A lot of us are self-isolating right now, whether by choice or by circumstance. And it’s a stressful time, by any definition. It’s an overwhelming time. When I’m stressed, given the option to do anything at all, I like to read. I enjoy getting so absorbed in a book that I lose track of time and forget everything that is happening around me, if only for a period of time. These are the books that I’ve read recently and recommend.
Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, And A Road to Repair from Danielle Sered
From the introduction: But just as it would be wrong to excuse people’s actions simply because they were previously victimized, it is also wrong to ignore someone’s victimization because the person previously broke a law or committed harm. Such a response to violence reinforces the notion that some people deserve to be hurt: the exact thinking about violence that we have to uproot if we are to end it.
I’m midway through this book now. As expected, it’s a serious book that covers some very heavy subject material but it is also an exceedingly hopeful book and I am so grateful for that. In times of struggle I find myself buoyed by the idealists among us and their capacity for empathy and compassion and imagination.
Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
From the prologue: All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It took a student from the University of Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spotted the graves, Jody said, “The dirt looked wrong.” The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds.
The fictionalized ‘Nickel Academy’ in Whitehead’s book is based on the Arthur G Dozier School for Boys (aka Florida School for Boys) that operated in Florida from 1900 until 2011. Whitehead weaves a wrenching tale about two boys, Elwood and Turner, and their harrowing experiences at the juvenile reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida. Yes, this book will tear your heart out. Yes, it will haunt you. But it is also achingly beautiful and thoughtful.
I highly suggest that you also read the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Underground Railroad, from the same author. It was one of my favourite reads last year.
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.
I know- I’m late to the game with this one. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale so much that I was hesitant to read Atwood’s follow-up, years on the heels of her much acclaimed book. I worried that it would be like so many movie sequels, much anticipated and sorely missing the mark. It doesn’t, for me. I suspect the key to enjoying this book is setting your expectations in advance. Is The Testaments an instant classic in the way that The Handmaid’s Tale was? No. Will you barrel through it all the same? I expect so.
Also see Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The Year of the Flood was my favourite among the books but there’s never been a better time to settle in with a good series.
Doppler, Erlend Loe
I spend a whole day enthusiastically humming a melody I can’t place. I’m feeling on top of the world as I cheerfully chip away at the bark on the totem pole. Bits fly off into the forest as I work my way round the trunk, lost in my own world, humming and whistling all the while. Snatches of the lyrics begin to emerge by the evening, and I sing them uncritically for quite a time before I realise, in a cold sweat, that what I’m churning out is the signature tune to an Australian TV show, Bananas in Pyjamas. Not even out here in the forest am I spared the poisoned darts of children’s culture.
I returned to this book, once again, for comic relief that was sorely needed. As the cover states, it is “an enchanting modern fable about one man and his moose.” It is wickedly funny, subversive, poignant, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance
One of Papaw’s good friends- a hillbilly from Kentucky whom he met in Ohio- became the mail carrier in their neighbourhood. Not long after he moved, the mail carrier got embroiled in a battle with the Middletown government over the flock of chickens that he kept in his yard. He treated them just as Mamaw had treated her chickens back in the holler: Every morning he collected all the eggs, and when his chicken population grew too large, he’d take a few of the old ones, wring their necks, and carve them up for meat right in his backyard. You can just imagine a well-bred housewife watching out the window in horror as her Kentucky-born neighbor slaughtered chickens just a few feet away. My sister and I still call the old mail “the chicken man,” and years later even a mention of how the city government ganged up on the chicken man could inspire Mamaw’s trademark vitriol: “Fucking zoning laws. They can kiss my ruby-red asshole.”
I have, of course, heard the criticism of Hillbilly Elegy. I’m honestly not far enough into the book to judge. The criticism that it’s not representative of the whole, lived experience seems to miss the point that this is Vance’s memoir but I’m still early in and maybe I will come to understand the sensitivity to his account as I progress through the book. (See Inside Appalachia for Appalachian Reckoning: Writers Respond to JD Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy.)
In my queue:
The Topeka School, Ben Lerner
Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.
I was catching up on podcasts recently and heard an interview on The Sunday Edition with Ben Lerner, from back in November. I already had The Topeka School on my wish list and by the end of the interview I knew I had to buy it. (Here’s a link to the interview: The Sunday Edition with Ben Lerner.)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson was a gifted young attorney when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the furthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man sentenced to die for a notorious murder he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinkmanship- and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
I have been a fan of Bryan Stevenson for many years. This book had been on my wish list for a long time. I recently heard that his story had been made into a movie. Naturally I can’t see the movie without first reading the book so it’s now on my nightstand.
Daisy Jones and the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid
From the book jacket: Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock ‘n’ roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of beauty that makes people do crazy things.
If there is an ‘odd man out’ of all the books on my shelves, this is it. This is one of those times when I decided to throw caution to the wind and buy something that I wouldn’t normally choose for myself. Feeling kind of wild, kind of reckless. Also wondering if I shouldn’t have gone with a safer choice. We’ll see.
What have you got on your nightstand? Any books that you’d highly recommend either hitting or missing? I’m always in search of my next good read and I love to hear what books have moved someone, transported them to another time or place, or simply informed and expanded their understanding of a subject. Share your favourites in the comments section below. And take care of yourself and each other during this difficult time.