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2023 Bracket: The First Month (and a bit)

This year, my plan is to document my reading here on this blog. In an attempt to make it unnecessarily weird and competitive, I decided that every time I read 16 books, I will make a tournament bracket and rank them.


Thanks to X + Y but Eugenia Cheng, I now get to think about how this is such an ingressive way to document my reading for the year (competitive, individualistic, zero-sum). But I don’t want to stop. There is something that I value here, and it is indeed congressive (collaborative, inviting, community-oriented). At least in part.


This framework has gotten me writing reviews, which I always mean to do more of. And the “hardest brackets" convention allow me to say not only that two books are both WONDERFUL...but also to notice when two books that I just happened to read together seem to be saying something to one another. And those connections are very cool.


Also, apparently one spur to get me to go ahead and write a review is the sense that a book was robbed of a higher overall ranking in the tournament and…well, if the injustice of an ingressive approach is enough to spur me to celebrate more books with reviews, I suppose that’s at least a little congressive.


And since that is part of the goal, I leaned in the direction of writing up a lot of reviews and letting me get my feelings out about both books in the hardest brackets. Nine total reviews written, because of this bracket. Two of them are withheld until the end of the Harper Collins strike.

But also: this bracket makes me want to never be on an ALA committee choosing winners. Yikes on bikes, sounds so hard! Whereas this bracket doesn’t matter, and it’s (hopefully) clear that the rankings are off my gut feeling and sometimes just my mood when I do the rankings. No claims of objective measurement! And I still overthink it!


Winner:

The review of this title is withheld in solidarity with the Harper Collins Union strike. Its win is retained to honor the blameless Jasmine Warga.


Runner Up:

5.0 (see original review on Storygraph)


This book is gorgeous in every possible way. The illustrations and design are obviously beautiful -- and adorable! The story and the heart of this book are just as delicately and as skillfully made beautiful. Events happen, and I could trace an overall character arc for our perspective character, but this is a quiet book about building new life after trauma and being a supportive community. Of caring for one another and finding quiet, steady places for love to flourish.


----

Oh my the brackets were so hard! And so many of the book accidentally spoke to one another!

These two books are both so raw and vulnerable about grief that it was, frankly, overwhelming to read them together. In the way of fiction, The Shape of Thunder is tighter, tauter, more metaphorically resonant than the nonfiction account can be even in the hands of a skilled ghost writer, even with a subject willing to commit to such radical honesty and to revealing an imperfect character.


Both allow the process of grief to be what it really is: messy, chaotic, ugly, and also beautiful. The two dueling perspectives in the novel make the ache of The Shape of Thunder more powerful than Spare, but the two books come from the same deep and resonant well.


5.0 (see original review on Storygraph)


This book is achingly honest. That word feels inadequate, but it is the most contested aspect of the book by those determined to disapprove of its having been written, so it seemed the best place to start. Prince Harry's voice is raw and vulnerable: unveiling his deepest pains, many shameful moments of misbehavior, the daily experience of violence, how it feels to carry trauma, and also the first stirrings of true and lasting love -- all with shocking power. The way that Harry accepts so many horrifying norms of life in the royal family is perhaps the most moving part of the book, and the decades it takes for him to unpack them (and not all of them, truthfully) is a compelling arc that ties together a wide-ranging life story. The "potshots" at his family that many have cited come out of a fundamental mismatch in how he and his family treat their relationship -- Harry longing for love and loyalty over a cold respectfulness that leaves him feeling abandoned. There is much here even for those who do not care for the British monarchy, with honest assessments of trauma and how it feels to be on the inside of a particularly bad version of celebrity culture. It is also about seeing patterns in your own life and realizing that they are not as mandatory as everyone around you insists. The fact that this tender, honest, loving unveiling of his life and heart is also a middle finger to the tabloids that hounded him his entire life just makes the book a more fascinating read.

Oh my WORD this was a hard one! Because Lyric McKerrigan is a book wielding superhero of the highest and truest and bestest order, and the idea of winning over henchmen through giving them things they will love to read…seriously, why haven’t more heroes tried to win that way? By unionizing and recruiting the henchpeople?


But Facts vs. Opinions vs. Robots had the advantage of timing here, because I read it coming from the English 1050 class I teach, where I often wonder how to wrestle with these issues with college students. They understand the definitions and would recognize the examples in THIS book, but I can’t help thinking they’d be better about more complex fact vs. opinion questions if they had early training!


Lyric McKerrigan review withheld in solidarity with the Harper Collins strike.


4.5 (see original review on Storygraph)


I love that this book exists. It's a small weapon in the fight to teach media literacy and battle misinformation, but it feels like an important early step in the process. And the fact that it can do it with adorable robots is such a plus. I also appreciate that the book is not JUST simple, didactic fact/opinion matching. A few of the opinions are more emotional -- asking you to pick a robot and leaving room for that being a place of hurt feelings or perhaps difference between two people. So the book sneaks in another lesson -- that people can like different things than you and that's okay! You are allowed to have favorite things, but you should be kind to all. What important lessons to PAIR with fact vs. opinion discussions, even from an early age.

OOF.


I’m Glad My Mom Died didn’t really have a shot here. The ingressive v. congressive concepts that I opened this write-up with come from X + Y, and I find the idea of thinking of positive behavior as a separate axis from all the things (primarily but not exclusively gender) that we try to graft it onto is such a useful frame. It allows us to shed so much baggage and so many internal (and perhaps external) barriers to building a better world.


But I’m Glad My Mom Died was a fascinating companion to listen to while reading X + Y. Full of so many proofs of why the work of X + Y is needed, and why it is so hard. Both are works of bravery, of hard-won self-knowledge, and of potentially transformative new perspectives on some of the pieces of life we care about most.


5.0 (see original review on Storygraph)


I was expecting something a bit more like Invisible Women, talking about ways that statistics and numbers can be manipulated to exclude gendered data. This book was something even more radical and accessible, though less targeted and practical. It was wonderful to live for awhile in this reimagined world where desirable and undesirable human behaviors were not only considered on a separate axis than gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. etc....but also considered separately from what behavior our culture CURRENTLY rewards. Instead, the focus was on whether or not, on reflection, we should encourage those behaviors for better outcomes as a community. As a civilization.


The book makes this new frame feel powerful, transformative, and possible. I hope she's right, and I appreciate the sections designed to help me do my part in small ways until we can figure out bigger institutional change.


4.75 (see original review on Storygraph)


The bold title got most of the attention in the rollout of this book, and it felt a little odd that this resolution she comes to -- that she is better off because her mom died, that she is glad her mom died because there was no room for her to find who she is with her mom alive and living for her entirely -- is only at the tail end of the book. But the boldness of the memoir goes deeper than that. She calls out not just her mother but many powerful forces in the entertainment industry, which she sees with clearer eyes because she entered it so unwillingly. Her younger self's blase reaction to truly horrifying parenting moments and her visceral anger at a therapist using the stark terms of abuse feels sharp and raw and pointed. The book is overflowing with brave truths shared with a forceful attitude that makes it clear that this direct, radical honesty is necessary to her recovery. It is a book about needing the space to face the truth -- and needing the truth in order to heal. In a world where so many people try to reverse the order of those steps, this book feels important. I am glad its eye-catching title and celebrity writer have won it so much attention, because those aspects are a Trojan Horse for a deeply important memoir about surviving abuse and learning to name it.

These books are both SO beautiful, and they were such inspirations as I try to write my first middle grade novel. The Time of Green Magic was only edged out by The Tea Dragon Society because it is SO beautifully written that it made me unable to work on my own writing for days. Whereas The Tea Dragon Society made me want to sit down at the computer.


4.75 (see original review on Storygraph)


This book is so beautifully written that it briefly made me unable to write my current work-in-progress. McKay handles the blended family politics with as much care and delicacy as the careful rollout of the magic, which is my favorite kind: a simple, intuitive rule that cascades into unexpected consequences for the characters to unravel. In some ways, the book feels quiet, but I appreciate the subtlety and the way that the magical elements are blended with everyday life -- which echoes the way in which living together and trying to care for each other day in and day out are what ultimately bond the new siblings and their now shared parents. There are little moments that the characters mark as transformation that are more like mile markers that help them realize how far they've come. It is a gentle book, for all the danger of the magic around them, for all the spookiness and the real emotional turmoil, the book holds you tight and treats the mundane pieces with as much care and seriousness as the fantasy.

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