2019: The Best So Far

Judging by my lack of recent updates, it may seem like I’ve stopped reading, but I assure you that is not the case. I’ve just been concentrating my writing efforts on my infertility blog, which is slowly becoming the first draft of an infertility memoir (#summergoals). I have most definitely been reading, though not perhaps at the pace I did last year, and this summer I want to get back into the habit of sharing my recs with all of you. I’ll have the first edition of my Summer Reads up in a week or so, but for now, here are some of the standouts from the first half of this year.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This is my hands-down favorite of 2019 and honestly the best book I’ve read in years. I’m obsessed with this book and would be reading it again if I hadn’t loaned my copy to my girlfriend Jenn (I’ve also given it as a gift to my mother-in-law and another friend so far, with likely more to come). It’s based on the true story of a group of men in a Mennonite community in Bolivia who, over a period of four years, used a cow anesthetic to drug and rape one hundred and thirty women and girls in the colony. Toews takes this horrific event as the premise for her novel, which begins after the men’s crimes have come to light, when the colony’s leader has them arrested by local police to protect them from the women’s rage. In their absence, he gives the women an ultimatum: they can decide to forgive the men and everything can go back to the way it was (and everyone will go to heaven) or they can leave. A group of women from two of the colony’s most prominent families, the Loewens and the Friesens, are appointed to decide what action the women will take – adding a third option of waging war on the men, demanding punishment and retribution. Forbidden to read or write, they enlist August Epp, an outcast loner, to record the minutes of the meeting. His account becomes both witness-bearing and a reversal of the colony’s traditional gender order – a man must be silent and listen while the women talk. Their discussion is by turns deeply philosophical and painfully practical, and raises questions that are (for me, anyway) hauntingly parallel to those of the #MeToo movement. Now that our culture has finally woken up to the violence, abuse, and harassment so many women have faced throughout our lives, how do we proceed? The brilliance of this novel is in its forceful and compelling portrayal of the unknowable power of women talking – arguing, refining, coming to collective understanding – together.

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne

On January 21st, 2017, I (and millions of women and allies worldwide) marched in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump. The Women’s March was the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history, and taking part in it was both empowering and comforting. Afterwards, my sister-in-law Jenny and I stopped at a nearby bar to warm up, and the comfort wore off as reality set in. We shook our heads, inarticulately wondering how this could have happened. “That’s the power of misogyny,” I remember her saying. When I read a review of Manne’s book in the London Review, I thought back to that conversation and ordered it immediately. Like the Women’s March, Down Girl is also a response to the 2016 election. In it, Manne argues that misogyny is not about hating women; it’s about controlling, punishing, and policing women’s attempts to challenge men’s dominance. She examines current events that embody this mechanism of misogyny, including cases of mass murder of women, family annihilators (men who murder their wives and children), serial rapists, Rush Limbaugh, and the backlash against Australian PM Julia Gillard to show that, far from being an anomaly, the misogyny we saw during the 2016 election was both predictable and the next step in a cultural progression. Down Girl is probably more academic and scholarly than most of us are used to, but for its searing insight into society’s mechanisms to control and silence the women who defy and fight against those devices, it’s well worth the challenge.

Gentleman Jack: A biography of Anne Lister by Angela Steidele

If you’ve seen the HBO series of the same name, you have probably, like me, fallen under the spell of Miss Lister of Shibden Hall (and if you haven’t seen it, you should try to rectify that ASAP). After I learned that the series is based on the remarkable true story of a 19th century Yorkshire landowner, Anne Lister, as told herself in her copious – and largely coded – journal entries, I had to know more. Steidele’s biography is the first (and only, as near as I can tell) exploration of Anne Lister’s life written for a general audience. Using the journals themselves, versions of which were not published until the 1980’s because of their salacious content (but we’ll get to that in a moment), Steidele divides her book into time periods defined by which woman most preoccupied Anne’s thoughts and writing. Beginning with her schoolmate Eliza in 1791, when Anne was 14, the book annotates, interprets, and fleshes out the margins of Anne’s journals, in which she describes nearly everything about her daily life, her financial pursuits and difficulties, and her lust for travel and adventure, all anchored by her romantic conquests. Her vivid depiction of sex with women is downright erotic, and the reason the journals, once decoded, were locked away in a hidden closet of Shibden Hall by a distant relative a decade after her death. Discovered again after his death by a Halifax librarian, the journals were entrusted to the Halifax library only with the assurance that the scandalous material (and the code for deciphering them) would never be published. Thus Anne Lister’s proud defiance of gender norms was not known to the world until the world (post-Women’s Lib) was apparently ready for it. The biography is a fascinating glimpse into the extraordinary life of a woman who bucked convention at every turn – in the way she dressed; in her foray into coal mining; in her perilous globe-trotting; and most prominently, in whom she loved.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Every spring, the A.P. Language and Composition teachers in our district meet to decide on our summer reading assignment for our incoming students. We try to change things up every year depending on student responses to the book choices. After a lively discussion, we’d created a list of contenders, and I happily volunteered to test-read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. A highly entertaining and thought-provoking analysis of the ways in which social media has become the modern arena for public shaming, the book seemed like it would appeal strongly to the people who have no memory of a world without Twitter. One hundred pages in, I was ready to add it to our list – so what if there’s a few f-words, the kids can handle that – but then I got to the chapter describing Ronson’s visit to the set of a public shaming-themed porno film, and I remembered that I like being gainfully employed. (Shoutout to my colleague Susan, who suggested I could just add a note to the syllabus that kids should skip that chapter; I wish I had her courage.) The book begins with what seems like a noble case of shaming, when Ronson confronts the people who’ve created a Twitter bot with his name, whose identity theft and inane food tweets rightly angered the writer. He filmed the meeting with the bot’s designers and put it on YouTube; when the video garnered comments mocking, shaming, and all but threatening the lives of the designers, Ronson understandably felt validated. For a while. But it’s exactly this unsettling feeling of pleasure at seeing someone else punished that lays the foundation for his thesis: that rather than a means to build common ground and seek greater understanding with our fellow humans, social media (Twitter in particular, though Ronson also discusses Reddit and 4chan) has become the new town square and all of us are standing around cheering on the gallows. The punishment, he cogently argues, is never in proportion to the crime, and is made even more cruel and crushing by of the anonymity of social media. Ronson’s examination of several high-profile cases of lives being ruined by this self-righteous piling-on challenges us to question our own desire to see bad deeds – sometimes just bad jokes – punished with the full, reckless force of thousands of strangers. This book won’t make you feel great about humanity, but it might inspire you to be nicer online. And that, I think we can agree, is a thing desperately needed.

Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

One of my favorite book podcasts is called All the Books and its host, Liberty Hardy, truly does read all the books. Or attempts to, anyway. When she declared Miracle Creek the best book she’d read in 2019, I had to check it out. The novel begins with a pretty standard thriller set-up: a horrible accident resulting in multiple deaths an injuries, and the apparent culprit in custody and soon to go on trial. But from there, Kim’s riveting story blends genres to create that literary-popular crossover appeal perfected by writers like Celeste Ng and Tayari Jones. First, there’s the nature of the accident itself. The explosion takes place in a hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) facility in rural Virginia. The patients are mainly children with autism of varying degrees of severity, but the group also includes a man seeking treatment for his infertility. Then there’s the heart wrenching story of the chamber’s owners, Pak and Young Yoo, Korean immigrants who have worked doggedly to overcome the persistent anti-immigrant sentiment that has repeatedly thrown obstacles in their path to the American Dream. The novel alternates perspectives between the Yoos and their teenage daughter Mary; Elizabeth, mother of the boy who died in the explosion and accused of causing it herself; Matt and his wife Janine, the couple seeking a cure to their infertility; and Teresa, another parent who survived the explosion. As the story switches among these perspectives, we learn a little more about what really happened that night, and the completely logical, seemingly airtight case against Elizabeth begins to unravel. The courtroom scenes supply taught and fabulous drama, but I was most moved by Kim’s exploration of how much these parents will do to help their children; the depth and power of their love is rendered with such dignity and insight that it often manages to draw the spotlight away from the murder-mystery. But speaking of that, I didn’t see the ending coming and I absolutely hated one of the characters by the end. You’ll just have to read it to find out what I mean.

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

(See what I did there?)

I first saw Casey Gerald on PBS’ The News Hour. In his brief opinion piece, he made the argument that highlighting success stories like his – a person whose inspiring life trajectory took him from a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks all the way to Harvard Business School – only serves to perpetuate the myth of the American Dream. In reality, Gerald is the exception that proves the rule – far too many people are left out of the promise of America, and far too many of our children are denied a fair shake from the start. As the title of his captivating and gorgeously-written memoir makes clear, this is not your typical “I succeeded and so can you!” motivational book. It’s almost the opposite, in fact. Gerald is brutally honest about the hardships he faced growing up in a poor suburb of Dallas. His father, a former college football star, struggled with substance abuse. His mother, who suffered seizures and bi-polar disorder disappeared when he was 12. He grew up in the care of assorted relatives, excelled in football as well as academics, and after graduation, earned a spot on Yale’s football team, where he co-founded the Yale Black Men’s Union. From there, he earned an MBA from Harvard and interned at Lehman Brothers before starting an organization that supports small, local entrepreneurs. Despite this notable success, Gerald is remarkably humble, refusing to attribute his achievements to any particular qualities or talents within himself. He just got lucky, he seems to continually suggest, always with an awareness that so many other bright, motivated, creative young people never get the opportunities afforded to him. In doing so, Gerald crafts a memoir that is neither sentimental nor self-important, and that shines a light on the glaring inequity his success reveals.

A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre

It wouldn’t be an Otter Reads post without a little espionage and international intrigue. A Delicate Truth, published in 2013, is Le Carre at his finest. I was impressed from the start with how naturally he’s adapted his storytelling to the changing times. In the George Smiley novels that established Le Carre as a master of the genre, there’s a degree of moral relativism; we’re okay with some people dying because some sacrifice is necessary in the bigger fight against communism – even if it makes us uncomfortably similar to our enemies. But those enemies have changed. Gone is the Soviet empire; in its place are the companies that use the war on terror to make vast sums of money. This privatization of global politics plays out in the novel’s opening act, involving a joint operation between an M.P. named Fergus Quinn and an American security firm with the too-ironically named Ethical Outcomes to take out a regional arms dealer in Gibralter. Government worker Paul Anderson, whose real name is Kit Probyn, is sent along to observe report back to Quinn. As the story progresses, we slowly learn that things don’t go according to plan, but Probyn’s silence is bought by a comfy new appointment to the Caribbean and a knighthood. Years later, Quinn’s private secretary, idealist Toby Bell, begins to uncover the truth about his boss’ profiteering and his attempts to blow the whistle on compel the drama of the rest of the novel. Without spoiling it, I can tell you that the result of all this thrilling, dangerous work are probably not what Toby or the reader expect. In A Delicate Truth, Le Carre levels caustic criticism at the greed and hypocrisy that have come to define global politics post-Cold War, and tells a compelling, exciting story while he’s about it.

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