Let’s read!

Y’all, I am so excited about this month’s Fantastic Strangelings Book Club pick. Ready? (If you aren’t already a member I am officially inviting you because we have new spots open this month and our Spring books are amazing. Click here to join.)

It’s When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.

Wait. Let me tempt you even further.

A mythic love story set in Trinidad, Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s radiant debut introduces two unforgettable outsiders brought together by their connection with the dead.

In the old house on a hill, where the city meets the rainforest, Yejide’s mother is dying. She is leaving behind a legacy that now passes to Yejide: one St Bernard woman in every generation has the power to shepherd the city’s souls into the afterlife. But after years of suffering her mother’s neglect and bitterness, Yejide is looking for a way out.

Raised in the countryside by a devout Rastafarian mother, Darwin has always abided by the religious commandment not to interact with death. He has never been to a funeral, much less seen a dead body. But when the only job he can find is grave digging, he must betray the life his mother built for him in order to provide for them both. Newly shorn of his dreadlocks and his past, and determined to prove himself, Darwin finds himself adrift in a city electric with possibility and danger.

    Yejide and Darwin will meet inside the gates of Fidelis, an ancient and sprawling cemetery, where the dead lie uneasy in their graves and a reckoning with fate beckons them both. A masterwork of lush imagination and exuberant storytelling, When We Were Birds is a spellbinding and hopeful novel about inheritance, loss, and love’s seismic power to heal.

SO GOOD.

And if you, like me, need more than one book to get you through the month here are the books coming out in March that I read and loved:

Never Simple by Liz Scheir (a darkly funny and heartbreaking memoir ala The Glass Castle)

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire (Poems of migration, womanhood, trauma and resilience)

Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America’s First Serial Killer Family by Susan Jonusas (Did you know that in the late 1800s an ENTIRE FAMILY OF SERIAL KILLERS were just hanging out in Kansas? BECAUSE IT WAS NEWS TO ME.)

It Eats What Feeds It by Max Hoven (a quick gothic horror romp – can horror be a romp? I say yes – graphic novel)

The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller (Necromancers and brothels. It’s a weird combo, but it works.)

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman (If you’re a Gaiman fan you’ve probably already stumbled on this warm-hearted short story about a little old lady finding the Holy Grail at a thrift store but story is reimagined in graphic novel form with the most gorgeous illustrations by Colleen Doran.)

And one more fantastic surprise to end with, Elizabeth Macneal, author of our February book is going to join us for a free zoom on March 19th to talk about Circus of Wonders so just check your emails to RSVP. As always, no worries if you haven’t finished the book because there are no rules in book club and the discussions and YouTube videos always stay open if you want to drop in later. But if you have read Circus of Wonders and can’t wait to discuss it I’m going to open up discussion on the facebook page right now and if you don’t do facebook you can leave your thoughts in the comments here.

Sending you love and gratitude for all of your incredible support. We recently were able to get a warehouse so that we have more room to fill orders and to do more community-based work and we could not have done that without you. I wanted to fill it with bubbles and invite everyone to a silent-disco foam party but apparently that’s not good for the books. Who knew.

Happy reading!

~ Jenny

10 thoughts on “Let’s read!

Read comments below or add one.

  1. Okay, my thoughts on Circus of Wonders.

    HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

    Ooh, I liked this book. The first time I read it I thought that this was a straightforward story but the more I read it (I always read FS picks 3-4 times) the more I found…to the point that I’m possibly seeing things that aren’t even there, but I am a giant sucker for themes and patterns and subliminal circles so here are my thoughts.

    First, I both loved and hated the fact that every single character is complicated…all occasional villains and occasional heroes (some more than others) in a way that would have been easier to digest if it was obvious that the good people did good things and the bad people did bad things but was much more meaningful in that each made decisions that were human and grey and much more realistic.

    The first time I read it I loved it but I wanted to go in and change the ending. To have Toby choose Nellie and Pearl over his brother. (WHY WOULD YOU GO IN FOR JASPER WHEN YOU DIDN’T KNOW IF PEARL AND NELLIE WERE SAFE?) To have Jasper have the true comeuppance he deserved. To have Nellie, Pearl and Toby in a cottage with a blue door where they lived when they weren’t running their own non-exploitative circus and have Dash return after having been left for dead and have changed entirely after going through being a victim and marrying Stella and…yeah. Basically I wanted every unrealistic ending. But this ending was real. And it was both sad, but also hopeful and when you study the true stories behind the sideshow performers of that time they very seldom ended perfectly happily ever after.

    Speaking of which, I loved the stories weaved in about actual human wonders (I’m not going to call them “freaks” even though that’s what many of them called themselves). I have a slight obsession with human wonders and have read so many books on their lives but still found many I’d never heard of. (BTW…If you can find a copy of “Millie-Christine: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” I recommend it.)

    Some of the things I loved:

    How Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein kept creeping into the story, as so many of the characters became the monster or the maker of monsters. In particular, Jasper who considered himself Victor Frankenstein but was the biggest monster of then all. Especially, the line “I was benevolent and good: misery made me a fiend”, which could be applied to almost everyone in some way. Even Jasper and Nellie had unresolved fury that showed up with violent or unhealthy ways because of their own situations. Who is the maker of monsters? Who is the monster? We are. We are both.

    How the Victorian language of flowers was used in the story. Nellie picks violets (symbolizing innocence), Stella sticks a buttercup (symbolizing joy) in her beard to celebrate it, and Nellie imagines Brunette wearing dandelions on her wedding day. Jasper beheads a dandelion clock (symbolizing endurance and happiness). Toby has an entire garden of Eden tattooed on him (symbolizing temptation and man and woman before shame existed). Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

    How timely (and sadly) the Crimean War echoed what is going on today in the world. I read this originally many months ago and it all seems so old and impossible but now…not so much. Especially the way that people use propaganda and cutting off of information to create a false story in war and how you have to rely on true first-hand accounts sometimes rather than on governments or organization who skew what is real for their own benefit. I had no idea that bystanders (particularly women) watched the battles from their voyeuristic picnics, but I suppose it makes sense, as we often can’t look away from the terrible…in much the same was as we (as a society) looked at human wonders as if they were also just entertainment and not real. And as we today do the same sometimes in the way that we can view people who seem unlike us as outsiders or not real.

    One of my favorite recognitions in the book was that Nellie wasn’t treated well by the village but in reading it a second time I saw how she often chose solitude because she wanted to reject them first and in some cases she created her own self-isolation out of fear. The night when she drinks and dances she suddenly is celebrated and Lenny (who was real cowardly dick, don’t get me wrong) finally makes more public the fact that he’s in love with her. It makes me wonder how often we see rejection where it doesn’t exist or where we create it because of our own fears.

    I also loved the idea of chosen families…how the women of the circus banded together time after time and how the circus once run by brothers turned into a circus run by women who called themselves “The Flying Sisters” and how much more potent and healthy that chosen sisterhood was compared to the broken and sad Jupiter brothers.

    I also liked how the idea of “story” is explored here. In the false narratives of propaganda in the war…in the stories made up of the human wonders that made them seem ethereal and thus not real enough for the circus audience to have compassion for them…in the fairy tales that turn wonders into “plain, healed humans” and how Nellie eventually changes those stories to be of plain people who change themselves to be wonders…of how we tell ourselves lies, like when Nellie says she joined the circus willingly even though everyone knew she was kidnapped or how Toby told himself he didn’t feel some relief when he (accidentally?) killed Dash. “Every writer, Nell Thinks, is a thief and a liar.” I think that’s such an interesting idea to explore, especially because as a writer you can take other people’s stories (even if they are your story as well) and in telling even a true story it ignores their agency and perspective, plus it’s never completely true because it’s only the story as you experienced it.

    Okay, I for real thought I only had a paragraph of thoughts here and I’m now I’m babbling and I’m realizing I have too many thoughts. But the good thing is that we’re going to do a zoom call with the author on the 19th (check your emails for details) so we can talk all about this stuff even more.

    Now I’ll shut up. So what did you think?

  2. I can’t die until I’m 347 years old. I need to read ALL the books!

  3. Jennie, I wish I could afford the subscription costs to join the book club. Even so, I appreciate all the reading recommendations.

  4. I can’t believe you didn’t know about the Benders!! I think Karen and Georgia covered them in one of their early shows. Gruesome!! ♥♥♥ Kathryn Hansel

  5. So glad you checked in to the Bender family here in Kansas! Aren’t they crazy?! As a fun side note, the true story of their activities was used as a side storyline in the video game Red Dead Redemption.

  6. Hmmm…. the title is the same as one of my favorite books by Terry Tempest Williams, written several years ago & dealing with her mother’s death. It’s an amazing soaring poetic book, nonfiction, weaving bird lore & wilderness ecology with human witness. Well worth a read.
    Um, there could have been a more thoughtful title.

  7. I just want to thank all my pen pals. I have not returned the favor, sadly my personal life has gotten worse instead of better and my husband and I are separating, of course, he’s the “fun one” even though I am the person who has been to every performance snd on every arts board she is affiliated with because , well, she’s my daughter and awesome. I also am the one who sees the grades and assignments and gently reminds her that one must have a balance. It doesn’t help suicide is on my mind daily, so daddy is the self absorbed superstar. I cry over every note of encouragement. Many of you have literally saved my life. Thank you, and I promise to write back AND pay it forward. Your notes have gotten me out of bed and in a better head space many a day. Bless you

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