it may come as no surprise to some of you that i tend to read a lot. as in, i rarely (never) leave the house without a book in some form. i used to boast that i averaged over a book a week, reading between sixty and seventy books a year. this year has more than doubled that number, and it is not yet over. i will use the term completed instead of read, for many of these books i listened to every word instead of reading every word. i read on the long bus rides, listen when washing dishes, read while walking to university (or anywhere), listen while grocery shopping. no, i don’t remember everything i hear/read, but who, i ask you, does? i have historically read more novels than non-fiction, but there are reasons behind my fiction choices, some part of the world, some element of human experience, about which i want to learn or ponder. or maybe i’m just working through everything charles dickens ever wrote. although it’d be hard to read his novels and not become more socially aware.
if you care, which you may not, i highlight below a handful of the outstanding books from this year’s reading explosion. i will not write about all 140+ books. i include novels i couldn’t put down and the historical or social explorations that blew my mind. i hope you find something that strikes you. i hope you are challenged.
to begin, i will mention that november is native american heritage month. the recent buzz around there there by tommy orange is deserved. i encourage you also to look into an indigenous peoples’ history of the united states by roxanne dunbar-ortiz, being less a straight history and more a look into the structures of european and american colonialism/imperialism that have historically crushed native peoples, which impact mindsets today. the book the new trail of tears by naomi schaefer riley was less insightful than i had hoped, arguing essentially for better routes to assimilation for native peoples into white american cultural norms; perhaps, i would posit, we should question these norms as the only way into so-called civilization. the novel flight by sherman alexie, while a short read, was actually quite emotionally intense and challenging and i rather enjoyed it. but i enjoy most of alexie’s writings.
ok that was this month. on to the rest of the year.
God’s bits of wood by sembene ousmane: following the exploits of a railroad workers’ strike in senegal in the middle of the last century, based on actual events, this book is incredible. tragic and triumphant, it captures the destructive layers of colonialism, from casual, racist violence to awful labor practices. but also the courageous fight for rights and dignity. though the strike is long and the situations dire, at each new phase more little heroes rise up. i was awed by their endurance. tense, brilliant, vastly interesting.
the autumn of the patriarch by gabriel garcia marquez: i deeply admire the bizarre excellence in gabriel garcia marquez. as with other works of magic realism, this novel does not disappoint in the strangeness factor. selling away a country’s section of the caribbean to pay off debts, leaving a vast wasteland where once was water? ok, then. this book is just a few chapters long, but don’t expect paragraphs or straightforward grammatical choices. the entire book is a streaming flow of words, thoughts, ideas, stories, conversations, everything and nothing. but we follow in the stream, with some difficulty, perhaps, the seemingly infinite reign of a caribbean country’s dictator. this one’s not for everyone, but i couldn’t put it down. partly because there were rarely any good stopping points.
small country by gael faye: i had the joy of seeing the musician gael faye perform some of his songs and scenes from this book at the edinburgh book festival this summer. this novel is a coming of age story set in burundi around the time of the rwandan genocide. humorous, insightful, and tragic, it is an intensely readable book with deep feeling.
in the castle of my skin by george lamming: another coming of age story, with autobiographical content, this novel explores themes of communal and personal identity during a period of social change in barbados. though with a subtle, slower pace, i still devoured its intimate look at colonial life from a number of perspectives.
the unreal and the real: where on earth by ursula k. le guin: i love le guin’s work because she often offers commentary on our world through science fiction and fantasy. so with the mention of this collection of short stories, i bring her up as one of my favorite authors. these stories, though, if you enjoy good stories, are particularly good. from the strange to the mundane, she crafts her work well and is wonderfully inventive in small and immense ways. i also read her tales of earthsea this year, a delightful return for me to that world.
heroes of the frontier by dave eggers: this one was lent to me by a friend and i have to admit i was skeptical i would enjoy it, though i generally like eggers’ work. but this story about a mother heading to alaska with her two kids, escaping her fractured life, was wonderful, a book of humor and emotion, a series of misadventures when aimless and on the move. and eggers encapsulates the love and frustration and all-around joyful weirdness of parenting incredibly well.
the half has never been told: slavery and the making of american capitalism by edward e. baptist: this was one of those books i could not stop listening to, often with eyes wide and mouth agape. not that much of the history was particularly new to me, but how it was all arranged and processed was truly brilliant. the book brought to light certain heavy aspects of slavery in the states, how it developed over decades, centuries, regions. and how slavery built the america we know, an incredibly important acknowledgement. though i loved many books this year, this may top the list as a favorite. in content, not easy to consume, but deeply meaningful and needed. i can hardly recommend it enough.
teachers as cultural workers: letters to those who dare teach by paulo freire: an incredibly inspiring and thought-provoking little book. freire here hits the big themes i love in his writing, hope and humanization and liberation, delicious topics so closely tied to why i work in ministry and the hope i see in the gospels. he encourages us to see education not as a tool by which we fit children into boxes, but through which we might better assess our world, its structures and changes, and ask what around us, taken for granted, might actually be hindering full human development, what is dehumanizing others, what is shutting out those on ‘the margins’? some say these are radical questions, but i believe they are good questions for followers of Christ to be asking. i include this book also to bring attention to freire, and especially his seminal work pedagogy of the oppressed, which was one of the central books in my recently completed master’s program. he encapsulates in words many of the ambiguous frustrations i had when living and working in rwanda, issues of neo-colonialism, economic development, and western influence over the rest of the world. i would also point you to franz fanon’s the wretched of the earth and decolonising the mind by ngugi wa thiong’o.
orientalism by edward said. this one is for the academics. i suggest you brush up on your french and read everything ever written by a european. just joking. kind of. said describes the pervasive historical mindset that sees non-european cultures and places and peoples as being purely objects of study, of worth in the eyes of europeans mainly because of experience or learning to be gained by europeans, not having inherent worth in themselves. he traces this trend through history and literature and dismantles its dehumanizing core. this is one of the foundational works of postcolonialism, being, very simply put, a method of seeking to understanding the world by listening to the voices that have traditionally been silenced, unheard or unheeded. this guided my framework when working on my dissertation; i sought not to know what the integration of refugees into scottish society meant to policy makers and scholars, but to hear of integration experiences from refugee community leaders themselves, how they structured their realities within changing situations. i cited orientalism and other of said’s works regularly.
we built the wall by eileen traux: this was an incredibly insightful and very recent exploration into the united states’ southern border, from policy to prisons to charitable organizations and personal lives. it gives scope to the issues and names and faces to the people involved. i include this to bring up a smattering of other titles around topics of migration and refugees, such as: violent borders: refugees and the right to move by reece jones; border vigils: keeping migrants out of the rich world by jeremy harding; the beast: riding the rails and dodging narcos on the migrant trail and a history of violence: living and dying in central america by oscar martinez; the devil’s highway by luis alberto urrea. such books, such discussions, are needed more than ever.
managing the undesirables: refugee camps and humanitarian government by michel agier: when working in a refugee camp in rwanda, i was plagued by looming questions i could barely articulate, questions about protracted refugee situations, humanitarian sustainability, agency in the face of oppressive laws and sustained poverty, etc. agier in this work and in on the margins of the world puts in his analyses of refugee camps everything i would hope someone would say. incredibly validating for me, these books are more than that, a great examination of the humanitarian machine that fumblingly maintains camps, especially on the african continent, and the kinds of survival strategies refugees employ, and the success and failures of all. similarly insightful books are in the wake of the affluent society: an exploration of post-development by serge latouche and refugees, conflict and the search for belonging by lucy hovil.
nightwalking: a nocturnal history of london by matthew beaumont: i listened to this book almost entirely while, yes, walking at night, getting lost in glasgow’s autumnal lanes. though walking at night is a favorite pastime of mine, i realize as a white male this is a fairly privileged endeavor, and the book reflects this, following the literary lives of white males and their relationship with changing urban existence over a course of centuries. while the author implicitly criticized laws that restricted movement and personal activity, the book is not an encouragement towards profligate or libertine lifestyles, but rather shows how moods and ideas about ‘nightwalkers’ changed over time, what these changes say about the city, and the literature from eras that show these changes. the chapters culminate in long sections about charles dickens which i loved immensely. this one is more academic, but written to appeal to many. you may hate it. it enthralled me.