Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

Best Books of 2021: Disability and Embodiment

In today’s installment of Eric’s Favorite Books of 2021, we move into nonfiction. Stop 1: readings on disability and the body. Check out yesterday’s fiction picks and the full list if you haven’t already!

Front cover of Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

 

Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

It is no understatement to say that this book transformed my thinking on disability and embodiment. Garland-Thomson brilliantly disentangles, names, and examines physical, biopolitical, and socio-cultural aspects of living with a body in societies that do not view all bodies as equal.

For Garland-Thomson, the discourse of disability has little to do with the physical parameters of our bodies per se, and everything to do with “cultural rules about what bodies should be and do” (p. 6). Human bodies come in a dizzying diversity of forms, differing in myriad ways across a  variety of spectra. This alone cannot explain the concept of disability or its function in the differential allocation of status, power, and material resources in society. The discourse of disability, rather, does the work of collapsing that manifold diversity into manageable binaries—bodies that are essentially “normal” in contrast to those that are not. In short, it is “the attribution of corporeal deviance” (p. 6).

By beginning her analysis with the deviant, Garland-Thomson silhouettes the phantom majority against which this deviance is defined. She coins the concept of the “normate” body, one that bears no marked or stigmatizing characteristics within a given cultural frame. The normate presents itself as the universal subject, the unqualified and definitive human being. In reality, the normate creates the normalcy it claims to reflect, as only a small minority of people in any given society actually inhabit such bodies.

The first third of the book lays out her theory: disability and the normate identity, its connection with stigma and social limitation, and its interactions with gender and race. The remainder then explores the theory in relation to American culture (e.g., the phenomenon of freak shows) and literature (the writings of Harriet beecher Stowe and Audrey Lord). This should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write about or just understand disability better.

Front Covers of the two Disability Visibility anthologies—one for adults and a second adapted for younger readers

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong

This remarkable collection is composed entirely of first-person narratives describing the experience of living as a disabled person in the early 21st century. Alice Wong, a powerful advocate and activist for disability justice and the volume’s editor, has done an extraordinary job ensuring representation of contributors with many diverse identities, living  in a broad variety of situations with many different disabilities. The essays cover many topics, including personal experiences of joy and struggle, discrimination and institutionalization, and disability activism and mutual aid. Struggle runs throughout, but it is often combine with strength, defiance, connection, and collective action—Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s “wild dreams of disability justice at the end of the world.” Read it yourself and buy it for all of your friends!

Front Cover of Their Plant Eyes

 

Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin

This fits broadly within the genre of “blind memoir,” as Godin tells the story of her progressive vision loss and life with blindness, but she interweaves it with stories and biographies of blind people at different points in history to very enjoyable effect. Come for the salacious story of how Athenian Tyreseus was blinded and given prophecy by the gods; stay for Helen Keller’s often-glossed-over Vaudeville years, and meet a host of fascinating blind people in between. My one small critique? Like everyone, she starts her history of blindness with the Greeks, those late-comers to history who somehow get first credit for everything. Guess I’d better get working on that book on blindness in the ancient Middle East!

Front cover of Down, Girl!

Down, Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate manne

I wasn’t quite sure which category to put this book into, but since it deals broadly with the ways we police people based on the bodies they inhabit, I thought it might as well go here. I first heard of this book in connection with its coinage “himpathy,” which denotes the excessive sympathy given to men who are accused or convicted of gendered or sexual violence against women. The term struck me as a little too cute and didn’t motivate me to read the book right away, but I’m glad I did.

Now I use Manne’s model of misogyny all the time. It is so clear and powerfully explanatory that once you have read it you see the pattern at work everywhere. Misogyny and its manifestations in gendered violence are not illogical, incomprehensible, or inexplicable, as news outlets tend to conclude when gendered atrocities take place. Rather, misogyny in its various forms serves, in Manne’s words, as “the enforcement wing of patriarchy.” Misogyny is not the same thing as patriarchy, then, and it must also be differentiated from sexism. Patriarchy specifically describes any system in which roles and possibilities are determined by gender, with greater authority and autonomy going to men and submission and subservience allotted to women. Patriarchal systems are justified by sexism—that is, beliefs regarding the different natures of men and women and their relative social positions and value. Within a patriarchal system, gender roles are policed on both sides for deviance. Improper manhood and womanhood can both be stigmatized and sanctioned. Here, Manne focuses primarily on misogyny—acts of aggression and violence intended to control women who venture outside the prescribed boundaries of their gender’s assigned role(s). As such, it appears most predictably when women seek to resist or escape the control of men. With detailed argumentation and plentiful examples, Manne develops the intricacies of this broad thesis and its manifestations in different areas of life. As a work of academic philosophy it can get pretty dense, but the payoff is 100% worth it.

Best Books of 2021: Fiction

Yesterday I shared the full list of books I read in 2021. Today I’m going to start sharing some favorites, beginning with the best from the fiction category.

Front Cover of the novel Piranesi

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark

Reading this book is an otherworldly experience—not only for the prosaic reason that it takes place in another world, but also because the writing creates a dreamlike atmosphere that is at once tantalizing and elusive. It takes the form of a detailed field journal kept by a man called Piranesi. He is mostly alone, navigating and charting a massive complex he calls the House. The House contains many halls, filled with thousands upon thousands of stone statues—some human, some animal, some creatures of story and myth. Through cracked roofs he sees an unending sky, and the floor below is flooded by an ocean of violent and interacting tides. Piranesi keeps meticulous notes, mapping the complex but always returning to the beginning lest he lose himself in the unending series of halls. Occasionally he is joined by a man he calls the Other, who is eager to hear the results of Piranesi’s exploration though he himself never ventures far into the House. This is a book I recommend highly, but mainly for the experience of reading it. The plot itself I found mildly disappointing, and the ending perhaps more so. I say perhaps because I haven’t been able to decide whether it ruined the book for me, and so perhaps this is also a testament to the novel’s magnificent indeterminacy.

Front Cover of the Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams

A book that hits the sweet spot for all you lovers of both historical fiction and lexicography. Williams tells the story of Esme, the daughter of a lexicographer working under Dr. Charles Murray to create the Oxford English Dictionary at the turn of the twentieth century. Esme’s father is a young widower, and She spends her early days playing at his feet under the large table in the Scriptorium while he works. Occasionally, she finds slips of paper with words and definitions written on them, sent in by the dictionary’s many volunteer contributors. As she grows and learns more, she begins working on the dictionary herself and notices that some words—particularly to do with the lives and experiences of women—are conspicuously left out or defined in ways that do not satisfy her. She begins a secret project of her own, collecting and defining women’s words that do not rise to the standards of masculine “importance” demanded by the intellectual giants of the dictionary. The novel is beautifully and gently written, yet uncompromising in its lament for the lost stories and language of women.

Front Cover to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book of the Wayfarers Series

 The Wayfarers Series by Becky Chambers

 This is a delightful science fiction series set in a vibrantly imagined and beautifully constructed universe. Each book is tenuously related to the last, usually picking up on and developing the story of a minor character from a previous book. Though events of extraordinary interplanetary significance are going on around her characters (and indeed they sometimes find themselves in the middle of such events), Chambers keeps the focus tightly on the characters themselves, navigating adventures they often did not choose and do not want within a complicated web of alien cultures and political agendas. It is exactly this quotidian bent and narrow focus that make the Wayfarers books so enjoyable to read—indeed, the final book covers a lot of ground even though it takes place during what amounts to a prolonged travel delay. If you want high-quality, character-centered sci-fi that explores issues of gender, intersectionality, colonialism and its aftermath, and a whole host of other big topics in little ways, give these a read!

Bambi: A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Honestly, I’d never had any desire to read this book. Never, that is, until I learned it was banned by the Nazis because they (rightly( identified it as n allegory for the persecution of European Jews in an era of accelerating anti-Semitism and fascism. Bambi was first published in 1923 to immediate success, but it was banned in 1935 lest it create sympathy for Germany’s Jews. The novel is a different animal entirely from the 1942 Walt Disney adaptation (pun intended)—an unflinching account of lives of forest animals born into a hostile, dangerous world and the price they pay to survive within it. Even its moments of joy and exuberance are muted by the tense undercurrents of threat that run through every page. The creatures of the forest fear death in every shadow and across every sunlit meadow, and even the leaves on the trees debate the mystery of death. Above all other predators is “He,” the human who brings death with his gun, who seeks only to kill and makes fools or traitors of all animals who serve him. In the end, Bambi learns not of love and the bliss of family life (as Disney would have us believe), but of life conditioned by constant wariness and the solitary sorrow of survival. It’s a masterful book, but I’ll probably wait a few years before I read it to my kids.

2021: My Year in Books

The covers of every book I read this yearm, arranged in a grid pattern

 

 Hi! What is your pandemic coping strategy? Apparently, mine involves piping a constant stream of audiobooks into my ears at every moment I’m not working or actively conversing with my family. 

Cooking? Audiobooks.

Dishes? Audiobooks.

Laundry? Audiobooks.

You get the picture. 

I guess that’s how I made it through 78 books this year (on top of the reading I do for research, etc.). Looking back over the list, I see too many amazing reads to make just one book post (as I’ve done in previous years), so this time I’m going to break up my top picks into a few posts that I’ll publish over the next couple of days.

But before that, here’s the whole list. See if you can guess which ones were my favorites.

And please let me know what you read and loved this year. I’m always looking for the next thing!

The List

(In the order I read them)

  1. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, by C. L. R. James
  2. The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, by Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine
  3. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, by bell hooks
  4. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
  5. The metanarrative of Blindness: A re-reading of 20th Century Anglophone Writing, by David Bolt
  6. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
  7. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott
  8. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom, by bell hooks
  9. Religion is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the 21st Century, edited by Grace Yukich
  10. What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, by Sarah Hendren
  11. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, by Sasha Costanza-Chock
  12. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories for the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong
  13. Dawn (Xenogenesis #1), by Octavia E. Butler
  14. Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis #2), by Octavia E. Butler
  15. Imago (Xenogenesis #3), by Octavia E. Butler
  16. How the University Works: Higher Education in the Low-Wage Nation, by Marc Bousquet
  17. The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education is Hard to Change and How to Change It, by John Tagg
  18. Understanding and Preventing Faculty-on-Faculty Bullying: A Psycho-Social Organizational Approach, by Darla J. Twale
  19. The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the 21st Century, by George E. Walker
  20. The Senses of Scripture: Sensory Perception in the Hebrew Bible, by Yael Avrahami
  21. Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi
  22. Blood in my Eye, by George L. Jackson
  23. The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
  24. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, by Adrienne Maree Brown
  25. Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, by Annette Yoshiko Reed
  26. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and how WE Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee
  27. Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1), by Rebecca Roanhorse
  28. Feminist, Queer, Crip, by Alison Kafer
  29. Piranesi, by Susanna Clark
  30. Decolonial Pedagogy: Examining Sites of Resistance, Resurgence, and Renewal, by Njoki N. Wane
  31. Music in Ancient Greece and Rome, by John G. Landels
  32. The Divine Institution: White Evangelicalism’s Politics of the Family, by Sophie Bjork-James
  33. Down, Girl! The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne
  34. The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, by Alicia Garza
  35. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity in this Crisis, by Dean Spade
  36. Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, by David M. Carr
  37. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917–2017, by Rashid Khalidi
  38. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
  39. America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s, by Elizabeth Hinton
  40. The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, by Daniel Greene
  41. Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document that Changes Everything, by William Germano
  42. The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams
  43. All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1), by Martha Wells
  44. Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells
  45. Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries #3), by Martha Wells
  46. Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries #4), by Martha Wells
  47. Network Effect (The Murderbot Diaries #5), by Martha Wells
  48. Their Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness, by M. Leona Godin
  49. One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, by Kevin M. Kruse
  50. You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Bryan M. Milner and Whitney Phillips
  51. No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education, by Leigh Patel
  52. The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #1) by Seth Dickinson
  53. Where do we go from here” Chaos or Community, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
  54. Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch
  55. Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney E. Martin
  56. Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World, by Michael Edwards
  57. The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, by Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch
  58. Tell the Machine Goodnight, by Katie Williams
  59. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1), by Becky Chambers
  60. A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers
  61. Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3), by Becky Chambers
  62. The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers #4), by Becky Chambers
  63. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison
  64. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, by Charlene Carruthers
  65. We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, by Mariame Kaba
  66. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, by Robin D G. Kelly
  67. Bullshit Jobs: A theory, by David Graeber
  68. Woke Racism: How a New Religion has Betrayed Black America, by John McWhorter
  69. Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World, by Jeffrey Siker
  70. Christitainment: Selling Jesus Through Popular Culture, by Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe
  71. Evangelicals, Incorporated: Books and the business of Religion in America, by Daniel Vaca
  72. A World Without Police: How Strong Communities Make Cops obsolete, by Gio Maher
  73. Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell
  74. Ill Fares the Land, by Tony Judt
  75. The Bright Ages, by Matt Gabriele and David M. Perry
  76. The 9.9%: The new Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart
  77. Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, by Harsha Walia
  78. Bambi: A Life in the woods, by Felix Salten

2020: My Year in Books

A grid view of the covers of the 60 books I read this year

It’s time for year-end “best of” lists, and so here again is my annual rundown of books (see also the  2017, 2018, and 2019 versions).

2020 was strange and hard, but that did not keep it from bringing me some very good books. As I look back, i am struck by the excellent quality of this year’s reads. I would recommend nearly all of the 60 books I read and it’s not easy to choose my favorites, but I’ve pulled out some top picks below.

Let me know what you thought of these books in the comments, or which books were your favorites this year!. I’m always looking for new recommendations!

 

Top Picks

Fiction

The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

The world of this phenomenal fantasy trilogy builds upon medieval Islamic mythology from the Indian Ocean Rim. The story centers around Nahiri, a young orphan turned con artist in French-occupied Cairo. In the course of a hustle she accidentally summons the ancient jinn Darayavahoush (Dara for short), who recognizes her as part jinn herself. Together they journey to Daevabad, the jinn capital city, where she becomes embroiled in palace intrigue and the city’s volatile politics. The magical world is lush and nuanced, the characters are deep and engaging, and the writing is simply wonderful. These books will not disappoint.

 

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

This lovely YA read deals frankly and sensitively with topics of mixed heritage, teenage identity formation, and mental illness. Sixteen-year-old Darius Kellner lives with chronic depression, which complicates his efforts to negotiate his identity as a “fractional Persian.” He constantly feels too Persian for his white family, too white for his Persian family, and too awkward and nerdy for both. When his family travels to visit his grandparents in Iran, he struggles to find where and how he fits in the family, The saving grace of the trip is Sohrab, a neighbor with whom he develops a strong and meaningful friendship. Khorram does not trivialize or catastrophize depression, but writes a complicated main character who must live with it as one enduring feature of his life. 

 

A special shout-out goes to author Tamora Pierce. for getting me through election season. Even though she started writing her Alanna books in the early 1980s, I hadn’t heard of them until this October (thanks to M Tong and Matthew Chalmers). They were fun, quick reads that provided distraction in the days surrounding Nov. 4, and on top of it all they have aged really well over the past three decades—strong heroines, engaging characters, and imaginative world-building, combine with grand adventure to create delightful escapist rides.

 

Nonfiction 

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein

I read this book as March gave way to April. The Coronavirus pandemic was gaining steam and government and society were weighing options for potential responses. The process was a real-time illustration of Disaster Capitalism, Klein’s term for an economic strategy pioneered and propagated by economists at the University of Chicago in the latter half of the 20th century—most notably Milton Friedman and his students. These were the vanguard of the economic philosophy that has come to be known as neoliberalism—hardline support for privatization and market deregulation, general distrust of public goods and government interventions, and the elevation of competition over collaboration as an ordering economic and social principle. 

Friedman understood the value of disaster. In 1982 he wrote “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” (cited on p. 140). He made it a point, therefore, to spread his students and his ideas to as many places as possible, where they would implement the same crisis playbook again and again until his brand of ultra-capitalism moved from fringe to mainstream and then to orthodoxy. This much happened, certainly, but neoliberalism did not bring with it the widespread prosperity and happiness that the Chicago Boys predicted. Klein uses in-depth case studies from Chile, South Africa, post-Soviet Russia, Argentina. and mid-2000s Iraq to show the pattern that unfolded in place after place: “an urban bubble of frenetic speculation and dubious accounting fueling superprofits and frantic consumerism, ringed by the ghostly factories and rotting infrastructure of a development past; roughly half the population excluded from the economy altogether; out-of-control corruption and cronyism; decimation of nationally owned small and medium-sized businesses; a huge transfer of wealth from public to private hands, followed by a huge transfer of private debts into public hands” (p. 86). In short, a pattern in which the wealthy leverage disasters to further enrich themselves at the expense of those most vulnerable to the crisis itself.

Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism has held up depressingly well since the publication of this book in 2009. The recent Rand Report on income inequality shows that fifty years of trickle-down economic policies have siphoned $50 trillion upward from the bottom 90% of the U.S. wealth distribution to the top 1%. The financial crisis of 2008–2009 created another massive wealth redistribution upward, and in 2020 America’s 644 billionaires have used the Coronavirus pandemic to increase their collective net worth by $1 trillion while pushing 8 million people from the middle class into poverty.

 Economic orthodoxy needs revision—or revolution. Privatization and competition will not save us. The problems we face now require collaboration and collective action for the public good.

 

The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall

Economic markets do not just happen. There is no such thing as a “free market,” proceeding in its natural state without government intervention or regulation. Governments do not only intervene in natural market processes; they set the parameters for market operation and participation from the ground up. All markets operate under sets of rules, and those rules can vary on every factor. What can be owned, and by whom? What can be bought and sold, and on what terms? Who can participate in the market and who is excluded? What obligations do the various parties in economic transactions have to each other and to society? None of these answers is fixed in stone or mandated by natural law. They are changing and changeable, as Alex Marshall demonstrates with this torrent of studies and examples from U.S. history. Investigating common law, intellectual property, the nature of the corporation, private/public partnership, and the enforcement of property rights and norms, he demonstrates the contingent nature of market behavior and the dramatic differences that changes in market governance can make. 

The analysis in some examples could be questioned, but Marshall makes his overarching point with strength and clarity. There is no neutral, unregulated form of a capitalist market economy, only different types of regulation that favor different parties in the system to greater or lesser extents. “In reality, deregulation means abdicating public governance in favor of corporate self-regulation, which tends to devalue workers and shirk responsibility for externalities. Luckily, we can choose different rules for our markets—rules that empower workers, ensure responsible production and consumption, and promote the public good.

 

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson

Caricatures of American history often focus too heavily on either its high ideals of freedom and equality or its cruel patterns of exploitation and extraction. These two tendencies—one toward the concentration of wealth and power and the other toward equal participation and empowerment of all people—have coexisted in tension from the United States’s founding, and in this book Heather Cox Richardson uses the battle line itself as a through line in American history. Beginning with the Constitution, which propounds inalienable human rights and equal treatment at a time when both were denied to the majority of the population, she traces the tension forward to its crescendo in the Civil War and beyond to western expansion, Jim Crow, and our current battles over race, gender, religion, and economics. 

In their mythical self-representation, Southern slaveowners portrayed themselves as rugged individualists—strong and self-sufficient men who asked nothing from the government except to be left alone. In reality, their wealth and position (not to mention the entire slaveholding system) were propped up by government support and intervention at every level. The three-fifths compromise in the U.S. Constitution gave white men in slaveholding states outsized influence in national policy, and local law enforcement kept enslaved Southerners in check while protecting their enslavers from harm and insurrection.

Emancipation and abolition were important steps toward freedom, but they did not usher in full inclusion or equal rights. , Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Southern ideology did not die out but spread westward into new territories and states. Western pioneers, like the Southern slaveowners before them, cultivated an image of rugged self-sufficiency that was actually propped up by a substantial government apparatus. Laws limited  the immigration and citizenship of Native American, Mexican, and Chinese populations. Courts prioritized the property rights of white settlers, and military and law enforcement tolerated and perpetrated acts of terrorist violence against all of these groups to the advantage of the white pioneers. In the 20th century the expansion of voting rights to women and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s both represented significant gains toward democratic and egalitarian ideals, but we are still far from embodying the highest values of a free, just, and equal society. Those striving to reduce entrenched disparities in power and status face ongoing opposition from those who would see them limited to a chosen few. Though Richardson’s framework may seem simplistic,  it helps to clarify the goals and stakes in the brutal tug-of-war of American politics. 

Heather Cox Richardson also writes an amazing daily newsletter that digests the day’s news and places it in historical context. It is an excellent way to get the news without all the frenzy, and you can find it on her Substack or her facebook page. I read it every day and you might like it too!

 

Jesus an John Wayne: How White Evangelicals corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Riffing on the title of a 2008 song by the Gaither Vocal Band, Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the nature of masculinity and male role models in white American Evangelicalism across the past 75 years. She argues that Christian leaders and cultural icons have championed a rough and rugged male ideal defined by competition and domination. This masculinity affects all areas of life, from rigid gender roles and unquestioned male authority in the family to religious supremacy in society and militant imperialism abroad. Evangelicals have remade Jesus in the image of John Wayne, and the results have been disastrous.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the current state of evangelicalism in the United States. It does for gender what Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise has done for race—shows how unhealthy hierarchies and the pursuit of dominance are not alien intrusions upon American Christianity, but are central to its identity and functioning. 

 

The Full List

In chronological order from January to December

  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
  • There will be no Miracles Here: A Memoir by Casey Gerald
  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini
  • Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong and the Research that’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini
  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
  • The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
  • From Dissertation to Book by William P. Germano
  • Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by R. Marie griffith
  • The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole your Vote and how to get it Back by Tom Hartmann
  • The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
  • From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century by William A. Darity Jr. and Kirsten Mullen
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Dwayne
  • TheWind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred E. Taylor
  • The Surprising Design of Market Economies by Alex Marshall
  • The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Rise of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton
  • The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls by John J. Collins
  • Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics by Katrine Marcal
  • TheFearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist by Marcus Rediker
  • The Formation of the Book of Psalms: Reconsidering the Transmission and Canonization of Psalmody in Light of Material Culture and the Poetics of Anthologies by David Willgren
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Whiteness in Higher Education: The Invisible Missing Link in Diversity and Racial Analyses by Nolan L. Cabrera
  • Critical Race Theory in Higher Education: Twenty Years of Theoretical and Research Innovations by Dorian L. McCoy, et al.
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
  • An Afican-American and LatinX History of the United states by Paul Ortiz
  • The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
  • Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty (The City of Brass, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold)
  • Evil: the Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography by Vanessa L. Ochs
  • Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education, Vol. 1: Seeing Through the Cracks by Dorothy Bottrell and Catherine Manathunga (eds.)
  • Industrial Strength Denial: Eight Stories of Corporations Defending the Indefensible, from the Slave Trade to Climate Change by Barbara Freese
  • How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcom X and Alex Haley
  • Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives by Elizabeth S. Anderson
  • Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women by Kate Manne
  • Song of the Lioness Series by Tamora Pierce (Alanna: The First Adventure, n the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant)
  • White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
  • Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce (Wild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage, and The Realms of the Gods)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
  • Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed
  • Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
  • The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel
  • Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.
  • Ableism in Academia: Theorizing Experiences of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Higher Education by Nicole Brown and Jennifer Leigh (eds.)
  • Teaching to Transgress: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks

2019: My Year in Books

A grid of covers from some of the books I read in 2019

In the rush to finish my dissertation, I was sad to miss writing my annual book review post (see 2017 and 2018), so I’m just going to do it now…in May.

This year I read 37 books. Nowhere near the high mark of 67 books from last year; I didn’t even get to my goal of 40 books. But that’s ok, because the trade-off was, you know, finishing my dissertation.

 So here, without further delay, is my reading list from 2019. As usual, some favorites are called out on top, and the rest are listed below in the order I read them.

Top Picks

Fiction

Octavia E. Butler. Yes, yes, I know Octavia Butler is not a book, but I discovered her last year and read three of her novels and one short story collection. If you haven’t read anything of hers, you should. From Kindred, the story of a woman who has to literally navigate the brutal injustices of her family tree as she jumps back and forth in time, to Earthseed a prescient series set in a near-future America troubled by climate change, unchecked corporatization, designer drugs, and theocratic power-grabs, Butler’s writing perceptively explores many of the disturbing undercurrents that plague American society and culture and brings them to life in gripping narrative.

Non-Fiction

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

This book on education policy came out in 2012, so some of the information is a bit dated. Nevertheless, its core message is still alarmingly relevant. Movements toward school privatization have continued in force since the book was written, and are only intensifying during the Coronavirus pandemic. Reign of Error gives important background and useful, data-backed arguments against privatization and charter and voucher school programs. Once an advocate for charter schools herself, Ravitch became disillusioned by their consistent failure to deliver on their grandiose promises and now offers clear and convincing arguments for revitalization and reinvestment in public education.

I first heard Diane Ravitch speak on the Pitchfork Economics podcast, She and host Nick Hanauer discussed their former advocacy for school privatization and the process by which their views changed. It is rare to witness people who have, by evidence and experience, become disillusioned with positions for which they have advocated strongly and systems which benefit them personally. I was impressed by the intellectual honesty and personal integrity they showed as they adjusted their beliefs, acknowledged their error, and worked to make amends. 

Atlas of Moral Psychology, edited by Kurt Gray

This colossal edited volume presents a current state-of-the-field survey of moral psychology. Unlike the field of ethics, moral psychology does not attempt to ascertain what is actually right and wrong; instead, it attempts to identify the psychological and socio-cultural processes by which humans decide what is right or wrong, and how to act and react morally in specific circumstances. It is a new and messy field, but it already offers valuable insights into many foibles of human morality, from the ethical systems we create down to the inconsistency with which we embody them. I was especially happy to see that this volume made a strong effort to include investigations across class, gender, and culture, the lack of which has historically been a weakness of psychological research. 

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

Tisby presents an excellent historical survey of the shortcomings of the American church as it relates to issues of race. Even when white Christians were not explicitly championing racist views or defending the institutions of slavery and segregation, their advocacy for equal rights and protections under the law were muted and weak. Few and far between were those who gave full-throated support to the liberation of Black, Asian, and Hispanic people, here or abroad. This book focuses only on the Christian church’s role in the history of racism in America, and may work best as a supplement to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and/or Paul Ortiz’s An African American and LatinX History of the United States.

The Whole List

  • Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism by Malka Z. Simkovich.
  • Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orisha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
  • A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived: The Stories in our Genes by Adam Rutherford
  • The New Cambridge History of the Bible: Volume 1. From the Beginnings to 600 edited by James Carleton Paget
  • Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
  • This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies edited by Hector Avalos
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal
  • The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker
  • Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway by Frank Schaeffer
  • The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1) by Jasper Fforde
  • Atlas of Moral Psychology edited by Kurt Gray
  • A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen
  • Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement by Rich Karlgaard
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green
  • Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on Its Own Terms by Jacqueline Vayntrub
  • The Emily Series by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest)
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Blood Child and Other Stories by Octavia E Butler
  • Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1) by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2) by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Big Disruption by Jessica Powell
  • Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl
  • Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
  • What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit
  • Moses Among the Idols: Mediators of the Divine in the Ancient Near East by Amy L. Balogh
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin D’Angelo
  • A Short History of Iraq by Thabit Abdullah
  • Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity by Candida R. Moss
  • Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature by Rebecca Raphael
  • The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida R. Moss
  • The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy