First I picked up the books. Then the books carried me. The past several months have tried to push my head under. I could barely trust my own breath. So I read. Some came recommended. Mostly I stumbled and grabbed. Books by authors of color, books about the dangerous future. If the book didn’t buoy me, it went back in the library bag and the next one had its shot.
Dozens of authors worked their magic craft, quieting the inner cacophony. They nudged me across the churning waters into places where everyone speaks in a voice other than my own.
Now my feet have found dry land. My land. Interest and pleasure have begun to creep out from where they hunched in shadows. Light returns, and with it the motivation to dance, paint flowerpots, chop garlic, and invite the neighbors out to play. I release my grip on other people’s stories and they in turn surrender me. Books recede.
I will always read, of course. Indeed, another volume just arrived today: Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin. This gift came from a friend whose love of reading eclipses mine, as does his determination to keep a back injury from limiting his life. Ramin’s deep dive already has me hooked. It took effort just now to set her aside in order to walk the dog in the morning sun, in order to write this.
So yes, I will always read, but without the voraciousness of a bibliophile in the throes of severe depression.
For this sweet, dark chapter, a raft of books kept me afloat. Here are the ones that made the cut. I recommend every one of them.
History for our Times
- Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves, Henry Wiencek. We need to take our third president from under his burnished rotunda and walk him around in unfiltered light. Wiencek tells the shameful story of Jefferson’s willful and steady enrichment of his estate through slavery’s terror. The historical work to build this narrative was clearly painstaking, and Wiencek places the evidence before us with consummate care. If we are to see clearly the ways that dehumanizing laws, policies, and propaganda undergird the accumulation of power and wealth, this is a story we need now more than ever.
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This small marvel of a book is as raw as any intimacy. Coates writes this letter to his young son, a boy at the brink of becoming a man. Coates shares his own story of growing up black and male in America while also offering eloquent, searing insights into the American story we continue to write together. As Toni Morrison says, “This is required reading.”
Speaking of American Stories…
- The Wangs vs. The World, Jade Chang. Against the backdrop of the 2008 financial collapse, an Chinese-American family’s fortunes unravel. We catch them at the very moment in which they stumble out of their lush, ultra-rich existence and land on the hard earth of bankruptcy. A story this calamitous could be agony to read, but it manages the opposite. Somehow, Chang channels enough Hunter S. Thompson to turn this family’s cross-country road trip in an ancient powder-blue Mercedes station wagon — the only family car not repossessed — into a clever, clipped romp. Chang’s style might be tragi-comic, or as George Saunders said of Joy Williams, “that particularly American brand of funny that is made of pain.”
- Lucky Boy, Shanthi Sekaran. A young woman leaves her Mexican village to make the harrowing border crossing, and lands pregnant and undocumented in Berkeley. A middle-class Indian-American woman loses her footing as she and her up-and-coming husband try unsuccessfully to get pregnant. These lives and histories converge around the child, an American citizen whose mother is swept up in ICE’s brutal and largely hidden detention system. Where cultural, racial, and political themes could easily have eclipsed individual lives, Sekaran keeps the characters’ stories at the front. Sekharan’s masterful skill of observation draws on inner landscapes to move the action and relationships towards a resolution that is anything but resolved.
- The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu. In Washington, DC, an Ethiopian immigrant’s dreams of success fizzle as he faces both the limits of his adopted community and his own very human failings. Somehow, he still manages to tap into a kind of gritty abundance. Friendships, neighbors, reluctant hope, and another start — if not a fresh start, perhaps one that’s lukewarm.
- Grace, Natashia Deón. The narrator is the ghost of a woman who escapes slavery and whose one child survives birth only by a dark sliver of fortune. This ghost follows her child and tries over many years — mostly without success — to protect this mixed-race girl growing up in the Civil War-era south. While the time-jumping makes the story occasionally difficult to follow, this patchwork of experiences looms bigger than any neat chronology. Deón tells a raw and unapologetic tale of endurance in a nation committed to dehumanizing people and using them up.
- War Dances, Sherman Alexie. I often avoid short story collections because just as soon as a character or setting has drawn me in, it spits me back out. With Alexie, however, these small heartbreaks are worth enduring because the immersion — as brief as it is — so completely satisfies. Alexie populates his ordinary landscapes with a wide range of human disasters-on-the-brink. Divorces, mid-life crises, boys and fathers, sex and love, work and art, hunger and adventure. The characters are all of us. Alexie reveals what we prefer to keep hidden in ourselves, but secretly revel in witnessing, especially this close up.
- The Loved Ones, Sonya Chung. The lives of two families in Washington, DC converge around the sudden death of a little boy. One family is interracial and struggling in today’s gentrifying city. The other is a cross-class and shunned in yesterday’s (and today’s, as it happens) Korea. The families split along certain fault lines and fuse along others. Secrets, traditions, unspoken yet broken expectations, a kind of uncomfortable redemption.
- Family Life, Akhil Sharma. A family emigrates from India to the United States with the usual disorientation and hope. Soon after, a promising older brother has a crippling accident in a community pool. Largely orphaned by parents consumed with the tragedy and with caring for a disabled son, the younger of the brothers navigates his strange new world: school, changing neighborhoods, culture clashes, and first loves.
- Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley. In the first of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, we meet a Black WWII veteran who is getting through his days in a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Unwilling to kowtow to a white factory boss, he loses his job and finds himself looking for a hustle to pay the mortgage. He takes on a shadowy investigation into the disappearance of a white woman. Reluctant, resistant, and determined to remain his own man, we watch Rawlins morph into the PI who will carry Mosely through more than a dozen mysteries over the next 26 years (and counting).
- On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee. After pollution and overpopulation have rendered cities unlivable, the new world that emerges looks not so different from our own. A young woman leaves her rigidly controlled but safe and productive stronghold to search for both a brother and a boyfriend who have disappeared. She adapts to the strange, cutthroat landscapes of the unregulated counties and to the scrubbed-clean world of the charter lands. This world is being held together by threads of submission and order — threads that are fraying fast.
- The Four Books, Yan Lianke. Banned in China, Lianke’s overlapping stories fill in the dark side of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. We follow a small group of intellectuals, artists, and theologians living in Communist re-education camp as they endure increasingly draconian and bizarre Party commandments. Its absurdity is almost as chilling as its prescience.
Struggle & Revolution
- Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa. Protestors converge on Seattle for the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999. Activists mobilize. A young man who’s been wandering the world begins to make his way home, perhaps to find the stepfather who’d rashly alienated him after his mother’s death. A Sri Lankan delegate, full of optimism, steps off a plane. A chief of police tries to prepare his force for the gathering storm. The story takes place on a single afternoon as the WTO convention transforms into a riot. Yapa carries us from one reference point to the next, each consumed with its own pure gaze and each ultimately cracking open against limits of that gaze.
- This is an Uprising, Mark Engler and Paul Engler. This social history of social movements draws lessons from activist narratives in many corners of the world. The Englers shed light on recent actions — like the Arab Spring — by telling stories of both the successes and failures of earlier uprisings. How do people organize themselves when governments (d)evolve into authoritarian regimes? How have people effectively mobilized in situations of asymmetrical power? This is critical reading for our times.
- Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky. I wrote about it here.
- From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp. Both complement and counterpoint to Alinsky, Gene Sharp distills his decades of nonviolent organizing work into this slim set of lessons. Citizens and activists must implement numerous small, organized, and tactically sound acts within a strategy aimed at undermining oppressive powers and expanding democratic capacity. This is how to hack away at the knees of authoritarian regimes.
Gaiman has been my delicious pleasure. Sharp and shivery, immersive and masterful. These books don’t need descriptions. Read them. Marvels, all.
- American Gods
- Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane
My friends, what books are carrying you through?
Image: Thomas Wightman, Drowning from Obsession