May: A Bouquet of Nonfiction

Hello from sunny Tampa!

I’m here all week for the annual A.P. English Language and Composition Exam Reading, along with 1,600 of my colleagues, tasked with scoring more than 1.75 million essays written by 11th graders all across the nation. It’s very intense but I really do love reading all this student writing and partly I feel like it’s my responsibility as an educator. I’ve been so gratified to see all that different literary references students have used as evidence in their arguments and yes, after we’re let off at 5:00, I totally go back to my hotel room and read. Last month featured a preponderance of nonfiction, in part because I was doing some research to find good candidates for AP Lang summer homework (one of these made the list). Also, in case you’re concerned, I am right on track, still (after AP exam prep and finals!) to reach my 100 books goal by the end of the year. Here are the books I read in May:


33. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Memoir)

I remember hearing about this book in the context of trying to make sense of the 2016 election. Specifically, how could the white working class throw such vehement support behind a candidate who so blatantly had no compunction about screwing them over to enrich himself and his billionaire cronies? Like many, I had my own explanation but I truly wanted to understand and was ready to disabuse myself of those assumptions. Vance’s memoir didn’t exactly give me the insight I needed to do that, mainly because it’s more personal history than ethnography. But what a story he tells. In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance describes growing up in the entrenched poverty of Appalachia with unflinching honesty. In particular, his treatment of the pattern of abuse and addiction that haunt his family and impede his efforts to escape the cycle create a portrait of the fallacy of American Exceptionalism that is more rich and complex than any I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the high value placed on education by his mother and the even more influential Mamaw (grandmother), Vance did well in school and was accepted to Ohio State University, but ultimately decided to join the Marines instead. Upon his return after serving in the Iraq War, Vance completed his degree at Ohio State in less than two years. He was then accepted to Yale Law, where he repeatedly confronted the wide gulf of class and privilege. Ultimately, Vance sees himself and his success as exceptional and blames the generational poverty entrapping the culture in which he grew up on a sense of learned helplessness. He accuses them of lacking a strong work ethic and looking for ways to exploit the social safety net. Fair enough; Vance has clearly seen enough evidence throughout his life to support this theory. But I’m always wary when the “personal responsibility” argument enters into the dialogue because I think it takes attention away from the systemic roadblocks perpetuated by people intent on maintaining their power, wealth, and privilege, to the detriment of everyone else. Vance’s point, however, is that seeing the game as rigged is one of the factors contributing to the feeling of helplessness; it is, and that means you have to work that much harder to fight it.


34. Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky (YA)

You know when you go into a Lush store and all the bath bombs are so pink and sparkly and sweet-smelling that you kind of want to eat them? That is the same appeal that this book had for me. The premise: a group of obsessive teenage fangirls somehow find themselves in a situation involving the abduction of one of the members of their favorite boy band. And then he somehow DIES! It sounds like some kind of awesome, insane Heathers-crossed-with-Misery exploration of the dark side of 21st century fandom… if only it had half the depth of either of those stories. It does have sporadic moments of hilarity, though, like the fact that the English boy band at the center of the drama, The Ruperts (so-called because every member is named Rupert) was cobbled together after their individual performances on the (fictional, but only just) show “So You Think the British Don’t Have Talent?” It also has moments that promise insightful cultural commentary, like the unnamed narrator’s refreshing meditation on the ways the pop entertainment industry both exploits and desperately depends upon the raging tumult of teen girl adolescence in order to survive. But those threads get dropped in favor of an increasingly ridiculous whodunnit that loses any insight or nuance by its too-convenient conclusion. I will say that for a debut YA novel, it’s still fairly impressive in its originality and has its own subversive appeal. The 14-year-old Harry Styles fanatic in your life might like it very much.


35. How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb (Memoir)

On the British sitcom Peep Show, author Robert Webb’s character Jeremy mindlessly revels in all the accidental privileges of being born male, usually with hilarious results. He’s self-serving, manipulative, and thankfully, largely unsuccessful in his hapless romantic schemes. Let me be clear – I also find Jez quite lovable. But reading Webb’s memoir, the contrast between the character and the actor and comedian who created him couldn’t have been more striking. How Not to Be a Boy is an intensely personal indictment of modern masculinity packed with stunning insight into its toxic side effects. Even more than that, it’s a beautiful and deeply moving memoir about all the subtle and insidious harms implicit in the early lessons children learn about gender. In gorgeous, literary prose (Webb studied English Literature at Cambridge, after all) How Not to Be a Boy describes the author’s dawning understanding that he did not fit the mold of what a boy was supposed to be. His transgressions range from the typical and relatively innocuous (being skinny, hating football) to the more overt and dangerous (falling in love with male friends and having sex with at least one of them). At every turn, Webb was forced to confront a set of sacrosanct, unspoken rules for behavior that he argues are just as damaging to men as misogyny is to women, though Webb is careful not to assert that men are victims. Listening* to him describe his childhood and adolescence, however, my heart broke for the little boy who, at the tender age of seven, built a fort of stones to protect an injured bee, awash in shame at the knowledge that he’d done something wrong. He was supposed to smash the bee, not protect it. That’s what a proper boy would do. He was seven. It’s memories like these, explored with such vivid discernment (and I haven’t even touched on the death of his mother, which had me sobbing along a stretch of Highway 60 from Mankato to St. Peter) that make How Not to Be a Boy so brilliant and its author such an important voice in the fight for gender equality.

* I highly recommend the audiobook, read with a true storyteller’s timing, inflection, and pathos by the author himself. It’s like he’s in your car (or wherever you choose to listen) putting on a one-man show just for you.


36. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Essay)

The first work I read by Ta-Nehisi Coates was an article he’d written titled “The Case for Reparations”, which appeared as the cover story the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic. In fact, I have that cover laminated and displayed in a row of other Atlantic covers above the whiteboard at the front of my classroom, so I and my students see it every day. I still remember shaking my head in speechless wonder at Coates’ powerful argument, one of the strongest I’ve ever read (if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth checking out). He brings the same force to this essay, an extended reckoning of what it means to live “within a black body” in a country that has historically devoted itself to destroying that body. Inspired by James Baldwin’s 1963 essay, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”, Coates crafts his deeply personal examination of race as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. His central thesis is that his life and his son’s is one of endless struggle against the forces that would sooner see them perish than thrive. I heard echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of redemptive struggle, and Coates does assert that this fight will bring honor and wisdom, but he stops short of suggesting anything about raising white consciousness. I think this is what I appreciated most about the book. After President Obama’s election, we heard a lot of talk about  “post-racial” America, an idea that was laughable at best and surely more destructive than the people who uttered it could realize. Coates refers to white people as “people who believe they are white”, an allusion to the false pretense of race but also a reference to the preconditions of the violent racism that has grown and flourished along with the nation. White people must believe in their supremacy in order to perpetuate its privileges, and devote themselves to a delusion that such supremacy cannot exist in a country founded on an ideal (codified by slave-owners) of equality. This delusion is what Coates calls the Dream, and he offers no hope that anything he or his son can do can make white people aware of the lethal power of their privilege. He doesn’t task his son with anything but searching for answers to questions that still, after 155 years, torment us all: why are black bodies the target of such undifferentiated violence? Who will pay the cost? What will it take to make this country, in the words of Dr. King, “live out the true meaning of its creed”? How do we wake ourselves from the Dream?


37. The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels by Jon Meacham (Nonfiction)

In Jon Meacham’s latest take on American history, he seems to implore everyone, in his polite Southern way, to just calm the hell down. Times are dark, yes, but we’ve been through worse and we’ll get through this just fine. Reading it immediately after Between the World and Me, however, I approached the book with a perhaps unfair degree of skepticism. The burden of proof was substantial and it was all on Meacham (or “The Meech”, as Jeff and I affectionately refer to him) to convince me that there was anything in American history, ever, to give us hope or justify our idealism. At first, his calm optimism seemed to stem from a very limited and privileged perspective. I was also looking for it to be too historical, cold, impersonal, and that the deep wounds of colonization, slavery, and segregation would not be visible from such a distance. But I gave him a chance and soon this charming bastard had me feeling that flickering ember of optimism begin to grow in my soul too. At a time when social media is daily sounding the death knell of democracy, Meacham’s vision of the cycles of American history is reassuring. He’s our very own “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign for our modern Constitutional crisis. A Lincoln acolyte, Meacham’s theme is that the better angels of our nature have certainly been beaten, silenced, and ignored, but they never die. To prove this, he examines moments in U.S. history when our leaders have had the opportunity to welcome the arc of the moral universe (to quote Dr. King, again) to “bend toward justice”. He’s very clear that time and again, they failed. But there are also moments when the voices of those better angels have drowned out those of the racists, bigots, and cowards. In particular, his description of Lyndon Johnson’s dramatic transformation from political opportunist into civil rights warrior seems especially timely. In part, it was the massive demonstrations against segregation that made him realize and act on the urgency of the moment. I couldn’t help but think of the Parkland kids, and how they started a movement that made the entire world take notice and and hear their demands. All hope is not lost, as long as we listen to the voices of our better angels and raise our own in harmony.


38. Educated by Tara Westover (Memoir)

Tara Westover’s powerful memoir of growing up “off the grid” in the mountains of Idaho in a deeply religious family was the Now Read This book club’s May selection. According to her father’s interpretation of Mormon doctrine, nearly every facet of modern life – medicine, school, business, and especially the federal government – is doing Satan’s work. So Westover and her siblings were home-schooled (barely; basically, they were taught to read) and cut off from all society except their church. The memoir begins with an anecdote of Westover trying to procure a birth certificate so she can attend high school, only to discover that no one in her family knew the actual day of her birth. It’s hard to believe at first, but after a few pages it becomes clear that this little vignette is downright quaint compared to the other realities of her childhood. Her mother works as a midwife and eventually becomes renowned (and wealthy) on the reputation of her natural remedies. Adolescent Tara assists with the births, when she’s not helping her father at the other family business, a scrap yard. The stories of the mortal danger this work poses to her and her older brothers are terrifying. There’s definitely a Glass Castle element of “how can they possibly survive this?” But they do. And flying sheet metal becomes least of Tara’s concerns when her older brother, Shawn, begins abusing her. The description of his attacks is harrowing; many times he seems intent on killing her. With the help of another brother, Tyler, she decides she needs to get out, and embarks on an unbelievable journey that takes her to BYU, then to Cambridge on a Gates scholarship, where she eventually moves on to complete her PhD. The survivor story aspect is amazing, but I found myself more intrigued by Westover’s exploration of domestic abuse and mental illness. At what point do you sever ties, even when you know it means you’re cutting yourself off from the only home you’ve ever known? What does it take to make the decision that’s best for you, even when the result is permanent alienation? Westover’s insight, honesty, and courage in finding the answers to these questions are what make this memoir so piercing and compelling.


39. The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Essays)

When I read the review of this wonderful collection of essays on the refugee experience in the Sunday Star Tribune last month, I ordered it immediately. It is my firm conviction that the refugee/immigration crisis is the defining humanitarian issue of our times and that history will judge us by our response to it (right now, we’re not looking too good). The slim book comprises more than a dozen essays by and about people who have been displaced by persecution, armed conflict, or other conditions making their emigration a matter of survival. Nguyen, whose debut novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, introduces the collection by describing the refugee experience as one defined by loss – of homes, loved ones, identities – and the essays all echo that theme in one way or another. My favorite line comes from an essay by Vu Tran titled “Refugees and Exiles”: “Maybe as with all of us the country which is our true home is the idllic rose-tinted land of our own childhood, from which we are always exiles”. The voices in this collection combine to represent not merely the undeniable humanity of people who’ve been displaced, but also their fundamental right to citizenship and identity. Listening to them is a vital step toward expanding inclusion and fulfilling the obligation of our own humanity.

devils highway

40. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea (Nonfiction)

This book was one of the new choices for our A.P. Language and Composition summer homework assignment this year, so I figured I’d better read it before the kids did. While Devil’s Highway was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, Luis Alberto Urrea is perhaps better known (and lauded) for his fiction, a style that informs this gripping true story of a group of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2001. To do so, they have to survive a vast and unforgiving wasteland known as Devil’s Highway, where the excessive heat and lack of water pose deadly threats to anyone brave or desperate enough to attempt the journey. This book tells the heartbreaking story of 26 men who walked the Devil’s Highway together. Only 12 survived. Urrea documents their stories, as well as those of the Border Patrol agents who understand that these people are only guilty of trying to make a better life for their families back home. His extensive research is evident in this ambitious work of investigative journalism, told in a style evocative of Tom Wolfe. His use of second person makes the descriptions of the harsh terrain and effects of heat on the body particularly horrifying. And while Urrea’s focus is primarily on the tragic story of the Yuma 14 (the men who died, named for their eventual destination), he makes it clear that they are not unique. Thousands of migrants have died attempting this journey over the years. No matter where you stand on immigration, it would be difficult to come away from this book without the conviction that reforming this broken system is a moral imperative.

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