What We Read in 2016 Also Makes Great Holiday Gifts

I’m on deadline and should be writing (other things), so of course, I decided to put the final polish on this post.

Despite the fact that we have three kids and there is never any quiet in our home, Francisco and I read a considerable number of books in 2016. We took turns hiding in the bathroom, staying up in the wee small hours, or covering for each other while one of us read on the subway.

Our seven year old, reading in a nook at Posman Books in Manhattan's Chelsea Market.
Our seven year old, reading in a nook at Posman Books in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market.

We purchased many of these books (I am fortunate that he has never said to me, “You know, I really think we need to stop buying books”). Others were sent to us as review copies. I indicate which is which below. We get no kickbacks or any other incentive, financial or otherwise, by recommending these. In fact, I’m not even linking to Amazon and our Associates account because we’d much rather you buy these from a local, independent bookstore (find one near you here).

Regardless, if they’re on the list you can be assured that we thought they were fabulous.
We’re lucky to be friends with a number of really superb writers. Several of them published books this year and we’re thrilled to recommend them.

All Strangers Are Kin, by Zora O’Neill
Even if we didn’t know Zora (we’ve gone halvsies on vegetable, pig, and fish shares for the past few years and she throws THE best Día de los Muertos party in NYC, period), I’d recommend this book, which is about her experiences learning Arabic and traveling through ‘the Arab world.’ This book, which is lively and curious and profoundly respectful, seems more urgent now than ever, especially as the dark news from Aleppo continues to render us speechless and helpless.

Glorify, by Emily Heath
Em is one of my dearest college friends, and her first book, Glorify, was published earlier this year. Em is a binary-smashing (her words) UCC minister, and Glorify is about progressive Christianity. I don’t consider myself religious, but I still found a great deal to appreciate in her book.

La Americana, by Melanie Bowden Simón
Melanie and I met in an online writers’ group and became quick friends, united by common characteristics (namely, being writers and having married Cuban men). Her memoir about her mother, travels to Cuba, and falling in love with her husband, Luís, is moving and gorgeous, and is especially notable for the way in which she portrays Cuba in all its complexity.

Frida Kahlo at Home, by Suzanne Barbezat
If I told you about the first time Suzanne and I met in person, which was on a bizarre press trip in Mexico, it would eclipse her beautiful, hardcover tribute to Frida Kahlo. Think you know everything about Frida? You don’t. Suzanne, who has a degree in anthropology and who has lived in Oaxaca for many years, offers a new treatment of the iconic artist we all think we know so well.

The Art of Risk, by Kayt Sukel
Looking for a little more adventure in your life? Whether you want to experience risk directly or live it vicariously, Sukel’s research-grounded book remains accessible for a general audience who’s interested in the subject of living a less staid life.

Lucky Broken Girl, by Ruth Behar
Behar, who I interviewed a couple years back for The Los Angeles Review of Books, is one of the most humane writers I know, and this book, based loosely on her own childhood, is a wonderful addition to the young adult fiction options for 2017. I won’t say more than that, as I have a review of the book coming out on Cuba Counterpoints next year, prior to the book’s official release.

Reputations, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
I prefer non-fiction over fiction, but this slim novel by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez kept me neglecting my family in the two days it took me to read it. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending, but that shouldn’t be a discouragement from reading it; it’s exquisite. (*This was a review copy.)

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
It’s going to take me a long time to recover from this book, whose power and force I can’t even begin to describe. I told Francisco, as I was reading it, “I’m so glad I wasn’t assigned a review of this book.” It’s an urgent read. And if you don’t believe me, well, listen to Oprah and the National Book Awards committee.

Island People, The Caribbean and the World, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Essential non-fiction reading for anyone who cares about the Caribbean. (*This was a review copy.)

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson
This was another one of those books that was published a couple years ago, but just made it to the top of our reading pile, and at the perfect time. Stevenson, an extraordinary lawyer and civil rights advocate, writes an urgent book that helps us understand the American justice system.

Sing for Your Life, by Daniel Bergner
I picked this book up for Francisco at Book Culture on Columbus Avenue a few months ago. Francisco is a slower reader than I am, savoring words and passages, shutting the book to meditate after a sentence he finds powerful. This book, however, was totally different; I don’t think he’s read anything faster and with greater pleasure since García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad, which he read in a single night.

We both read Bergner’s Gods of the Rodeo over a decade ago and we were moved deeply by it. In Sing for Your Life, he’s at the height of his narrative powers, writing about Ryan Speedo Green, an unlikely opera star who is dominating world stages, from New York to Vienna (in the midst of reading the book, we saw Green perform in “La Bohéme” at The Met.

The Chicago Guide to Fact-checking, by Brooke Borel
As a fact-checker, I was especially interested in Borel’s book, and interviewed her shortly before its release. This is a must-read for any journalist or writer, especially those operating without any publication or institutional support or without any formal journalism training. (*This was a review copy.)

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer
I first read Hammer’s work about Timbuktu in Smithsonian Magazine (subscribe!), and was thrilled to see that he had a whole book on the same subject. I couldn’t put this book down. (*This was a review copy.)

Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression, by Margaret Randall
Published by Duke University Press in 2015, I didn’t get around to reading this book until this year. I was glad I did. I knew who Santamaría was, but didn’t realize the complexity of her self or her role in the Cuban Revolution until I read this book. (*This was a review copy.)

We have three kids, ages 7, 3, and 2. Our three year old reads Dr. Seuss’s ABC on repeat, and I’ll confess to having hidden Green Eggs and Ham so I don’t have to read it again. Our two year old has worn out That’s Not My Puppy.

But it’s our seven year old who’s had a thrilling year of reading. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find them in the pages of the Scholastic Reading Club’s sales fliers, there are some INCREDIBLE books being published for kids. Here are a few of our favorites:

Rosie Revere, Engineer and Ada Twist, Scientist, by Andrea Beaty, with illustrations by David Roberts
With fun, engaging illustrations and compelling characters, Beaty’s books, which portray girls, in particular, as smart, creative, and powerful, are among our favorites. And thank you, Andrea, for ensuring that your protagonists aren’t all white! We haven’t read Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau, but we ordered it last week.

Election season provided plenty of opportunities to discover books that would help kids understand the democratic and electoral processes. For all my complaints about Scholastic, that’s where we found Kelly Dipucchio’s Grace for President, which is particularly special because it portrays a girl of color running for school president (No spoilers here!) and envisioning herself in the portrait gallery of American presidents.

Scholastic is where we also found Rana DiOrio’s and Emma D. Dryden’s What Does It Mean to Be an Entrepreneur?, illustrated by Ken Min, who portrays a diverse range of kids.

Niño Wrestles the World, by Yuyi Morales
This lucha libre-themed book, written by Mexican author Yuyi Morales, is SO MUCH FUN to read aloud… especially if you’re in bed with all your kids.

Count us among the readers happy to see another lucha libre book; this one’s being published in March 2017, so pre-order it now!
Lucía the Luchadora, by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez
Here’s how the publisher describes this fantastic book:

Lucía zips through the playground in her cape just like the boys, but when they tell her “girls can’t be superheroes,” suddenly she doesn’t feel so mighty. That’s when her beloved abuela reveals a dazzling secret: Lucía comes from a family of luchadoras, the bold and valiant women of the Mexican lucha libre tradition. Cloaked in a flashy new disguise, Lucía returns as a recess sensation! But when she’s confronted with a case of injustice, Lucía must decide if she can stay true to the ways of the luchadora and fight for what is right, even if it means breaking the sacred rule of never revealing the identity behind her mask. A story about courage and cultural legacy, Lucía the Luchadora is full of pluck, daring, and heart.

Rad Women Worldwide, by Kate Schatz
As parents of a 7, 3, and 2-year old, we are always on the lookout for books that will appeal to young readers AND transmit our core values. This one is at the top of that list. Our seven year-old loves it.

#ILookLikeaFarmer: Handmade cards by Anna Brones, based on photos by Audra Mulkern.
50% of the proceeds from these gorgeous cards will be given to women farmers. Buy them here.

Alison Wonderland Jewelry: My friend, Alison Stein, has channeled her writerly impulses into handmade jewelry, which often features words, including some pieces that are particularly appropriate for these bizarre, apocalyptic moments.

Custom leatherwork by Kate Sedgwick:
My friend Kate makes custom leather pieces, from cuffs and hair pieces, to keychains and more. Check out her Etsy store here.

Book Tour: Pope Francis in His Own Words

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Yes, yes, I know: Pope Francis in His Own Words was published two years ago.

So why am I starting a book tour of sorts right now?

Well, as you’re probably aware, Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba and the United States next month, and it seems like a prime time to reintroduce the book to English- and Spanish-speaking audiences (did you know the book has been translated into about 15 languages?). Plus, I received a few lovely invitations to do so, and I couldn’t turn them down.

If you’re in one of the cities below, I hope you’ll spread the word and join me at one (or more!) of these events:

Decatur Book Festival: Decatur, Georgia, USA
I’m grateful to my alma mater, Emory University, for inviting me to participate in this beloved book festival. I’ll be signing books in the Emory tent from 3-4 pm on Saturday, September 5. I’ll have a very limited number of foreign language editions of the book as well.

Brooklyn Book Festival, Bookend Event Series: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Before I head out of the country to cover Pope Francis’s visit in Cuba, I’ll be talking about the book and signing copies as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival. My generous host is the delightful Hullabaloo Books, and I couldn’t think of a better bookstore to have a conversation about Pope Francis. This is an Official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event. I’ll have a very limited number of foreign language editions of the book as well.

This event will take place at 8 pm on Tuesday, September 15.

Cuba Libro Bookstore: Havana, Cuba
I’m so excited that I’ll have the chance to talk about the book the day before Pope Francis will be giving his mass at Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

This event will take place at 5 pm on Saturday, September 19.

NEW: Our US publisher, New World Library, is offering a 50% discount off online orders of Pope Francis in His Own Words throughout September. Buy the book through their site using the discount code “pope” (no quotes, not case-sensitive) and you’ll get the book at half-price. Buy the book here.

Would you like to add Pope Francis in His Own Words to your bookshelf or inventory? Need a speaker or expert to interview about the Pope? Get in touch by emailing me: writingjulie[at]gmail[dot]com!

Author Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés in New York City

Rodríguez's newest book.
Rodríguez’s newest book.
I recommended not one, but two of Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’s books in my round-up of essential reading about/related to Cuba for The Guardian, so I’m especially excited that I’ll get to meet her in person when she’s here in NYC this month.

The events below are open to the public. I hope you’ll support Cecilia, whose newest book, Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, was released by Ig Publishing just this year.

Monday, June 15, 7 PM
Bluestockings Bookstore, Café, & Activist Center
172 Allen St, New York, New York 10002
Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You: A Reading and Signing

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés will be presenting a reading of fiction from her newly released short story collection Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You followed by Q & A and signing. Her work reflects on the lives of Latina/os in the U.S.—especially those who settled in “el norte.” The characters populating her stories cope with challenges such as immigration, assimilation, poverty, race and gender issues; their voices call out to us to listen—oye!

Tuesday, June 16, 7:30 PM
Greenlight Bookstore
686 Fulton St, Brooklyn, New York 11217
An Evening with Ig Publishing: Sailing, Skating, and Cuba

Featuring Cecilia Rodriguez Milanes, author of Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You
Tracy O’Neill, author of The Hopeful
Diana Wagman, author of Life #6
Reception to follow

Fort Greene’s own independent press Ig Publishing publishes “original literary fiction from writers who have been overlooked by the mainstream publishing establishment, and political and cultural nonfiction with a progressive bent.” At this event, Greenlight and Ig celebrate the release of three exciting new literary works with a joint reading and reception.

Daily Outtake: I want to love this book, but I can’t

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
This book arrived in the mail a couple weeks ago, a review copy I’d requested.

Sarah Jane Cervenak's book, Wandering. (Photo: @collazoprojects)
Sarah Jane Cervenak’s book, Wandering. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

The topic was–no, is–intriguing: “Combining black feminist theory, philosophy, and performance studies, Sarah Jane Cervenak ruminates on the significance of physical and mental roaming for black freedom….”

Right up my alley of interests.

I want to love this book so much, but I.just.can’t.

It’s just bloated with academic jargon, the kind of unnecessary intellectual puffery that sent me running from my PhD program. I’m not against 25 cent words– you know that– but why do we have to make important ideas so unnecessarily cryptic? Why do academic institutions push professors to write this kind of stuff when they could be writing about the same topics in much more accessible ways?

To Wear the Crown: Writers Speaking Out Loud

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo

Two among many LGBT writers whose work has inspired me.
Two among many LGBT writers whose work has inspired me.

June Jordan.

James Baldwin.

Audre Lorde.

Adrienne Rich.

Cristina Peri Rossi.

Elizabeth Bishop

Truman Capote.

Willa Cather.

Before I knew that any of these writers identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, I knew their work– their words. Each one exerted his or her own influence over my own development as a writer, helping, above all, to show me what words could do if you knew how to use them.

I learned about these writers in South Carolina and Georgia classrooms.

Earlier this week, I was invited to join the group “Writers Speaking Out Loud,” which was organized to advocate academic freedom and to denounce the efforts of South Carolina politicians to strip funding from schools where texts by LGBT authors are taught. It’s embarrassing and distressing to me that the need for this group even exists, that politicians find the work of LGBT writers to be inherently threatening.

What’s both outrageous and disappointing about their punitive approach is that they’re attempting to silence some of the voices we need to hear the most. Each of the writers I named above wrote about something universal: the struggle to be recognized and accepted, not only by society– and certainly not only (or even primarily) about being LGBT– but by one’s own self. And given the bullying epidemic and self-esteem crises that seem to plague schools and our very culture, these messages–these testimonies of power and self-possession, are more important now than ever.

When Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison reflected on the death of writer James Baldwin, she said:

“You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then [his death] is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. Our crown, you said, has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do, you said, is wear it.'”

To honor the writers who have shown fierce courage and tamed wildernesses, let’s wear those crowns.