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We are nearly at the end of this bizarre year (and I agree with Oscar the Grouch – 2020 can scram). Here’s what I have been reading as we head for a (hopefully) brighter new year:

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change, Maggie Smith
It’s rare that I read the same book twice in a year, but 2020 is unusual (as we all know). I read Maggie’s book back in the spring, reviewed it for Shelf Awareness, and bought myself a finished copy when it came out. I’ve been rereading it slowly since October. (I also bought it for a friend or two for Christmas.) Her notes and essays about loss, hope, despair, divorce, change and moving forward are exactly what I need right now.

A Winter Kiss on Rochester Mews, Annie Darling
It’s December in London, and pastry chef Mattie and bookshop manager Tom, both of whom hate Christmas, are not pleased with their colleagues’ merriment. But as the bookshop struggles toward Christmas – helped along by record snow, staffing problems and a very pregnant (and neurotic) owner – Mattie and Tom are forced to band together to help the shop survive. A sweet, witty British rom-com with great characters and dialogue. An impulse buy at the Booksmith – totally worth it.

The List of Things That Will Not Change, Rebecca Stead
I like Stead’s thoughtful middle-grade novels. This one features Bea, whose dad is getting remarried, and her struggles to welcome her new stepsister, Sonia, and also be sensitive to Sonia’s feelings. Funny and sweet and so real.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
My friend Julie gave me this book years ago, and I reread it nearly every Christmas. It’s a lovely, absorbing story of five people who find themselves in a Scottish village at Christmastime. I love living in it for a few weeks every December.

A Deception at Thornecrest, Ashley Weaver
Preparing to welcome her first child, Amory Ames is shocked when several visitors, including a previously unknown relative, show up on her doorstep. Then two suspicious deaths happen in the village, and Amory – as always – can’t resist a bit of sleuthing. A fun mystery, but not as compelling as some of the others in this series.

A Promised Land, Barack Obama
I love a thoughtful, compelling political memoir, and I truly enjoyed the first volume of Obama’s presidential memoirs. Clear-eyed and compassionate, with flashes of humor and so much fascinating behind-the-scenes info. I learned a lot about his first term, and gained even more respect for the man himself and many of his colleagues.

Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way, Caseen Gaines
In the 1920s, Broadway was lily-white, and Black performers were often relegated to vaudeville. Shuffle Along, the first all-Black show to hit Broadway, helped transform the industry. Gaines meticulously tells the story of the show, its creators and its afterlife. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 25).

The Hiding Place, Paula Munier
Mercy Carr’s third adventure finds her digging into the cold case that haunted her sheriff grandfather (now long dead). When the man who shot him breaks out of prison, and Mercy’s grandmother is kidnapped, Mercy and game warden Troy Warner (and their dogs) must act fast to solve the case and save several lives. I like this fast-paced mystery series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 30).

Links (not affiliate links) are to Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We’re halfway through December of the strangest year ever. As always, I’m reading – albeit sporadically, these days. Here’s the latest roundup:

Why We Swim, Bonnie Tsui
Swimming attracts and fascinates humans the world over, and Tsui (an avid swimmer and surfer) explores some of the history, science and psychology behind why. I loved her interviews with famous swimmers like Dara Torres, and her personal stories of swimming from childhood to now. Recommended by Libby Page, whose newsletter is the cheeriest thing lately.

Mimi Lee Gets a Clue, Jennifer J. Chow
Mimi Lee has finally opened her own pet-grooming business, Hollywoof – and things get interesting right away, with a talking cat named Marshmallow, a murdered Chihuahua breeder, and a cute young lawyer. An impulse buy at the Harvard Book Store – totally ridiculous and really fun.

Killer Content, Olivia Blacke
Odessa Dean is enjoying her summer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, house-sitting for her aunt and waitressing at a local bookstore/cafe. But when one of her coworkers ends up dead (coinciding with a flash mob gone wrong), Odessa begins nosing around for clues. Fast-paced and funny, with a great setting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 2).

The Soul of a Woman, Isabel Allende
Bestselling novelist Allende is a passionate feminist, and this slim memoir details her own experiences as a woman and her beliefs about women’s value, worth and power. She is charmingly cranky, often wryly funny and makes a cogent case for putting women in charge. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2).

The Next Great Jane, K.L. Going
Jane Brannen, aspiring novelist, is thrilled when a real live writer moves to her tiny Maine town. But the author’s son is so annoying, and Jane’s mostly-absent mother turns up unexpectedly, with her filmmaker fiance in tow. A super fun middle-grade novel and a sweet homage to Jane Austen. Recommended by Anne.

Hardball, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski, private eye, picks up a 40-year-old missing-persons case right as her young cousin shows up in Chicago to work on a political campaign. Of course, they are connected, and Paretsky weaves in race, class and Chicago history. This one was powerful and intense – especially the ending – and so good.

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
Christmas is coming in Mitford, and Father Tim ends up restoring a derelict Nativity scene as a surprise for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, change is afoot at Happy Endings Books, and various townspeople are getting ready for Christmas. I love revisiting this book every year.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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Suddenly, it’s the end of November – I’ve been squeezing in books between NaNoWriMo and Thanksgiving cooking. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
This book had been on my TBR for a long time. It consists of two letters written in 1963: one to Baldwin’s nephew James, about being a Black man in America, and one to the nation, about his experiences mingled with the history of Black people in the U.S. Some parts are intensely focused on issues of the moment (e.g. the Black Muslim movement), but so much of it is painfully true today. Blistering and essential.

Dear Miss Kopp, Amy Stewart
It’s 1918 and the three Kopp sisters are doing their bit for the war: Constance as an intelligence agent, Fleurette as a touring performer in army camps, and Norma running her pigeon messenger program in France. The sisters’ sixth adventure is entirely epistolary, and it’s witty, wry and so much fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 12).

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder, Jodi Picoult et al.
My guy lent me this comic a while ago; I am not a huge comic reader, but I love Wonder Woman. This story features Diana trying to save humanity from a diabolical plot and going head-to-head with her own mother. Action-packed and also thought-provoking.

Watch Us Rise, Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan
Chelsea and Jasmine are fed up with the sexism (and racism, and fat-shaming) at their NYC high school, so they start a club focused on elevating women’s voices. But some of their words and methods get them into trouble. An inspiring (if slightly didactic) YA novel about learning to speak up and be truly inclusive.

Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle, Hilda Eunice Burgos
Aspiring pianist Ana Maria Reyes is practicing for a scholarship audition, but her sisters are driving her crazy and her mami is going to have another baby. A family trip to the Dominican Republic and some other events help change her perspective a bit. I loved watching Anamay (as her family calls her) grow as a character.

The Library of Lost Things, Laura Taylor Namey
Darcy Jane Wells spends most of her time reading, and the rest of it trying to cope with her mother’s hoarding. But a new on-site apartment manager and a new boy upend her carefully constructed world. A sweet, literary YA novel. My favorite parts were Darcy’s best friend, Marisol, and the wig shop next door to the bookstore where Darcy works.

Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World, Kathryn Aalto
I loved this collection of 25 mini-biographies of female nature writers, from Dorothy Wordsworth to Leslie Marmon Silko to multiple contemporary authors I hadn’t heard of. Lyrical, lovely, informative and made my TBR explode (in a good way).

Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am, Julia Cooke
In the golden age of flying, Pan Am stewardesses were a potent symbol of independence, glamour and sexual empowerment. But they were also real women, with varied backgrounds and experiences. Cooke explores the rise and fall of Pan Am against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, with first-person interviews from several former stewardesses. Fascinating. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2).

Recommended for You, Laura Silverman
Shoshanna Greenberg really needs to earn the bonus being offered to the highest-earning bookseller at her job. But the new hire, Jake, is annoyingly good at selling books – even though he doesn’t read. A cute YA romance (though Shoshanna drove me crazy sometimes) with a wonderful cast of diverse, warmhearted friends and family.

Earth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World, Kathleen Dean Moore
Moore (mentioned in Aalto’s collection, above) is an avid lover of the natural world and its songs: those of bird, bear, ocean, lake, glacier, grasses and more. This collection of new and selected essays renders her love for nature in striking detail, and urgently calls for its protection against fossil fuels, overdevelopment and other ills. Passionate, vivid and thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 16).

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Frugal Books and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We’re nearly halfway through November, which so far has included gorgeous weather, serious election stress and (more) pandemic uncertainty. Here’s what I have been reading:

Julieta and the Diamond Enigma, Luisana Duarte Armendariz
Nine-year-old Julieta is so excited – she gets to go to Paris to help her dad bring some valuable pieces from the Louvre back to Boston. But then a rare diamond is stolen. Julieta tries to help catch the thief – but she seems to make things worse. A cute middle-grade mystery with fun details about Paris and Boston (Julieta’s parents both work at the MFA).

This is My Brain in Love, I.W. Gregorio
Jocelyn Wu is trying to save her family’s Chinese restaurant from failure. Will Domenici just needs a summer job. But when he becomes Jocelyn’s first employee, they become friends – and maybe something more. A witty, sweet YA novel with two protagonists who both struggle with their mental health.

The Last Garden in England, Julia Kelly
When garden designer Emma Lovell is hired to restore the gardens at Highbury House, she unearths not only overgrown plants, but secrets: some related to the house and its family, some to the garden’s original designer, Venetia Smith. An engaging multi-timeline story about strong women fighting to make their own choices: Emma in 2021, Venetia in 1907, and three different women during World War II. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 12).

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, Holly Jackson
Pippa Fitz-Amobi has never believed that Sal Singh killed his girlfriend, Andie Bell. So when she needs a senior capstone project, she launches her own murder investigation with the help of Sal’s brother, Ravi. This was very Veronica Mars (though Pippa often has terrible judgment) – a real nail-biter, but a very effective distraction from election news.

Some Places More Than Others, Renee Watson
Amara is dying to go visit her dad’s family in Harlem for her 12th birthday – she’s never been to NYC, or met her cousins. But once she gets there, she has to deal with some unexpected friction. I loved this sweet middle-grade story about family, forgiveness and finding yourself in a new place.

Birds by the Shore, Jennifer Ackerman
I found this essay collection in September at the beautiful Bookstore of Gloucester. Ackerman shares quiet, keen-eyed observations about the wildlife (birds, yes, but also fish, crabs, invertebrates) and shifting microclimate of the Delaware shore. A little slow, but worthwhile.

Finding Refuge, Michelle Cassandra Johnson
Our society tends to see grief as an individual, linear process–but it has collective aspects, too, and it’s much messier than that. Johnson shares some of her own story and practices around processing grief. I applaud her premise, but the writing style was hard for me to follow (could be election brain). Includes meditations/journaling prompts. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 12).

Fire Sale, Sara Paretsky
When V.I. Warshawski gets roped into (temporarily) coaching the girls’ basketball team at her old high school, she’s drawn into a web of other problems: poverty, teenage pregnancy, unsavory conditions at a couple of local manufacturing plants. This entry was intense (I shouldn’t have read it before bed!), but so compelling. I love this series.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Frugal Books and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We’ve made it to Friday, and nearly to November – and it’s snowing, y’all. I’m joining my friend Jess in her #votedearlyreadathon to stay away from scrolling the news. Here’s what I have been reading:

Heather and Homicide, Molly MacRae
MacRae’s fourth Highland Bookshop mystery takes us back to Inversgail, where a true-crime writer is sniffing around a recent murder case. Heather (the writer) is likable, but odd – and when she’s found dead, both the police and the women who own the local bookshop have questions. A so-so plot, but I like retired librarian Janet Marsh and her colleagues. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 1).

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow
Anne and others recommended this lushly written fantasy novel about January, a girl who discovers a Door to another world, which might also hold clues to her own history. The world-building is fun, but I found January really irritating, and the action took a while to pick up. Still enjoyable. Found at the Book Shop of Beverly Farms.

The Chanel Sisters, Judithe Little
Before Coco Chanel became a famous designer, she was simply Gabrielle: one of three sisters abandoned by their peddler father and left at a convent. Narrated by Gabrielle’s younger sister, Antoinette, this novel follows the girls as they struggle to make their own way, eventually opening Chanel Modes in Paris. I didn’t know anything about Ninette, but I enjoyed her voice. An engaging, sometimes tragic novel full of romance, fashion and gritty hard work. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 29).

Stella by Starlight, Sharon M. Draper
Stella mostly likes living in Bumblebee, North Carolina: she and her friends make their own fun, and stay away from the white folks. But then she spots a burning cross in the night, and her father and his friends are determined to go register to vote. Stella is a budding (if ambivalent) writer, and she tries to make sense of what she sees through words. Similar setting and thematic ground to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and full of warmth and heart.

Blacklist, Sara Paretsky
In the wake of 9/11, V.I. Warshawski accepts a simple-sounding surveillance job for a regular client’s elderly mother. But then she finds a dead black man – a reporter – in a nearby pond, and stumbles onto a nest of secrets. One of Paretsky’s most compelling novels yet: so much here about keeping up appearances, giving in to fear, racial profiling and more. Some startling parallels to our current moment.

Eat Joy: Stories & Comfort Food from 31 Celebrated Writers, ed. Natalie Eve Garrett
I can’t remember where I heard about this essay collection, but I adored it. Thirty-one writers (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Anthony Doerr) share childhood favorites, the foods that got them through grief and divorce and transition, and simple favorites. Warm and funny and delicious (with recipes!).

The Book of Longings, Sue Monk Kidd
“I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus.” This declaration begins Monk Kidd’s latest absorbing novel, which is lovely and wise and full of well-drawn characters, including Ana, her aunt Yaltha, her adopted brother Judas, and Jesus himself. This version of Jesus is fascinating and utterly human – and I loved Ana and her stalwart female friends.

Our Darkest Night, Jennifer Robson
I adore Robson’s novels about strong women in wartime, and devoured this one in a day. Antonina, a young Venetian Jewish woman, must pose as a Christian farmer’s wife to escape the Nazis. I especially loved watching Nina make friends with Rosa, her “husband’s” prickly sister, and discover her own strength. Powerful and at times heartbreaking. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 5).

Love is All Around: And Other Lessons We’ve Learned from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Paula Bernstein
I am a longtime Mary Tyler Moore fan (I went through a serious phase a few years ago). I saw this book on the Bookshelf Thomasville’s Instagram feed and ordered it from them. It’s a fun, heartwarming look at how the show was a pioneer in its era of TV, the close-knit relationships among the characters, and the inspiration we all draw from Mary’s spunk and gumption (and very human struggles).

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident (which has a brand new website!), Frugal Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith. Support indie bookstores!

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We’re halfway through October, and while I’ve been running (and writing about running), I’ve also been reading. Here’s the latest roundup:

Total Recall, Sara Paretsky
V.I. Warshawski’s 10th adventure finds her investigating a man who says he’s a Holocaust survivor. Worried by the man’s behavior and its distressing effect on her friends Max and Lotty, V.I. tries to figure out if he’s legit. This one dragged a bit, though the historical angle was interesting.

The Secrets of Bones, Kylie Logan
Cadaver dog trainer and admin assistant Jazz Ramsey is stunned when one of her demonstrations turns up a real body. She begins investigating the skeleton, which may belong to a former colleague. This was an engaging enough mystery plot, but not as good as Jazz’s previous adventure.

The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found, Karina Yan Glaser
It’s fall in Harlem and the Vanderbeeker kids are caught off guard when the mysterious person sleeping in the garden shed turns out to be a friend of theirs. I love this series; this installment is sweet and funny, and a thoughtful take on a complicated situation faced by a lot of children. (I scored some fun swag since I pre-ordered my copy from NYC’s Books of Wonder. Support indie bookstores!)

Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, Julie Andrews with Emma Walton Hamilton
I’ve loved Julie Andrews’ work since I was a little girl; The Sound of Music is one of my all-time faves. This memoir covers Andrews’ early years in Hollywood (including Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) and her next two decades in film, plus her marriage to brilliant, mercurial director Blake Edwards. Warm, charming and really fun for Andrews fans.

Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers, Tessa Arlen
Aspiring screenwriter Poppy Redfern is sent to an airfield to interview several “Attagirls” – female pilots. But when two of the squad’s most experienced members die in crashes, Poppy and her American beau, Griff, suspect foul play. I love a British mystery and this one was really fun. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 1).

West Wind, Mary Oliver
It’s no secret I’m an Oliver fan, and these poems/prose poems are lovely and luminous and tinged with melancholy. I especially love “Morning Walk” and the last one, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches.”

How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi
This is definitely one of the books of 2020 – I’ve been working on it for two months. Kendi shares his own story of coming to grips with his internalized anti-Black racism, along with defining and exploring terms like assimilationist, segregationist, etc. It gets dense at times, but is strong and thought-provoking. It’s increasingly clear to me that racism goes far beyond overt harmful acts, and it’s up to all of us to reckon with that.

The Last Mrs. Summers, Rhys Bowen
Newlywed Lady Georgiana O’Mara (nee Rannoch) is at a loose end when her husband is traveling. But her best friend Belinda turns up and they take off down to Cornwall together, to look at a property Belinda has inherited. Before long, they find themselves staying at the local great house and caught up in a murder mystery. A fun homage to Rebecca and an engaging entry in this series.

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos
I love de los Santos’ warm, thought-provoking novels about family, and I loved revisiting this one. It is the story of Taisy and Willow, estranged sisters who finally discover each other (and themselves), but it’s about more than that: love and second chances and the stories we tell about our lives. So good.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: TridentFrugal Bookstore and Brookline Booksmith.

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My antiracist reading list this summer includes some of the usual suspects (White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, among others). But just as crucially, I’ve been spending time with Mildred D. Taylor’s Logan family.

Outspoken, whip-smart Cassie Logan entered my life in the fourth grade, when I first discovered her story in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Unusually for Depression-era Mississippi, Cassie’s tightly knit Black family owned their land, and the book tells of a year when they fought to keep it. I adore Cassie and her brothers, their no-nonsense grandma and their wise, thoughtful parents. I remember extensive classroom discussions about racism, and it was also important for me to encounter a Black protagonist who was not a slave.

Back then, I also read and loved Taylor’s powerful sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken. I’ve reread both books this summer, and they are as rich and compelling now as they were 25 years ago. But there’s more to their story, and I’ve been relishing and learning from the new-to-me chapters of the Logan family saga.

Taylor’s 2001 prequel, The Land, chronicles the childhood of Cassie’s biracial grandfather, Paul-Edward Logan, and his quest to acquire his own land. Born to a plantation owner and a slave woman, Paul-Edward has to reckon with his heritage and make his own way, and he does both with strength and spirit. I also picked up The Road to Memphis, which follows the teenage Cassie, her brother Stacey and several friends as they spirit a friend out of town after a racially charged altercation with three white men. (Bonus: the reissued paperbacks feature covers by 2020 Caldecott Medalist Kadir Nelson, who recently illustrated a New Yorker cover featuring George Floyd.)

Taylor’s concluding Logan novel, All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, picks up Cassie’s story in adulthood. She travels the country as part of the postwar Great Migration, finds both love and grief in California, and goes back home to Mississippi to participate in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Taylor returns to her perennial themes of justice, equality, fierce pride and the Logans’ deep love for their land and one another. Their strength and dignity in the face of discrimination are a potent reminder that Black people have suffered long enough: it’s time for white Americans to do better.

I originally wrote most of this column for Shelf Awareness, where it ran last week. I love the Logans and I highly recommend these books for older kids and adults alike. 

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We’re deep into summer heat and summer reading over here. Here’s what I have been reading:

From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Janae Marks
My friend Kari recommended this middle-grade novel, narrated by aspiring baker Zoe, who begins writing to her incarcerated birth father. She has lots of questions for him, and becomes determined to clear his name. I loved Zoe’s narrative voice and the other characters, especially her grandma. Bonus: it’s set in Boston/Cambridge and contains many references to neighborhoods I know well.

Dead Land, Sara Paretsky
Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski gets caught up in a tangled case involving two murders, a mass shooting several years before, a plan to redevelop some public lakeshore property, and a mentally ill homeless woman who might hold the keys to all of it. This is Paretsky’s 20th Warshawski novel but the first I’d read; I really enjoyed both the plot and V.I.’s smart, snarky voice.

Infused: Adventures in Tea, Henrietta Lovell
Lovell is the founder of the Rare Tea Company, and this charming memoir chronicles her journeys to source and brew the best teas. Each brief chapter focuses on one tea/location, and they’re packed with travel anecdotes and useful information about all kinds of tea. Found at Three Lives & Co. during my last NYC trip, back in January.

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, Sarah Smarsh
Dolly Parton is indisputably a cultural icon, but there’s more to her than rhinestones and big boobs and twang. Smarsh delves into Parton’s long career, her business empire and her smart-but-subtle feminism, adding anecdotes from her own life that help illuminate Parton’s appeal. I loved Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, and this is a strong follow-up. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 13).

Not Like the Movies, Kerry Winfrey
Chloe Sanderson is used to taking care of everything: her coffee-shop job, her online business classes, her dad (who has early-onset Alzheimer’s). But since her best friend Annie wrote a rom-com inspired by Chloe’s life, it’s getting harder to hold things together. I loved this sequel to Waiting for Tom Hanks, which forces Chloe to confront her past pain and is also a sweet love story with great characters.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
A friend lent me this classic memoir, which I’d never read. Angelou chronicles her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, the trauma of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend in St. Louis, and her eventual move to California. Vivid and arresting, with lots of colorful characters, including Angelou’s family.

Indemnity Only, Sara Paretsky
After enjoying Dead Land, I went back to read V.I. Warshawski’s first adventure. It involves a missing college girl, her murdered boyfriend, crooked union men, insurance fraud and lots of wisecracks. A solid mystery and a good setup for the series.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Brookline Booksmith and Frugal Books.

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Earlier this summer, I spoke with Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, cohosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. Longtime friends and media professionals who live on opposite coasts, they explore the phenomenon of “Big Friendship” through their own experience in their first book, Big Friendship, which came out this week.

I loved talking with Ann and Aminatou about the joys and challenges of friendship for Shelf Awareness, and I want to buy their book for half a dozen of my female friends. In celebration of the book’s publication, here are some excerpts from our conversation:

You’ve been co-hosting Call Your Girlfriend since 2014, so you are known on the Internet for being friends. How does your book explore friendship–specifically yours–in different ways than the podcast?

Aminatou Sow: Like many of our collaborations, none of it is calculated. The book asks: What does life look like when the people at the center of your life are your friends? That’s a meta-conversation the two of us have been having for a long time. We wrote this book as a way of explaining our own relationship to each other, but also opening up a robust conversation around what it means to really choose your friends and have them be vital parts of your lives.

Early in your friendship, you created a “story of sameness,” and later, you discuss the need to upend that narrative. 

Ann Friedman: The term “story of sameness” belongs to the linguist Deborah Tannen. We didn’t even realize, early on in our friendship, how we had created this story of all the ways we were similar. Some of it was superficial: we both like to eat dinner at the bar! But it happened very subtly, as part of the larger process of falling in love with each other as friends. We only realized later that we had made a practice of choosing to focus on these similarities. Our ability to recognize and deal with our differences became very important later on.

All friendships go through challenges: discrete moments that cause pain, a gradual growing apart, or a combination of those. You use “stretching” as a metaphor for tough times in a friendship.

AF: The “stretch” is a phrase both of us have uttered when things were difficult, as in, “I’m feeling really stretched by this relationship and what it is asking of me.” I think the metaphor also has a normalizing effect. We understand that our romantic partners are going to hurt us, and there’s emotional support for working through that. But there’s not the same kind of support or expectation for working through conflicts with friends.

AS: We are both words people, and I have real discomfort expressing my negative feelings. I was trying to find the gentlest way to say, “I feel hurt. I don’t want our relationship to end, and I would like to talk about it.” We reach for metaphors to try and explain our feelings.

You also address the challenges of being in a close interracial friendship.

AS: We are a Black and white friendship, which is very different than any other racial pairing. There is a direct correlation between the relationships white people have with Black people and the policy that governs how Black people are treated. It’s a painful reality to understand that if you are not understood in an intimate way in your relationships with white people, it will manifest itself in incredibly dangerous ways with white people whom you do not know, like police officers.

AF: The particular dynamics of interracial friendships for adults are really under-researched. It is also not an experience of close friendship that, statistically, a lot of white people have had. We really wanted to center that in the book, because not having interracial friendships is mainly a white experience. Thinking back to when we talked about stretching: it feels important to normalize conversation about the hard things. Just because you ignore the conversation [about race] doesn’t mean it goes away.

Tell us about the process of writing “every sentence together,” as you say early in the book.

AS: Ann looked up at me toward the end of this project and said, “Wow, we really did this the hard way.”

AF: That was about all our life choices, not just writing the book! [laughter]

AS: [The process] was informed by the way we work on other things. We knew it could not be a book where we wrote in a duelling voice, because we were trying to arrive at a joint truth of what our relationship was. It opened up another line of communication for us to dig through some past incidents and make decisions about the stories we were trying to tell. We would outline, make decisions, go away separately to write about those, come back together and knit them into the text you have. It was really hard! But we are also very practiced at being in conversation together.

AF: It feels really good to me that no one can say “I’m Team Ann” or “I’m Team Aminatou.” And since we were telling a story that feels emotionally risky, this was a way for both of us to feel protected. We could agree on stories to use as examples of bigger themes we are talking about. And there’s a lot of respect for each other: we could say, “I don’t want to tell anything you’re not comfortable sharing.”

AS: Though I want the record to reflect that I am 100% Team Ann.

What would you tell readers who are not sure how to nurture their own Big Friendships, or where to start?

AS: It’s an interesting conversation, because people define for themselves what a Big Friendship is and what it looks like for them. The thing I have learned in writing this book, and in my relationship with Ann, is that communication is very important! So: Talk to the people you’re in Big Friendships with, and define that bond and those values for yourself, because no two friendships look alike.

You can buy Big Friendship wherever books are sold – please consider supporting an independent bookstore. You can also read my full review at Shelf Awareness

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