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The Nickel Boys, The Vanishing Half, and Everything Else I Read in July

An in-depth review of all the books I read in July.

Hi everyone! In case you missed it, last month I started a monthly reading wrap-up series to take a closer look at everything I read in June and discuss an important controversy in anti-racist education. I’m back today for the second installment of this series to chat about my July reads, and still welcome any feedback you have to make it even better!

I had high hopes for my July reads, and they definitely didn't disappoint. I finished six books this month (which is usually on my higher end) and truly liked or loved everything I read, which is rare! There's a pretty wide variety here–from a Pulitzer Prize winner to a brand-new release about aliens–and everything in between. Read on for mostly spoiler-free reviews and plenty of commentary on everything I read this month:

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Colson Whitehead won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this book, and any author who can tell a story this vivid in a quick 210 pages deserves all the awards. The Nickel Boys also wins my own personal award for best prologue and epilogue in any book I’ve ever read. The prologue had me at totally rapt attention from the very first sentence (“Even in death the boys were trouble.”) and I didn’t land on a rating until the final few pages of the epilogue when the entire thing finally comes together. "WOAH" is an accurate description of how I felt about the ending, so if you like that sort of last-minute final twist reveal, The Nickel Boys is a great book for you.

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood and Turner, two “Nickel boys” at the juvenile reformatory school Nickel Academy in Eleanor, Florida. The prologue opens with the discovery of a secret graveyard “out back” at the Academy, and a group of University of Florida archaeology students who are trying to identify the remains of 43 boys who were beaten, tortured, and raped by men who worked at the Academy, and then disposed of in this unmarked grave. The story mainly follows Elwood, a Black teenage boy who ends up at the Academy for a crime he didn’t commit, and his best friend Turner, as they navigate their time at Nickel. Halfway through there is a time jump to the future, when Elwood is an adult living in New York and running his own business. The point of this storyline only becomes clear in the epilogue, and the reveal was enough to drop my jaw on the floor.

The Nickel Boys isn’t quite a thriller, but it becomes one once you realize it is a fictionalized account of a real school, the Dozier School for Boys, which Whitehead reveals inspired him to write this story in the book's acknowledgements. Whitehead’s writing is haunting and poignant, and The Nickel Boys serves as a sort of metaphor for how easily we in America hide the darkness of our past. I could pull about a million quotes from this book, but I’ll leave you with two:

“Perhaps his life might have veered elsewhere if the US government had opened the country to colored advancement like they opened the army. But it was one thing to allow someone to kill for you and another to let him live next door.” – Colson Whitehead

We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” – Colson Whitehead

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Wow, do you need a good cry?? I have the book for you. After The End is a gut-wrenching story about a decision that no one should ever have to make, the people who are forced to make it, and its consequences. If you’ve ever been at a fork in the road, so to speak, and wished you could see down each potential path of a decision before you made it, After The End is a book you should read. It certainly hit home for me in a lot of ways.

After The End is the story of two parents from the UK, Pip and Max Adams. Their three year-old son, Dylan, has a brain tumor. His case is terminal. His quality of life is almost non-existent, and he is severely disabled. His parents are faced with a decision no one should ever have to make: take Dylan to the U.S. for an experimental new treatment that might give him a few more years, or let him go. The first half of After The End shows us everything “Before” the decision is made. Faced with the most horrible decision of their lives, both parents want the best for their son, but do not agree on which course of action is in his best interest. Caution, the rest of this review does contain some small spoilers: Pip and Max eventually find themselves facing each other in court, living separately, to let the judge decide their son’s fate. The second half of the book is “After,” alternating between two different timelines: one in which the court sided with Pip, and the other with Max.⁣

The alternating timelines in the second half might not be for everyone, but it sure as heck was for me. I absolutely loved this exploration of what happened in the wake of each decision, jumping back and forth between these possible worlds every other chapter. This book asks a lot of deep questions, like, "What qualifies as a life that is worth living?" I thought the second half was riveting, and I tore (well, cried) my way through as it’s revealed what happens to Pip and Max over several years in each version of the story. Overall, I found it heartbreaking with a sliver of hopefulness. And as if I needed another reason to cry, the author’s note at the end reveals that the idea for this book is based on Clare Mackintosh’s real experiences with her son in 2006. Somebody bring me the tissues!

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Kindred explores themes of freedom in America from the perspective of Dana, a 26-year-old Black woman who leads a relatively normal life in Los Angeles with her white husband, Kevin, in 1976. Starting on her 26th birthday, Dana is repeatedly pulled back in time and across the country to the Antebellum South to save the white son of a plantation owner, Rufus Weylin, whenever he is close to death. Rufus and Dana share a mysterious/strange connection, and over time, Dana realizes what her role in Rufus’ life is and what she must do to stay alive.⁣

When Dana is pulled back in time, she is forced to live as a slave on the Weylin plantation. She is sometimes gone for months at a time, while only a few hours pass in 1976. There are “free” Black folks in the North where Dana says she’s from, but she has no papers to prove it. Despite the fact that Dana has repeatedly saved Rufus’ life, the Weylin family often whips, beats, and works her to exhaustion when she “misbehaves.” I read these sections in total shock. Watching Dana cope with her temporary new reality, while trying not to lose herself until she gets to go home again, was so powerful, painful, and infuriating.

Something that occurred to me a few days after finishing Kindred is that, eventually, the Weylins seem to be more accepting of the fact that Dana is from the future (although this is never expressly admitted) than the fact that Dana is Black and free. They can accept her blinking out of their existence suddenly, typically reappearing years later without having aged a day, more easily than they can accept the idea that a Black woman in the early 1800s should be treated as a free and equal human being.

I finished Kindred over the 4th of July weekend, and it was a painful reminder that not all people in this country were “free” when the Declaration of Independence was signed, or in the early 1800s when Kindred takes place, or even now. I’ve never really thought about the significance of the 4th of July before this year, which is a clear sign of my privilege as a white person who has only ever been taught that July 4th is a date to be celebrated. When the Founding Fathers wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” it is now abundantly clear to me that they meant only white, cisgender men. In July, I learned a lot more about the history of this country, and I’m reconsidering what it actually means to be an American.

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The Vanishing Half is the story of two Black twin sisters, Stella and Desiree, who run away as teenagers from a town so small it barely exists on a map. The sisters are Black, but have light enough skin that they can “pass” for white. After the sisters run away, Stella eventually disappears and lives as a white woman, while Desiree returns to their hometown with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude. You’ve probably heard this synopsis before, but what I hadn’t heard talked about as much is that The Vanishing Half is equally about Jude and Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, when they’re in college. The cousins look nothing alike (Jude has very dark skin, like her father, while Kennedy is white passing and has no idea her mother is Black), and neither knows of the other’s existence.

I have a bit of an unpopular opinion on The Vanishing Half. Last month, Leslie said it was her favorite book of 2020 so far, and she’s definitely not alone. There’s been an outpouring of love for The Vanishing Half, and a bidding war for the TV rights (HBO won with a seven-figure bid). Let me be clear–I liked it! A 7/10 rating means that I recommend it to almost everyone, and I absolutely think this is a book most will like or even love. I think the story is really unique, and Bennett’s writing is really powerful. However, my expectations for The Vanishing Half were very high, and overall it fell a little flat for me.

I spent about a week mulling over my thoughts about The Vanishing Half before writing my Instagram review, and even longer for this one. I wanted to make sure I was being thoughtful and really digging into why I didn’t love this book as much as I was expecting to. For me, The Vanishing Half was missing an “X factor” and fell short with character development. It’s entirely possible that this was intentional on the author’s part–that maybe we’re not supposed to get a full view into these character’s lives. “Disappearing” is one of the major themes of this book, and perhaps it makes sense not to feel like we really know these characters, as they may not even fully know themselves. But for me, as a reader, I want fully developed characters. Whether I love, hate, admire, or relate to them, all I ask is that they feel real to me. Four characters in The Vanishing Half–Desiree, Early, Jude, and Reese–had so much potential, but I feel like their individual stories barely scratched the surface. I would have loved a book focused solely on Desiree and Stella first, and then a sequel on Reese and Jude (and Kennedy).

That being said, do I think you should consider reading The Vanishing Half? Absolutely. This is an important book, and it offered a really interesting perspective on the idea of “passing,” which is a concept I hadn’t really explored before. I’m very interested in reading more experiences about passing in America, and another book on my TBR that explores this idea is Caucasia by Danzy Senna.

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Aliens! The CIA! The end of humanity! Critics are calling Axiom’s End “deeply weird,” and I agree 1,000 percent. This is a wildly energetic book that explores what “First Contact” with aliens might look like, and in that endeavor, I think it mostly succeeds. It explores some ethical and moral dilemmas that are interesting and could be explored more in-depth, but if you like sci-fi, this is a great summer read.

Axiom’s End is about humanity’s first contact with an alien race called “amygdalines.” A group of amygdalines called the Fremdans have landed on Earth seeking refuge from the attempted genocide of their race. Two high-ranking amygdalines, Ampersand and Obelus, come after them–but only one is coming to save them. Ampersand (our “nice” alien) kidnaps and designates Cora, the niece of a woman who is part of the government unit that has been trying to communicate with the Fremdans for years, as his “interpreter.” Together, Ampersand and Cora try to run and hide from Obelus, rescue the Fremdans, and save humanity from its own future extermination by the Superorganism that rules the amygdaline race.

Reading Axiom’s End was mostly fun and certainly thought-provoking. There’s kind of a weird sexual tension between Ampersand and Cora, so if you’re into that kind of vibe from a book about aliens, you should totally read this. If you’ve spent any time thinking about what it would be like for aliens to land on Earth, humanity’s advancement as a species, or secretly hoping an alien being would choose you as its human confidant, this book is for you.

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Did you know that Me and White Supremacy is a workbook meant to be completed over the course of 28 days? Me neither. Did you also know that you will probably do more writing than reading while working through this book? Wasn’t ready for that either! So now that you know, hopefully you’ll be just a little more prepared than I was to take on the deeply personal work that is Me and White Supremacy. But honestly? Nothing can really “prepare” you for this work. It’s difficult, it’s brutally honest, and the best way to dive in is headfirst with the truth, love, and commitment Saad asks that you bring with you.

This book requires that you to take a deep look at yourself, your motivations, your world-view, your unconscious thoughts, your past actions, and reflect on them all by writing responses to journaling prompts at the end of each short chapter. It will make you uncomfortable. It will be hard. I filled a Google doc with 40 pages of responses to the prompts from all 28 days, and I’m still thinking about more stories from my past and personal anecdotes that I could add. I won’t assign this book a rating, but I will recommend that every single person who holds white privilege* read and work through Me and White Supremacy (*the author specifically states that this book is for “anyone who holds white privilege, meaning persons who are visually identifiable as white or who pass for white"). She says that biracial, multiracial, and People of Color who hold white privilege should do this work as well, while noting that they will need to adjust the questions to better fit their experience as a person who holds white privilege but is not white.

Even if it was just to myself, I opened up in ways I haven’t done until now while working through this book. This work is not a 28-day journey, but I do feel like this book has helped me really see myself in ways that I hadn’t ever considered before. One passage in particular on Day 7 has really stuck with me, so I’ll let the author speak for herself:

“I want to remind you that we are not looking for the happy ending, the teachable moment, or the pretty bow at the end of all the learning. We are also not looking for dramatic admissions of guilt or becoming so frozen with shame that you cannot move forward. The aim of this work is not self-loathing. The aim of this work is truth–seeing it, owning it, and figuring out what to do with it.” – Layla F. Saad

What’s on the agenda for next month...

I didn’t get to The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin this month (still waiting patiently for it to arrive), so that’s first on my list for August whenever it lands on my doorstep. I’m also SO excited to finally read my advanced copy of A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne! It will be released on August 11, so look out for that if you loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies as much as I did. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi will be published on August 4th, so I’m looking forward to reading that as soon as my pre-order arrives. I’m also planning to (hopefully) read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, A Burning by Megha Majumdar, and Afterland by Lauren Beukes. What are you reading in August?

P.S. This month on bookstagram, we talked a lot about white readers reviewing books written by BIPOC authors, and as a white woman with a platform where I review books regularly, it's something I've spent hours considering and researching. I ultimately decided to keep reviewing and rating all books I read because of this post by @jjoongie. If you want to read more about this conversation, I suggest you read this, this, and this.

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