2017 was a….well it was a year. And for a host of reasons, I got behind in my book reading.
I feel like I was reading up a storm in the beginning and end of the year and not so much in the middle.
One reason is taking my first science class in ages, which meant hours I might have spent reading glorious fiction, went to reading about mitosis and covalent bonds and the like.
But as a reader — I had a string of books that were either long, weighty, or that I trudged through. And I feel as a reader that when I get an amazing book, and then pick up another amazing book, I get in a rhythm in which I crave more reading. When I get stuck in a bad book that never ends, the urge to find the next book and get going decreases.
Before my class starts again I thought I would write some reviews/reflections/thoughts on what I read. Below is the first 15, and I’ll post the last 15 in another post shortly.
Enjoy these haphazard pieces of writing, critiques, stream of consciousness thoughts about books and authors, and in general, 2017 recommendations.
1. Swing Time – Zadie Smith
I really loved White Teethe, Zadie Smith’s first book written at age 23. Is there anything more humbling or depressing, that Smith wrote that comic-drama masterpiece at that age? I liked On Beauty less. I really enjoyed NW, which people apparently hate. I was excited to pick up her new book. Swing Time, which is centrally about a friendship between two mixed-race women in working-class London, started great. In fact, I wanted to love this book. But the book suffers greatly once the characters grow up and the central focus of the NW quadrant of the city and childhood are left behind. For me, the book fell flat like some bad tap-dancing. (And I say tap dancing because this is one of the elements of the story, as well as the title, which references the racist black-face movie of the same name starring Fred Astaire.) Skip this book.
2. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories – Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin writes short stories like I have never read. I read this collection a year ago, and I have a strong urge to buy my own copy and read it again. Berlin’s stories are made up of sparsely written sentences brimming with emotion, despair, joy, and comedy. She writes dialogue in ways that are simple and matter of fact, and can only be described as just-so-real.
She wrote prolifically about everything in her life. Stories from her childhood growing up in mine camps in the States and Chile. An adulthood across the West Coast and Mexico. Stories from her countless odds and ends jobs: from being a nurse to a cleaning lady, to telephone switch operator. Stories about her relationships to her family and her children. Aching stories about her struggles with alcoholism pepper the collection. Sadly, she reached widespread critical acclaim about 15 years after she died. Pick this book up tomorrow.
3. The Buddha in the Attic -Julie Otsuka
After such a surprising book by Berlin, I stumbled onto another book that was also unique. Buddha in the Attic is made up of a half a dozen or so chapters that are all constructed in the same elegant and beautiful way. Every single sentence of every chapter reflects one individual perspective and thought. The subsequent sentence another perspective, and so on. Each chapter slowly describes a disparate but connected collective experience. And they are written in a way that the cascading sentences swallow you up into countless women’s lives across time.
Otsuka uses this amazing literary tool to explore the experiences of Japanese women who travel over to the United States as “picture brides” for Japanese men. It then follows these women in their time in California, various experiences of work, questions of assimilation and culture of their children, all the way to the Japanese internment camps during WWII. Take an afternoon and read this fantastic book.
4. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination -Sarah Schulman
Sarah Schulman is a novelist and playwright. Yet, my experience with her is as a queer leftist engaging in politics. This book digs into the devastating AIDS crisis that our society has still not confronted, and the subsequent trauma and destruction in NYC. She describes conversations with her students and people struggling with HIV today and realizes: people, queer and straight folks alike, are ignorant of this history. 9/11 memorials pepper NYC, yet the AIDS crisis, caused by the government’s intentional silence and failure to respond to needs of those who were deemed outside the norms of society (mostly gay men, but all queer people, artists, drug-users, sex-workers etc) has been erased from our memory. This erasure occurs alongside and is dependent on an acceptance of mainstream gay lifestyles, which has increasingly occurred.
The essays connects this trauma and its relationship to gentrification. Materially, for example, in the massive turnover of apartments and homes owned and rented by gay men in neighborhoods like the Village, which were subsequently gentrified. But moreover, she delves into its cultural ramifications in which this gentrification represents a process and erasure of city life, arts, and culture.
There are many gems in this thin book of essays, despite one of her reactionary chapters about having children as a complete rejection of queer politics (I’d point to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts as a perfect rejection of that reaction…). Some gems include analysis of ACT UP organizing; the shifting nature of theater, art, and queer creative writing. Ultimately, it is her examination of assimilationist queer politics that developed in reaction to a deep trauma that struck me most: how does one move forward after witnessing all your people’s rapid and untimely death? (She briefly compares this reactive queer assimilation to Jewish assimilation post-Holocaust, which I also found interesting.)
After you pick up the book, check out United In Anger: A history of ACT UP, a documentary she helped produce. The film is “a grassroots perspective – how a small group of men and women of all races and classes, came together to change the world and save each other’s lives.”
5. The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
I had to google the book to remember what I had read in this novel. I had mistaken it for a worse book I read the year before. Once I found Joyce Carol Oates review, I remembered the book much more clearly. Ultimately, I can’t recommend it, even though I recognize the strengths of the book. Check out Oates review if you like…as I had to read another review to jog my memory, I have nothing to add.
6. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
I was excited to read this short story collection, as I had heard many great things about Oyeyemi. However, at the time of writing this review I can’t recall any specific stories that stuck out — so while she is a rising literary star, the stories didn’t do it for me at the time.
7. The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2) – N.K. Jemisin (see next post for full trilogy review)
8. Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler
I am still trying to figure out how I picked up this book or where I found the recommendation. Unfortunately, I can clearly remember the book, exploring the world of high-end restaurant work in NYC and petulant hipster nonsense. There are moments where I appreciated it, but mostly it was a bore and totally a waste of a read. Please don’t read this book.
9. Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals – Jonathan Smucker
Hegemony How-To is a movement strategy book. It’s the first book I have seen published by A.K. Press (an anarchist publishing cooperative) where they prefaced that there was some pretty stark disagreements politically, but that it was worth being engaged. I agree. Smucker who blogged at Beyond The Choir writes a good sociological, theoretical, and practical book about organizing. If you are interested in thinking about the ways Leftists self-isolate, the patterns in which this develops and why, and how to break away from these cycles, its a book worth skimming. Of course, there are some pretty clear blindspots and missteps. Theoretically, I questioned, at times, how he understood communist thinker Gramsci and concepts of counter-hegemony. And by extension what Smucker believes or understands as radical transformation. More practically, questions about marginalized identities and how it fits into his matrix of reaching a broader public to build mass movements, remain.
But, I think its certainly a useful intervention for the isolated-Leftists who have genuine visions of struggle towards winning a new world, as opposed to the perfect punk/anarchist/hippie/bro-socialist/etc potluck where everyone who comes has the same fine-tuned political perspective or ideology.
10. The Man Who Loved Dogs – Leonardo Padura
Padura writes an epically long-winded novel that splits between three perspectives. There is a Cuban writer looking back on his life growing up in revolutionary Cuba and its post-Soviet crises. The second and third perspective are Leon Trotsky’s and the man who murders Trotsky under Stalin’s orders. I enjoyed reading the Cuban authors perspective, as well as much of the tortured soul that was the Spanish Civil War revolutionary turned brain-washed assassin. Trotsky’s perspective is the worst written — partially because Padura is trying to pack so much history and facts into what is otherwise a historical fiction. While I learned a lot, and I appreciated some of the writing at different times, its quite a long book and the rewards were not ultimately there for me.
11. On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine – Jewish Voice for Peace
A critical interjection into the conversation about anti-semitism and struggle for justice in Palestine. The strongest essays are written by the black, brown, and Mizrahi Jews. Despite the well reasoned perspective — that non-Jews must be engaging with and writing about anti-Semitism — these essays were ultimately the weakest in my opinion.
The constant abuse and misuse of calls of anti-semitism that are spuriously charged against those who seek justice in Palestine is our stark reality flamed by right-wing (Jewish) people and institutions. Yet, the central need and purpose of the book to combat this reality also hobbles it — these are essays about anti-Semitism foregrounded almost entirely in relation to Palestine, rather than ever engaging with anti-Semitism separately.
As the largest Jewish Leftist organization in North America, if not the entire world, it has a greater responsibility to place a book, or at least a few more essays, into the Jewish and non-Jewish Leftist community that squares away anti-Semitism removed from the recent history and politics of Palestine and Zionism. Failing to do so, unintentionally reaffirms anti-Semitic ideologies as well as Zionism itself — that to deal with the Jewishness, anti-Semitism, we will always return to and center Palestine/Israel. I admit its a catch-22 because JVP’s vision and goals are centrally focused on Palestine, as well as the urgency of such an intervention into this flawed discourse.
However, this year, alongside the more visible (yet previously present) reality of surging anti-Semitism, there have been other interventions. NYC’s visionary Jews for Racial and Economic Justice just came out with a fantastic resource that does this work — engaging with Palestine, but not centering it as the focus. Their piece writes in the spirit of dismantling capitalism, white supremacy and understanding Jewishness and the intersections of anti-Semitism within the broader systems of domination. Start with that piece now, and come back to JVPs book. Then watch this panel from Jacobin for more conversations about Jewishness, (anti)-Zionism, Palestine, and anti-Semitism.
Hot news take: the other day it was announced that members of JVP, along with 20 other organizations, are now banned from entering Israel. Don’t worry, neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic supporters of Israel, like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are still invited to Israel.
12. John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead
I am always impressed with authors like Colson Whitehead. He writes books with central themes that often carry over, but his writing style, method of story-telling, and content dramatically shift from book to book. I believe the Underground Railroad and The Intuitionist – highly recommended — are better books. But John Henry Days was an enjoyable read, and if you are a fan, worth picking up.
13. Walking With The Comrades – Arundhati Roy
I love Arundhati Roy. In Walking with the Comrades, Roy examines the State sponsored corporate war against the rural poor in mineral-rich forests of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal. Today, anyone who might fight back is labeled a Maoist; i.e. a terrorist. The organized Maoists are the only ones fighting back. And so the “Maoists” have grown in numbers and organization. Roy literally walks with the Maoist comrades and uncovers the personal, collective motivations, and reactions to the war against rural peoples in India. As usual she paints a vivid and honest picture with these beautiful literary non-fiction essays. She is uncompromising in her critiques of the Indian State and global capitalism. She is also empathetic and critical, but supportive, of the ongoing Maoist struggle, which is ultimately a fight of the dispossessed against those who seek to marginalize them even further. At the least, click on the first essay of the collection here.
14. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
If your into punk music and curious, this is a Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater Kinney and t.v’s Portlandia’s, memoir. Repetitive at times, but there are some fun anecdotes and stories and I breezed through the book.
15. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
After publishing her literary sensation The God of Small Things, Roy became famous. As she was propelled into stardom, India set off nuclear missile tests, and instead of smiling and being the cultural ambassador that the State had already started to make Roy into, she spoke out. Since then, Roy has written countless, beautiful, non-fiction essays all deeply political in nature from critiquing the World Bank funded massive dam projects that have displaced hundreds of thousands, to India’s caste systems which remain rooted in Ghandian philosophy, to U.S. imperialism. As well as Walking with the Comrades reviewed above.
Of course, God of Small Things is a fiction rooted in deep political thought, but apparently it could be ignored…Finally, her highly anticipated second fiction was published this year, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. It is no God of Small Things, but it is still beautiful, politically searing, and riveting. The book is simultaneously funny, dark, nihilistic and hopeful. It centers Hijras/trans women, Muslims in New Delhi, the rising tide of current President Modi’s Hindu fascism, as well as the struggle for freedom in the occupied Kashmir. Add it to your list.