February ’23 book roundup

Not pictured: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros because I returned it before I remembered to take a group photo.

The shortest month rang in a bit of a slower pace of reading for me, especially compared to the motivation I was feeling last month. I started with a trip to the library where I brought home three books I thought I wanted to read only to discover that my tastes had apparently turned on the drive home. I had an odd feeling of procrastination when it came to starting Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors. I just couldn’t seem to get past the introduction without my mind wandering so I decided to save it for another time. I found myself not even giving The Bookshop on the Corner a proper chance because I knew I wanted something a bit more weighted. I usually love books about books and reading, but I decided to shelf that one again for a later date when I’m in the mood. All of this rambling is to say that of the three books I went home with, only The House on Mango Street called to me, so I answered. I fell in love with the perspective and the unspoken understanding that seems to exist between the reader and the author. After this quick but layered read, I went back to the search for entertainment in a nostalgiac young adult book, the second of a series by Ransom Riggs, titled Hollow City. The second novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy was well written and kept me interested, but it also further confirmed I’m still in the mood for deeper, more nuanced reading experiences at the moment. Which leads to my third and final read of the month, Outlawed by Anna North. This novel seemed to blend the entertainment aspect with the depth of subject I was looking for perfectly. This one was on my list for a while, and I was thoroughly impressed and very satisfied.

February often feels a bit off, like the fulcrum between seasons of weather as well as seasons of life, with a renewed energy promised in a spring peaking around the corner. My reading felt stilted this month, like I tried to plan what my mood would be too far in advance. So cheers to a month of weird pacing and going with the flow! Here are some of my thoughts and reading experiences from February.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street was published in 1984 by Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House Inc. The paperback is 110 pages.

Told in a series of vignettes, The House on Mango Street is experienced through the adolescent eyes of Esperanza Cordero, a young Latina girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago. At only 110 pages, some chapters are only a page or two long, but it’s the simplicity of the language and the implications between what’s written that add deep layers to this story.

In a two-page chapter titled “Four Skinny Trees” Cisneros gifts her reader a perfect description of our narrator:

“Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hair toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep. / Let one forget his reason for being, they’d all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other. Keep, keep keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.  / When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.” (p. 74-75).

The House on Mango Street is a beautiful coming-of-age story that shows the resilience needed to move through this world in a non-white body, especially as a woman. Esperanza observes how things have been and uses this framework to decide for herself the person she will become. Straightforward, powerful moments of reclamation fill the reader with pride as she defines how she will experience this life:

“My mother says when I get older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.” (p. 88)

“I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.” (p. 89)

I’ve found that oftentimes the books with the smallest page count are the ones that leave the deepest impression on their readers. Sandra Cisneros weaves these seemingly disparate chapters together to create a tapestry of all the beauty, unfairness, and confusion of finding your place. The House on Mango Street is a gorgeous homage to what it means to love something and let it go. Esperanza often talks about her daydreams of what life could be, but she maintains a respect and appreciation for where she comes from even as she turns her back to it in order to get where she’s going. She notes that the writing of this story helps the ghost of her past ache less. The house and her childhood will always be a part of her, a part she will carry with her with pride and shame and sadness and gratitude.

“Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after. / Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” (p. 108).

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Hollow City was published in 2014 by Quirk books. The hardcover is 396 pages.

Hollow City picks up where the first book of the series leaves off – with our band of misfit Peculiar Children running for their lives in search of a way to fix their beloved ymbryne (a mentor/caretaker of sorts) Miss Peregrine. Each child in the group is host to their own talents which make them Peculiar: Horace – the boy who sees premonitions of the future, Olive – the girl lighter than air that would float away if not for her lead shoes, Emma – the unspoken leader of the pack who can create fire with her hands, Hugh – a boy who can control bees, Fiona – a girl who commands nature and the plants, Millard – the invisible boy, Claire – a girl with an extra mouth on the back of her head, Enoch – a boy who can briefly animate the dead, Bronwyn – a girl with unusual physical strength, and our protagonist – an American boy named Jacob who’s grandfather’s past connections with the peculiar children brought him into the adventure of a lifetime. It’s discovered in the first book that Jacob’s peculiar talent is sensing the presence of hollowgast – terrible creatures hell bent on kidnapping all ymbrynes, including their beloved Miss Peregrine, who is stuck in bird form until and unless the kids can get her to London where the last free ymbryne is hiding. Through a series of obstacles and setbacks, this ragtag group must work together if they have any hope of survival.

The entire Peculiar Children series seem to be the elaborate response to the simplest writing prompt of “look at this picture and build a story around it”. Instead of the story being built around a single image however, it feels as though the bones of the story existed and the vintage found photos work to fill in the gaps with specific details that give the story its true peculiarity. What I enjoy most about these books are the sense of nostalgia they bring forth from reading experiencing of my childhood. Echoes of A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and even The Chronicles of Narnia series blend with more “adult” elements akin to a Tim Burton movie or the Harry Potter series. On the other side of the spectrum, I also saw elements of Wes Andersen movies like Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel. There is adventure and misfortune and moments of sweetness sprinkled throughout that keep the reader invested and emotionally involved for the entire ride.

Set in the present but subject to change depending on the temporality of the time loop the children inhabit, Riggs uses the second World War as an integral part of the story, set at times in 1940s London. I appreciated how the author incorporating the war without treating it as simply an interesting plot point. “The sirens droned on, a soprano counterpoint to the bonbs’ relentless bass, their pitch so eerily human it sounded like every soul in London had taken to their rooftops to cry out collective despair.” (p. 268). This line works to capture the horrors, sadness, hopelessness and destruction of the war; a moment of recognition for the incalculable suffering so many people endured woven amongst a fantastical story of impossible circumstances.

Hollow City is well written and the found photos add a unique element that matches the tone of the entire series – weird, interesting, exciting, confusing, and an entire menagerie of other descriptions. The pacing of the story felt a bit elongated at times, but a series of plot twists pile up over the last 50 pages or so that take the story in an unexpected direction. I enjoyed this second book almost as much as the first and will probably read the third book at some point to see what those little freaks are up to.

Outlawed by Anna North

Outlawed was published in 2021 by Bloomsbury Publishing. The hardcover is 261 pages.

This feminist Western was everything I needed it to be. It’s also another Reese’s Book Club pick which I think I just have to lean into at this point – Reese Witherspoon knows what the people want. This was also another book judged by its cover that luckily turned out to be a good call. Outlawed follows 18-year-old Ada as she navigates the deadly sexism and misogyny of the 1800’s Western Christian landscape. Born into the inherited knowledge of her mother, a master midwife, Ada’s passion lies in re-educating the misguided people that have blindly accepted a twisted version of life as a woman. North’s story is listed as adventure fiction, and it lives up to its categorization. I read it in 3 days, and it would’ve been quicker had I not had pesky work get in the way. The story felt like an amalgamation of the energy of Kissin Kate Barlow from Holes, Thelma and Louise, and the controlled chaos wild, wild west of 1894. Ada’s story is layered with the stories of every other woman who’s been wrongfully punished for being born the wrong gender. There are moments of enlightenment for Ada that highlight her lack of worldliness, but even she is able to quickly understand the passion and rage that comes with hearing the lived experiences of women.

Peppered throughout are lines that feel so powerful you have to read it twice and then a third time to soak it all in. “But now, the gun smooth and heavy in my grip, I felt like Justice herself, the blindfolded woman who stood cast in bronze outside the courthouse in Fairchild. I would not sentence barren women to die like Judge Hammond, whose mind was addled by drink and age and who did whatever the mayor and the sheriff told him to do. My gun would protect the innocent. I would be dangerous only to the wicked.” (p. 63).

Outlawed captures one woman’s response to the gross and deadly injustice of being a woman going against the grain. North creates characters who contain multitudes even as they withhold their secrets for their own self-preservation. Anna North is also the author to America Pacifica and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, both of which will be added to the “when I get around to it” list of books to read.

And that’ll do it, my friends. Eager to keep the books rolling, I started one of my March books a bit early, Rest is Resistance by Tracey Hersey, and also picked up Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, author of Heaven. I look forward to sharing some more of my thoughts on books with you next month and as always, happy reading!


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