An ode to books and their authors
Words shape our worlds, and these have shaped mine this year.
I have always been an insatiable reader. I think back to what it must have cost to keep me in books growing up - even with the aid of library rentals - and I have a deep appreciation for the choices my parents must have had to make to do so.
Before digital books, when I would travel, half a suitcase would invariably be filled with books to (hopefully) last the duration of a vacation.
I have always been fascinated by books as a fundamental tool of humanity. Words create our world; they can regulate (or dysregulate) our nervous systems; they can inspire us to create safety and love, or to create hatred and derision for one another; they help us decide who has power and who experiences the suffering we create; and so, so much more. My obsession with books has, yes, been about stories and characters and ideas; but more, it has been a life-long marveling at the power, courage, and creativity of authors. I am awed by their minds as well as their bravery, even compulsion, to shape the rest of us.
It doesn’t matter what I read, I find myself ruminating on what a book, what an author, is offering to us all as a reflection of our capacities as humans. I relish in seeing the full complexity of us mirrored back through their pages and am reminded in reading them that we are, all of us, infinitely complex and complicated. We are each simultaneously capable of world-changing love, hedonistic pleasure, and tyrannical autocracy. Despite all our obsession with narrowing our complexity, of reducing us to our component or even dominant parts, we are each indefinable. I love that books remind us of that if we’re willing to listen.
At the start of this year, I thought I’d do something I’ve not taken the time to do before: keep track of all the books I’ve read in a single year and then reflect back on the readings at the end of the year. (As a fun side quest, it’s been interesting to notice where I’ve fallen into traps of feeling the urge to read more just to put something on the list, when moments of “I’m not reading enough” have popped up, or when I’ve noticed myself simply getting swept up in the “gold star” achievement orientation of it all...none of which were the intention for keeping my list. I simply wanted to be able to look back at what I read this year. It’s been refreshing to be able to see these moments as opportunities to keep integrating and releasing those tendencies within myself for achievement, of greed, for shine, and not get caught up in them. Opportunities for personal growth are all around us, my loves!)
December isn’t over, obviously, so there are still some books that will make it onto my list and into my heart.
But for this Overalls, I thought I’d call forward some of the books that I really loved this year and that, perhaps, are off your radar and might be of interest to you, too. This isn’t necessarily a reflection of the best books I read this year (I thought about that and immediately dismissed it as an impossible task). Nor is it necessarily a note about the most interesting or profound or coolest books, though it gets perhaps close to it. Instead, it’s what came up for me as I was reviewing my list of books that I have something to say about or to share with you about.
(If you’re interested in the full list of books I’ve read, you can see it here. I make no apologies for the fact that I include books I’ve re-read this year to refresh my memory of a series that has a new installment or because I wanted to revisit characters or concepts with the view from who I am now vs when I first read them; nor am I ashamed in the slightest by how many rom coms or even smutty books are here.)
Some books I loved, that I have something to say about, that I learned from, that I read in 2021…
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
I said I wouldn’t make this list about the best books I’ve read this year, but no question, this is the book that stands out the most to me across all nearly 100 books I’ve read this year. Part creative writing, part marine biology, part meditation, part soul-healing prose, it provoked me, inspired me, challenged me, and invited me into something simply more. I learned so much about marine mammals, our impact on them, and what they have to teach us, though that doesn’t capture how the soul of this book transformed my own as I read it; I wish I was as gifted as Alexis in telling you about that transformation. The collaborations that Alexis and Toshi Reagon have done are a compliment to the book and hearing Alexis read portions of her book on the tracks brings the text - and her own delight in what she’s discovered in this world of marine mammals - to life in a totally new way. As a fun fact for the Memphis readers out there, one of Alexis’s teachers was Professor Charles McKinney, Rhodes professor, activist, and author.
Bloodroot, by Amy Greene
Among the many things people do when they hear I’m originally from Appalachia is recommend a book they’ve read that is set there or written by an author from there. The recommendations are always lovingly offered, though some of them either aren’t my cup of tea or are just absolutely wretched (I’m looking at you, book that became a Netflix movie by an author currently running for U.S. Senate in Ohio that I will not name. If you want a recommendation for a book that profers self-hatred and community derision while somehow claiming to be for Appalachians, that’s for you. But, I digress).
Bloodroot was one of my “Appalachia books” I read this year that was recommended to me by a friend (the other one was also really cool and really good!) and I loved it. Bloodroot (a gorgeous mountain flower, imo) tells a story, ultimately, about survival: how we do it, what it costs us, how it shapes our lineage, the tools we pass down and teach to others to do it, and what happens to us when our family’s and our community’s identity are themselves stories of collective survival. It explores, through the story of “haint-eyed” Myra and her family, the ways violence gets a hold of us and the complicated ways survivors can go on to perpetrate more violence. It reminded me of a quote from abolitionist Mariame Kaba: “No one enters violence for the first time by committing it”. I also loved that, like many well-done books about Appalachia, the mountain was its own character. As I read the book, I could smell the woods on Bloodroot Mountain, feel the gravel under the tires driving down it into town, taste the coffee Byrdie made and see the peeling wallpaper of the isolated cabin reinforced with newspaper.
If there’s a book on this list besides Undrowned that I think everyone should read, it’s this one. Sarah explores the challenges of believing work should fulfill you, give you purpose, and should be something you love doing, not because work should necessarily be the opposite, but that in doing so, we give away our collective power and accept and often unconsciously conspire with systems that abuse and thieve from us. She explores the impact of this paradigm through two parts of the book, the first focused on jobs / sectors that are “caring” work (and therefore often gendered work) and the second on jobs / sectors that are “artistic”. In each chapter, you meet someone in that field who is struggling somehow, Sarah details the history of that sector (might I especially recommend her chapters on non-profits and teaching for the readers of this small publication) and how it’s come to be that things are how they are in that industry in relation to workers and owners, and then each chapter concludes with the story of how the person you met at the beginning of the chapter is joining others (often in a union) to create change. I learned so much about the design of work through this book, the narratives reinforced my belief in unions and their necessity in fighting for a different world, and I know for sure I’ll never look at another “Now Hiring: Smiling Faces!” poster at a gas station or fast food marquee the same way again.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
I just finished this one this morning, so it’s possible it has a spot here from sheer immediacy of read, but I somehow know this one will stick with me. I picked it up simply because Eleanor of Aquitaine featured in the summary and she is a woman of history that I have long been inspired and taught by. The book, though, centers on Groff’s imagination of Marie de France, a figure history knows very little of (though what is known is pretty cool - look her up). It casts Marie as a woman-loving nun who creates a center of power for the nuns in her care in the midst of the Middle Ages, the Crusades, and the power of the Catholic Church. It reminded me a bit of The Power in how it imagined a world by, for, and of women. A core part of Marie in Matrix is an obsession with practicing self-sufficiency, taking ever more steps to get it, and believing in the women around her and their inherent capacity for it, despite their outward beliefs otherwise or a world which actively tells them to be nothing but subservient. It explores the various ways - beautiful, challenging, concerning - that Marie leads her community in creating an island within an island where they can be free, joyous, and powerful.
City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández
Okay, if there is yet another book I’d love for everyone to read, it’s this one, which is an insightful look at the role that laws and prisons have played in the colonization and settlement of the United States. The book uses the history of human caging in Los Angeles to demonstrate its thesis that whichever group makes up the dominant prison population at any time is a clear indication of who the settler-colonialist project is trying to eliminate as a threat to its existence, expansion, and/or self-declared righteousness. Each chapter explores this through a different population: Native Americans, Mexicanos, Mexican Revolutionaries, Mexican Americans, poor single white men (aka Tramps), Chinese immigrants, and Black Americans. I found it to be illuminating, heart breaking, clarifying, and challenging. It helped me see connections I’d never before considered (how, for example, Kelly says mass incarceration is mass elimination and for a purpose that is more complicated than simple hatred of the other, though that obviously plays an important role) and helped me understand current issues (in particular, immigration law) through the ways laws were shaped as the US government took shape.
The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker
I found this to be a rare “leadership” book, in that it actually delivers on helping you figure out how to apply the concepts Priya outlines (most, I find, talk about really cool things that inspire you, tell you examples of others doing this cool thing, and call those examples teaching you how to apply the lessons...and I find that dubious and generally ineffective). If you host gatherings - be they book clubs, dinner parties, retreats, meetings, or any way that more than one human comes together - this book will help you design them where guests are engaged, cared for, eager, and connected. Since I’ve read it, it’s been a constant tool on my design table and I think about the lessons Priya offers almost daily. It’s also just fun to read and I loved the examples that Priya does offer, including her own missteps and the lessons she’s learned from them.
Milkman by Anna Burns
Several years ago, I took a trip to Ireland with my mother and mamaw. We found ourselves in Derry and Belfast on Orange Day, or The Twelfth, and I for one was rather ignorant at the time of what that meant (my Irish manager at the time was flabbergasted that we were in his hometown during the marching season, which didn’t inspire confidence in our choices). I know my body registered constriction and muted fear as we walked Derry’s city walls and that the bonfires and parades through Belfast featuring the Union Jack, drums, and other fanfare felt perverse and icky to my system. I’ve never forgotten it and I’ve been really curious about The Troubles, the IRA, and the impact of British colonialism on the Irish ever since.
Naturally, Milkman, a story about a girl living in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and who escapes the daily fear of those times and the sexual harassment and pursuit of her by a prominent paramilitary figure by reading 19th century books, drew my attention. When I read the line “I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century” I knew I was going to love this book, and I did. So much about this novel has stuck with me: whole scenes, the tension between characters, the ways in which communities seek and create safety amidst clear threats to their safety, the way communities other each other in fear and add to the challenges they are facing amidst threats to their safety, the way Anna writes the entire novel without giving any character or place a name and the sarcastic wit with which she writes the main character. What I especially loved about this novel was how much the unnamed narrator still created for herself (she reads while walking which freaks out the entire community; she takes a class downtown that requires her to cross different territories and where she is flabbergasted by the naive teacher who asks her, for the first time in her life, to delight in a sunset...and then she is floored by doing so, as examples) while she also frankly explores the ways she’s clearly at the will of others, and how she checks out of what’s happening around her.
Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, & Black Power: Interracial Solidarity in the 1960s-70s New Left Organizing, by Amy Sonnie, James Tracy, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
I think there are many more examples of cross-racial organizing and solidarity in our daily lives than we might be lifting up and I suspect that’s true of history, as well. At the same time, the track record of White Leftists isn’t exactly overwhelmingly positive in this regard and the way we collectively too often view poor and working-class white people as nothing but racists doesn’t leave a lot of room in our shared dialogue for learning about how to increase cross-racial organizing in ways that are effective, loving, and born out of true solidarity. Reading about particular efforts in the 1960s and 70s of poor and working-class white movements that did these things gave me hope, was instructive, and helped reinforce the importance of fractal / small scale action as critical to creating a new world together. There was also something profoundly healing and action-oriented about reading these stories as a white person, too, that I don’t want to skip over just because it’s a wee uncomfortable to type.
Thanks for indulging me in my reflections on these books. If you read some of them (or have already), I’d love to talk about them with you!
I am also always looking for book recommendations. What are some you read this year or ever that have shaped you? Which books do you wish everyone in your orbit would also read (if for no other reason so that you can talk about it with someone else)?