hearing aid, like one of my great-aunts who had never married.

Ainsley is trying to deliberately get pregnant, while Marian’s other good friend Clara is deep in the chaos of motherhood with two small children and a baby on the way. When Peter proposes to Marian (after a disastrous evening out with Ainsley and a doozy of a fight) Marian thinks of Peter as the savior rescuing her from a life of drudgery and the dreaded pension.

I was seeing him in a new light: he was changing form in the kitchen, turning from a reckless young bachelor into a rescuer from chaos, a provider of stability. Somewhere in the vaults of Seymour Surveys an invisible hand was wiping away my signature.

Everything starts to change, however, once Marian meets a strange, scholarly young man at the laundromat and then starts experiencing some unusual visions and thoughts whenever she eats a meal. Just as she gets what she thinks she wants, the promise of being a wife and someday a mother, her world starts imploding bit by bit.

This is an unusual novel in that the characters don’t always do what you think they might do. Marian is a frustrating character in that she doesn’t seem to know herself very well, but her journey is interesting to see play out. And of course societal conventions of the time and place (late 1960s Canada – Toronto? It wasn’t clear to me) are sometimes tedious and offensive to this modern reader. But this novel was more entertaining and thought-provoking than anything. It’s neat to see how Atwood got her start. I see the seeds of her witty, subversive writing here. If you’re a fan of her writing and you haven’t yet read this, I think you should add it to your list.

Oh, and on November 18th, Atwood’s birthday (79 years old,) I ate cake! Just a simple piece of store-bought cookies and cream cake from the grocery store, but it was delicious and I enjoyed every bite. May Ms. Atwood celebrate many more happy birthdays.

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The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Classics Club books #8 and #9)

I read two books in the September and October that qualified for both the R.I.P Challenge and my Classics Club listkilling two birds with one stone. I had read Jane Eyre before but it had been since I was about 14 or 15 years old – long enough that it was almost like new to me. The Shirley Jackson had been on my TBR list for quite a while. I’d read her classic story “The Lottery” in high school as well, and was thoroughly chilled. I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of her stories. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed them and was surprised by both books.

51Uz5FayRhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_First, impressions of Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. I chose it for the R.I.P. Challenge because I remembered the Gothic feel and the mysterious person (or supernatural being?) who kept making scary things happen at Thornfield House. Turns out what I most remembered about the novel, the part where Jane is employed by Mr. Rochester at Thornfield, is only about a third of the book! I had somehow totally blocked out her horrible childhood, unwanted and unloved by her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her terrible experiences at the boarding school she was sent to. I also totally forgot about what happens when she is later forced to leave Thornfield. (I’m trying to be vague because I’m sure there are some who haven’t yet read this.) Therefore, the first and last thirds of the novel felt juuuust a smidge overly long. (St. John! Oh my goodness! What a pill!)

I was terribly impressed, however, with how spunky Jane herself was, right from the get-go. She was no shrinking violet but instead a girl and later a young woman who stood up for herself even when it got her into trouble. I admired that. One early exchange between Jane and her aunt particularly impressed me:

“Don’t talk to me about her, John: I told you not to go near her; she is not worthy of notice; I do not choose that either you or your sisters should associate with her.”

Here, leaning over the banister, I cried out suddenly, and without at all deliberating on my words, –

“They are not fit to associate with me!”

And since I reread this for the R.I.P. Challenge, I thought I would offer a creepy passage from the book:

Good God! What a cry!

The night – its silence – its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.

My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed. The cry died, and was not renewed. Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie. The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.

All in all, a very enjoyable, romantic, insightful classic novel that I would recommend to everyone, and a perfect choice for autumn reading.                       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Shirley Jackson has become one of my favorite authors over the last few years. I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, and The Sundial. I just have the rest of her short stories, one more novel, and her nonfiction still to read. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only story collection published in Jackson’s lifetime (1949.) Many of these stories are not scary or Gothic in feel like some of her longer fiction. But they are unsettling, often depicting people new in town, people in unfamiliar surroundings, people who don’t quite have a firm hold on reality.89723

There were a few stories that also dealt with racism and “otherness” quite overtly. One of these that impressed me was “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” The title refers to a silly phrase that two young boys, Johnny and his friend Boyd, keep saying to one another as a game. Johnny brings Boyd home for lunch after they’ve been playing outside. Right away, as soon as she sees that Boyd is black, Johnny’s mother Mrs. Wilson starts making assumptions. She scolds Johnny for making Boyd carry in a load of wood, but Johnny responds, “Why shouldn’t he carry the wood, Mother? It’s his wood. We got it at his place.” Then when she serves the boys stewed tomatoes, Johnny tells her he doesn’t want any and that Boyd doesn’t eat them either. Instantly Mrs. Wilson says, “Just because you don’t like them, don’t say that about Boyd. Boyd will eat anything.” She goes on to explain that Boyd wants to grow up to be big and strong so he can work hard, presuming that he will have to work in some sort of manual labor. The assumptions keep piling up, and it becomes almost comical how Boyd thwarts Mrs. Wilson’s expectations at every turn.

 “Sure,” Johnny said. “Boyd’s father works in a factory.”

“There, you see?” Mrs. Wilson said. “And he certainly has to be strong to do that – all that lifting and carrying at a factory.”

“Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,” Johnny said.  “He’s a foreman.”

Mrs.Wilson felt defeated. “What does your mother do, Boyd?”

“My mother?” Boyd was surprised. “She takes care of us kids.”

“Oh. She doesn’t work then?”

“Why should she?” Johnny said through a mouthful of eggs. “You don’t work.”

In the end Mrs. Wilson tries to reinstate her percieved cultural dominance by trying to make Boyd take something he doesn’t want and very politely refuses. Johnny and Boyd leave and go back to playing, shaking their heads at the “screwyness” of mothers. I thought this story was a brilliant depiction of the ways in which racism can show up very subtly – Mrs. Wilson is enlightened enough to have Boyd share a lunch table with her son, but she persists in making assumptions about what Boyd’s life and future will be like. Her growing annoyance at being shown her mistakes portrays that she’s not as enlightened as she might like to think. It’s interesting how relevant this story feels – the insidiousness of subtle racism shows up often in modern life.

As with any collection some stories are better than others. But overall this was a very good read with hardly any clunkers. Jackson skewers conventional mid 20th-century American society with insight and wit, making her reader question the nature of both identity and personal agency. Many of her characters are taken out of familiar places and situations and have to deal with the frightening and confusing consequences. I think I expected a certain kind of story when I approached this collection – stories more in the vein of Hill House or Castle. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jackson’s range extended even wider than I had imagined.                  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either one of these? If not, do they intrigue you?