Reviews of the Week with Deborah Wiles, Cathy Park Hong, and More!

Every weekday, we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

Rounding out the first month in a new decade are these #ReviewsOfTheWeek, which mix poetry with history, illustrated biography, and revelatory stories of cultural identity.

Monday, January 27

Kent State, by Deborah Wiles

History records that on May 4, 1970, four students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during a campus demonstration against the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. This is the story of that day and the three days of unrest preceding it. Wiles tells her story through unattributed voices of students and townspeople, of National Guardsmen, of Black and white individuals, of all those involved. To differentiate the voices, they are set in various typefaces and arranged on the page in columns, evoking a kind of call-and-response. The voices often meld into a deliberately confusing cacophony, reflecting the lingering uncertainty over certain details of those four days; rumors remain, and it is often forgotten, for example, that nine other students were injured on May 4. Wiles lists their names as well as those of the four who were killed: Sandy Scheuer, Bill Schroeder, Jeff Miller, and Allison Krause.

Tuesday, January 28

With a Star in My Hand: Rubén Darío, Poetry Hero, by Margarita Engle

Engle’s novel in verse tells the life story of Rubén Darío, the famed Niño Poeta (Boy Poet) of Nicaragua. Beginning with his sad and lonely childhood, Engle tells of Darío’s status as an orphan—abandoned by his mother, with no father to speak of. Motivated by anger and emptiness, he poured himself into writing, and the book tells his intriguing rags-to-riches story, written from a believable child perspective. Engle explores Darío’s relationship with words and the effects of abandonment, trauma, grief, and loss on his work. The cyclical nature of events described, as well as the seasons’ change and the rollercoaster of emotions—all based firmly in research—reflect how the poet’s past affected his identity and career. Engle also pays close attention to Darío’s mestizo identity and the importance of utilizing Spanish language, and there is a wonderful section on linework and rhyming patterns and structures, an educational element for young poets trying their hands at redondillas, octavillas, espinelas, and seguidillas.

Wednesday, January 29

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong

Title aside, nothing is minor about Hong’s taut, sharp collection. The award-winning poet’s prose debut will elicit comparisons to contemporary race-conscious luminaries—think Claudine Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Roxane Gay—but Hong’s singular voice expresses both reclamation and declaration: “For as long as I can remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence . . . Asian Americans inhabit a vague purgatorial status: not white enough nor black enough.” Seven stupendous essays mark her journey toward claiming agency. She exposes collective Asian American history and spotlights today’s racially charged complicity in “United.“ She channels Richard Pryor’s raw energy and the manipulations of L.A.’s 1992 race riots in “Stand Up.” She unmasks white fragility in “End of White Innocence,” and she subverts language in “Bad English.” Hong reveals intimate female friendships in “An Education,” confronts the brutal rape and murder of iconic artist Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha in “Portrait of an Artist,” and refuses to be grateful in “The Indebted.”

Thursday, January 30

Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Maris Wicks

Narrated in large part by Mary Cleave, who was among the second group of women admitted to NASA’s astronaut training program, this in-depth and enlightening comic digs into not only the history of women in space but the rigors of the training process in general. There’s a lot here, but Ottaviani and Wicks (Primates, 2013) handle it deftly, bringing humor and clarity to the density of the material. The sequence, for instance, in which Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart testify in a congressional hearing about the importance of including women in the space program is cleverly intercut with scenes of Valentina Tereshkova preparing for her history-making spaceflight. Wicks makes great use of facial expressions—glib mockery from the U.S. senators, frustration on Cobb and Hart—to emphasize just what these women were up against. For all the trail-blazing, however, Ottaviani and Wicks emphasize above all else that the women in these programs are talented pilots and scientists, and they had essential work to do.

Friday, January 31

Homie, by Danez Smith

Following the Lambda Literary Award–winning [insert] Boy (2014) and National Book Award finalist Don’t Call Us Dead (2017) comes Smith’s much-awaited third book, a collection as dazzling as it is bighearted. Navigating through “the dust of the dead,” the enduring violence of white supremacy, and HIV-positive diagnoses, Smith emerges with a love-drunk ode to and celebration of Black culture, queerness, and the redemptive power of friendship. Here, revelry sidles up against immeasurable loss (“tonight the land hums / all our dead’s beautiful bones, so let’s have a party!”), 1990s nostalgia mingles with gospel, and language and imagination both rebuke and reinvent even the darkest corners of reality (“every child singing summer with a red sweet tongue is my president”). In a rallying cry toward the collection’s end, Smith writes, “my poems are fed up & getting violent. /  . . . they say . . . make me a weapon!.”

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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