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The Best of What I’m Reading: Late 2020 and Early 2021

The beginning of 2021 has been excellent for reading, not just for the quantity but the quality as well. In fact, the time since my last book review post — written around the time I started my current job — has been full of good books with few true flops. Since there are so many books to cover I’ll just summarize the books with the highlights… even if that means most of the books.

Fiction

The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods) by N.K. Jemisin: I started reading the first book in this trilogy around the time I started my current job. These books star an outcast of the royal family who gets summoned back to the royal city and is named one of the possible heirs to the throne. There are gods who get into shenanigans and power struggles and fantasy politics. And even though I found myself struggling to keep up in parts (whether this is due to balancing two jobs and the rest of my life again or generally not having an attention span anymore, I’m not sure), I still enjoyed the whole series. Now to carve out some time to read the Broken Earth trilogy…

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: I read this book over the holidays and it hit hard. Not because of any violent content, but because the book takes on white saviors and wokeness in a way a lot of us will recognize, whether in ourselves or in others. What does it mean to be aware of racial issues? Can you make up for your past? Can you be antiracist for purely selfish reasons? There’s also an “only in America” topic I hadn’t seen in a book before: the main character has no idea what to do with her life, and she’s scrambling to figure out what she’ll do once she turns 26 and gets kicked off her parents’ health insurance. Too real.

Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas: Oh yes, this is the book we’ve been waiting for. I’m amazed I didn’t hear about this book sooner before its release since we already know some of the cast. This book takes you back to Garden Heights, but Starr’s parents are teens in the 90s, and Maverick’s life gets turned upside down when he finds out he’s a father. Shit gets real when dealing with the drug life alluded to in THUG. Mav’s commentary on topics like reading all those white dudes in English class is spot on. And the book is narrated primarily in AAVE! That’s something you don’t see much. It took some getting used to since I don’t communicate in AAVE, but I could hear Mav’s voice in my head perfectly throughout the book.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: This book is beautiful, tragic, hopeful, and poetic all at once. It follows twelve characters — mostly Black women in London, some of them queer (and one non-binary!) — through their lives, and these stories often intersect. You think you know a secondary character from one narrative only for her to get her own narrative, and after their own narrative you feel a lot of sympathy for the crotchety teacher or the uppity finance executive. Their struggles are as varied and relatable as the characters, even if I’ve never experienced being Black or an immigrant or an emotional abuse survivor. And even though I loved The Testaments, GWO should have won the Booker Prize outright.

Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro: I feel obliged to warn you: this is a very good book, but it is not a happy book. Moss is Black, fat, and queer. He has panic attacks. And now his dilapidated school feels more and more like jail. The instances of police brutality in this book focus not just on race but also on disability, class, and sexuality/gender identity and how these intersect, which is something that not everyone is aware of. The cast is diverse and a great example of how queer kids tend to find each other in a friend group. And despite the cast size, I did eventually figure out who was who among the full group of friends. The main romance is sweet but uhhh spoilers.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas: I heard a lot of good things about this book, and it lived up to the hype. Yadriel is gay, trans, and Latinx, and he just wants his family to accept him as a brujo, who can lead spirits to the afterlife. But when he summons the school’s bad boy back from the dead and the bad boy is not like Yads expected, well… things happen. I’m not trans or Latinx myself but Yadriel’s struggles felt relatable and realistic, especially with a family that speaks a gendered language and is deeply rooted in tradition. They try and fuck up but they learn from it. That said, there is some transphobia in the book, especially in the earlier parts. I also loved the relationships he has with his whole family and especially his cousin Maritza, who could be a bruja but refuses because doing so would violate her veganism. Also, he lives in a cemetery. How cool is that?

Nonfiction

Now let’s get into the nonfiction books. Since there are so many and some of these are from over six months ago, I’m going to go by broad topic instead of discussing each individual book since hitting the high points for each book is more difficult this far into the future.

Race and Society – This is an area I’ve been trying to shore up my knowledge for a variety of reasons. That said, reading all these books does not automatically make me an expert, and claiming that would only make me one of those performative woke folks in Such a Fun Age discussed earlier. Some highlights from this part of my reading:

How We Fight White Supremacy: an essay collection from Black writers and creators ranging from activism to simply existing in a world build to benefit white people. As with many essay collections from multiple authors, your mileage may vary but I enjoyed it.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Robin DiAngelo) is Antiracism 101, the book to hand to folks who think they’re not racist because they have Black friends or don’t throw slurs around. DiAngelo argues that racism is so deeply woven into our society that everyone is participating in the racist system. This book may feel too elementary for folks who have a basic understanding of racial issues, but I still recommend reading it, especially if you’re white.

How to Be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi): Part autobiography, part history, part social commentary, makes the argument that you can’t just not be racist. You have to choose to be anti-racist and work to end racism (which I’ve been sold on over time). Kendi is honest about his own past problematic views, which is important for anyone shifting to an antiracist worldview.

The End of Policing (Alex S. Vitale): This is a classic book about ending policing, not just ending overpolicing. Policing is a topic that has been in the spotlight over the past year or so for obvious reasons, and it’s one I have complicated feelings on. On one hand, I would love to defund the police and put those funds toward community programs and harm reduction. On the other hand, Chauvin and Zimmerman and people who commit comparable crimes should rot in jail. The author takes on a wide variety of topics that are overpoliced, including drugs, sex work, homelessness, and protests, and shows how we choose to slap a criminal record on folks instead of treating the actual problem (if there is one in the first place).

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Isabel Wilkerson): This was an Oprah book club selection. Wilkerson makes the argument that race in America is a caste system, and even if you marry outside of your race or gain a good job, you’re still stuck in your caste. She also goes deep into the history of caste and how race has become a caste system. There’s a lot of information to digest in this book, and some of it is unsettling, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Beverly Daniel Tatum): I listened to the 20th anniversary edition published in 2017, updated with more contemporary examples but with the same base material. The author was the president of Spelman College during my college years, so she probably spoke at my alma mater at some point. This book goes into the psychology of race and racial identity, along with how race plays a role in our self-image. While most of the book concentrates on Black racial identity, there are also sections on how people in other racial groups (including multiracial! yes!) use their race to form their identity.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex (Angela Chen): The author is ace, which made me pick up the book without fearing a train wreck. It was… whatever the opposite of a train wreck is. In fact, it was downright illuminating. There are personal stories, from herself and from others. She discusses intersections, like disability, race, gender, and mental and physical health. And it’s not just about asexuality–she discusses so-called “traditional” desire and sexuality and romance and how everyone, including allo (non-ace) people, can benefit from questioning these things. She’s also inclusive of the entire ace and aro spectrum, acknowledging that she is demisexual herself. I think everyone can learn something from this book, ace or not.

History and Politics – This is another area where my education and apathy have both failed me, especially in the political arena. So much history goes into the world of understanding the current political atmosphere and how such situations have happened before, and I’m trying to understand that now. Why do we live in an “Us vs Them” state? Why can’t people understand that giving a damn about others is a good thing?

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor): If, like me, you haven’t heard of the Combahee River Collective, do you some learning. They were a group centered around the needs of Black lesbian feminism in the 1970s and introduced concepts like intersectionality and identity politics. This book interviews the founders and discusses their impact. If nothing else, go read the original statement they crafted.

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains (Kerri Arsenault): This book tells the story of a mill town–paper mill, that is. The mill provided a lot of jobs, but also contributed to destroying the environment and the health of many of the town’s residents. The author grew up in the area and dug deep years later, discovering the mysterious cancers that seemed to crop up in people in this area, the ways in which state departments would cover up that data, and then how Nestle bought water rights in the area after the mills closed, which makes you wonder how safe the water is to drink.

Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality (Sarah McBride): I listened to this over the summer before discovering she was a Delaware state Senate candidate. Sarah is a LGBTQ+ activist and now the first trans state senator, and she came out as trans while serving as student government president. The memoir tells her story: her young political involvement, coming out, interning at the White House as the first openly trans intern, activism, and finding love. She recognizes her own relative privilege–being white, from a well-off and supportive family, knowing people in the political sphere (she worked on political campaigns for a past Delaware governor and past Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden)–and uses that as her reason for speaking out for others who don’t have the same. Overall her compassion and strong emotions make this book worth reading.

Ok Boomer, Let’s Talk: A Millennial Defense of Our Generation (Jill Filipovic): I want to throw this book at every person who thinks millennials are young entitled kids these days. Never mind the fact that the oldest millennials are turning 40 and many of us are checking the 35-44 age box now. The author doesn’t just point out how millennials were screwed from the start, but also points out how we got here, how young boomers were perceived in their day and how boomers (many of whom are the parents of millennials) made millennials and our world into the world it is now. We didn’t care about participation trophies; our boomer parents gave us the participation trophies. Young boomers were seen the same way kids these days are now, even when they were young. The author addresses the systemic racism and climate change topics that have come to light over the years, along with the issue that boomers are still in power and refusing to let go of that power. (Maybe because they can’t find another job? Relatable.)

Why We’re Polarized (Ezra Klein): Klein is a politics journalist, and he does a fine job of breaking down the history of politics and how our values have become synonymous with our politics in recent years. The thing is, it’s not a recent development. From the Jim Crow era to the way we consume media, the way we connect with people like us has connected and divided us at the same time. The same political party that supports one issue suddenly doesn’t a few years later because the other party does support it. (Sound familiar?) The people who consume political news regularly are the ones most interested in it. (Hello extremely online folks.) One of the suggestions I like is to concentrate more on local and state politics since you can have more of an influence there, as opposed to yelling at national-level representatives who don’t even represent you. This is one piece of advice I’m trying to take to heart.

The Ones We’ve Been Waiting for: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America (Charlotte Alter): This book tells the stories of millennials in politics, sprinkling the stories with the major events that drove millennials’ lives: school shootings, 9/11, these wars that have no purpose or end, Hurricane Katrina, coming of age during the Great Recession, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter… The stories features some of the millennials you’d expect, like AOC and Pete Buttigieg (now Secretary of Transportation), but there are other political millennials not in the national spotlight, like Braxton Winston (Charlotte City Council) and Svante Myrick (mayor of Ithaca, New York). While the featured folks in this book are primarily Democrats due to the way this generation is swinging, Republicans Max Crenshaw and Elise Stefanik also have a presence. I’d love to hear how the author thinks they’re shaping politics now, considering this book was published in February 2020, before the pandemic got real and well before the election and insurrection attempt.

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Olou): I spent most of this book silently screaming “THIS! MOTHERFUCKING THIS!” (Okay, it might have happened out loud a few times.) This book details how American society has historically benefited the mediocre white dude, diving into America’s backstory and returning to the present, where society praises white dudes for every little progressive step, and how this has hurt everyone by design. Yes, that includes the white dudes who aren’t as successful, because they may think a non-white, non-male person took that success away when they’re not putting in the work themselves, or they’re also suffering from a society that white dudes created.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (Jessica Bruder): It never occurred to me that yes, folks exist who travel around in RVs and work on location, but there’s even a whole community of them doing this: some out of necessity, some for fun (the folks I had in mind). This book covers both but mostly the folks doing this to make ends meet, especially older adults who lost their jobs during the Great Recession and couldn’t find new ones. The author hops into an RV and lives this lifestyle herself for awhile, going from RV conventions to parks to the Sugar Beet Harvest. (Yes, that’s a thing.) It’s a fascinating read, but it makes me sad for the people who were left behind by the recession and may be working themselves to death. Also, hearing about Amazon exploiting seniors through its CamperForce program makes me hate Amazon more.

Lurking: How a Person Became a User (Joanne McNeil): This book is one part memoir, one part history. The author touches on her own online experiences and how they shaped her (and the world), from the early days of online privacy and anonymity to the present day when the first thing you do with a new person in your life is check out their online presence. She looks at the good and bad at internet history and how it has shaped us all. I particularly enjoyed the anti-Facebook diatribe. If you’re interested in internet communities and history, read this book.

Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation (Anne Helen Petersen): This is the book inspired by the Buzzfeed essay about millennial burnout. If nothing else, I highly recommend reading that essay; I was almost crying throughout parts of it. While the author does a good job at relating this burnout across race and social class, the book isn’t so good at pointing out what aspects of this burnout are uniquely millennial, as a lot of the problems discussed affect everyone who isn’t ultra-rich. Also of note: the author offers no solutions to this burnout because the causes are systemic, not something a vacation or a few massages can magically fix. I had no problem with this because she’s right, but apparently other reviewers did. Huh.

Memoir and Biography – I was going to put these in the other topics where they fit, but there were too many and some of them fit in multiple categories or would be the only book in their category, so here we go.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir (Samra Habib): The author tells her story: being raised in Pakistan and Canada, her arranged marriage, ending that arranged marriage, discovering that she wasn’t straight, and reconciling it with her faith in Islam. She started a photography project on Tumblr to showcase other queer Muslims, which you can still view there. Sadly but unsurprisingly, it was difficult to find people who were willing to be photographed for this project at first due to the taboo of homosexuality in many sects of the faith, but this project has been important in helping other queer Muslims and the author see people like them. The memoir was a story I never would have heard about in my own adventures, and I’m glad I read it.

Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America (María Hinojosa): Hinojosa is a journalist and founder of Futuro Media Group, which focuses on Latinx issues. She has an long career in journalism, including CNN and PBS, and this memoir talks about that. But it also talks about immigration, as she is an immigrant from Mexico, the racism and sexism she encountered in her career, the politics of immigration over time, and a bit about her own life. Overall I enjoyed learning more about an acclaimed journalist I had never heard of before.

With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Community Activism (Laura L. Lovett): While you’ve probably heard of Gloria Steinem, it’s less likely that you’ve heard about the Black women she worked with during the 60s and 70s. This is a biography of one of them, Black activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes. I hadn’t heard of her before listening to this, and while her Wikipedia article provides a short summary, there are still stories to tell from that. She raised bail money for protesters, started a childcare center for working mothers, co-founded Ms. Magazine, founded multiple small businesses, and so much more. I hope someone writes a more complete biography one day because she’s still alive.

How We Fight For Our Lives (Saeed Jones): Jones is a poet, and his memoir recounts growing up Black and gay in Texas and his search for identity. Nothing is TMI in this book. He talks about his sexual encounters in college and young adulthood, including some destructive ones that were hard to read. He also talks about his close family and his relationship with his mother, who raised him alone. I’m gonna have to pick up some of his poetry.

Whew, those are a lot of books, and these are just the ones I really liked. I’m not sure what’s coming next. I’m still walking 25km a week to reach level 48 in Pokemon Go, and then I have a lot of walking to do for my shiny Mew, and some audiobooks will keep me occupied through all that walking.

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