My year in reading has gotten off to a great start so far. I tend to balance my reading with half fiction (30 titles, 55%) and half non-fiction (23 titles, 45%) of the total 54 books read in the first half of 2020. Curiously, I have read far fewer general non-fiction (8) or histories (5) but have read an abundance of memoirs (10, 18%), so must be seeking riveting personal narratives this year. I have also done a better job with poetry (4) and short story (5) collections. This year, in addition to reading far more memoirs, I have also intentionally read more Asian American books (11 titles, 20%) but still read intentionally Latinx (14 titles, 26%) and Black (17 titles, 31%) books. The list below comprises all my favorite books in diverse genres and interest areas. Perhaps you will find some new favorites in this list.
Favorite memoir (tie)
Men We Reaped by Jessmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward has written a masterly memoir, Men We Reaped, which recounts her life in the Gulf region of Mississippi and more importantly, she grapples with the unexpected deaths of five young Black men from her home town of DeLisle, MS. The book is, at turns, heartbreaking and harrowing as Ward attempts to understand how such human tragedy has occurred in such a short span of time.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
In the Dream House, written by queer author Carmen Maria Machado is a stunning memoir unlike any I have ever read before. If I understand the book’s purpose, it seems that it is providing an archive, or taxonomy, for queer domestic abuse literature. In the book’s prologue, Machado discusses the role of the archive as a the etymology coming from the word “house,” and thus notes that “What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act, dictated by the archivist and the political context in which she lives.” The story itself of same-sex domestic violence is a difficult but necessary subject. In this way, it seems to contribute both to the scholarship on this subject and also on social justice concerns dealing with domestic violence.
Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain
Marcia Chatelain has written a powerful book, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America that examines the unknown history of the civil rights movement and the expansion of the fast food franchising phenomena in black communities across America. The book largely uses McDonald’s as a window into the franchising of fast-food restaurants. The meticulously researched book shows the strength of historian Chatelain. As an historian, I appreciated the contextual arcs that she deftly draws for the reader. The fascinating history that has remained hidden is the growth of the McDonald’s franchising under the Nixon administration of the late 1960s-early 1970s. This book shows that when the public debate focuses on “bad choices” made by African Americans who opt for fast food instead of healthier choices, it tends to obscure the way in which capitalism has intersected with racism to yield few options. The longstanding history of fast food franchises in such communities as South Central Los Angeles and Cleveland are upended by Chatelain’s outstanding book. I highly recommend it for those interested in African American history, economic history, and intersections of race and capitalism.
Favorite general non-fiction
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Latinx writer, translator, and Ecuadorian Harvard graduate Karla Cornejo Villavicienco has written a powerhouse book on the quotidian lives of undocumented Latinx immigrants in the United States. The shared experience of immigration has shaped the author’s life, as she writes eloquently: “I attempt to write from a place of shared memories and shared pain. This is a snapshot in time, a high-energy imaging of a trauma brain.” That powerful statement provides the guidepost to the entire book—as much as the mainstream tends to focus on the physically oppressive circumstances evoked by immigration, there is irreparable damage done psychologically, as well.
Favorite short story collection
Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero
Have you ever read a book whose stories are horrifyingly wretched yet ones that kept you utterly engrossed? This is Ecuadorian María Fernanda Ampuero’s masterful collection of short stories Cockfight translated by Frances Riddle. Deftly written with spare, exacting prose Ampuero has penned searing portraits of family life highlighting themes of violence and sexual abuse as a window into gender, class, and race analyses. In Ampuero’s world, families hide disturbing dark secrets—monsters lurk behind closed blinds yet the feminist stories indict patriarchy.
Favorite poetry collection
Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith
Carmen Giménez Smith’s Be Recorder is a collection of poetry covering myriad topics
from racial identity to indictments of capitalism and Trump. The book sings with meaning for Latinx, POCs, queer, and others who have been traditionally marginalized. To hear the angry indictments of so much that is wrong with the society allows space to be carved out for voices of Latinx and other POC artists and others who may be either feel invisible or boxed in alternately. In short, this book is a tour de force.
Favorite historical fiction
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
Frannie Langton proceeds to tell us her life story in “confessional” form which defies the enslaved narrative genre and also allows Langton to tell her story through the prism of her relationship with her enslaver, Marguerite Benham. Silhouettes of other enslaved narratives such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano can be seen, but the fictional Langton incisively reflects on the role enslaved narratives assume in the context of the abolition movement. Or, as Collins eloquently writes: “No doubt you will think this one of these slave stories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who would want to read one of those. No this is my account of my life and the happiness that came to it.” It is not only the subversion of the enslaved narrative that I found utterly fascinating but also the reclamation of women’s narratives as love stories.