Last year I decided that I was going to start reading more and I read 255 books. This year, I wanted to up my game a little bit and do more like a reading marathon and ended up the year reading 365 books, a book for every day. Even though I am a pretty athletic person, I can’t run because it hurts my knees. I am not as graceful and elegant as I would need to be for professional dance and sports has never interested me. But reading is the one thing I can do and I like to do at the gym, on planes, in bed, and in the bathtub primarily. So, I made an effort to read for a minimum of 2 1/2 hours per day and sometimes ended up reading for more like 4 hours a day on weekends and when I had other days off from work. I didn’t read to show off but to escape the reality of our current country’s political situation and to learn more about the lives and perspectives of others unlike me. Reading a mixture of novels, nonfiction essays and immigrant stories, collections of poetry and short stories, I read less than 10% of these books by white people and of those 10%, most were by women. I can say that I really enjoyed the vast majority of the books I’ve read and don’t have any significant regrets for this reading marathon.
I should also note that, although some of these books did come out in 2019, many did not. The following are my favorite books of this year that I read this year (regardless of their original publication date). I know I am also probably forgetting some and I feel remiss in that too, but I spent hours writing the following (even longer than that reading these) and I hope some of you get some good recommendations of books you might also like to read or can connect with me on a book you have read. Feel free to share your favorites as well! I am highly interested in having conversations about books and finding out about literature I may have had less exposure to living in America.
1. Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
This book is an astounding work that covers so many different states and personal backgrounds to reflect on race in America. If you like Humans of New York, this is a little like that in the sense that it explores what makes us human but it’s a great more complex and thorough than that-maybe a Humans of America. The fact that Guo and Vulchi were able to travel all across the US to gain an understanding of so many people and how their race has affected their lives is a daring and meaningful venture in and of itself but it’s also clear that they make a concerted effort to explore the things these people like and enjoy so that there’s a fuller sense to some things they have in common with others. In addition, the photographs of these people really add to a sense of them. if you do not fall in love with these humans along with this work as a whole, that is a loss for you. We must change in our country. We must develop more empathy and patience. We must be able to listen to others who we think we share nothing in common with and find the things we do share whilst respecting individual differences. This is the only way we will be able to heal and move forward.
This book is a masterpiece and should be celebrated in every household across America.
2. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
This book is so relevant to what is happening at the border with the unfair treatment of families from Mexico right now in all of our names but it also manages a personal touch with an extended road trip and the link between the mother/protagonist and her own family and how she handles her own children being separated from her. This is a harrowing read, especially because there is truth in the weight of our names as Americans being tied to the deep sins of mistreating other humans. This is also, however a very poetic read, haunting in its lyrical quality and in the way that Luiselli is able to adeptly convey the range of emotions she feels, desperate and distraught but also so very insightful. You will read these pages wit your heart in your throat, worry that if you are not careful, you may actually end of swallowing it.
3. Frontier by Can Xue
2019 was the year I discovered Can Xue, the experimental fiction author from China who, at first, everyone thought was male as her pen name isn’t especially gender specific. Can Xue is not understood fully by probably most people and I myself had to read several sentences over again a few times, especially this work, the most esoteric of what I’ve read (three novels and one short story collection this year). The imagery is especially potent here and you don’t really know exactly what is happening in the way the human form can transform. You really don’t know quite what could be actually happening….and what could be a dream or a hallucination. This would be a book I would read at the end of the world cuddled under a blanket and remembering the most imaginative humans could be then hoping there were some creatives still left out in the tundra of the world.
4. Though the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita
Another new author I discovered was Karen Tei Yamashita and, though I also enjoyed reading a collection of her plays entitled Anime Wong, I even more so enjoyed reading this novel. Yamashita is Japanese American but you get more of that specific perspective from her plays. Set between Japan and Brazil, this novel features a very vivid cast of interesting characters not to mention the protagonist that is the rotating ball in front of the Japanese train conductor’s head. This is one of the most unique books I have ever read in my life and it’s no surprise that the forward is from one of the most highly intelligent authors in the world, Percival Everett. This novel is a real treat and is a riveting surreal adventure.
5. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
I’ve spent many years not knowing very much at all about the lives of those who live in North Korea, much as the citizens of North Korea have spent their lives knowing not too much about others outside of their country. This non fiction work follows the lives of North Koreans who escape into China and South Korea and manage to be granted refugee status and follows them up until the early 2000s. It’s another book that disarms you in its brutality. Demick records the stories of their lives, how they bought into propaganda, and how they started to gather inklings of the truth while they were in their home country. The depth of the poverty and brainwashing is immense from the time that these people are schoolchildren. Even if they were starving, if someone came by and saw that their picture of Kim Jong-il then Kim Jong-un weren’t immaculate, they could be taken and forced into a labor camp. If they didn’t weep loud enough at the death of Kim Jong-il, they were also suspect and no one could trust their neighbors, who could also very likely be government informants. The only media that they had access to was North Korean and Russian propaganda films and even their literature was greatly restricted. In addition, even having a bowl of rice a day was seen as a great luxury. Many starved to death and were happy to have less mouths to feed in their family. The clothing women could wear was also severely limited. This was (and possibly still in many ways is) a super suppressed society (from the point of view of an American especially.) I’d be curious if anything has changed and what but really what honestly struck me is how the government deliberately misled their citizens into thinking that they were producing things they weren’t and that the rest of the world was under the same amount of hardship. This is a government who would rather see their people starve than to stoop to accepting aid from abroad. It’s eye opening and terrifying for me to think of the people who have suffered and died under these regimes.
6. The Pretty One by Keah Brown
There has been a real paucity in literature of valuable and unique human perspectives and this work of nonfiction is an incredibly valuable addition to the canon of literature as a whole and adds to our collective human empathy and understanding of the range of experiences one can have while being alive. Keah Brown is a woman like none other-honest about the world and her own growth as a human, friend, and twin sister, insightful about the racism and ableism in our current present world and humorous in her observations of pop culture. Keah Brown has a different ability level and many might say she has a disability. I say she has an ability that most other people do not possess and may not ever possess. That doesn’t mean that our physical environment does not need to become more accommodating (it does) and that people don’t need to develop more empathy (they do). But, it does mean that we would all be wise to learn from her perspective.
7. Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
One of the most astounding books of fiction I read this year was a book that feels incredibly brave and is loosely based on actual incidents that happened in the Rodney King riots of LA. Steph Cha is Korean American but it became widely clear from this novel that she is very invested in promoting healing between the Korean and African American communities. The novel goes back and forth between 1991 and 2019 and explores racism with a deep and personal delving that made me literally at times gasp out loud. There’s a question of human accountability, retribution, and these are treated with care and contentiousness. This is the kind of wholly relevant novel we can all learn something from even despite it being technically fiction. There are still lots of truths to be found here.
8. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Khan-Cullors
If you live in America and are even remotely aware of the racist systems and acts of violence that are committed against those in the African and African American communities, you should be appalled. I can tell you just reading even what is considered to be “liberal” news outlets I am appalled by how quickly and often they show any mug shot of a person of color but (I always call this correctly), when it’s a white terrorist who has committed a hate crime, we don’t see his face for several days or longer. The fact of the matter is, most of the time these acts are not even classified as terrorism and yet they are just as damaging and politically motivated. This book explores the heartache and mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the police brutality and death and the systems in place that keep white people especially profiting. One day, I hope to live in a world where all are treated equally but we have a long ways to go and, as a human of privilege in this current world, I believe the only way we’re going to get there is if all people, including white people, advocate for an end to these racist systems and a place of acceptance, love, and respect for everyone in this world. I’m never going to claim I know the fear and the danger and the distrust that one must feel being Black in America but I do feel extreme sadness when I see cops having no accountability for murder, for profit prisons capitalizing on modern day slavery, and a whole range of racism happening in terms of regentrification, lack of funding for public schools in neighborhoods where there are more people of color, food deserts, and other appalling neglectful practices by our own government. It is shameful. There should be reparations. And, even more so, I do believe that the police in this country are currently doing more harm than good and that we should abolish at least 90% of our prisons. (I’d say abolish all but I want there to still be a place for Trump and all his friends.) This is a must read for all humans who want to come to a better understanding of what it takes to make a movement and the real human damage to what has occurred in several cities across America where the blood on our hands cannot ever be washed off.
9. Women Talking by Miriam Toews
I’ve read several novels by Miriam Toews and, though I have enjoyed all of them, this is one of her stand alone masterpieces. Miriam Toews comes from a Mennonite perspective and often her stories focus on Mennonite life with some personal anecdotes seemingly inserted here and there. This novel feels much different and offers an important aspect of feminism in terms of exploration of the human female mind after the real life events taking place in Bolivia in 2005-2009 when these women were raped consistently by men in their Mennonite community and were basically told by these men that these abuses were not happening and that these women were psychologically unsound. Most books of this nature explore the deep wounds of being a victim. This book offers a different sort of perspective. While still putting a human face to the damage done by men, it focuses more on the action of these women in discussions and meetings to decide how they will solve this problem going forward. Will they kick out the men? Will they leave completely? If they leave, will they take the children including the male children? At what age does a male stay behind? These are complex and very real questions and all choices are intellectually explored with great discussion. It made me feel the strength and empowerment of women vs. another book that would have focused more on these humans as victims instead. Well worth the read!
10. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
This is a daunting read. When I say daunting, I should clarify that while I have read a few 1000+ page novels before, they are usually separated into separate sentences. Ellmann clearly was going for a marathon level of stream of consciousness when she wrote this one. Most of the novel (I’d say 900+ pages of it) are The fact of___ the fact of______ the fact of____ the fact of___ and Ellmann reveals what haunts her the most-Trump and corporations valuing profit over people, gun toting MAGA white terrorists on the loose, poorly built bridges, cops shooting unarmed African Americans, and sort of what I can only say I would consider the collective disease process of being American in this present day. But, there is also the overarching story line of being a mother, a daughter whose mother has passed away of Cancer, remarrying after divorce, and oddly enough being a pie baker. She goes through several harrowing real life incidents in the book where she and her family are put in danger but that doesn’t give us a break from her very loud internal monologue that will suddenly just start listing off facts of films, every city she can think of, and random products. The reader’s only reprieve from this great feat of literature is when we see the perspective of a lioness running from hunters and trying to protect her progeny. I do think this book is worth reading, especially if you can get in the groove and feel the pulse of the first person female protagonist but you do need to obviously put in a huge time and emotional commitment. In order to help things flow more smoothly for you if you decide to take up this challenge as a reader, I suggest reading about 100 pages for 11 days straight or 50 pages a day for 21 days straight. If you do this, you manage to get into a certain groove by page 300 or so. Slowly but surely, all the tangential word salad starts making a weird sort of sense and you begin to really feel for the sense of this woman’s personal story and what she’s going through. Maybe it says something about me that I found her relatable even though I haven’t lost my mom to Cancer, haven’t gone through a divorce, do not have kids, and don’t have a clue how to bake a pie. But, I understand being caught in a state of almost helplessness about what my country has become and what I witness in terms of how people act towards each other. Anyway, a lot of people have abandoned this but it might be the perfect book to add to the next time capsule. Hopefully, things will get better in the new year.
11. In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
I still haven’t watched the show Orange is the New Black, which stars Diane Guerrero, but I fell in love with her as Jane the Virgin’s good friend/sidekick Lina early on. (You can’t NOT watch Jane the Virgin if you live in Chicago. So many of my co-workers went to high school with Gina Rodriguez and always talk about how nice she was to everyone which is literally the opposite of what most people say about you in high school). That being said, I usually don’t read books just because they are by celebrities but I enjoyed this one as well as America Ferrera’s American Like Me: Reflections of Life Between Cultures and Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn. All three nonfiction autobiographies are worth reading and pondering over but Guerrero’s personal struggle against adversity when she literally came home as a teenager and found herself completely alone after her parents had been deported to Colombia struck a real sense in me of how, first it’s gotten even worse with ICE raids, and second, these children are such victims and we’re not even considering all the collateral human damage of what we do as a country when this happens. I found this autobiography brave, brutally honest, and even at times a little funny but mostly I found this to me about the power of perseverance and not giving up no matter what, not just in the struggle for survival, which was very real for Guerrero, but also in the struggle to do what you love and follow your dreams and actually make it. Guerrero is talented, that is for sure, but she is also a sort of superhero as well in what she has overcome and she has given us all a real gift of letting us glimpse the power of her human spirit.
12. A Particular Type of Black Man by Tope Folarin
This is a complex portrait of a Nigerian family who immigrates to Utah of all places and it seems like some of this story must be based on Folarin’s own life experience in that he did have a family who immigrated here from Nigeria and spent some time growing up in Utah and other areas that are also mentioned in this book. What makes this book more unique than many immigrant fiction or pseudofiction is the exploration of the human mind and exploration of mental health and illness within the protagonist as well as this family unit. What also makes it worth reading is the sense of a celebration in Nigerian culture vs. complete desertion. There were insights and information in this book that really astounded me, even having lived in this country all my life (though, to be fair I have never been to Utah). Well worth the read!
13. The Memory Police by Yoko Agawa
This is the second full length novel I’ve read by Yoko Agawa (I’ve also read and liked The Housekeeper and the Professor as well as her short story collection entitled Revenge). I enjoyed all three of these works but I liked The Memory Police by far the best…the concept that you slowly lose the memory of everything around you and hold dear and the including literally parts of yourself-limbs, for instance, and that anyone who still has the ability to remember is not safe but is taken and separated from society at the very least is a really intriguing concept but where the book really succeeds is in its exploration of memories in the sense that they make us human and are truly a part of us. It’s also a book within a book as we experience this cruel postmodern society from the protagonist while, at the same time, experience her own protagonist of the horror typewriter story she’s been authoring. I really enjoyed the strong sense of mood and contemplation on the nature of existence.
14. Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra
This is a mixed sort of book between prose and poetry with some aspects of experimental fiction as well. One cannot help but fall in love a little bit with Guerra as she travels to Mexico, falls in love with an actor, tries to escape persecution from the Cuban government who are constantly monitoring every move she makes, and above all keeps writing as she attempts to discover the truth of the death of her parents as well as gain a sense of her place in the world as a woman, a poet, a human. Some of these lines of poetry are completely haunting and there’s some real themes in this novel about deconstruction and reconstruction.
15. The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
Lefteri is British but has worked with immigrants in Athens, which is where this story takes place at least in part. This is a really harrowing fictional account of a Syrian husband and wife who have lost their child and are each coping with it in their own ways (the mother soon after goes blind and the father suffers from delusions and hallucinations). This is also a story about the struggle for survival after witnessing the tragedy-the destruction of your home and everything you love, and the process of immigration to a safer space and country and the real life troubles to be found in these places as well. Oddly enough, I also learned a great deal about bees from this book but I still feel it is more focused on the desperation that people in Syria must feel and trying to get over incidents that have devastated them and should have never happened in the first place. On a personal level, I don’t believe in borders and I’d rather have more Syrians in my own country than horrible rich white men. No thanks!
16. Those Who Wander: America’s Lost Street Kids by Vivian Ho
America is a country of great wealth but, unfortunately, until our tax structure changes, it is a wealth owned by the very few whose greed is overpowering (I mean, everyone needs a 100th house while the homeless are dying on the streets, right). In California, especially the Bay Area, where this nonfiction work concentrates on, this is even more vividly so. The book explores the reasons behind actual murders that took place but also the desperate conditions that drive people to become homeless, the psychologies behind being homeless, and the resources that are available and kind people who have tried to help. This book is a really difficult read because of the subject matter but it is important that none of us look away and turn our backs on those who struggle. No one should have to live in poverty just so the most affluent people can become more powerful. But, of course, these uber rich are miserable too, you know. They too won’t be free until every other human is free.
18. So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Oluo is incredible candid and honest not just about racism within our structures such as our for profit prison industrial system but within our daily interactions. She answers some questions white people might be too scared to answer and illuminates other things white people might be oblivious about in terms of their/our own sense of privilege. And she does all of this, I’m guess, with the hope that speaking truth to power will lead us all to be better people regardless of our race and also because communities have suffered because in 2019 (now 2020), white privilege is still very much a thing and is going strong.
19. Logic in an Illogical World by Eugenia Cheng
I wouldn’t call myself a Mathematician by any standards. I can do basic algebra without a calculator and I see the artistic nature of geometry and can read and extrapolate from a variety of graphs but, most of the time, I still prefer art, literature, and music to Mathematics. Still, the one time I became really and truly excited about Math happened when I leared about Mathematical/Logical proofs and Cheng explores the art of proofs within the context of several political arguments relevant to this period of time in our shared human history. She touches on the less controversial to the extreme controversial and offers insights into personality and how she herself has changed when she has thought of an argument or a collection of facts in a different context. This book will help you see multiple points of view and have richer discussions about everything from mandatory voting practices to abortion.
20. Making Comics by Lynda Barry
Many of the books I have written about have touched me and I have learned a great deal from them but this is one of those books that gave me very concrete ideas about activities to do with children at Chicago Public Schools. Not all of these activities are written to be done with children but many can be adapted and I have found that giving kids a 4-5 minute free draw at the end of my Occupational Therapy sessions not only motivates them to complete other challenges but also addresses a visual motor need they might have. I have really enjoyed tremendously seeing kids draw their favorite monster and also as themselves as an animal in particular. I think drawing can definitely be like dreams….you never truly know exactly what you are thinking and feeling until you let your mind and your hands go across the paper. This book also inspired me in a different way, which is to look at my own drawings not as technically good or bad but as a product of my own mind and spirit and, in that sense, it’s less damaging to me and less frustrating when I can’t draw something exactly how it looks in real life, for example. I loved all the exercises and visual examples in this book! It really can change your life if you let it!
21. Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal
I have to admit, I fell in love with the protagonist of this story, Kiran Sharma, who identifies with the deity of Krishna and is trying to find how own way in the world as both a boy who is discovering his own sexuality and the fact that he is gay, as well as a young man coming to terms with his identity as an Indian American boy living in middle America (Cincinnati, Ohio). Kiran is dramatic and perfect and Satyal really succeeds in painting a vivid portrait of growing up with obstacles but still being yourself despite these challenges. There were scenes in this book that made me laugh until I cried but also made me cry until I laughed. Wonderfully written with a true celebration of the human spirit and of the joy in being able to be yourself and learn to love everything that makes you: you!
22. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous By Ocean Vuong
First and foremost, Ocean Vuong is a poet and even in prose this comes out more than the vast majority of novel writers. This is his first actual work of fiction and feels a little traumatic and haunting it it’s deep feeling sense of the experience of life and family. Vuong’s deep feeling protagonist is trying to come to terms with the actions of and his relationship to his mother as well as some of his own life choices. You get the sense that each day brings its own struggles and is definitely not easy and that reality is a cruel sort of mistress that keeps revisiting him. But, the poetry above all will make you remember and want to return to this book.
23. A Woman is No Man By Etaf Rum
This book is about many things-family, tradition, but also feminism and a new generation of women who think and reach beyond their metaphysical borders. It follows three generations of a family who immigrated to Brooklyn from Palestine and the abuses they suffered at the hands of their men as well as the secrets they covered up. Most devastating is the way that the grandmother and mother expect (though much more so the grandmother) the conforming of the younger women to submit to all the male wishes and hide any evidence of their true selves that might appear ungrateful and difficult. This is a family that would rather kill than be seen as dishonorable and, though it is technically fiction, it is shocking in the depth of abuse these women take and how they themselves as humans are taken for granted. This book was full of surprises for me on virtually every page.
24. Broken Places and Outer Spaces Nnedi Okorafor
I’m a big fan of the science fiction of Nnedi Okorafor, most notably Lagoon is my favorite, but this book is one I read this year and is a highly personal autobiographical account of her learning to break free from paralysis after a Scoliosis surgery that did not go as well as expected and finding her own unique voice and inspiration in the work of other artists to explore her own realm of Science Fiction in a way that is wholly worthwhile. I had no idea that the author I’ve read so many fiction books from had this extreme experience but I was indeed inspired by her own perseverance and coming to terms with the surgery and not letting limitations define her but pushing beyond these with a strength and dedication that doubtless has made her one of the very best authors in her field.
25. John Edgar Wideman: Fanon
This is one of the more complex books of fiction I’ve read this year…it is truly a story within a story within a story based on some of Wideman’s real life with his brother as well as the actual life of the revolutionary Frantz Fanon..it’s about not wanting the cruelty of history to be repeated and about drawing connections between timelines and the way racism continues to impact people across continents today. It is at times highly poetic and at other times so visceral you might have to put it down but in any case very worthwhile reading and incredibly adept and masterful in its exploration of all of these connections and reconciliation between past and present with a hope for a better and different future. There are many passages here that are profound and all are thought provoking.
26. The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
I have learned a great deal about the political crisis in Sri Lanka in the 1980s from Selvadurai. If you want to try to understand what was happening between the Tamil and Sinhalese people, this is a topic that Selvadurai visits often as well as coming of age as a man who is gay and being an immigrant in Canada. There’s also a real delving into the classism inherent within the Sri Lankan society between these people and also, between the protagonist’s own grandmother and her tenants and the abuse and neglect that happens to the poor. Meanwhile, the grandmother manages to distance herself from her actions and convince herself that these people brought these things on themselves with bad karma…by her own standards, she should expect a much worse life in her next one. There are many similar topics in terms of Sri Lankan politics and coming to terms with one’s own sexuality in Funny Boy but this seemed more of an in depth work so I would recommend reading The Hungry Ghosts if you have limited reading time but you may find you’d like to read his others anyhow.
27. Taina by Ernesto Quinonez
I read two of Quinonez’s novels back to back and while I liked the emotional drama and complexity of Bodega Dreams, I really liked the sense of Puerto Rican tradition and strong female main character here. This involves everything from the idea of magical realism to deep religious beliefs. Could Taina be a postmodern virgin Mary? Could this be immaculate conception? The other protagonist, a young male, is willing to believe anything she says and fight for her virtue. While this story takes place primarily in Spanish Harlem, it also shows the inherent racism and classism in NYC as a whole while adeptly pulling one into the personalities and tribulations of the characters. Well worth reading!
28. On Black Sisters Street Chika Unigwe
This book explores the lives of African women immigrating to Belgium in hopes of a better life and being lied to with the idea that they could be housekeepers and nannies but then are sold into a sex trade where they are basically enslaved until they raise an inordinate amount of money to “pay back” their immigration fee. It is about living unsafely as an illegal and being forced into prostitution just to survive, which happens far more frequently than many people might realize. Women on our own are valuable in terms of our ideas and our empathy but the world will still look at women as a whole and women from African especially as only worthwhile as a body to rape. This is a very difficult read, mainly because of the aspects of truth that this happens but also because you get attached to the characters and don’t want them to suffer, which is the work of a great novelist in and of itself.
29. Home a Refugee Story by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah
This is a really insightful read for anyone who is looking to hear about the author’s escape from Syria to refugees in Canada. We learn a lot about the power of the human spirit and it is also in many ways a testament to why all countries should welcome refugees. It is also valuable in terms of giving ideas on how we can do better in terms of supporting the transition between countries when there is a new language, culture shock, and when families need to keep something similar in place such as even a space to pray in schools. We need to all make sure we are being kind and sensitive and welcoming as well as aware of the probably trauma that refugees have suffered, especially coming from war torn countries. This also shows us how valuable it is to listen and to help refugees tell their stories, as the work of Rabeeah’s Language Arts teacher Winnie Yeung is the reason why we have this remarkable autobiography.
30. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
There were many times reading this book I felt fascinated, wondered about the choices of the characters and what they would do next, and drawn to the mystery surrounding the death that unites all of them from the beginning of the Moroccan American father who owns a restaurant and is suspiciously killed by a hit and run. This is a work of fiction but the way it explores racism and xenophobia is all too real and Lalami really helps the reader sense the loss of humanity when incidents like this take place as well as the complexity of it between the investigation and trial and the level of dishonesty too. It’s also interesting because it involves an unlikely inter-racial love affair and there’s a sense that when these two people can fall in love, maybe we can all reconcile our differences with each other…maybe….hopefully we are capable.
31. The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means to Be American By, Laura Wides Munoz
This is a really comprehensive work of nonfiction chronicling the 1,500 walk of a group of Dreamers and a decade of work beginning with Obama and coming up to the published date of January 2019. It makes no qualms about exposing the frustrations and stalemate of the Obama presidency in getting protections but also the horrors of our current political situation for these young and determined humans that are also vulnerable despite their bravery and fierceness. We get to know the inner workings of their lives and family situations, their education and history of what drives them the most in terms of their advocacy. Munoz also exposes how some movements such as gay rights and marriage are pitted against others like the movement to protect Dreamers and how a single year cut off can arbitrary ruin human lives and mean deportations. This is an important read for anyone who still thinks these amazing humans don’t belong or deserve to be here (They do!) and who still thinks it’s easy to become a legal immigrant if you’re just willing to go through the established process….this line of thinking is an ignorant myth. These humans deserve so much more than this. Let’s hope 2020 brings us a new president who is willing to provide more protections and also welcome more immigrants to America.
32. Go Ahead in the Rain by Hanif Abdurraquib
Hanif always brings himself into his writing about music and this is why, even if you are not the biggest Tribe Called Quest Fan, you will still find many reasons to fall in love with this book. That being said, my partner has always loved Tribe and I finally fell in love myself when I saw them perform and was able to photograph them (see: www.flickr.com/photos/kirstiecat/35348763944/in/photolist… ) Hanif made me love both him and the band even more in the way that he explores their history, why their music is groundbreaking, and their contemporaries as well. Hanif also explores his own love of music and how music was seen in his family. There’s also a story early on that shows the racism of his music teacher at school that made me feel so devastated that these things happen from teachers who are supposed to be loving and nonjudgmental. There is so much to love and learn from in this book and, even if you don’t fall in love with Tribe, you might still fall deeper in love with humanity and our relationship to nourishing sound.
33. Call Me American Abdi Nor Iftin
Oh my God the lengths that this man goes to in order to survive civil war in Somalia, escape to Kenya then to the US is insane. My heart was in my throat for the vast majority of this book…a really survival against all odds life story. It also gives a glimpse at how much tragedy some of our immigrants are carrying with them when they come here and the love and supports we should all give them. Abdi Nor Iftin is extremely intelligent and also funny but I can’t imagine going through even 10% of what he went through when he was trying to escape warring tribes and seeing so much death around him and still being able to lift my head off the pillow each morning.
34. Passing by Nella Larsen
I read both Passing and Quicksand by Nella Larsen this year and liked them both quite a bit. Both have a lot to offer in terms of insights into classism and racism but Passing feels a little more vivid to me maybe because it is set between Chicago and NYC whereas much of Quicksand takes place in Denmark. Both novels are well worth reading though and Passing has both a personal component between these two women with a shared history and that of secrets and racism as one woman is passing for white in trade of an elevated place in society at the time. In addition to giving us glimpses of both cities in 1929, it shows a little bit about what it was like both living as a white woman and living as a black woman and the level of anxiety felt by those who tried to keep their race a secret.
35. Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card Sara Saedi
In many ways, this is about a family torn because of their differing immigration statuses and how arbitrary all that seems when we’re talking about real humans and not just letters and numbers on a page. This is a family that will go to all lengths in order to get citizenship for themselves and others and will fight to be Americans even though America does not treat them as kindly or with justice. This is also a great deal about the joys of family, of Iranian culture, and also of coming of age and pop culture in America. Saedi, who now writes for iZombie (I still haven’t seen this show myself but now I might give it a try), is at times poignant and at other times really hilarious. You really get a sense of her personality in this autobiography and it really makes you again realize how much immigrants have to offer America and how they deserve far better than what they are given most of the time. It’s a tragedy that we treat humans the way we do simply because they aren’t born here. That needs to stop.
36. Lindy West: The Witches are Coming
Lindy West is hilarious in her examination of racism, sexism, whole bodyism and all that really needs to change about reality. I learned things I somehow missed, like how “Grumpy Cat’s” owners came up with a ridiculous far fetched story so cover up for the fact they were using an insult/slur used for those with different ability levels. I also found the chapters about Adam Sandler and Joan Rivers pretty insightful as well. There were many times I felt like, “Yeah, I agree with that” but she has a really great cutting way about how she presents information and also her opinions that make it a good read.
37. The Reactive By, Ntshanga, Masande
I’ve never read a book quite like this. If you want to know what it was like to be HIV+ in the late 1990s-early 2000s and living in South Africa, this book is the one for you. But also, this book is about family, about overcoming loss, about deep friendships and has a great deal of existentialism and in general bizarre interactions, drug trial and substance abuse, and an analysis of racism in Cape Town as well. I felt very strongly that I both learned something and gained an attachment to these fictional characters and what they were going through.
38. Brother by David Chariandy
Set in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, this follows second generation Trinidadian immigrants and the racism they encounter living there in the early 1990s. This is a really well written look at family, especially these two brothers and the bond between them and how the family deals with all of life’s small and large tragedies. It’s also a book that will likely devastate you, though I don’t want to spoil anything by saying more.
39. A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian
This could be another book about class warfare and profit over people but the layers in it are exceptional and what Subramanian does really well is to delve into the different personalities and power in the women in this place ironically called Heaven and illustrate the need for women to stick together.
40. Dinner By, César Aira
I read a couple of novels/novellas by César Aira and a collection of short stories called The Musical Brain and Other Stories, which was also phenomenal. Dinner was even more unexpected and hilarious because it combines the need to be remembered and the power of names with a zombie uprising in the little town of Pringles in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I love the politically astute sense to this and the twists in the plot. Really a very unique book not just about zombies but about the power of human memory.
A couple of really highly recommended books of poetry:
The City in Which I Love You Li-Young Lee
Rangoli by Pavana Reddy
A couple of quick cat related books
I don’t think the following books are necessarily life changing but I did want to mention to them in case you are a cat lover like I am! I think animals bring out the best in humans when we find ourselves at our most compassionate and so I’ve always enjoyed reading books that feature cats. Here are the couple I read this year and enjoyed:
If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura
We could give up movies and time but could we give up cats? What if we were terminally ill and this could buy us one more day on Earth….what would we give up?
The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa
For the vast majority of this book, we really don’t know why the protagonist is looking for someone to take care of his cat but we get to meet a lot of different types of people from his past and learn about them, which is both interesting and philosophical.
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