Maybe I would characterize 2016 as a movie car chase, and 2017 as the reveal where all of us anonymous motorists who got side-swiped, flipped, forced off bridges and into concrete abutments, rise out of the wreckage yelling for real. My list is composed of books to read to your fellow travelers as you sit, shaken but alive, beneath a tree. You will need a moment before setting out to put an end to the damn movie and fix the world.
Women After All: Sex, Evolution, and the End of Male Supremacy by Melvin Konner
This year was a promotional campaign for this book. The writer is a professor in the Program of Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. His conclusions give me, well, hope. Let me simply quote from the introduction: “Sex scandals, financial corruption, and violence are all overwhelmingly male. This is not, I will argue, mainly because men happened to be in charge and had the chance to do these things. It is mainly because they are men. And the motives and inclinations that led them into positions where they could abuse power are the same ones that long enabled them to keep women out. But this is over.”
So say we all.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Using the language of the colonizer to talk about what it means to be colonized, Long Soldier takes us down some rough roads. But also there are strands of sheer delight—her devotion to meticulous emotional description, sharp irony, and perfectly recapped incident make this a book to carry through your day. I would open it when waiting for, say, a tire to be fixed, or in a clinic waiting room. Never disappointed.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
I wish the title was The World Without Some of Us, but the idea is a great thought experiment. What would earth be like if we all disappeared (let’s just say instantaneously and without foreknowledge or pain). I know, still not a cheerful thought, but oddly I found real comfort in this altogether humane and fascinating tour of a planet that has shrugged off all human presence. This book made me long to visit the places Weisman visits in his quest for natural antiquity. As Weisman’s premise looks increasingly possible with news of this year’s record carbon spew, I read it with increased gravity. This is a wise and beautiful book.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Remember all of the scary stories from your preteen days and then add every gory movie you have watched since then and sift this into the brain of a masterful young writer. Machado’s writing is full of repressed physical energy and the raw juice of annihilating female fury. The body is the subject, the culprit, the innocent. Standard accessories like ribbons become frightful. She does unimaginable things with a prom dress. But these stories are also funny—which really made me uneasy—because I could hear in my laugh that same squawk a tiny dog makes in moments of duress.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
Maybe it is that the economic nomads Bruder writes about, people who live in cars and RVs and follow jobs that make my bones ache just to think about them, have the most remarkably upbeat personalities. Maybe it’s because I feel like I know or could be any one of them. Maybe it is because many are drawn to my hometown neck of the Red River and work the sugar beet harvest in a cold dusty wind that I know well. This is an important book. Bruder writes about economic refugees who downsize from regular houses into minivans, downsize from regular jobs with benefits into utter uncertainty. They refuse to be apathetic about life, but their treatment at the hands of pittance wage employers like Amazon (free OTC painkillers for elderly warehouse workers) is brutal. The book is a calmly stated chronicle of devastation. But told as as story after story, it is also a riveting collection of tales about irresistible people—quirky, valiant people who deserve respect and a decent life.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
I did a lot of driving this year and Sherman’s book—furious, compelling, beautiful, and horrifying by turns—took my daughter and I through North Dakota and then up to Canada. Because Alexie is a masterful storyteller, champion slam poet, and truly great improv performer, this audiobook is one of the best I’ve ever listened to. No bells and whistles and production—just raw Sherman—sometimes breaking into tears, sometimes making us cry. Sherman had brain surgery and I think he is the first in the world to make it laugh-out-loud funny. That’s the other thing that is tremendously valuable—funny gets you through a lot.
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