Hello again, bookish and clever ladies! I’m here today to share the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s time to do some reflecting on the last many months and separate the wheat from the chaff. (Is that actually something people say? I’m saying it.)
1 & 2. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson & Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter
Called “indispensable” by one of my favorite cultural critics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and chosen for Chicago’s city-wide book selection, The Warmth of Other Suns is…mind-boggling. Right up there with The New Jim Crow, which I reviewed in one of my first postings here on Persephone, this book reshaped my view of my own country – and my own city, which is still extraordinarily segregated and currently going through all sorts of painful gentrification.
Focusing on three different migrants from three different towns in the south who moved to three different cities in the north and lived in three different decades, the book jumps around a bit in time and space – which can be hard to follow (I recommend taking notes). But Wilkerson skillfully uses these three individuals (Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster) to paint a larger portrait of one of the largest cultural shifts our country has ever seen. She intersperses personal stories with policy, politics, and history, and reminds us that our history classes have left us sadly ignorant of our own past. Also greatly appreciated: the use of literature — quotes from James Baldwin, for instance — and the contextualizing in our own time…not that any of this is very long ago (because it so, so isn’t) but having something to hang on to that we know pretty well (the President, for example) grounded me a little better in history.
Read this alongside Family Properties, which takes on the role of real estate in the segregation and dilapidation of Chicago — and the very real intentions behind those processes. Like Wilkerson does in Other Suns, Satter takes on her own family’s history — in this case, her father’s simultaneous role as a lawyer fighting against the exploitation of the Black community and as a landlord in an area quickly becoming a slum. The banking industry, the federal government, white violence, and predatory landlords are all taken to account in this well-researched and well-written book.
3. Starglass, by Phoebe North
I would say this is on the lighter side, but really: it’s not. When I began this book, I thought — I think I’ve read this before. Earth becomes uninhabitable, some of the wealthiest or luckiest folks blast off on a rocket ship headed for something hopefully more survivable but still essentially unknown? Okay, got it.
I don’t say this often, but I WAS WRONG. I WAS SO WRONG. The starship Asherah is inhabited by what’s essentially a Jewish preservation society, and it’s 500 years in to its journey. The customs of the people have changed accordingly, but are still recognizably Jewish. Terra is a teenager aboard the ship in its last years of travel to their new home, and gets caught up in a revolutionary freedom movement amongst the lower castes. Terra is eminently relatable — she’s just a normal girl, caught up in a situation that she doesn’t understand, and really just hoping to find a place she belongs (and her soulmate, you know, if that’s possible).
4. An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay
Set aside time for this one. I’m serious. Don’t read it on your fifteen-minute lunch break, or while you’re waiting to pick up your partner from the dentist. Don’t. This book is incredibly difficult, and since Gay is such a remarkably talented author, you will be utterly absorbed. You will lose track of time and yourself, and when you’re reminded of who and where you are, it will be an abrupt, possibly painful return, and you will likely have tears in your eyes. I won’t say much more about it, but — wow.
5. Cinnamon and Gunpowder, by Eli Brown
A palate cleanser! This one is light and funny, except when you read it with a book club like mine, in which case there’s a lot of discussion about theology and power dynamics. But — a book about a lady pirate who kidnaps a chef, who then learns about social justice? It cannot go wrong. And the book cover is beautiful!
6. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Speaking of beautiful book covers… This book is much-hyped, and for good reason. Lengthy, Dickensian (in the sense that it’s very detailed, not in the “Please sir, can I have some more” sense, although I suppose there’s some emotional poverty here), this one will put you through the wringer, too. A young boy is caught up in a terrorist attack, loses his mother, and (accidentally?) picks up one of the most famous paintings in the world. And that’s just the very, very beginning.
7. Hild, by Nicola Griffith
Another of the very best books I read this year. I started it not having any idea what I was going in to — “This woman became a saint, right?” — but it was so very worth it. Focused on the first twenty or so years of the life of Hild, a pagan political machinator and the Light of the World (according to her very ambitious mother), this book is similarly delicious and covers a lot of ground. From religion (the introduction of Christianity to the British isles!) to ethics to warfare to family, this book takes everything on, and comes out perfectly.
8. His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
Like historical fiction? Like dragons? This series imagines what would happen if the Napoleonic war was fought — WITH DRAGONS. Amazing. It can get a little overwrought at times — yes, there will be amnesia — but this series is well-researched and excellent. And not nearly as goofy as it sounds (though it often is funny!), this dragon develops a social justice conscience and asks hard questions (about slavery, about private property, about the position of women, about the treatment of dragons) of his Captain, a formerly stiff-necked and traditional Navy man. Warning: if you don’t know much about the Napoleonic wars (I don’t!) it will be difficult to separate fact from fiction. So be careful!
9. Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, by Masha Gessen
I read this because I got to listen to a conversation between Bernardine Dohrn (the Weather Underground leader and one of the few women ever on the FBI’s most-wanted lists) and Masha Gessen. The book is a straight retelling of the history of Pussy Riot, including the trial, and draws on hours of personal interviews. An excellent overview of the recent history of this fascinating group.
The Amber Spyglass, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Good Lord Bird, The Gifts of Imperfection, We Need New Names, Fun Home, King Leopold’s Ghost, Plain Kate, Attachments, Sabriel, City of Shadows, America Walks Into A Bar, The Creation of Anne Boleyn… I could go on, but I won’t!
What are the best books you all have read this year? Does anything on this list strike your fancy? Let’s talk!