Family Life

Joyful Reads from November

Hello! I’m Joy, and I love to read. I consider it my greatest talent and favorite hobby. Another one of my preferred pastimes is recommending reads to anyone who is the least bit curious. Seriously. I am always volunteering book recs to people near me, whether they ask or not. I thought it would be fun to bring this passion to Baton Rouge Parents Magazine. I will share with you every book I read month by month and what I think about them. You can also follow me on Instagram at @joyfulreadswithjoy! 


Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead 
Colson Whitehead is an immersive historical fiction storyteller who captures his characters so well in their respective times. Since I loved Underground Railroad, and I have an obsession with the 1960s and New York, I thought this would be a slam dunk. However, Harlem Shuffle was a steep and slow build. Once I got to the third act though, the plot accelerated rapidly. It took me nearly two weeks to move through the first two thirds, but the end was worth it.

Ray Carney is the son of a bonafide crook in 1950s Harlem. He is determined to make it as a straight businessman, but sometimes his side hustle as a fence is too appealing. A fence for stolen goods either receives stolen goods and sells them for a profit or acts as a middle man between thieves and buyers of stolen goods. As Carney gets entangled in one fiasco after another, he accepts that even though he may appear to be on the up and up, he’ll always be a little bent. Carney and his cousin Freddie get mixed up in heists, revenge, and bungled burglaries. Carley takes us through the changes in Harlem and the rest of New York from 1959-1965. This novel would make a stunning streaming series. I would love to see the time period and characters brought to the screen. 

I really enjoyed the development of Carney and the changes in Harlem. Whitehead’s nuance of Black History including Black businesses, shakedowns by white police, his wife’s green book travel company, PTSD, police brutality, Harlem riots, classism, and striving for the American Dream  is remarkable. For me, the beginning was a little slow, but I appreciated the writing. I admire Whitehead and his prose, but this wasn’t a page turner that sucked me in until more than halfway through. I’m not really a crime novel or mystery reader, and I mostly read female authors and female-driven stories, so maybe this one wasn’t for me. Still a quality read.

This Will All Be Over Soon by Cecily Strong 
First, I must say that I was already a pretty big fan of Cecily because of her genius work on Saturday Night Live. She is a wonder. Second, I heard her interviewed on Fresh Air about this memoir, and I had been wanting to read it for awhile. Third, this was a perfect digital read on my phone the last couple of days, and I’m so glad I downloaded it from Libby. This was also my first nonfiction November read.

Cecily Strong is writing about grief in this memoir compiled of journal entries, chiefly about losing her dear cousin to Glioblastoma after his thirtieth birthday. However, his death also occurs in January of 2020, and the grief mounts on Strong as Covid rages in New York. Her new boyfriend gets Covid in the early days, and she has to quarantine while she battles depression. Strong and a couple of friends then move to Upstate New York to be in nature as the city is shut down. She writes so much about mental health, anxiety, depression, family, hope, devastation, and renewal as she chronicles 2020 from her point of view. Although she is writing from a place of current grief, Strong contemplates many seminal moments in her life with authentic vulnerability.

It’s no surprise Cecily Strong is a great writer, but I did not expect such raw honesty about her life and reflections. This is the first book I’ve read that centers on the pandemic, and I found it was like a time capsule that completely captured the emotional stages so many of us went through and are still going through. After reading about so many of the losses Strong has experienced, I am even more appreciative of her brilliant, no-holds-barred comedy. This memoir is insightful and an incredible testament to loving family and the brutal process of losing family.

In the Weeds by Tom Vitale
Background: I started watching No Reservations so many years ago on the Travel Channel, and I looked up to Anthony Bourdain so much. I then watched Parts Unknown on CNN, fascinated by the remote places Bourdain visited and his narration about people, food, culture, and life. I tried to watch him every time he was on Top Chef or another show. His untimely death was shocking and so sad for me and so many others. This book appealed to me because it offered a look behind the camera and the reality of all those episodes.

Tom Vitale was the director of 100 episodes with Anthony Bourdain all over the world. He was responsible for planning each episode, putting out fires, arranging all the details, getting the shots, and managing Tony and his extremes. Vitale writes this book as a way of processing Tony’s suicide and their complicated relationship. Tony’s devastating death caused an abrupt end to Vitale’s career and forced him to reflect on nearly 20 years of travel and dysfunction. Vitale tells his story of crazy intense moments, his complex relationship with Bourdain, his own personal doubts and insecurities, and his grief in losing a friend, mentor, and hero.

My thoughts: Vitale is struggling while writing this. His voice is laced with pain and confusion. This book is really a vulnerable account of a person dealing with the suicide of a friend. Amid the entertaining and tense recollections of adventures with the crew and the pressure of pleasing Tony, Vitale reveals his depression and bewilderment during the grieving process. I found his writing to be beautiful in places and darkly candid in others. I have been interested in travel for years, and I loved reading about all of the crew’s discoveries and disasters. However, In the Weeds did illuminate how difficult filming those shows were and the toll all the travel took on the individuals involved. I’m so glad I read this, though I can’t say much is resolved, which is authentic and true about losing someone you love to suicide.

Warning: suicide is a major part of this book.

Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu 
This was a very personal read for me. I have been a supporter of Rachel Held Evans (RHE) for several years. I’ve read all but one of her books, followed her on social media, listened to her sermons, and even participated in the launch of Inspired, her second to last book. Her death in 2019 was devastating. I looked to her as such a role model of seeking and searching for her faith. I treasured her brilliant research and sharp wit. This book, Wholehearted Faith, is her unfinished manuscript that she was writing at the time of her unexpected death. Jeff Chu, a close friend and fellow writer, pieced this beautiful patchwork together from her pages and assorted notes. I was so happy but also just really sad to read it.

RHE writes with such a gentle touch in this one, and she really holds up the Christian faith to the light in a marveling, wondering way. Her main point is to love God and believe in Jesus, to be wholehearted, messy, real, and loving. To make this argument, she uses Brené Brown’s teaching on vulnerability and imperfection, as well as a host of other philosophers, theologians, rabbis, and thinkers. What I really loved was her relentless mission to believe even when it’s hard. She is famous for two sayings: “on the days that I believe,” and “The story of Jesus is the one I am still willing to be wrong about.” She embraces questioning and doubt, frustration and fear. She challenges us to be authentic and honest like the Psalmists, to love others even when it’s hard, and to let our faith be a journey. I loved her chapter on Mary and the Magnificat. Gosh, there’s just so much more. It’s beyond any trite or cliche Christianese.

Having struggled the past couple of years in my faith and finding a place to belong, this was a great comfort to me, a balm of gentle kindness, nudging me to seek God again in new ways. I can’t really rate it. It just means too much. I underlined and annotated more than half of it. I am so grateful. Thank you, Jeff Chu. Thank you, Rachel. 

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