Saturday, March 11, 2017

10to40Book Challenge: Guest Blogger Kathleen O’Connor!

Kathleen and the writer Ibo Zoboi

When Jackie invited me to join the 10to40 Book Challenge, it seemed like an ambitious goal, and while I eagerly agreed to participate, I doubted if it was possible for either of us to actually accomplish it; we are busy women!  

Competitive by nature, I figured I could pull out a fast lead by choosing a few of Jacqueline Woodson’s shorter books from my middle school library that I had been meaning to read. I started with After Tupac and D Foster and The House You Pass Along the Way, then moved on to Another Brooklyn. I love these books for reminding me that girlhood, young womanhood, is for all of us so very much the same, even as it is in other ways tremendously different. 

Books are mirrors in which we can see ourselves, windows through which we can see others, and sometimes we can do both simultaneously. So, I made a conscious decision to include a cultural variety of writers in my challenge. 

Jackie often says, “I like books with characters who look like ME!” So do I! I read Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and wept at the experiences of the Irish immigrants in that story and felt the warm glow of familiarity in traditions, expressions, and unique turns of phrase that you only find in Irish/Irish-American families. I could feel the homesickness that often resonates through generations of Irish American families, even for the members who are born here.

Likewise, I read We Are Not Ourselves by Mathew Thomas, an epic novel. A good part of it also takes place in Brooklyn, and it’s about an Irish-American family grappling with their patriarch’s downward spiral into Alzheimer’s disease. I found the “mirror” quality in this novel almost frightening. It was as if Mathew Thomas had been a fly on the wall as my own family fought the very same battle. And I wrote Mathew Thomas to tell him so and to express my gratitude for his book that somehow validated my entire experience with losing my own Dad to Alzheimer’s. I wept bitterly through much of the book and often felt like Thomas had sucker-punched me right in the gut. But, I was thankful and I told him so. And guess what?  He wrote back.

Me, Kathleen, and the author Brendan Kiely

In an interesting twist, an overwhelming number of the books I read in the first months of the challenge take place in Brooklyn. The African-American characters in Woodson’s and Jason Reynold’s novels lived in the very same neighborhoods and walked the very same blocks as the Irish characters in Toibin and Thomas; however, it was two generations later. I’ve given a lot of thought to this important link, because it has many conflicting messages. So many, in fact, that it should be a topic for a blog entry all on its own. My wheels are turning!

My most recent favorite is Ibo Zoboi’s American Street, a wonderful novel that was nothing but a window for me!  In it, Fabiola, a young immigrant from Haiti, moves in with her cousins in Detroit. I have to admit that the existence of a Haitian community in the United States was not on my radar at all, and I have never been to Detroit in my life, but Fabiola’s story of trying to maintain her old ways while acclimating to her new surroundings touched me, and I could not turn the pages fast enough. And, now I feel like I have an entire perspective that I never even had a glimpse of before reading this book.

Me, Kathleen, and the writer, Ibo Zoboi

I’m more than halfway through the 10to40 Book Challenge, and it is no longer about the numbers. When I think of all that I have learned in a short time, connections that I have made, experiences that I have had in speaking and reading with others, I am committed to continue reading at this pace forever: a minimum of thirty minutes a day, every day. I don’t want to miss a thing, don’t want to leave a single stone unturned. What began as a friendly competition has turned into a life-altering discipline. We set aside time to prepare our food, exercise our bodies, connect with our family….why do we so often reserve reading for a few paltry minutes at the end of our busy days? 

Jackie’s 10to40 Book Challenge has encouraged me to give reading the time that it deserves in my life. 

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