Here are some books I read this year! I made my goal of reading more than last year, if by one. A striking fact this year is how many of these I reviewed or taught, and how many are by friends or acquaintances, which speaks to nothing but my good fortune and good taste in friends. Another is how I pretty much liked all of them. There’s also some interesting overlaps/discussion with Josh’s list.
Thomas Geogehan, Which Side Are You On? I didn’t learn much about the labor movement until I got involved in grad unions. I learned what the NLRB was when I was asked to testify in front of it. As I met more lefties who were involved in the union movement through many hard years, I noticed they all had a copy of this 1990 book on their shelves, and a lot of them had stories about Geogehan. I finally picked it up this year and couldn’t put it down. Geogehan is an amazing storyteller and something like the Zelig through the world of unions when they came up against Reaganism head-on. The description of how the Chicago steel mills died gutted me. Unfortunately the circling storytelling mean it wouldn’t teach well (I think) but anyone coming to the labor movement should read it.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, eds. The Feminist Memoir Project. A great oral history collection by many important voices that corrects a lot of myths about the movement. Set aside all the what ails feminism think pieces and read this instead.
Mark and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. I reviewed this for the DSA journal. This book by my friend and comrade Mark and his brother bring their long experience of social movements to bear on figuring out the art of revolts that seem to come from nowhere but never do. All activists should have it on their hope-in-the-dark shelf.
Therese Svoboda, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. I reviewed this one for Open Letters Monthly. It’s not a perfect book but it’s a solid introduction into yet another great woman writer/activist you’ve probably never heard of.
Kristen Hogan, The Feminist Bookstore Movement. I reviewed this for The New Republic. It’s a great account of something I’ve been trying to write about and am really interested in: how the feminist movement of the 70s was fundamentally a project of public intellectuals and what seem like very inward tend-your-garden projects were an important part of this hegemonic shift.
Sarah Jaffe, Necessary Trouble. Another one for the resistance shelf by a comrade I’m lucky enough to call a friend. Where Mark and Paul’s book is more about social movement theory with examples from across history and country, Sarah focuses on recent movements in the states, which she’s been covering as a journalist for years. The stories she tells are of the people from Occupy, from anti-foreclosure struggles, from Black Lives Matter who have been doing the work and will keep doing it, and these are the stories we need to understand.
Sheila Rowbthobm, Rebel Crossings. Hopefully will have a review of this one coming out soon. An intersection of the themes of all my non-fiction: stories of forgotten-ish rebels you’ve never heard of that give up, in this case from a pioneer of feminist history and a grade-A rebel herself.
Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos. Well, it can’t be all hope. I gave a chapter of this to a seminar I’m part of about globalizing the curriculum and we had a great discussion so I read the whole book. It’s an examination of how climate change is and will create politic instability and carry on the legacy of cold war and colonial histories that devastated the global south. It speaks to our moment in a way that the word frightening doesn’t begin to describe.
David Kay Johnson’s The Making of Donald Trump. One more for the dark side. I picked this up at Josh’s parents for a little light Christmas reading. I agree with a lot of comrades that HRC’s decision to personalize Trump, to focus on his vulgarity, was a mistake, and we would be better off understanding the current moment through the lens of the terrifying Republican domination from top to bottom.
Still, Trump is a fascinating person to my narrative-inclined brain. Trying to find a narrative of why he happened as so many morning after pieces have done is a fraught enterprise. But what reading Johnson’s book made me realize was that more simply I didn’t really even have a good narrative of who he was. I knew the outlines of the spoiled rich kid, the cheating and mobbed up real estate dealings, the tabloid celebrity and racist entry into the political fray. But reading step by step how Trump not only cheated his way to where he was, but how he was enabled at every step. Forget today’s cowardly “never Trump” Republicans or the feeble Dems and think about all the cowards like John Degnan who gave us Trump.
John Degnan was the attorney general of New Jersey. When Trump was trying to establish his casino in Atlantic City, he refused to go in front of the board that was vetting owners for corruption. Instead, he went to right to Degnan. He threatened that unless the approval was sped up he would not build on the land he’d already bought, or that he’d use his muscle to get New York to allow him a casino on the other side of the river. Degnan, anxious not to make enemies while planning a run for governor, caved.
I’m sure the movie has bad politics, but whenever I hear a story like that I always remember the look on noble Paul Scofield’s face when a man who betrays him shows off a fancy pendant, saying he’s won some noble title over Wales: “it profit a man not to sell his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?” Degnan didn’t even sell it for Jersey: he lost the election.
But there are also people in the book like Harry Diduck, a dissent union member who took the unfathomable brave step of suing Trump, his corrupt union and Met Life for wages and benefit owed the Polish brigade, the undocumented workers who built Trump Tower without basic safety equipment, and Libby Handross, whose documentary Trump suppressed with lawsuits. Here’s to more of their spirit in 2017.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child Where to start? I’ve always been jealous of people who are always immersed in some long series or another. This was the most immersive reading experience I’ve had in a long time – walking around thinking the streets should resemble Naples, imagined arguments with the characters in my head. I spent a good deal of time sort-of arguing with Josh about these books: he was much harder on Elena than I was – I identified with her struggle to escape the neighborhood even knowing it’s doomed and even though I wanted to scream at her as she took up with that damn Nino. But I don’t really disagree with what he says in his post: that, through Ferrante and thus through Elena, we are meant to Lila’s refusal to achieve, to separate herself from the neighborhood, and above all her unhappiness are a noble refusal, the great no. I think I see that no more in terms of her temperament and not a choice: she could not accept the world even if she wanted to, and in a way that makes her refusal more tragic than noble. But maybe this is always the case with refusers: they resist because they cannot do otherwise.
But I also want to try to understand more about the writing, why it works so well. She doesn’t go in for too many bravura set pieces (Lila’s wedding at the end of the first book, when we see the whole of the community arrayed and ready to swallow her, is a notable exception). There isn’t a lot of showily brilliant sentence by sentence passages. A bit like Alice Munro, at a certain point you marvel at what has been constructed and wonder how the hell she did it. Some of the things that will stay with me: how, at the beginning of book 2, we feel the abusive marriage Lila has entered take hold and the walls of what the marriage means in her town close in: it’s the best depiction of how patriarchy exists and replicates itself I’ve ever seen. Elena’s wonder as she witnesses a young activist at university breastfeeding at a political meeting. Elena tending to her mother’s death and realizing the only alive part of her mother his her own body. Before I read them, I saw a writer friend I admire post something like “Book 2; page xxx. She never has to say who she is. She knows.” I don’t know what page it was but it doesn’t matter. Ferrante knows.
Justin Torres, We The Animals I wrote about this for Open Letters Monthly for their year of reading feature. Short version: teaching this gorgeous novella in stories was the best teaching a book experience I’ve had in years. Teach this book!
Michelle Tea, Black Wave In a year of books that came to be close to my heart, this one has a special place for how much it speaks to my Gen-X-went-to a woman’s college in the 90s heart, and also because I got to review it for a certain publication you may have heard of.
Jonathan Ames, I Love You More than You Know I didn’t really read any bad books this year but if pressed this was one of my least favorite. I was curious about Ames and enjoy some of the anecdotes here but the sad/funny/bitter tone of these personal essays is always a bit off for me.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me I’m hoping to teach this one sometime, especially if I teach creative non-fiction. I think what some of the debate around the book – and some of the praise too – missed was that this isn’t a book that can be reduced to its argument. The comparison to Baldwin is apt not just because of the content but because of how they use the essay – they can be polemical and righteous but they convey the texture of their experience in a way the reader needs to experience – what it’s like to know the state can kill you with impunity, for instance. The description being raised with Black nationalism and of finding “the Mecca” at Howard even while realizing its limitations spoke to some of my experiences of going to an all-women’s college. Some people find this unrigorous – but I think you can’t understand the movements we have and the movements we need without spending some time with the experiences that make it necessary. And while I understand the critiques of its seeming fatalism – the conclusion – which he expresses not as argument but as felt reality, the demand for hope is ultimately a moral claim not an intellectual one and so we have to deal with it on this turf. Anyways you should read it. It’s stayed in my mind in large part thanks to this meditation on it (among other things), definitely on my top list of High Holiday sermons, if I were ever to make such a list.
Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style This doesn’t really fit any category. A series of variations on the same anecdote, I use it in creative writing courses to ensure they pay attention to language particulars from the get-go. Not really made to be read straight through, but I did it because that’s how I roll.
Jenny Diski, In Gratitude Up there with Ferrante and Torres on the reads that will stick me this year, a series of essays by the writer who died this year, chronicling her sort of adoption by Doris Lessing and her cancer. I read the first essay that makes up the book in LRB and then skipped the others until the book came out because I couldn’t just enter her world and stay for only a time. At the end of that first essay, about her diagnosis, after lamenting that she doesn’t want to write another fucking cancer diary, she says, all right then: I have cancer and I’m writing, and all I could think was that I might be closer to the acceptance of death if I could ever write half as well as her.
Kristen Dombek, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism. The other one I reviewed for Open Letters Monthly this year. A strange book, I wasn’t sure what to make of it though I think Dombek is brilliant and you should read all her pieces for n+1.
Kathryn Harrison, Seeking Rapture. A series of autobiographical essays. I think I actually got this from one of those “take a book/leave a book” kiosks. There’s some good essays about childhood, religious longing and motherhood here. She’s an elegant, cool stylist in a way that might turn some off but that appeals to me.
Anne Sexton, Words for Dr. Y. A posthumous collection of her work – great mixed back with exploration of therapy and great pieces for imitations and exercise like horoscope poems.
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn. A real find for me this year – poems that are narrative, interesting reference points, conversational but poetic – a glimpse into a history and a mind at play.
Sherman Alexie, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned A super-fun collection with sonnets and odes filled with pop-culture – hoping this combination works well to teach these forms in my next CW class.
Philip Levine, What Work Is. The title poem has long been one of my favorites but somehow I hadn’t read the full collection until now. Levine writes above all about his native Michigan, memory, and, of course, work. I started the book a little before the election and after it happened, when I couldn’t sleep or concentrate on anything, I picked it up again to push the latest awfulness aside for a few more minutes. “Among Children” is the one I keep coming back to.
I walk among the rows of bowed heads–
the children are sleeping through fourth grade
so as to be ready for what is ahead,
the monumental boredom of junior high
and the rush forward tearing their wings
loose and turning their eyes forever inward.
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You can see
already how their backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams. I would like
to sit down among them and read slowly
from The Book of Job until the windows
pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
with light, her foolish words transformed
into song, I would like to arm each one
with a quiver of arrows so that they might
rush like wind there where no battle rages
shouting among the trumpets, Hal Ha!
How dear the gift of laughter in the face
of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings
without coffee and oranges, the long lines
of mothers in old coats waiting silently
where the gates have closed. Ten years ago
I went among these same children, just born,
in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned
down to hear their breaths delivered that day,
burning with joy. There was such wonder
in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes
dosed against autumn, in their damp heads
blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one
turned against me or the light, not one
said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,
not one complained or drifted alone,
unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.
Eleven years from now they will become
the men and women of Flint or Paradise,
the majors of a minor town, and I
will be gone into smoke or memory,
so I bow to them here and whisper
all I know, all I will never know.