May 2021 Reading Round-Up: Taking Stock

In our third reading round-up, we are taking stock, both physically and metaphorically.

Our selections for this month include lists and inventories, which use objects as a jumping-off point to explore memory and meaning. But these books also take stock in other ways — by examining and retelling ancient stories, diving into the colonial, patriarchal, and racist systems that plague our daily interactions, and sending characters on journeys of self-reflection and discovery. These inventories aren’t just lists. They are a means of determining who we are now, how we got here, and where we are going.

An Inventory of Abandoned Things by Kelly Ann Jacobson

Genre: Chapbook/short fiction | split lip press 2020 | Reviewed by Rebecca valley

“Nothing comes as close to The Flood as a rainy day in Florida,” write Kelly Ann Jacobson in An Inventory of Abandoned Things, out from Split Lip Press last month. In Jacobson’s Floridian landscape, our “civilized” world is not quite as civilized as we want to believe. Her book is an inventory in linked chapters, with titles like “Beating Stick” and “Insect Killer,” which remind us how close we are in every moment to chaos.

Looking solely at the plot, An Inventory of Abandoned Things is the story of an expectant mother battling animal invaders in the dripping, humid suburbs of Florida. Fire ants take over her car, squirrels thump in the vents, and the husband is always away on business. But this book is about more than the perils of owning real estate. It’s about what it means to feel at home. As the narrator struggles with contradictory impulses, we wonder: is it better to protect our own young, or to be merciful to the pests building a den in the attic? After all, we all need space in this world to construct our nests.

Jacobson’s deep empathy, which runs through every page of this collection, reminds us that we are all animals, trying to eke out a life in an unpredictable world. She also reminds us that despite this chaos, we can choose beauty. As she writes: “I have sanded off the top layer of my life, I tell myself as I take another deep breath and let the air fill my polluted lungs, but I will paint over it, coat by coat. I will make it beautiful.

Why We Love It: Jacobson’s strange and relatable recollections of Florida go beyond the objects she describes, into love, motherhood, and what it means to call a place home.

Where the wild ladies are by aoko matsuda,

trans. by polly barton

Genre: folktales/short fiction | soft skull press 2020 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

Never have Japanese fairytales been so humorous as they are in Aoko Matsuda’s modernized short stories in her latest book, Where the Wild Ladies Are. Each narratives’ mythical inspiration is written with a feminist and humanist lens that translates beautifully with Polly Barton’s keen eye to assure Matsuda’s wit and style shine through.

Each short story ranges in protagonist and theme with faint details seeping between chapters to link the characters together. “Quite a Catch,” “A New Recruit,” and “A  Fox’s Life” are some of the best examples of how these stories loosely weave in and out of the accompanying narratives Matsuda crafts. From the musings of a tree spirit on the link between faith, fertility, and motherhood to the swindling of a beguiled husband when two mysterious saleswomen show up unexpectedly, the range of folktales adapted for modern times brings out the tongue-in-cheek cultural faux pas for Japanese audiences and makes them just as funny for global readers.

Matsuda and Barton’s work also contains a guide in the back of the book for more curious readers to explore the links between the original folktale and the way Matsuda adapted it for modern day readers. By writing about a little known set of legends unknown to the western world, Matsuda’s book exposes readers to a new set of mythical possibilities in the world.

Why We Love It: Matsuda’s funny, feminist interpretations of these traditional Japanese stories are hilarious, and they also reflect shifts in culture & gender roles across generations.

Who fears death by Nnedi okorafor

Genre: Ya sci-fi/fantasy | Daw Books 2014 | Reviewed by rey katz

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor is a magical realist novel which shows the triumph of womens’ anger in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic, and genocidal Sudan. Generally, I tend to avoid media featuring sexual assault due to my trauma, but I was glad I read this book, forewarned of the graphic rape and female circumcision scenes. 

The main character, Onyesonwu, was conceived by the rape of a dark-skinned woman by a light-skinned man, to create a child to destroy her family and community from within. As a young teen with magic powers starting to show and her life in danger, Onyesonwu asked the sorcerer in her town for instruction. He considered her less worthy than a man and refused to teach her. Her boyfriend, the sorcerer’s student, shared some of his training but did not stand up for her.

As a martial arts student and instructor, I find it important to share self-defense techniques with women and gender minorities, especially people of color. I was furious that this sorcerer refused to teach our heroine. But Onyesonwu did not stop fighting for her own education. She returned to the sorcerer again and again. She magically attacked and almost killed him in her frustration, finally impressing him enough to accept her as his student. Now armed with his teachings, she was compelled to try and stop the genocide of her tribe, for good.

I appreciate Onyesonwu’s complexity: she is not diplomatic, mature, kind, or polite. She is an unapologetically angry, relatable woman who rebels against the injustice she’s faced all her life. It feels amazing to root for a strong woman protagonist while she grows more powerful.

Despite serious themes, many interactions are light-hearted. After Onyesonwu leaves town with four companions, they indulge in newfound freedom. Two women stop at a bar and enjoy attention lavished upon them by local men. Back in the desert, even stranger friends appear: three camels who travel with them for miles. Of course, a few of our travelers sleep with each other, and drama ensues.

I was delighted to see exploration outside monogamous constraints, driven by women’s desire. Our adventurers find a nomadic community composed of unconventional families. Couples raise children not theirs by birth. The nomads have pleasurable sex without shame, ingrained jealousy, or relationship structures dictated by religion. I recommend this challenging, energetic, suspenseful, and inspiring read.

Why We Love It: We love a strong, multi-racial, female protagonist to root for–but we also love how Okorafor’s characters take stock of the way they think about power, family, monogamy, sexuality, and so much more.

tell me how you got here by emily franklin

Genre: poetry | terrapin books 2021 | Reviewed by leonora simonovis

In Franklin’s stunning poetry collection, she gives the reader an intimate view of the speaker and her family’s everyday lives through a variety of objects–shoes, tables, car tires, photos–that “are not just tether/to moving. Not only that.” These objects represent emotional landscapes and stories past and present, and thus they become archives for a possible future, to be found by “you or your decades-away/child,” the speaker says.

But to speak of a potential future is to also speak to what’s absent, as well as what is left behind. The poems show how presence and absence can coexist within the same space, even across different time periods. So the question is: how does this realization change the way we perceive reality? Does it change it at all? In “Standing in The Kitchen with My Mother” the speaker claims to be with her mother’s “former selves I will never meet.”  In “We Bought the House”, one of her children finds a note written by the previous owner of the house they just moved to, “this is me, / this is my face, this is my house.” In reading the note, the child wonders whether the house belongs to their family’s or families’ past, and the speaker responds “it’s both” allowing the ambiguity of life to be what it is, unmasked and raw.

Why We Love It: Franklin’s lyrical poems make the mundane beautiful, and offer an intimate look at family life.

the seven necessary sins for women and girls by mona eltahawy

Genre: non-fiction/essays | beacon press 2020 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

Anger. Attention. Profanity. Ambition. Power. Violence. Lust.

These are the things women and girls are told to avoid if they want to be accepted in society. Journalist, activist, and feminist Mona Eltahawy turns these “sins” into her own personal manifesto in her newest essay collection focusing on breaking the taboos that discourage women from embracing their true personalities.  

By addressing the “sins” as defined by patriarchal institutions, Eltahawy demonstrates the power and potential held within each person, and subverts their masculine associations. Anger can be used not just to frighten, but to empower the women. Attention isn’t vanity, but instead recognizes the voice of women saying, “I count.” Profanity isn’t used to offend, but to disrupt male-centric decorum. Ambition defies limitations and liberates. Power is courageously not asking anyone’s permission to dream bigger. Even violence can show the world that actions against any individual have consequences. And finally lust, which expresses self-ownership, agency, and the importance of consent in pleasure and love.

Drawing on Eltahawy’s own experiences and people her stories have touched, she unapologetically declares war on the patriarchy and resolves to fight for the rights of those masculine heteronormality ostracizes. Each essay is devoted to one of the “sins,” and looks unabashedly at the challenges women face, particularly women of color and in the LGBTQ+ community. Eltahawy calls for a revolution of female internationalism, or global feminist movements, to tear down male-dominated systems and reconstruct them into inclusive, equal ones. To surmise her mission in a quote, “My name is Mona Eltahawy and this is my declaration of faith: Fuck the patriarchy” (85).

Why We Love It: Eltahawy’s inventory of necessary sins is a manifesto for intersectional feminists the world over. We love her no-holds-barred look at patriarchy, race, gender, and so much more.

Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover.

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