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Transcendent Kingdom, White Tears / Brown Scars, and Everything Else I Read in September

Including a sci-fi debut that will blow your mind.

I read not one, but two nonfiction books this month, which has to be a record... This month my brain was fully stimulated by the sheer variety of things I read: one incredible sci-fi debut, two nonfiction books that busted my brain and made me question a lot of things, one serious work of literary fiction, and one depressing-yet-funny contemporary novel. You can probably guess by now that the sci-fi book was my favorite, but each was so unique and made me feel so many different emotions over the course of 30 days. Let’s go!

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Is there a rooftop somewhere I can shout about this book from? The Space Between Worlds is an absolutely stunning, smash-hit of a debut from author Micaiah Johnson. This story is a multiverse sci-fi drama with romance and so many damn themes I can’t even stand it!! You don’t need to be a sci-fi lover to appreciate this book, because there’s very little science in it (but sci-fi fans, don’t worry–you’ll absolutely freaking love this book too). If you loved Dark Matter by Blake Crouch as much as I did, I highly suggest that you put this in your cart immediately. I’ll wait.

In The Space Between Worlds, the theory of the multiverse has finally been proven, and a genius on “Earth Zero” has developed the ability to travel in-between 380 different versions of Earth. Cara is a “traverser” with the ability to travel between 372 of these worlds, but there’s a catch: Cara and the other traversers can only travel to those worlds where their doppelgangers are already dead. The most valuable traversers aren’t scientists, geniuses, or people with privilege–they are the people most likely to die on other versions of Earth from disease, neglect, war, or other forms of violence that they can’t outrun. Cara is the most valuable traverser on Earth Zero, because she has somehow defied the odds and has only eight doppelgangers left alive throughout the multiverse. She is secretly in love with her handler, Dell, who plans and executes Cara’s missions to other worlds to collect important data about the effects of events that have yet to happen, or major decisions that are being decided upon on Earth Zero. When one of Cara’s remaining doppelgangers dies on one of the remaining eight Earths that she is closed off from, Cara is sent in as the new lead traverser for that world. But what happens when Cara discovers a secret on this new world that begins to unravel what she knows about the people on Earth Zero? How far will she go to do the right thing for every world in the multiverse?

The women in my family love sci-fi, and all three of us have already read The Space Between Worlds (which is notable because it just came out August 4th) and rate it among our favorite books of the year. The Space Between Worlds also received an overall rating of “Rave” on my new favorite website, The ‘Book Marks’ section of Literary Hub (thank you, Leslie!) which basically combines critics’ reviews into one place like Rotten Tomatoes, but for books. Receiving an overall rating of “Rave” (the highest out of four categories: Rave/Positive/Mixed/Pan) for a debut is no easy task, but The Space Between Worlds absolutely deserves it. This story truly will stay with me and I look forward to reading anything and everything Johnson writes in the future.

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I hope this isn’t the first time you’re hearing about The Undocumented Americans. A book this good shouldn’t fly under the radar in a year like 2020, no matter where you get your book recommendations from. Maybe you saw that it was long-listed for The National Book Award for Nonfiction this year (the finalists will be announced October 6th), or maybe you’ve seen people reading it recently because it’s Latinx/Hispanic Heritage Month. Personally, I picked this book up two weeks ago after seeing it all over bookstagram, and I am grateful that I did.

The author of The Undocumented Americans, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, is an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who has been living in the United States since her parents brought her here when she was five. She graduated from Harvard in 2011, and her debut book is a mix of personal essay, memoir, and reporting that is unlike anything I’ve read before. She takes us to several different places in the United States (Ground Zero, Miami, Flint, among others) and talks about her experiences with the many undocumented Latinx people she meets along the way, interspersed with personal anecdotes from her own life.

Before this, I had never read a book where the author’s personality so vividly leaps off the page. Cornejo Villavicencio’s writing is electric and infused with her own personal something–so much so that you can almost hear her speaking directly to you. She started writing this book in 2016 after Trump won the election, and it is unequivocally clear that she has something incredibly important to say in this book. If there is one book you pick up between now and November 3rd, I think this should be it.

Cornejo Villavicencio states in her intro that “this book is for young immigrants and children of immigrants. I want them to read this book and feel what I imagine young people must have felt when they heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the first time in Seattle in 1991. This book will give you permission to let go. This book will give you permission to be free. This book will move you to be punk, when you need to be punk; y hermanxs, it’s time to fuck some shit up.” She expands on the purpose and audience of her book in this podcast episode, which is a fantastic listen. Let me be clear: This book was not written to inspire a white audience, but damn did I learn a lot from this book, and I’ll leave you with a few quotes that punched me right in the “oh shit” feels:

"Ivy's baby has regained her vision, but nobody knows what the long-term effects of the water poisoning will be in her little body. The wait is torturous for Ivy. It is torturous for her mom. It is torturous for the community. It is not torturous for the government. The want us all dead, Latinxs, black people, they want us dead, and sometimes they'll slip something into our bloodstreams to kill us slowly and sometimes they'll shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot (...) until their bloodlust is satisfied and it's all the same, our pastors will say god has a plan for us and our parents will plead with the Lord until the end to give them an answer."

“Isadora is interested in the punch bowl. I say it’s literally a fishbowl of rum and she gets a devilish look in her eye. While browsing the menu, as small talk, she tells me she was an international affairs lawyer in Bolivia, specializing in Russian relations. She lived in Russia for six years and is fluent in Russian. Now she has been here sixteen years and is a housekeeper.”

“But as an undocumented immigrant, everything we do is technically against the law. We're illegal. Many of us are indigenous in part or whole and do not believe borders should exist at all. I personally subscribe to Dr. King’s definition of an unjust law as being ‘out of harmony with the moral law.’ And the higher moral law here is that people have a human right to move, to change location, if they experience hunger, poverty, violence, or lack of opportunity, especially if that climate in their home countries is created by the United States, as is the case with most third world countries from which people migrate. Ain’t that ’bout a bitch?”

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After what seemed like absolutely everyone in the bookstagram universe had read and reviewed The Vanishing Half, the next book I saw popping up on almost everyone's feeds was Transcendent Kingdomwriter Yaa Gyasi’s second novel after her 2016 debut Homegoing. I heard basically everything from “it was great” to “it’s the book of 2020.” Even though they couldn’t be more different, it’s hard not to compare Transcendent Kingdom to Gyasi’s first novel, which I read four years ago for my IRL book club and loved. We all did. But when I described Transcendent Kingdom to the club early this month while choosing a book to read in September, with the current state of the world, they decided it sounded too heavy.

The inside cover (which I read to my book club) reads: “Yaa Gyasi’s stunning follow-up to her acclaimed Homegoing is a novel about a Ghanian family in the contemporary South, at once a profound story about race in America and an astonishingly intimate portrait of a young woman reckoning, spiritually and intellectually, with a legacy of unimaginable loss.” In this novel, we follow Gifty, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford as she studies reward-seeking behavior that might help her better understand the death of her brother, Nana, who died from a heroin overdose after getting addicted to opioids in high school. Her mother is depressed and suicidal after his death, and again years later, when Gifty is at Stanford and has dedicated her career to finding a scientific reason for all the suffering she sees around her.

To me, this novel read like a memoir (it’s not, but it feels so real that I had to keep reminding myself it’s fiction while reading) of a woman who is grappling with the death of her brother from an opioid addiction, her mother’s deep depression, her father leaving when she was young and starting a new family back in Ghana, and being a woman of faith who is also an esteemed neuroscientist. I think Gyasi intends for this novel to really hit you in the feels, and it does, but almost too well–I felt depressed the entire way through. I felt that it never really “resolved” in a way that made me feel uplifted, and I kept wanting to put it down and come up for air. But maybe that was the point, and maybe it’s a reflection of how unbelievably hard the lives of many Black immigrant families are, and I shouldn’t shy away from feeling like this. I admit that the desire to “tap out” from this story was absolutely my white privilege talking. [Warning: Spoilers Ahead] Since it’s fiction, I was hoping Gyasi would throw us a bigger sliver of happiness than the two-page epilogue that does provide a little hopeful resolution, but I think she’s making an important point that not all stories have an ending that’s perfectly tied up in a bow. Read Transcendent Kingdom for Gyasi’s absolutely incredible writing, but just know that there are several heavy topics (racism, suicidal thoughts, depression, accidental overdosing, animal testing, addiction, questioning faith, and familial abandonment).

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In 2018, writer Ruby Hamad wrote an essay entitled “How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour” for The Guardian that subsequently went viral. In 2019, Hamad turned the topic of her viral essay into a book: White Tears / Brown Scars (the U.S. version will be released on October 6th–I was sent an advanced copy by the publisher). In 250 pages, Hamad covers this topic in depth and expands on the history of white feminism, racism, and the harmful effects of white women’s tears both in the United States and around the globe (Hamad is based in Australia). To me, this book was one part a much-needed history lesson, one part pop-culture commentary about racism in our current world, and one part a call-to-action for white women who think they can be feminists without considering race as part of the equation (which, before now, I would have considered myself a part of that group). This quote from the author sums it up well:

“What I and many women of color before me, and no doubt after me, are asking is that white women open their minds and hearts when women of color talk about the double whammy we are dealt. That even as we agitate against the sexism of a male-dominated society, because it is also a white-dominated society we are also assailed with racism, and often this comes from white women who turn their sanctioned victim status on us. White women can oscillate between their gender and their race, between being oppressed and the oppressor. Women of color are never permitted to exist outside of these constraints: we are both women and people of color and we are always seen and treated as such.”–Ruby Hamad

I am still coming to terms with the embarrassing and grim fact that I am a well-educated, liberal white woman over 30 who didn’t know what “white feminism” was until very recently. For those who don’t know, white feminism is: “the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude or otherwise fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of color and LBGTQIA+ women.” White Tears / Brown Scars has made me reconsider my relationship with feminism, now that I have been made aware of the insidious ways that white women side with their race before their gender and have the ability to weaponize their tears. While I feel like I have just begun to get acquainted with the idea of white feminism with this book and, as a result, many of my preconceived notions of feminism have come tumbling down (like Hamad says in one of her chapter titles,”there is no sisterhood”), I now feel more determined than ever to learn more about white feminism and the role I play in it as a white woman. After doing a little research, I’d also like to read Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Can We All Be Feminists? by several different authors (including Brit Bennett), edited by June Eric-Udorie.

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I may have given Queenie a 5/10, but let me say this–we picked Queenie for our IRL book club, and almost everyone else loved it. My friend Edith and I have shockingly similar taste in books, so it was no surprise to me when I found out after seeing our “blind” ratings that she was the only other person in our club who wouldn’t recommend Queenie to a friend. Though our discussion was good, this book was a hard one for both of us–the two women in the club who have gone through a devastating breakup in the last few years (the rest are all recently married).

Queenie is about a woman in her late 20’s whose long-term boyfriend has just decided he wants them to separate. He asks her to move out of the flat (it takes place in London!) they share, and Queenie spends a good portion of this book spiraling out of control as she attempts to deal with this “break” (or possibly, break-up). Queenie’s friends, lovingly nicknamed “The Corgis”, are trying to help her through this rough period, but she doesn’t always make it easy on them.

We all have our favorite genres, right? I’ve pretty much always struggled with contemporary fiction and romance, while my book club generally struggles with science fiction (I made our club read a sci-fi book a few years ago, and was basically barred from ever suggesting a sci-fi book again because the other women just aren’t into it 😂). That’s a little bit how I feel about most contemporary fiction, and I’m totally in the minority here. So if you like contemporary fiction, ignore me! You’ll probably love this book (as Leslie did!). A few own voices reviews that I read while trying to figure out how I felt reading Queenie and found insightful are from @honeybuttergal and @artandbooksdigest_.

To be perfectly candid, there was just too much spiraling (Queenie almost loses her job because she’s so focused on getting Tom back, which made me panic) and borderline dangerous sex for me to enjoy reading Queenie. I will say though, I think this book would probably make an excellent TV series or a movie (by far and away my preferred format for contemporary storytelling)–so if you’re like me, maybe wait to see if Queenie ever makes it to the screen!

P.S. Remember my rave reviews from last month? Man Repeller (now just ‘Repeller’) hosted a virtual book club event for The Death of Vivek Oji (one of my favorite books of the year) with author Akwaeke Emezi on September 9th, and it was absolutely delightful. They explained the unusual chapter that held me back from giving the book a 10/10 (it was actually their little sister’s idea 🤯– I LOVE hearing about the writing process) so I am a very satisfied listener!! Sign up to join the MR virtual book club here. 

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