Back in the day, whenever life got too crazy-making, my go-to refuges were the library and the bar. On a really bad day, I might visit both. Although bars don’t figure prominently in my life now, I still turn to libraries for safety, for diversion, and for an atmosphere of reason. I turn to books in hope of making sense of this crazy-making world, or my own crazy-making brain. And I turn to books to better understand evil, a purpose more imperative now than at any other time in my sixty years on earth.
In the last year, I’ve read some spectacular books. In this same period, I’ve witnessed unthinkable attacks by the American government on Americans, and on American values of community, compassion, and equality. I haven’t felt at ease in reading for pleasure only. Staying alert, informed, and active has taken on a new urgency for me – but man-oh-man do I need the escape of being swept up in someone else’s story.
The books listed here (in no particular order) both pulled me into their stories and explicitly engaged me with the public world. They gave me strength and bits of wisdom to carry back to the fray, and they gave me a more comprehensive understanding of some of the major issues we face in the 21st century: patriarchal violence, racism, environmental degradation, and the legacies of personal traumas visited on our communities.
Stamped from the Beginning: a history of racist ideas by Ibram Kendi
I heard Dr. Kendi read from his book while he was still on the faculty at University of Florida, near where I live. He is an incandescent speaker who connects easily with his audience, and he strikes a conversational tone in the book as he imparts the history of racism. Dr.Kendi’s thesis is fresh, and clear: racist policies create racist ideas and beliefs, and they all feed on each other. I was a history major in college, and I’ve read widely since then on the history of the South, but I’ve never had that history presented to me through this lens. The book made me question myself and my community and commit to anti-racist work.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Like Roxane Gay, I’ve written memoir, so one thing that truly fascinated me about this book was watching her choices as a writer, and how she built suspense by telling the reader what she wouldn’t reveal – and then, sometimes, revealing it. Aside from the craft lessons the book contains, the story of Gay’s hunger, her relationship to her body, and the wider culture’s reactions to her is engrossing. In some sections, I felt swept up into her life and thought, and throughout the book I found my assumptions about trauma and body image both reinforced and challenged. This is a book of significant complexity.
Barkskins by E. Annie Proulx
Sometimes I want a long book I can fall into. At 736 pages, Proulx’s latest novel is one of those, and although it took me a while to get through it, whenever I picked it up, I was right back in the scene. Proulx is a demon for facts, and in reading, I learned a whole lot about the timber industry’s beginnings, and what might be its end. This is a family chronicle drawn inside the human dream of entitlement – entitlement to resources, entitlement to the earth’s bounty, entitlement to profit. By necessity, then, it lays out the history of depletion.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
This novel explores the interior life of a man on death row, revealing bit by bit the events that led to his incarceration. In the process, Denfeld reveals that yes, we are all of us human, no matter our crimes or our fantasies. Without ever falling into a didactic mode, the story keeps insisting on the deep connections we all share. I was wholly in the spell of this book.
The Child Finder — also by Rene Denfeld
It was a happy day when I came across Denfeld’s work, and the prospect of a third novel by her makes me even happier. The Child Finder is a can’t-put-it-down puzzle. Together with the protagonist, you will be frantic to find the missing child. Beyond the compelling plot line, the novel offers insights into the nature and longevity of trauma and the ways that our personal obsessions can bleed into our work.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I listened to this book in 15 minute increments on my commute to and from work. This was probably a good thing; it allowed me significant breathing room between sessions. Informed by violence, this novel still manages exquisitely tender depictions of friendships among five men who meet as college students. One friend, Jude, survivor of a horrendous childhood, is both the protagonist and antagonist of this story. His struggles, his intelligence, and his decisions will stay with you.
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I wish all of us all the best for 2018.
It’s winter now, even here in North Florida where I write from. We’ve earned a little respite. Time to snuggle down with a good book.