ReadHarder Challenge: Smashed!

If you’ve spent any time at all reveling in the online reading community, you know about the wickedly awesome BookRiot and their READ HARDER challenge, in which we, as readers, are challenged to read more diversely. Read a romance novel. Read a book by an author whose gender is different than yours. Read a novel by an author of color. Listen to an audio book. I love reading, I love challenges, and while I have always pushed myself to read diversely, we can always use a little more nudging. So of course I signed myself up last year (and had a blast) and again this year. But this year, I added a bit of an extra challenge. I decided for the 2016 READ HARDER challenge that every book, in addition to the challenge presented, had to be written by a person of color.

It was amazingly fun, incredibly intentional, and wildly diverse. I felt like I was reading more mindfully than I have in ages. What could be more awesome than that? This week, in honor of #DiverseAThon, I vowed to knock out my last two challenges: Read a non-fiction book about science; and Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award. I did it. I completed the READ HARDER challenge! Here’s how it shook out…

Read a horror book. I went with Samantha Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison (Algonquin, 2016, 288 pgs, ebook). My original review: I found a deal and splurged on the ebook for Bout of Books because I still needed a horror story by a person of color for my Read Harder challenge. It might also be technically considered Young Adult, but I found it crossed over very nicely, mostly because of the way it played with local myths and legends in PR, turning the tale into an environmental scifi ghost story. One that’s quite readable, too. The ending wasn’t quite as satisfying as the set-up – the book definitely started out at 4 stars. Still worth curling up with it for an afternoon. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Read a nonfiction book about science. I’ll admit: I was struggling to find a science-y book that I would find engaging. And then I remembered everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I chose Star Talk: Everything You Ever Need to Know about Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe and Beyond (2016, National Geographic, 288 pgs, hardcover), because hello! How gorgeous is that book?! And how could you not want to be stuffed chock-a-block full of all those interesting tidbits?! It was engaging, informative, and about space – one of my favorite subjects even if it does trigger a panic attack here and there. 4 of 5 stars.

Read a collection of essays. Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, by Andre Aciman (2011, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 208 pages, paperback). My original review: This was one of the books included in my last Quarterly Box, and I was delighted because personal essays are my jam. Aciman didn’t quite get to Anne Fadiman level, but his lyricism was really a wonder to behold. His essays covered nearly all of Europe, it seemed, and were as varied as my mind on a particularly ADHD afternoon. Different wheres, different whens, and all with that soft, nostalgic gauziness of memory overlapping everything. Looking for a collection of essays for your Read Harder challenge? Look no further! 3 of 5 stars.

Read a book out loud to someone else. Every year I read a book for 9/11 and this year I chose the critically acclaimed Towers Falling, by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2016, Little Brown, 240 pages, hardcover). The middle grade novel read well, as a grown-up who lived through those horrible events, and as someone who struggles how to even begin explaining what that was like (and what it meant) to my middle school-aged children. A variety of reactions were covered by students, teachers, and parents in the story, as well as the way that loss knitted into our identity as a country. It’s the first book I’ve read written from a post-9/11 perspective and it was still haunting even as I found it a bit healthier form of grieving. The girls were fascinated and I think enjoyed that the book is as much about friendship and other things, not just all 9/11 all the time. Super mega bonus points for a healthy depiction of a struggling family having to deal with shelter life. 4 of 5 stars.

Read a middle grade novel. As soon as I heard Francisco Stork (of Marcello in the Real World fame) had a new book coming out, I was all over that pre-order button. My original review for The Memory of Light (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016, 336 pages, hardcover): I pre-ordered this book on the strength of the other Stork book that’s one of my all-time favorites, Marcelo in the Real World. I didn’t quite feel the same magic, but I still really enjoyed the book, in spite of its different feel. About a girl who wakes up in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, Memory of Light follows Vicky as she learns to stand up for herself to her demanding father, make new friends with fellow “mentals” in the hospital, learn how to figure out what’s going on in her mind and heart, and what to do when she’s on her own, back in the situation she was when she did “the deed.” I really liked that Stork gave us the “but then what happened?” What happens after a mother dies from a terminal illness? How do the family members handle their grief? What happens after the suicide attempt? What happens after the leading character is released to the “real” world? If more of those books are out there, I haven’t read them yet, and it’s important that they are easily found, for middle school kids and high schoolers – and yes, even adults – the find and identify with. To learn from. The ending was a leeeeetle crazily convenient, but I was willing to overlook it with so many flashes of brilliance. 4 of 5 stars.

Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography). I went with Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable. I took a seminar in college on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their contrasting approaches to protesting and affecting change. Both men are so charming and had such gravitational pull that I will always pick up anything about them. Given that, I didn’t learn much new, but Marable’s portrayal of such a complex figure who was constantly reinventing his story was compelling reading. I was glad I picked it up, especially given the ideas put forth in Miranda’s Hamilton: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? 4 of 5 stars.

Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel. I had so much fun with this one! Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me (Harper, 2011, 338 pages, library ebook). My original review: I wasn’t sure about this story when I started. It’s the story of a teenager/young woman trapped in a cell in an insane asylum, though the world has gone nuts and it’s clear we’re dealing with an apocalyptic tale, so for all intents and purposes, our girl – Juliette – is in a cell. Her deal? Her touch is lethal, hurting (like a taser, perhaps?) anyone who touches her. And The Reestablishment that is keeping her safehostage says it’s trying to restore order and keep the public safe, but are they? And why is their leader so singularly focused on keeping Juliette his prisoner? I was a bit wary going in. The writing wasn’t knocking it out of the park, but it was good enough, and the voice was a bit compulsive. The feel of it reminded me of The Fifth Wave. I got a bit curious and had to find out what happened, and then things did happen and I was devouring it before I knew what was happening. The ending was a bit convenient and didn’t really tie up any loose ends or, say, end the story so much as it set up the next book in the series. That bugged. Oh, and one other thing to mention – as I turned the page and was surprised to find only the About the Author section, I read a bit of it and was intrigued by the first sentence: “Tahereh Mafi is a girl.” That’s it. The very first thing they want us to know. Why? Because Tahereh isn’t a name most are familiar with? Because she’s run into confusion so often? But you guys – why does it matter? It shouldn’t. It might to her, but what message does that send? That there’s no room for confusion. It says we should all know and the answers should be definite, if not readily apparent. That everyone should know. And with everything going on right now in this country, I don’t like that message. Gender can be fluid. Gender identity isn’t always concrete. It’s Tahereh’s business if she wants us to know her gender expression, but I wish there was a bit more explanation to it than “I’m a girl and that’s the most important thing I want you to know about me.” Okay. Off soapbox. 3 of 5 stars.

Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award. This week I knocked out Oprah’s What I Know for Sure, a compilation of articles she’s published in O Magazine. The audiobook was only four hours long and was read by Queen Oprah herself, which helped. I love the sound of her voice, fell in love with it watching her portray Miss Sophia in The Color Purple. The subject matter itself was a bit trite at times, and cliche. I’m not a self-help book type of person. But this wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it could have been, that I maybe worried it would be, and I needed to hear what the fuss was about. It helped me learn this for sure: a good way to be grateful for what you have in your life, to take stock of where you’re at and where you want to end up, is to listen to someone you trust read words of wisdom at you for a few hours. It’s not quite Dear Sugar levels, but it got me to a very similar place. 3 of 5 stars.

Read a book over 500 pages long. This was a tough one to settle on, but in the end it was The Famished Road, by Ben Okri (Jonathan Cape, 1991, 519 pages, library ebook). My original review: You guys! (A different kind of “You guys.”) I can’t believe I waited so long to read this! A new classic about a Yoruba spirit child who journeys through fires, captivity, destitution, searching for family, redemption, and the elusive overlap between the land of his family and the spirits. I studied Nigeria and Yoruba culture quite a bit, so this story rang so many of my bells. I didn’t realize how much I missed this kind of storytelling until I was rolling in it, banging the book against the steering wheel of my car (at lunch), yelling “Yes!” Now, it is a bit of The Wizard of Oz meets A Hundred Years of Solitude, so there are points where the story sticks in the mud a bit and you just want to get it going again. But it’s worth the patience. (Or, um, skipping ahead a bit.) 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Read a book under 100 pages. Even tougher to find! I stumbled onto Swapan Seth’s This Is All I Have to Say, which is – as best I can describe – little moments of grace experienced while traveling, in between odd moments of life, remembered, reflected upon. It’s closer to poetry and essays than it is a novel. A fascinating book that embodies more than any other the purpose of this list: I never would have picked up this book or read it if I wasn’t mindfully reading diversely. 2 of 5 stars.

Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender. With the explosion of trans memoirs and stories on the shelves, you’d think there would be more featuring people of color…except for those who understand access to the publishing world (and a reading audience) is not created equal. I read I Rise, written by former Clinton aide Toni Newman and wish I could be as sure of myself as Toni is of herself. Black. Gay. Trans. Trans. I think that’s my favorite part of Toni’s story – she decided against sexual reassignment surgery and refuses to pick a label to be central to such a big part of her identity. She’s comfortable blurring the lines. Both/and. Her. That was so fascinating to me. 3 of 5 stars.

Read a book that is set in the Middle East. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, by Nadia Hashimi (2014, William Morrow, 452 pages, paperback). Original review: I know I’m in the minority, but I just didn’t love this book. I was hoping for the grand, sweeping narrative of Khaled Housseini, or the quiet lyricism of Jhumpa Lahiri, but I didn’t find either one. Pearl is about three young Afghani girls who treated ridiculously  by their worthless father. Rahima, our protagonist, creates a bit of hope through the tradition of bacha posh, in which she can dress and act as a boy until she is of marriageable age. This gains Rahima a bit of freedom, which turns into hope. See, it all sounds good, but the characters just never jumped off the page for me. They were only ever so many words on a page, never filled with warmth. It’s hard for me to get invested when that happens. 2 of 5 stars.

Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia. Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Bataclan (University of the Philippines Press, 2007, 155 pages) was one of the first books I read this year. I borrowed this through my library’s e-lending library and finished it for the “Read a book by an author from Southeast Asia” ReadHarder challenge. I’ve found the most delightful candidates for the challenges on my very own TBR list, delightfully! Circles is a bit of a hard-boiled crime investigated by Jesuit priests (alas, not time-traveling ones), and while I’ve mostly moved away from the genre – crime, not Jesuits – I really enjoyed this story. There was quite a bit of social justice, with enough commentary on a developing nation’s emerging infrastructure to keep me both intrigued and second-guessing the reliability of the narrator vs. author’s voice. Which was which? That criticism aside, and that of the grisly nature of the crime(s), I enjoyed where the story took me, even when it was a bit predictable. My only other criticism was that I needed a sticky note to keep track of the many characters. Nothing worse than an Agatha Christie, numbers-wise. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900. Lashonda Katrice Barnett’s Jam On the Vine is a black woman’s up-and-out struggle, a story that made me think of a blend between Toni Morrison’s Jazz and James McBride’s Good Lord Bird, and, more recently, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Grand, sweeping historical fiction that covers huge changes faced by Ivoe and her family, I just couldn’t connect. It felt dry and historical, instead of cozy and historical, like Their Eyes Were Watching God. Maybe I expect too much from historical fiction, but I was left wanting. 2 of 5 stars.

Read the first book in a series by a person of color. Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra. Original review: This was much more riveting! A bit of a guilty read, actually. It’s the story of a young ballet academy where fighting is fierce for a spot in the showpiece that might get the young ladies and men a spot in the ballet company attached to the school. I had a hard time keeping the characters straight at first, but once the story got moving, it moved. It felt diverse, petty, hilarious at times, and a good drama that would adapt well to a show on prime time. If you’re looking for a first book in a series by a Person of Color for the Read Harder challenge, this is a great choice! 3 of 5 stars.

Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years. ZOMG you guys! So many! I’ve discovered Joamette Gil, and Alex Araiza, and Ethan Parker, and Ashanti Fortson. My heart was captured by Lumberjanes, but while it features characters of every gender, identity, skin color, human form, and every shade of fluidity in between, it technically isn’t written by a poc. The good news is that it was the doorway that opened, making me seek out all of these other awesome creators and their projects.

Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better. Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. Original review: Yes, I’m very late to this bandwagon. I know. I picked up Twelve Years as an e-loan from the library to fulfill my “Read a book that was turned into a movie” challenge for Read Harder 2016. It’s been ages since I’ve read all of the great slave narratives and it felt a bit like coming home to slip back into one. The frame stories, the fact dropping so we could verify, the call and response, the tropes of quadroons and hair – everything was here. It was a well-crafted memoir and fits well among those of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and the rest of the canon. 4 of 5 stars.

Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist themes. We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2014, Fourth Estate, 49 pages, ebook). Original review: Yes, I splurged and bought it on a Deal of the Day, but I have to say the published TEDx talk is worth they money at any price. One of my favorite authors talks about what it means to be a feminist today in her native Nigeria, in diaspora, in publishing, and in the world. It was interesting how Adichie tied in classism and racism (can we ever separate the three big discriminators?) and the particular examples she used to point out how institutionalized discrimination against women is. This was the first piece of non-fiction writing I’ve read by Adichie and I loved that her voice was just as sarcastic, nuanced, and unapologetically clever as her fiction writing. I would read anything by this world-class author. 5 of 5 stars.

Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction). Bright Lines, by Tanwi Nandini Islam (Penguin, 2015, 304 pages, paperback). Original review: This was one of the books I got in one of my Book Riot Quarterly Boxes, and I can see why they chose it. It’s smart, multi-culti, and a wicked debut. Who doesn’t want to feature all of those things? But you know when you’re just not feeling a book? And how you kinda kick yourself because you know if you had maybe read it at a different time, you might have had an entirely different experience? That was me. I could see how smartly written it was, how carefully constructed, but that was part of my problem. Everything felt on purpose. I never really lost the sense that I was reading a story. I never fell under its spell. The characters got bogged down under all of that intent, at times, and I wanted to just shake them loose and see what happened. It reminded me a bit of a stiff Khaled Hosseini, so keep an eye on it – just be prepared for heavy reading. 2 of 5 stars.

Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction). The Kindness of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela. Original review: Aboulela tells the story of a professor, half-Russian and half-Sudanese, who becomes entangled with her star student and his mother when she discovers her student is descended from the Muslim warrior she is studying. I appreciated how intense Natasha’s internal conflict over her Muslim political and religious leanings was as she interacted more and more with Oz and his mother. This book was shaded as much as I hoped This Is Where It Ends would be. It wasn’t riveting and felt much more like a “duty” read (I was reading it for the “political book” challenge on Read Harder), but it was okay. 3 of 5 stars.

Read a food memoir. Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson. Original review: I had a hard time finding a food memoir by a person of color, but I found a great one that was all the rage back in 2012. It tells the story of a young boy who grew up in Ethiopia, got tuberculosis with the rest of his family, was orphaned very young, and then adopted (with his sister) by a loving family in Sweden who already had a bi-racial child. I thought it was interesting that Marcus mentioned early that he had no race wounds, and yet a goodish part of the story that deal with his growing up in Sweden centered around how race factored into daily life. Then the foodie part of his life began and goodbye race stories! I wanted to hear more about that part of Marcus’s extraordinary life, but the foodie part was rather interesting, too. I felt like I was watching a special on TV instead of reading. It was compelling, even to a reader who could care less about food or cooking memoirs. It’s exactly the sort of book I never would have picked up without the Read Harder challenge. Good job, guys. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.

Read a play. Hamilton: A Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (2016, Grand Central Publishing, 288 pages, hardcover). Original review: This was a brilliant, brilliant birthday gift from Jeff and the kiddos. I maybe told him about it way back when it came out (before it came out, if I know myself), and every single notation was worth the wait. I think my favorite was when Lin admitted to going full-on Jordan Catalano at one point. GAH!!! The essays about how certain pieces of the show came to be, and about meet-cute stories of how everyone fell into their bits and parts – everything exceeded the hype. And this is Hamilton, so that’s saying quite a lot! Shell out the big bucks for this gorgeous deckle-edged hardcover: it’s worth every penny. 5 of 5 stars.

Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness. Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon. (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015, 320 pages.) Original review: I got Yoon’s debut novel for Christmas, in hardcover no less, and dove in New Year’s Day as we were all recovering. I figured a light YA drama complete with medical drama (our 17-year-old protag is a “bubble baby”) and romance (she becomes obsessed with the boy in black next door, and all his family’s -ahem- issues). Maddie (our protag) sees only her mom and her nurse and seems to have adjusted well to the fact that she has never, not once, been outside. She takes online homeschool courses and hangs out in the family solarium to feel more as if she’s outside. And then the boy complicates everything, as they do. I liked the premise, as long as I was able to suspend belief. I liked the characters enough that I crushed the book in two days. The writing was a bit cliche – but hey, it’s YA drama/romance. I was expecting it to be all Fault in our Stars. So it was fine right up until the ending. If it’s possible for a book to take a left-turn that is both unexpected and completely obvious, this was it. The ending ruined, a bit, the rest of the story for me. Yes, I’m still giving the book a good review because I did tear through it, needing to see what happened. But it could have been close to a 4-star review and the ending did disappoint. Like, I liked that Maddie was casually mentioned to be Asian-African instead of being all Hey! I’m a person-of-color! from the start. I liked the subtle ways that complicated her identity. I just wish that sort of ambiguity and shading had transferred itself onto the end of the story arc. 3 of 5 stars.

And there you go. An entire challenge, smashed in nine months. Nine months to birth a beautiful, wonderful, life-changing reading experience. I can’t wait for the next one!

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