I was fortunate to begin 2022 with the wonderful The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. This is a beautiful multi-generational drama focusing on race, family, and identity. Bennett is a skilled storyteller. I was fully immersed in her prose and found myself absorbed in the story. This is one of those rare stories that has universal appeal.
The story centers on the Vignes twins Stella and Desiree. The twins are from Mallard, Louisiana a town where many light-skinned Black people reside. The twins have a traumatic childhood after seeing their father get horrifically lynched by White men. At the age of 16 the two sisters run away from their mother’s home to start new lives in New Orleans. However, Stella soon makes a dangerous and shocking decision to leave her sister to go live as a White woman. The book is written from multiple perspectives and takes place from the 1940s to the 1990s. The daughters of the twins are also featured main characters.
While The Vanishing Half is arguably a slow burn the writing is so good that it reads quickly. The major characters are well developed. No perspectives felt weaker than the others. I really enjoyed how the story was told out of order. In the end a complete story of the family was revealed. There is a character that suffers from Alzheimer’s. I found these scenes to be well written, but tough to read as they reminded me of my grandma who suffered from the same disease.
The major theme of the novel is choosing one’s identity. Desiree and Stella who are physically identical, decide to live under different racial identities. Desiree’s trans boyfriend, Reese, struggles feeling comfort with his body that opposes his male identity. The difference is Reese’s gender expression is authentic while Stella’s racial expression is based on a lie. I was deeply saddened that Stella had to deny her Blackness and family in exchange for the privilege and security of life as a White woman. The vastly differing experiences of Desiree and Stella show that racial identity is more than just the color of one’s skin. Unfortunately, one’s presenting racial identity results in vastly differing levels of privilege and wealth in the United States.
The Vanishing Half is worthy of becoming a modern classic. Between the gorgeous writing and complex themes of family, identity, and race there are a lot of discussions to be had surrounding the book. And above all Brit Bennett is a skilled storyteller.
Bryan Washington’s short story collection, Lot, focuses on queer characters living in Houston. Minor characters in other stories become the focus of others, creating connections across the collection. One bi-racial male, Nicolás, is the focus of many of the stories. He struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality, his absent father, his homophobic brother, and helping his mom keep her restaurant afloat. I was excited to read this collection after enjoying Washington’s novel Memorial, which I also recommend.
My favorite story was Bayou, where two friends find what they believe to be a Chupacabra. The potential Chupacabra added whimsey to the story that ended up focusing on a close male friendship. This being the only story with fantasy elements (and even a reference to Dune), of course it became my favorite. Another standout was Waugh, where a group of male sex workers sharing a home deal with their house father contracting HIV. This story reminded me of the excellent tv show Pose because of its focus on found families. Many members of the LGBT community, less fortunate than myself, are rejected by their families because of their queer identity. Thus, they find and create their own families. Themes present in these stories include families (biological and found), friendship, intersectionality, and the concept of home. Bryan Washington is a Houston native, and it shows in his writing. The city of Houston can be considered a main character that ties this collection together. This is an honest, depiction of Houston where many of the characters are struggling to make ends meet, especially after the damage of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. I have never visited Houston, but I feel like I have a sense of the city after reading Lot.
I would recommend this short story collection to anyone. If you are more in the mood for a longer story format, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of his novel Memorial. I will definitely be reading anything Bryan Washington writes in the future.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is a workplace thriller that centers on challenges Black women face in the office. The story’s protagonist works in a major publishing house as an assistant editor, the same job Zakiya had before quitting to write this novel. Thus, the novel offers commentary on the publishing industry. I had the pleasure of seeing Zakiya speak about her bestselling novel at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, CT, one town over from where she grew up. While I enjoyed the majority of The Other Black Girl, I feel like Zakiya tried combining too many genres in one novel, resulting in a confusing ending.
Nella is the only Black assistant editor at Wagner Publishing. She is thrilled when a new Black female employee is hired. Nella hopes this new employee, Hazel, will be a much-needed friend that she can confide in at the predominantly white office. However, after Hazel takes some questionable actions, Nella becomes unsure whether Hazel is an ally or a rival. When Nella finds a sinister note telling her to leave her job at Wagner, she questions whether Hazel might be responsible. The story transitions into a thriller with multiple twists and secrets, originating back decades at Wagner. I wish that Zakiya had simplified the conspiracy elements, as they were confusing and not well explained. She either needed more pages or an additional book to explore these ideas. Though I will say I loved the mechanism of the major twist!
The novel does an excellent job of featuring examples of microaggressions that Black employees face in a white dominated office. Additionally, there is commentary on the publishing industry. The wealthy, white heads of publishing are gate keepers that determine what books and types of characters will be sold to consumers. This book helped me learn how much power editors have with altering author’s manuscripts and deciding which books will become mainstream. Not only are more writers of color needed, but we need editors of color too!
Zakiya’s event at Southern Connecticut State University was a fantastic event. In a cute moment her father, who is a journalism professor at the university, introduced her to the audience. Zakiya did a reading from the novel and then answered questions from the moderator and audience about the story and the writing process. In one interesting moment Zakiya mentioned how typically Black writers feel pressure or are encouraged to only write two types of Black characters. Either flawless characters that other Black readers will be proud of or Black characters that endure horrible hardships. Zakiya hopes that there will be more space in the future for loveable yet flawed Black characters. She cited Raven Leilani’s fantastic Luster as a recent novel with a complex, likeable Black female protagonist. One sweet moment was when Zakiya mentioned her first Black teacher who taught what has become one of her favorite books, Kindred by Octavia Butler (which has been sitting in my TBR for far too long).
The Other Black Girl, while not perfectly plotted, is an important read with great characters. This book will spark many important conversations about BIPOC experiences in the workplace and the flaws in the publishing system. I am looking forward to the Hulu adaptation being produced by Zakiya and Rashida Jones!
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is an excellent collection of nine short stories written by Deesha Philyaw. The stories feature black women that are attempting to fulfill desires and passions that are at odds with their Christian beliefs and standards. This National Book Award Finalist is a delight to read and features excellent writing and many queer characters. Readers will meet the daughter of a woman having an affair with a pastor, a mistress’ humorous set of guidelines for her married lovers, and a teenager who has a crush on the preacher’s wife. These stories cover women from multiple generations, sexualities, and relationship statuses. I chose to read this book when I discovered my Deesha Philyaw would be speaking at my favorite bookstore, People Get Ready in New Haven, CT.
My favorite story is Peach Cobbler. This story focuses on a complex mother-daughter relationship. Olivia’s mom is having an affair with the preacher. Her mom cooks peach cobbler for the preacher, but never allows her daughter to enjoy her legendary desert. Olivia decides to replicate her mom’s peach cobbler for herself. Peach cobbler is one of my favorite deserts, so the vivid descriptions of the food in this story had my mouth watering. How to Make Love to a Physicist was a charming romance. The main conflict was not between the protagonist and her love interest. Instead, the conflict revolved around the protagonist learning to love herself. By the time I reached the end of the story in the back of my mind I heard Ru Paul’s legendary words of wisdom: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” In Dear Sister the strong bond between the sisters and their different personalities reminded me of my mom and her three sisters. Deesha perfectly captures the loving, yet brutally honest interactions within an adult sisterhood. Deesha’s characters feel authentic and believable, and her writing is a joy to read.
I was so fortunate to hear Deesha Philyaw speak at the Elm City LIT Fest in New Haven, CT this past September. I really enjoyed listening to Deesha describe her writing process and the inspiration behind the stories in the collection. She explained how food played a large role in the stories. Her grandma would never say the words “I love you”, but she’d cook her family delicious food to show love. She highlighted the use of food in her favorite story in the collection, How to Make Love to a Physicist. Deesha wanted to make sure the protagonist’s quest for self-love included cooking whole, non-processed foods. She wanted mother-daughter relationships to be a focus of the collection. Deesha explained how mothers pass down the church’s culture to their daughters, both the good and bad parts. One of my favorite moments was when Deesha told us that envisioned that Olivia from Peach Cobbler grew up to be the serial mistress in Instructions for Married Christian Husbands. When the authors were discussing the process for selecting character names, Deesha explained the biblical significance of Jael’s name, which is key to that story. This was my first time hearing attending a talk by an author and I had so much fun! I appreciated the collection even more after hearing Deesha speak.
I can’t recommend The Secret Lives of Church Ladies enough! I implore you to put this at the top of your TBR immediately! This is one of my favorite reads of the year, and a reminder for me to read more short stories. This cohesive collection has excellent writing and unforgettable characters. I’m looking forward to seeing Tessa Thompson’s adaptation of this anthology on HBO, what a great pairing of artists!
The Changeling, especially the first half, is literary tension at its best. Victor Lavalle’s novel is part urban fantasy, part contemporary fairy tale with a splash of horror. He manages to weave in themes of parenthood while featuring the city of New York. I LOVED the first half of this book. I was at the edge of my seat and glued to the words on the page, despite being on a warm sunny beach while on my honeymoon. Unfortunately, Lavalle did not stick the landing. The second half of the book was meh, it wasn’t bad, but compared to the perfection of the beginning I was disappointed.
Because the joy of this novel is its suspense, I am going to give a limited description of the plot. The protagonist, Apollo Kagwa, is an avid reader (we would be great friends). Apollo’s father left him and his mother when Apollo was young. He sometimes has creepy dreams of his dad. Apollo eventually starts a book dealing business. He meets Emma, a librarian and they eventually get married. Emma and Apollo have a baby, named Brian, after Apollo’s father. Emma and Apollo are determined to be perfect parents, but Emma begins to act out of character leading to her committing a shocking act. This event leads Apollo on a magical journey.
I loved Lavalle’s prose. He is an excellent storyteller, and his writing is a pleasure to read. I love when a protagonist has a book related occupation. Reading about Apollo’s reading interests and how they flourished into a career of procuring and selling used books was great. The tension that builds in the first half of the story is off the charts. Based off the limited plot summary I read on the book’s back cover, I knew Emma was going to do something shocking. The slow burn leading up to those events ratchets up the tension. And the description of the scene when IT happens is very intense and scary. I also really appreciated Lavalle’s inclusion of themes of post partem depression, black fatherhood and experiences living as a black man in NYC into the story.
Explaining my critiques of the second half of the novel, without spoiling the plot, will be a challenge. The second half of the book features most of the magic and supernatural elements in the novel. Lavalle had too many great ideas. I believe editing the story down and using just a few of these elements would have created a tighter story. For me the plot at the end of the novel became muddled and character motivations did not make sense. I also found interest in the novel declining towards the end of the novel. This was a shame after start of the book when I was losing sleep because I was so captivated by the story.
Despite the weak ending, The Changeling is worth the read. Lavalle is a talented writer and storyteller. I found themes of parenthood especially relevant because my husband and I recently adopted a puppy. The scene of THE incident has become one of the most tense and memorable scenes I’ve ever read.
Within twenty minutes of picking up Bloodchild at the library, two strangers told me how much they loved the book when they saw it in my hands. The endorsements were well deserved. The collection contains five short stories and two essays, and there are no weak entries. The title story, Bloodchild, is the best short story I’ve read in recent memory. I know I will be revisiting it in the future.
Of the five short stories, three are science fiction. The two essays focus on Octavia’s journey to becoming a published author and her advice for aspiring writers. I think discussing the plot of the story Bloodchild will ruin the experience for first-time readers. My thoughts on the story are below to avoid spoiling the experience (I highly recommend you take the time to read the story first, it is only 30 pages, and you will not regret it 😊). The other stories in the collection include a future where people lose the ability to make speech sounds, an illness that causes the inflicted to self-harm, a woman dealing with the death of her mother, and a lonely, alcoholic woman with a miserable job. After each story Butler includes a brief afterward, which provides insight to the story’s inspiration. I love when authors do this. This reminds me of the introductions Stephen King includes in some of his short story collections (Four Past Midnight). I enjoyed Butler’s notes better than King’s because she includes her thoughts as an afterward rather than an introduction, so the story is not spoiled for the reader. I was looking forward to the two essays at the end of the collection the least, probably because of my preference for fiction over non-fiction. It was a pleasant surprise that they ended up being my favorite pieces outside of Bloodchild. The first inspiring essay is autobiographical, detailing Butler’s journey of becoming a published science fiction writer, which was unheard of for a black woman at the time. Even today the genre is still dominated by white males. In the second essay, Butler gives advice to aspiring writers. Butler believes that being a successful writer depends less on talent and more on consistency and practice. While I currently have no plans on writing fiction, I did find this passage motivating in terms of creating content for this blog. One of my favorite things as a reader is discovering new authors who already have a giant backlog of books written. I am looking forward to delving into the great Octavia Butler’s catalog.
Trigger Warnings: Incest, Body Horror, Rape
Now for arguably the best short story I’ve ever read, Bloodchild. I am a big fan of gnarly body horror, which Butler absolutely, terrifyingly provides in this story. I also love when a science fiction/fantasy story doesn’t tell a reader how the world operates. Instead, I prefer when authors parcel out little bits of info, so that readers slowly piece together the experience themselves. The realization of the mechanics behind the symbiotic relationship between the humans and Tlic had me gleefully horrified. After reading the story I immediately went on google images and spent half an hour looking at fan art of the millipede-like Tlic. Interestingly, in Butler’s notes for the book she explains how many readers interpret the story as a metaphor for slavery, which was not her intention. I did not have that interpretation on my first read of the story, but I can see how the Tlic colonizing the humans can be read that way. Instead, Butler’s goal was to write a story of the “pregnant man”. To put male characters through the pain and trauma of childbirth.