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My Reading Year – 2020

In 2019 I set a goal for myself: I would read a book a week (on average) and stop paying attention to all the social media distractions. For 2020, I kept that goal, and again I achieved it — and more.

Below are the books I read, in the order I read them, with a brief note on each. A key rule still applied this year: I did not have to finish a book I wasn't enjoying. You owe nothing to a book that isn't working for you. With one exception, assume that a book on this list has my endorsement, for what that's worth.

One thing that will become clear is that, at a point, I start reading more books on anti-racism and the history of systemic racial and gender discrimnation in the United States. Ijeoma Oluo, in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, writes:

“Almost every day I get a message from a white person saying, ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it‘.”

So not wanting to be that person, I set out to educate myself. And that is reflected in my reading choices this year.

There are probably some spoilers, so apologies in advance.


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The Instructions
By Adam Levin

A 10-year-old boy, probable the Messiah, navigates first love in suburban Chicago. Over four days basically everything happens, and at over 1,000 pages, there's plenty of room for everything to happen. Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee is more precocious than all of Salinger's Glass siblings combined. The many pages devoted to how to go about engaging in your first kiss is alone worth the price of admission. (1026 pages)

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Katrina: After The Flood
By Gary Rivlin

I read this as a primer before going on my first trip to New Orleans. The book reads something like the less interesting seasons of The Wire, but even then, like The Wire, it's engaging. The amount of corruption in the months and years after the human made disaster that was the flooding of the city is disheartening and infuriating. But it's punctuated by hope as the city claws its way back with the help of some who are not on the take. (480 pages)

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The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead

An exploration of the casual, capricious, and vicious racism of the mid-20th Century. Less visceral than "The Underground Railroad" but still a heartbreaking exploration of institutional brutality. Set in the 60s this is one moment in the life of the carceral state that has only grown more insidious with time. Whitehead based the reformatory on a real place, and it's hard to imagine but very likely the story he tells acually played out there. (210 pages)

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Lethal White
By Robert Galbraith

I admit, when I read The Silkworm last year, I noted the transwoman villain trope, but I didn't really catch the transphobia. I rolled my eyes at the prison rape remark, wondered about Adam's apples and moved on. Shame on me. And shame on J.K. Rowling for her TERFism. I wasn't planning to read any further installments in this series, and now I can just write off Rowling altogether. (657 pages)

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In The Dream House
By Carmen Maria Machado

This is a memoir covering Machado's relationship with her partner who has a volatile temper and ability to use her charisma to inflict psychological abuse along with the physical. I'm an outsider looking in through the author's eyes, so I can't really comment, but the implication is that the tendency to be quiet about abuse exists in relationships of all kinds. This isn't an easy book to read. I am grateful the author told her story. (272 pages)

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The City & The City
By China Miéville

There's a murder, sure, and an international mystery around whodunnit and why. But how do you investigate a murder in a city that is really two cities superimposed in time and space but where the residents of one city are not allowed to acknowledge the other city living right next to them. Tyador Borlu, a senior inspector in the downtrodden Eastern European version of the city attempts to get to the bottom of it. (332 pages)

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Night Boat To Tangier
By Kevin Barry

There is a menacing "Waiting For Godot" quality as two old friends spend the night in a ferry terminal waiting for an erstwhile daughter to appear. Old grievances explored, capers relived, loves shared, and hates suppressed form the backdrop of the story. How do we step out of the old patterns that seem to have us trapped? Can we? (258 pages)

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I'm Thinking Of Ending Things
By Iain Reid

This thriller set me on edge. It's creepy, and the line between horror and psychology is unclear until the end. Who is losing their mind here? I can't really say more than that so as not to spoil it. The story has the flavor of a Shirley Jackson novel like The Haunting of Hill House. (241 pages)

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Use Of Weapons
By Iain Banks

Ruminations on the futility of violence, but with a ton of violence. The third book in Banks's Culture series. This one features a complex structure with two interleaved storylines, one moving into the past and the other moving into the future. When they come together, the result are...confusing? It's definitely worth reading, but be ready for some ambiguity. I'm not sure if that's due to Banks being much smarter then I am or if he just sort of fucks it up. (516 pages)

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The Grammarians
By Cathleen Schine

Where does one twin end the other other begin? When they share a secret language, when they know what the other is thinking. When they can pull off the old switcheroo? When they lead parallel lives, including having a double wedding ceremony? They find their differences in the petty arguments around concepts of language and literature. One is a language scold who writes a syndicated column while the other uses historical passages from regular vernacular to assemble poetry. Ultimately, something has to rip them apart, but I won't spoil that for you. (272 pages)

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Resilient Management
By Lara Callendar Hogan

The author is a veteran manager of people. Want to build teams that communicate well and trust each other? Want to be a better mentor? Hogan has some good pointers in this concise treatment of the subject of leadership. (105 pages)

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True Grit
By Charles Portis

Mattie Ross is only fourteen years old, but she has grit — you might even say she has true grit. The story of Mattie, Rooster Cogburn, and La Boeuf on the tail of the murderer Tom Chaney into the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) is an adventure tale, but there's more here. The undercurrent of resentment among Southerners in the wake of the Civil War is almost another character in this book. Portis's tone seems mostly sympathetic to that resentment without deifying the "lost cause" narrative that gave rise to Jim Crow. Published in 1968, Rooster Cogburn is an early anti-hero, a forefather of Tony Soprano or Omar Little. He's a brutal killer who doesn't descriminate between the guilty or the innocent; he's massacred abolitionist towns and participated in range wars on the wrong side. It's hard to reconcile what we know about Rooster with our tendency to root for him to prevail. Be ready to feel some discomfort. (216 pages)

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The Bear
By Andrew Krivak

The Bear has gotten classified as a post-Apocalyptic novel, and I suppose that is the case, however, that's not particularly important in this tale. It's a story of a father's love for his daughter, his teaching her to live in harmony with nature, and her taking those lessons to their logical conclusion. This is as much a fable as anything with lessons to give about how to be in a world that is hard but not altogether uncaring. The author wrote about being influenced by Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses, and I saw other shades of McCarthy. The writing is spare and clear with a cadence that sometimes feels like a walk in the woods interspersed with frenzied activity. Time moves both very quickly and very slowly. (224 pages)

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The Institute
By Stephen King

I mean...it's Stephen King. Kids are being exploited by evildoers. The word "jeepers" appears twice! The chance you won't be entertained is around zero percent. (577 pages)

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The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
By Ken Liu

If you are very, very into the notion of the singularity, this collection is for you. Most of the stories explore themes of human consciousness melded with technology in some form. There's a bit of Von Neumann machine fiction and, strangely, a digression into fantasy about two-thirds of the way through the book. Many of the stories build on and play with each other which is good when you like the stories they're building on and less great when you're not as into them. This collection drove home why I don't love short story collections: you aren't quite sure where the story is going to end and sometimes it ends far before you wish it would. (432 pages)

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Frankissstein: A Love Story
By Jeanette Winterson

Three different first-person narratives weave through this novel exploring what it means to be human, to have an identity, and to have a soul. At the center is Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. The story switches between 19th Century London and Lake Geneva and modern-day Manchester and Arizona where — to discribe much more would be to divulge spoilers. (352 pages)

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The Mirror & The Light
By Hillary Mantel

For two installments of this trilogy we watched Thomas Cromwell work his way into Henry VIII's most inner circle. He's avoided all the traps set for him while laying and springing his own. I can say one thing, I'd be terrible as a close advisor to a monarch, even one who fancies himself as enlightened as Henry. It's strange to read a novel where you are so certain of the outcome. You know Thomas will not make it out alive, but I found myself pulling for him anyway, right to the end. Of course, he deserves everything he gets and then some, but still he is our hero and we've come a long way since Stepney. (764 pages)

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Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

I reread this in honor of the coronavirus lockdown. The interlocking storylines of people in the throws or aftermath of a fatal global pandemic makes it all seem very exciting and action-packed. Which is a nice distraction since our own pandemic experience, for the lucky uninfected, is a blur of days melding into other days. The Traveling Symphony at least gets to go outside. (354 pages)

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The City We Became
By N. K. Jemison

When I read the short story this novel is based on last year, I was hoping there'd be more, and here it is. Jemison is a great storyteller, and the MacArthur Foundation seems to agree. New York City is much more than it appears — it is, in fact, a living entity and shit is about to get weird. This is the first book in a series, and I hope Staten Island gets a redemption storyline, because fuck Staten Island. (449 pages)

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Heaven And Hell: A History of the Afterlife
By Bart Ehrman

Why is there Hell? How about Heaven? You won't find the concepts in the preaching of a scripture thumping yokel from Galilee or his earliest lackeys. How'd we get to a lake of fire where bad people spend eternity as pentalty for a human lifetime of sin? 80ish years of greed or covetousness or licentiousness gets you a trillion trillion years of demonic torment? I try to read one or two Ehrman books per year because they make me think of things that my heathen ass rarely considers. (346 pages)

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In A Lonely Place
By Barbara Hughes

How much more noir could it be? None, none more noir. It's 1947 Los Angeles and you are looking through the eyes of a serial killer. That's not a spoiler, we know all about Dixon Steele (?!) from about page 2. Barbara Hughes turns the noir genre darker yet, and this book seems very fresh. (225 pages)

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The Revisionaries
By A. R. Moxon

In the 80s we called this type of novel "postmodern," but those novels were usually nowhere near this enjoyable. As we start out it's only sort of wacky and off-kilter but it all gets more omnious then philosophical and meta. It's rare that I laugh aloud at a book, but this one caught me at it a few times. And the wordplay is sometimes goofy and then other times feels like it came out of my own mind. How many times have I wondered about "donut" versus "doughnut"? A surprising number of times. The exploration of the solipsisim of the author and the free will of the fictional characters is a prime launching pad for a writer to disappear up their own ass. But the author's well-drawn characters and crazy action keep that particular rocket from blasting off. (600 pages)

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The Factory
By Hiroko Oyamada

It's bleak and Kafaka-esque in this Japan. What is with these birds? This is a trippy trip through the lives of three people who work at the factory. But what is the factory? What does it make? Does it make anything? Is it even a factory? So much attention is paid to food in this story, but why? And time doesn't have much meaning as we seem to move around freely. (128 pages)

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A Children's Bible: A Novel
By Lydia Millet

Both a novel and a call to action on climate change, the allegory will slap you in the face. If you have a passing knowledge of The Holy Bible, you'll recognize the players. There's Moses, washed up in a flooding lake, there's a parting of the Red Sea, a burning bush, and a literal deus ex-machina. This thing has it all including a crucifixion. It's a great story, but all the Bible stuff does get distracting. That said, the word "Bible" is right in the title, so what should I expect? (229 pages)

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Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight
By Alexandra Fuller

What is it like to be a young white girl in a majority black region undergoing revolutionary change? The author recounts here family's peripatetic life as farmers and ranchers in Kenya, Mozambique, and Zambia. At times the casual racism of the author and those around her is alarming and hard to read, but we have the sense that while the author is looking fondly at these times, she is well aware of the problematic nature of what is going on. Her father, a farmer, is often gone fighting for the white regime in what was then Rhodesia. Her mother is shown to be a strong woman who keeps the faimly together, provides medical services to the local non-white people, and teaches the local children. The mother and fathere are both alcoholics steeped in the tragedy of several dead children, one of whom haunts the family as if he were an actual ghost. (336 pages)

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The Last Day
By Andrew Hunter Murray

The Earth has become tidally locked to the sun. There's dystopia, there's a secret, there's a hero with a troubled past. Overall this was a decent thriller that I forgot not longer after I finished reading it. This is the author's debut novel, and I was distracted by copyediting issues in places. (379 pages)

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Bloodchild: And Other Stories
By Octavia E. Butler

I very much regret that I only came to read Octavia Butler at the age of 55. I guess it's because she didn't fall within my youthful sci-fi "canon". And that's just a bunch of sexist and racist bullshit. My fault entirely for not stepping out of those old white guy circles. As I have started reading more science fiction and fantasy again, I'm trying to expand those horizons and I'm better for it. These stories engage in different ways - some aren't even science fiction or fantastic; "Near Of Kin" is just a beautiful, small story that tells a simple tale with such empathy. As with a lot of good short stories, I wish most of these were longer. (215 pages)

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Giovanni's Room
By James Baldwin

David is the central player in this tight story of a man trying to figure out his own sexuality in a period of American conformity. Giovanni is a foil, and that's too bad as he is the more interesting character. We get very little insight into what makes Giovanni, the gay bartender, tick. We more easily understand David as he tries to pull away from a relationship with a woman but falls back into it out of sheer passivity. He's a young man — in his late 20s — floating through Europe trying to "find himself" but not really embracing what he finds. (178 pages)

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Office Clemmons: A Memoir
By François S. Clemmons

I was looking foward to reading this memoir by the man who played Office Clemmons on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. As a Black man, I know he'd wrestled with playing the part of a police officer, and I wanted to know more about that in the context of the civil unrest of the late 60s and early 70s. Clemmons is a gay man whom Fred Rogers asked to remain in the closet; I wanted to dig more deeply into their unique relationship. I wanted to learn more about the iconic photo on the book cover showing François and Fred Rogers sharing a dip in a wading pool. Unfortunately, this memoir, is mostly a chronological ticking off of events in Clemmons' life. A memoir should be able to peel back the layers and get at the meat of a person's experience, but that doesn't happen in this book . A memoir doesn't have to be chronological — I think of Let's Not Go To the Dogs Tonight as an example.

In this memoir, there are three lackluster paragraphs on how the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble got its first agent, but there is no deep exploration of why that ensemble was formed. What happens with François and Nicky, who share a deep, years-long love that never gets explored and seems to just disappear. François gets married in the 70s while not being at all interested in sex with his wife and living a side life on the down low, but he never explores that and the impact it had. And finally, and maybe the most egregions glossing is of his half-sister, Lawanna, ten years his junior, who committed suicide in 1975. We get only a cursory coverage of her suicide and how François found her dead body in her apartment: he got a call saying she hadn't been heard from in awhile, he went to her apartment, broke down the door, found her stabbed to death at her own hand, wept, the end. That takes about two pages in its entirety and comes way at the end of the book for some reason. He never explores what effect that had on him. Mr. Clemmons is, without doubt, an extremely accomplished artist. But I can't help feel that his story remains untold. (288 pages)

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The Ballad of Songbirds And Snakes
By Suzanne Collins

The sollipsistic origin story that apparently explains Panem's broken society and future tyrant. Am I supposed to feel sympathy? If you're super into The Hunger Games you probably want to read this. But it's not really necessary. (528 pages)

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La Père Goriot (Old Man Goriot)
By Honoré de Balzac

This was my first Balzac novel and definitely not my last. As a big fan of Charles Dickens, I found the feel of this novel very comfortable and inviting. The portrait of Paris both makes me want to be back in the Latin Quarter and also happy that I never had to deal with “Society.” The story of young Rastignac’s rise and fall in society plays out against the Lear-like tragedy of old Goriot (288 pages)

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White Fragility
By Robin DiAngelo

White people, like me, swim in a sea of white supremacy that allows us to go through life as "just people" without having to think about race or confront our place in the institutions which are pervaded by racism. But when our racial bubbles are pricked in any way, we become defensive, hurt, condescending, argumentative, withdrawn, weepy, etc. This is white fragility. The author has faced plenty of criticism for her concept of white fragility, but as a white man at the pinnacle of a white supremacist hierarchy, this all rang true to me. I have read responses to this book and the concept of white fragility, but none have really caused me to think this book is off-base. The frustrating take away, though, from this book is the feeling that getting out of this world of white supremacy is going to take more work than any one person can possibly do. (187 pages)

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The Glass Hotel
By Emily St. John Mandel

Time, space, memory, and death are all malleable in this novel. A question comes up: Is it possible to both know something and not know that thing at the same time? If you liked Station Eleven you'll probably like this one, and you should probably read that prior novel first. (321 pages)

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How To Be An Anti-Racist
By Ibram X. Kendi

I originally read this last year, before the current protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, but I decided I need a refresher. A second reading, after digesting some other anti-racist literature, has really opened up the meaning of this book for me. I understand it much better the second time through, and I see a clear path now for using what Kendi is talking about in my day-to-day life. Racism is a manifestation of racist policies and racist policies stem from radical self-interest. We can change racism by actively fighting to change racist policies. If you are wondering what intersectionality means, this will help you understand. (284 pages)

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The Captain and The Glory: An Entertainment
By Dave Eggers

This is a real "over the rainbow" portrayal of the Trump admistration and its crimes. To call this "An Entertainment," as Eggers does, may be an exaggeration, or maybe it's ironic. Either way, it's very difficult to be entertained at the expense of the idiocracy any longer. This treatment hits every point of cruelty and craven cluelessness we know too well. The main Trump flunkies are present, his weird relationship with his daughter gets weirder, Stephen Miller lives on as a spooky ghost in the machine that drives the worst impulses of The Captain. Did I like this little tale? Not really? But I don't regret going on this trip with Eggers. (120 pages)

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White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
By Carol Anderson

The author brings home the history of the systemic war white supremacists have been waging on Black people since the Civil War. We like to think it all ended then, but it clearly did not. The supremacists have continually plagued the nation via political maneuvering, violence, deceit, etc. Many of us know that Reconstruction had the legs kicked out from under it, but the asaults on Brown v. Board and on the impediments to the Great Migration were less well known to me. The more recent issues around voting rights are more familiar, but no less infuriating. (304 pages)

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Love: A Novel
By Roddy Doyle

Davy and Joe are getting hammered, just like old times, as they pub-hop through Dublin. The book is one long evening of Joe recounting leaving his wife for the woman of his dreams from 35 years before. Davy is in Dublin to care for his dying father. The story is simple, but the questions around what is memory and how does our past lived reality survive memory. What does it mean to be conscious in the moment? At one point Davy recounts an episode which he describes as a "dotted line." I was reminded a little of Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout, a little unstuck in time. Did Joe really even go to France with his dream woman? (335 pages)

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Stamped From The Beginning
By Ibram X. Kendi

Kendi covers hundreds of years of racism in the United States — actually before, going back to the early colonial period. Six rough "eras" are covered using individuals as anchoring devices to explore the world of American racism swirling around them. This book is a great foundation for his How To Be An Anti-racist as it covers, in detail, topics like "uplift suasion" and educatoin and why these techniques are doomed to fail due to the core cause of institutional racism: self-interest. As he formulates it, and persuasively carries throughout this work, the cause of racism as we know it is self-interest that leads to policies that lead to hate. It all seems quite dismal and one wonders how this can be overcome, but Kendi offers hope throughout the book and then brings it all together in the epilogue where he encourages us to lean into the self-interest of anti-racism as an antidote. (583 pages)

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Interference
By Sue Burke

We're generations in the future of the planet Pax settled in Burke's Semiosis, and Earthlings are visiting to see how their colony is faring. The colony doing well, living in harmony with another alien species who settled the planet populated with sentient vegetation. The alpha plant, so far as we know is Stevland, a rainbow bamboo with a yen to spread its seeds widely. The story is complex, and it sometimes seems to get away from the author. The action sequences tend to be confusing, but the story is so intriguing it's easy to overlook all that. There is so much left unexplored, I have a hard time believing Sue Burke will be able to leave this as a "duology" as the series title leads one to believe. (315 pages)

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Their Eyes Were Watching God
By Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neal Hurston is a legend of literature, and I'm embarrassed to admit that this is the first of her books that I have read. But I'm so glad I finally did. It was Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped From The Beginning that prompted me to finally read her, and I chose what is probably her most well-known book. The story spans the first third of the 20th Century in the American South which is clearly segrated but in which White people barely appear but whose effect is devastating. The story of Janie is framed as a conversation with her friend, Pheoby. Janie is a Black woman in the Jim Crow South that is also steeped in period misogyny. Janie is the epitome of intersectional oppression: a Black person, a woman, light-skinned, "good" haired. At the center of those intersections, Janie is stoic, stolid, patient, and courageous. She kicks all the ass. What were they watching for as they watched God? It seems to be a deliverance that never comes and that one has to take for one's own. (216 pages)

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The Great CEO Within
By Matt Mochary

Lots of hands-on advice for how to build a company. Some is truly only relevant to a startup CEO, but there are pieces that can be applied to larger companies and teams within those companies. The sections on personal efficiency reach beyond the needs of the CEO and I found those useful. (196 pages)

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Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race
By Beverly Daniel Tatum

Children start to build their racial identities early and efforts to rear "colorblind" children will fail when we refuse to acknowledge race. The author is a psychologist, and at times I found this book pretty academic, but it was punctuated by very insightful and helpful observations. Was it the most riveting book on race in American? No, it was not. But it was worth reading for another perspective on how we can address the systemic racism in this country. (505 pages)

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This Book Is Anti-Racist
By Tiffany Jewell

I've been doing a lot of anti-racism reading recently because...gestures at everything, and this specific book is on my list because it is aimed at young people. I want to make sure my yound nieces and nephew get exposure to these issues, and this seemed a good book to suggest. So, I read it to make sure what is in it would be appropriate to kids aged 11 or so. Along with informaiton on the history of racism and the difference between individual prejudice and instituional racism, there are several activities to get the reader to think about their own experiences with race and prejudice. (160 pages)

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Utopia Avenue
By David Mitchell

Welcome to David Mitchell's Swingin' 60s London. I'm a Mitchell completist, and this one did not disappoint. The story follows the formation of a new pop band, their minor rise and decline. This isn't "Behind The Music," though there are plenty of sex and drugs, the band just isn't that successful. But there are story and character enough to keep me interested in what each member of Utopia Avenue is going through without the theatrics of the rock lifestyle. Rest assured, since you are in the world of David Mitchell, things do get pretty weird at one point. You probably should have read The Thousand Summers... and The Bone Clocks before reading this or you may find yourself confused, and you will definitely miss some inside references. (570 pages)

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Wanderers
By Chuck Wendig

About 100 pages into this novel, I was ready to give up and move on to something else. But the plot was relatively interesting, and it dawned on me that what I was really reading was a screenplay and not a novel. The story is derivative from classics like The Stand or, more recently, The Passage. My guess is the author is aiming for some type of limited run series on HBO with this one. Basically, it's and end-of-the-world novel with crazy religious overtones, racist death cults, the usual. None of the characters are very interesting and I had no investment in any of them. It'll be up to the actors they cast to bring the pathos. The author is very, very, into similes. And not very good similies. So many bad similes. Also, the word "sursurrus" is used four times in the novel. Not that it matters, of course, but it was very distracting. Like, what is with this guy and that word? When you get to be a bigtime writer does Random House stop putting your work through any sort of copy editing? Coming on the heals of a David Mitchell novel this thing was a mess. (783 pages)

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So You Want To Talk About Race
By Ijeomi Oluo

In conversations about race, some White person will ask a variation on "tell me how I can be an ally." That question troubles me — it's wrong to ask the target of system racism to explain it to those who benefit from that racism. We need to do some homework, my Whites. Ijeomi Oluo is taking on the emotional weight of explaining our own systemic racism to us, so this is a good place to start learning about what our friends and co-workers experience. This isn't the last word on this topic, but it's a good overview of things we should know. The author holds out hope for us: "People are afraid of getting these conversations wrong, but they are still trying, and I deeply appreciate that. These conversations will not be easy, but they will get easier over time." (266 pages)

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The Vanishing Half
By Brit Bennett

On its face the "half" in the title refers to one of a pair of Black, light-complected twin sisters who disappears, going off to live her life passing as a White woman in America. But there are so many parts and halves represented in this novel. It seems as if every character has a corresponding half. Aside from Desiree and Stella, the twins, there are their respective daughters, the husband/partner they each have, a transgender man's half is the formerly female identity he's leaving behind. This is a tender story of lies told and maintained that play out just as lies do in life. There are many loose ends never tied up, consequences avoided, secrets left unexplored. The author takes such care in crafting her characters. And as a reader, I always felt cared for. The small stories within the stories are profound in what they tell you about the people living these lives. (350 pages)

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Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
By Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

"There will be no moral appeals on my part to this country’s moral conscience. It has none." The author tells the story of Baldwin and his work through the lense of one "after time" and applied to another "after time" as a way of responding to Trumpism and the underlying lie of the American "value gap" that posits one group as more valuable than another based on skin color. There are some problems in that Baldwin (and Glaude) seem to want to remove categorizations that are at the crux of oppression in this country. It seems like they're wanting us to just look at people as people, but we know that is not how American works This position also discounts other intersectionalities that are at play in the great lie. (274 pages)

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The Biggest Bluff
By Maria Konnikova

This is ostensibly a story of one woman's journey through the world of professional poker, from absolute beginner to professional by way of the World Series Of Poker. It's a story that's been told before, but Konnikova comes to it from an intellectual perspective that stresses the game is more a battle with oneself than with luck or cards or other players. I'm a big fan of this author's work both in print and from her podcast and other media appearances. (364 pages)

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Axiom's End
By Lindsay Ellis

Not a spoiler: several aliens have been living in a government facility for decades. Yet all attempts to communicate with them have failed. Til now. The story is a typical government coverup conspiracy situation. There's a "whistleblower" that seems to be modeled on Julian Assange. And our heroine, his estranged daughter, who happens to become best buds with an alien sent to find his wayward alien pals. Oh, and there's another less friendly alien crew sent to Earth as well. There's a lot going on, and not all of it is particularly entertaining. This is first of a series of novels, and I don't plan to continue on past this one. (371 pages)

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White Negroes
By Lauren Michele Jackson

The author makes a solid case for most things compelling in White culture having been appropriated from Black culture. "But what about...," you might be thinking — I was. But then I gave it more thought, and the argument is impossible to rebut. There are a lof ot cultural phenomena Jackson focuses on that I'm not particularly interested in (Xtina, crying Jordan) and many I am (food, activism, the language of the titular White Negro). I was sad that music is missing from the book, but I appreciate that particular appropriation has been covered very heavily by other analysis. (199 pages)

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Alaric The Goth
By Douglas Boin

The Roman Empire's fall has been told and described from a lot of perspectives. In this telling, the protaganist is a Gothic warrior and leader named Alaric, a historic character who led a daring raid on the city of Rome. The author appears to do a lot of filling in of blanks in the historical record based on other contemporary accounts. There's probably also a fair amount of poetic license here, but I'm not equipped to call that out. It's an entertaining telling of a story with some points that are relevant for our own times. The author points out the dependence of the late Western Roman Empire on "foreigners" and the shoddy treatment they received by Roman citizens. Some of that treatment may have been related to why the empire ultimately fell. Sounds a little familiar. (269 pages)

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Piranesi
By Susanna Clarke

Is this allegory? A story of psychosis, a cautionary tail of megalomania, a murder mystery? Yes, and more. It's hard to say much without spoiling, so I'll be careful. As I began reading, I was reminded of Calvino, Beckett, or Kafka. Our hero, Piranesi, doesn't seem at all bothered by his living arrangement, namely a house of seemingly endless rooms all decorated with countless marble statues. There's also another occupant to may well be more than he seems. (243 pages)

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The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
By Corey Robin

[Thomas's] jurisprudence may be a bitter mix of right-wing revanchism and Black nationalism, but it is distinctively American and of the moment. It begins with the belief that racism is permanent, the state is ineffective, and politics is feeble, and ends with a dystopia that looks painfully familiar: men armed to the teeth, people locked up in jails, money ruling all, and racial conflict as far as the eye can see."

Ask me the things I remember about Clarene Thomas's confirmation hearing, and I would recall something Anita Hill said about a Coke can and a pubic hair and Long Dong Silver. But Clarence Thomas himself didn't make any impression other than most definitely being NOT Thurgood Marshall. Now, 30 years later, Thomas is the longest serving Justice with over 700 opinions authored, and I bet most people have no idea what drives him.

This book is not a biography, rather it's a chilling analysis of Thomas's jurisprudence around race, capitalism, and the constitution. Sometimes the rationale informing Thomas's opinions landed well with me, but then the conclusions he drives to are abominable in their nihilistic paternalism. If you follow Thomas, you have to stop believing our country can be a better place than it was in 1950. (303 pages)

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News Of The World
By Paulette Jiles

A little bit of "True Grit," a little bit Cormac McCarthy lite. This is a Western road novel where our hero is contracted to return a young girl to her family, requiring him to travel from North Texas to South Texas in the years directly after the Civil War. The Indian Wars are in full swing, and there are dangers galore, but not from any indigenous people. If you like a Western adventure with some mildly eccentric characters, this is for you. (210 pages)

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Homegoing
By Yaa Gyasi

A family is split in two in Ghana in the late 1600s, and we follow them all the way to the early 2000s. So many compelling characers who could have commanded their own novel. (313 pages)

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Set My Heart To Five
By Simon Stephenson

What happens when an emotionless dental android starts to feel due to the tear-jerking performances of Tom Hanks? Will there be an android uprising? Will Deckard arrive to squash the memory of the Tannhauser Gate? I laughed aloud several times, which was a nice change after some of the things I'd been reading previously and the anxiety of the season. I cannot. (465 pages)

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Leave The World Behind
By Rumaan Alam

This one was getting a ton of buzz off the back of a Today Show recommendation, and I was hopeful. About halfway through I started to lose confidence in the story, but I stuck it out. It was so close to being a story I could get into, but ultimately it's a story about what happens when normal arrive at the end of civilization. All the little slights that we ignore take on a new significance is the moral, I guess. I prefer my end-of-the world stories to be set after the actual boring parts of the internet failing, wildlife anomalies, omninously beautiful weather, running out of the good booze, friendly yet threatening and armed neighbors, etc. If we have to sit through all that, at least let there be zombies wandering the countryside. (253 pages)

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How Much of These Hills Is Gold
By C. Pam Zhang

Two young children of Chinese parents, in 1864, on their own looking for the right place to bury their dead father. That's the setup that propels a story that is much deeper than that. Identity and the struggle of a person against their idea of themselves and the ideas others put upon them is central to this story. What does it mean to present an identity? What does it mean to have your identity assumed though it's not really yours? We think of these questions as very contemporary, but the author suggests they are not. (280 pages)

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Mexican Gothic
By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Spooky, secluded house? Check! Creepy servants who don't speak? Yes! Lots and lots of mist? Of course! Nearby village with helpful yokels? Goes without saying! Voices, dreams, moving wallpaper? This story has it all! Every gothic trope has been whirred up in a blender and poured over 1950s Mexico. The main character is straight from an old movie; I was able to instantly visualize this slick, city-wise, flirty heroine who smokes, loves to drive and won't take no guff from any old Palooka. If this was really an old movie she'd be played by Kathryn Hepburn with slightly darkened skin. Lionel Barrymore as the racist old patriarch. Bogart as the menacing Palooka. If you're looking for a moderately scary story with all the gothic doodads, this is for you. (305 pages)

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Tulsa, 1921: Reporting A Massacre
By Randy Krehbiel

The author is a journalist, and he uses that lense to deeply explore and explain the events around the Greenwood Massacre that took place on May 31, 1921 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Krehbiel uses accounts from the two local, rival, newspapers to lay the groundwork of his account along with other contemporary sources. The story starts well before May 31, 1921 and continues to present day where the aftermath of the massacre is still being felt. The racism and jealousy of the local White population is front-and-center, running through the entire course of events that day. From an encounter between a porter, a Black man, and an elevator operator, a white woman, which may not have even happened to the financial ruin of most of Greenwood's Black leaders to the White newspapers rebranding of the massacre as a "race riot" and to the search for mass graves of those Black citizens murdered — the author covers 100 years of history. History that until recently has been largely forgotten outside Tulsa. This isn't an easy report to read, and the names and places sometimes all start to sound the same. But it's a story that needs to be remembered. (329 pages)

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Crooked Hallelujah
By Kelli Jo Ford

Justine struggles to understand her place as a Cherokee girl living in Oklahoma with a Holy Roller mother, ignored by an absent father who has another family. These are stories of living in spite of poverty and oppression. When Justine gives birth to Reney, the cycle starts to repeat itself. My description probably sounds dismal, but this is really a set of stories that paint intimate portraits of women supporting one another and overcoming the many challenges in front of them, most of them men. (210 pages)

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Her Body and Other Parties
By Carmen Maria Machado

I read "In The Dream House," Machado's memoir, early in the year and it has stuck with me. This set of stories is less harrowing and more weird. These aren't horror stories, they're not speculative, they're just very creative tales of being in the world. The story of a newly wed woman who will do anything but that one thing that when it's done changes everything. An perscient inventory of sexual experiences intertwined with a humanity-extinguishing pandemic. An alternate universe "Law And Order: SVU" that really gets to the heart of what make Benson and Stabler tick. A woman has bariatric surgery — I'll leave that one there. Like any story collection, I like some more than others, but these are all worth your time. (274 pages)

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Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre
By Max Brooks

First off, the title gives it away, so it's not a spoiler to note that Bigfoots are real. This is a disaster story like most. Take a bunch of people with various personality traits, throw them into a crucible, and see what happens. There's plenty of hubris, breakdowns, perseverance, heroism, and Sasquatch jerky. (288 pages)

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Guns, Germs, And Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
By Jared Diamond

This popular book was originally published in 1997, and I'm surprised it took me so long to get to it. I guess it's the size — I recall seeing it on the tables at Borders Books and thinking it was really too thick. Also, in some sense, I got the drift just from the title. White Europeans possessed the items listed in the title, thus they won. Understood. But what I didn't really think too much about, and the entire point of this book is, what is the ultimate underlying reason they got these items? How did Spain, France, England, Holland, etc. come to dominate so much of the world? At the same time China was a united burgeoning world power, Europe was a bunch of tribes poking each other with spears. Human life began in Africa and flourished in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East — why didn't Persia become the dominating world power of the early 20th Century instead of Great Britain? Why didn't the Aztecs conquer Spain? Those are the questions Diamond is examining. The anwsers as he presents them are fascinating. This is a thick book, and sometimes it gets repetitive, but it's worth reading to get beneath the world we see around and understand what got us here. (644 pages)

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Everywhere You Don't Belong
By Gabriel Bump

I think I have a good sense of humor, so whenever I read a novel that reviewers have claimed is "sharply funny" or "comic," and I don't laugh, I have to wonder what I'm missing. Yes, sure, there are witty and quirky parts of this novel, and I enjoyed the book very much. I took it as an impressionistic look, sometimes almost poetry, of life on the South Side of Chicago. Claude is a nerdy loner wondering where he belongs, looking for friends and direction for his life. The author introduces great characters that weave throughout the main vignettes that drive the story. Claude's ever-present Grandma and her queer sidekick, Paul, both guide the young Claude. Claude's parents are only in the story for a short time, but their influence drives Claude to life-changing revelations. There's Janice, possibly Claude's only constant, though she is herself not content with where she is in the world. Bubbly, Nugget, Chester Dexter, Renaissance, The Twins, Truck, Big Columbus, Simone, Connie Stove, The Redbelters, the white boys, Martin the taco artist, Juna and her father, and the list goes on. These are just some of the characters who pass through Claude's life — many of whom could have their own complete novels. This is a great story, but not for it's comedy. (264 pages)

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Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America
By Ijeoma Oluo

Ijeoma Oluo's new book pulls no punches. The title alone is provocative. If you're a White, cis-gendered, heterosexual man in American (hey, that's me!), you're going to feel uncomfortable — and that's a good thing. It can be difficult to read while a tiny voice in my head cries "but, but, but" even while I'm nodding my head in agreement with the author's point. A key point is that White men, even the ones we like and think are "good people" are ardent defenders of mediocre positions that protect their own status quo. Joe Biden? Mediocre. Bernie Sanders? Yep. Higher education as formulated and carried out by White man institutions? Yeah, mediocre. (282 pages)

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A Perfect Spy
By John le Carré

The author of this spy-on-the-lam story died late in the year, and I'm sorry to say I had never read any of his work. I spent a lot my reading life avoiding "genre" fiction, but I've come to realize it's all genre fiction. And this book is definitely literary in scope and approach. Le Carré draws from his biography, making his grifter father a central player in this story of an English spy, Magnus Pym, who is also a Czech double-agent. There are times this feels like a Dickens novel as Magnus emerges from a fragmented youth into a gentleman spy who is deeply dissatisfied with the life he's both built and had foisted on him. (674 pages)