An Open Book: What I Read in January

How do you balance learning with leisure? Connection with quiet? Engagement with stillness?

My word for 2021 is reflect, which I’ve been doing a lot of through the month of January. The beauty of reflection is that it takes all forms. I can listen to a “hard” book like The World Without Us and reflect upon my role in this complex ecosystem that we’ve so brutally broken. I can use reading as an opportunity to reflect on history, culture, and class, as I did with other books this past month. Or, I can embody reflection by simply being present in the moment, falling into a book and just reading without pretense or expectation about what I might “get out of it.”

What has reading meant to you this past month?

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (4/5 stars)

Three-line review: No one knows when or how humans will be eradicated from the earth, but what will happen once we’re gone? Weisman’s book examines the past and present to postulate what a world without us looks like, and I am both disgusted by how our destructive actions and choices will have repercussions long into the future and that Mother Nature will continue on without us, reclaiming what we’ve taken over and healing what we’ve destroyed. Though a bit scientific and academic in parts, The World Without Us is a grounding reminder that we are very small in the great big cosmic world, but what we do while we inhabit this planet makes a difference.

Guernica by Dave Boling (4/5 stars)

Three-line review: This is a sprawling family saga tangled up in the Spanish Civil War and the start of World War II. I’m not always a fan of historical fiction as it can sometimes get bogged down in historic specifics, but this story was character-driven and kept me interested. One curious addition to this story was a side story about Pablo Picasso and the genesis of his painting, Guernica, which may or may not be entirely true but was an intriguing tangent.

Go: A Coming of Age Novel by Kazuki Kaneshiro (2/5 stars)

Three-line review: Go is about a Korean teen who has grown up in Japan and goes to a Japanese school, and the strife that division creates in his life — at school, with his parents, in his romantic relationship. This translation is called a “coming of age novel,” which, to me, implies it would be YA fiction, but I’m not sure most teenagers (at least those from the West) would find it interesting. I also found the book surprisingly and excessively violent.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (5/5 stars)

Three-line review: Oof. If this book doesn’t scary the living daylights out of you, I’m not sure you’re human. But knowledge is power, and understanding very clearly what we’re facing with the climate emergency and to what extent is essential for action. Read, but be prepared to weep.

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The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: This is the first Indigenous dystopian YA novel I’ve read and I hope to read others from this emerging genre. I appreciated the Indigenous knowledge and lore woven into the story; it offers new ways of thinking about the end of humanity as we know it and our connection to the planet. Unfortunately, the story itself didn’t feel fully formed, and there were some strange side threads (like the obligatory teenage love story) that didn’t add much to the overall plot.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: This bizarre imagining of the underground railroad actually features an underground railroad, which is genius. I felt like the main character, Cora, was kept at arm’s length, and I cared more about the people around her rather than her story. Given the accolades this book received, I wanted to like it more than I did.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (5/5 stars)

Three-line review: I knew as soon as I started this book that I would be recommending it to other people. This book suggests a new way to think about the narrative of hierarchy in the United States, and Wilkerson does an excellent job weaving in personal and relevant anecdotes to support her thesis that a caste system such as that found in India is the system that propped up Nazi Germany and is the system that fuels white supremacy in the United States. Caste should absolutely be read by everyone, especially Americans and those living in the United States.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: Based on the true story of a juvenile reform school in Florida, this story was too predictable from page one. The main character, Elwood, is driven, well behaved, and ideal in every possible way so — spoiler alert! — of course things don’t end well. I would have been more interested in reading a real account or non-fiction book about this horrendous institution rather than a fictionalized tale that felt a little too perfect for exploitation.

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We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (3/5 stars)

Three-line review: Gourevitch’s book is an in-depth examination written in the throes of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. I’ve heard snippets of this story, and this added to my understanding of the catastrophe, which was fueled by a combination of colonialism, tribalism, inappropriate international intervention, and corrupt politics. I appreciate his in-depth research and conversations with a wide variety of people, but my interest waned at times.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck (2/5 stars)

Three-line review: The truth is that road trip stories are rarely interesting, and this one supports that thesis. This book also doesn’t age well. The best part was that Steinbeck’s dog, Charley, doesn’t die, which seems to be the norm in any book with a beloved pet.

Due North: A Collection of Travel Observations, Reflections, And Snapshots Across Colors, Cultures, and Continents by Lola Akinmade Åkerström (5/5 stars)

Three-line review: Written by my friend and colleague, this coffee table book is a collection of stories and photographs from Lola’s travels organized by compass direction. Each story transports readers to a distinct place and time, which has always been one of her strong strengths as a writer. A note of warning: The Kindle book is very difficult to read; invest in the hardcover.

4 Responses to “An Open Book: What I Read in January”

  1. Leah Ntuala

    I am on a waiting list for Caste, but am looking forward to reading this as so many have said it is wonderful. I liked the Colson books a little bit more than you, historical fiction is still a new genre for me. I would recommend Orhans’s Inheritance, if you like historical fiction.

    • JoAnna

      Yes, I definitely recommend Caste. I waited 6 months at the library to get this one – it’s popular! As for historical fiction, I haven’t decided if I like it as a genre. There are certain historical fiction books I’ve really enjoyed, but I’m not sure I’m all in on the genre.

  2. Jill

    Have you read Wilkerson’s other book….The Warmth of Other Suns? She is an exceptional writer.

    • JoAnna

      No, but since you recommended it, I’ve put a pin in it to read. She is a stellar writer!


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