2020 will go down in history as the year I finally got my TBR pile under control. Partly because shelter in place gave me extra reading time, but mostly because the pandemic kept me out of bookstores, and browsing online just isn’t the same. I read 73 books and plays this year.
Here’s my nonfiction list, with assorted commentary. Next I’ll do my fiction list.
Sarah Kendzior, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America
Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists
Barry Levine & Monique El-Faizy, All the President’s Women: Donald Trump and the Making of a Predator
Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
Rachel Maddow, Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
Shelly Oria, Ed., Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings from the MeToo Movement
Jessica Valenti & Jaclyn Friedman, Eds., Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World
Indelible in the Hippocampus contains some raw, occasionally hard-to-read material about harassment: mostly essay, but some poetry and fiction too. Believe Me is partly about harassment and how “he said/she said” is routinely interpreted as “he said/she lied.” But also included other issues where women are treated as less trustworthy (for instance, how medical professionals are more likely to assume women are exaggerating their symptoms).
Hiding in Plain Sight is a solid and fascinating look at the mainstream and extreme elements that came together to bring us Trump (and the way extreme elements get mainstreamed). I also highly recommend The View from Flyover Country, also by Kendzior. All the President’s Women is about the harassment and assault allegations against him, but also veers into trying to analyze the workings of his mind, which seemed overly speculative.
Blowback is about an essential issue, but it’s 20 years out of date, pre-9/11. Blowout is a deep dive into the fossil fuel industry, wonky but worth it, as you’d expect from Maddow.
Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive
Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’
Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
Julia Flynn Siler, The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown
I tend to like biographies that connect with a bigger issue. Barracoon was drawn from interviews with a man who was enslaved in Africa, brought to the US long after importing slaves was illegal, and had to make a life for himself in America after being freed by the Civil War. It’s a brief but powerful read. The White Devil’s Daughters is about a different kind of slavery, and it’s a part of my town’s history that I hadn’t known well.
Maid was thoughtful, honest, and really made you feel the pain when some rando in the grocery store shamed her for using food stamps.
And Daring to Drive was a really interesting look at a woman’s life in Saudi Arabia. Media portrayals tend to paint the country as a monolith, but in fact al-Sharif found lots of who thought the driving ban was ridiculous, or who helped her circumvent other laws that restricted women’s freedom.
Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya
Noel Coward, Hay Fever
Noel Coward, Private Lives
Eve Ensler, Necessary Targets
Luigi Pirandello, Henry IV
Luigi Pirandello, It Is So! (If You Think It Is)
George Bernard Shaw, Heartbreak House
I don’t know if it’s the translation or what, but I don’t get Chekhov. I do enjoy Pirandello, who sets up situations where somebody has to be crazy or lying — but we’re never quite sure who.
I liked Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, but found Necessary Targets frustrating, because it centers the American women, not the Bosnian war victims that they’re ostensibly trying to help.
Noel Coward mostly wrote light comedies. Unfortunately, in the era when he wrote Private Lives, domestic violence could be treated as a joke. Meanwhile, his Hay Fever and GB Shaw’s Heartbreak House both followed the formula of “throw a bunch of oddball characters into a house for a few days and see how much they annoy each other.”
Phyllis Clements, Ed., Coffee and Conversation: Warm Cups of Self-Care
Jill Filipovic: The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness
Jonathan Kay, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground
Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
Peter Laufer, The Dangerous World of Butterflies
Nicole Tersigni, Men to Avoid in Art and Life
Among the Truthers addressed an important topic, conspiracy theories and 9/11-related ones in particular. But the author tried to force it into his preferred political narrative (that conspiracism is primarily a problem of the ”anti-American left” — his phrase — with the usual rants about “political correctness”).
Men to Avoid in Art and Life is a collection of classic paintings, with captions like, “You’d be prettier if you smiled more.” I laughed straight through.
The Dangerous World of Butterflies is about all things butterfly: collectors, preservationists, and the surprisingly lucrative underground of smugglers and poachers.
Kim Addonizio, Tell Me
Adedayo Agarau, The Arrival of Rain
Jericho Brown, The Tradition
Philip Cushman & Michael Warr, Eds., Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin
Kerri Davidson, How to Fly
Derrick I. M. Gilbert, Catch the Fire: A Cross-Generational Anthology of African-American Poetry
Nikita Gill, Great Goddesses
Nikita Gill, Your Soul Is a River
Amanda Lovelace, The Mermaid Gets Her Voice Back in This One
Amanda Lovelace, To Drink Coffee with a Ghost
Amanda Lovelace, To Make Monsters Out of Girls
Susan McMaster, Ed., Siolence: Poets on Women, Violence, and Silence
Murray Silverstein, Ed., America, We Call Your Name
Clint Smith, Counting Descent
Andrena Zawinski, Ed., Turning a Train of thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry
I demand two things from poetry: that it be (1) comprehensible, and (2) actually about something.
Some of these books were themed anthologies, like America, We Call Your Name, a great collection of political poems from the era of *resident *rump. Catch the Fire included both well-known and obscure African-American poets, but was from 1998, so it was jarring to see a poem unironically dedicated to Bill Cosby.
Of Poetry and Protest had each poet include an essay as well as a poem on the theme of Black lives mattering. Siolence took a similar approach, though I found the poems in that one less accessible.
Amanda Lovelace writes prolifically about overcoming abuse, sexism, self-doubt and more. Each of her poems seems simple, but they fit together into a complex story. The Mermaid Gets Her Voice Back in this One is a bit of a departure: the last section includes contributions from other women poets, and they work together beautifully.
Weirdly, I loved one Nikita Gill book and didn’t care for the other. Great Goddesses was a re-imagining of Greek Mythology, with much imagination, unexpected images and good storytelling. Your Soul Is a River was more like a collection of aphorisms, didn’t grab me.
The Tradition and Counting Descent are both about being a Black man in a society that’s sometimes indifferent and sometimes hostile. The Tradition is more formal poetry, Counting Descent more free-form, both really affecting.
Cross-posted at Daily Kos.