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Books We Need to Read in Trump’s

In light of the inauguration of an American president with a now-indisputable fascist bent, I’ve put together a reading list for a Trump presidency. These books are either lesser-known or often pigeonholed in other niches -there are a few of these kinds of lists going around, so I’m trying to offer some suggestions that might be a bit more novel.
Abolition Democracy: Angela Davis’s very long-form interview. A manifesto for most political realities, especially relevant now.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay’s essay collection, dealing with race and gender and the intersection of the two.

Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stone cold bad ass.

Long Way Gone: The memoir of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, a story that speaks to the physical and psychological realities faced by children living in constant war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Why families migrate, how they seek to survive in extreme poverty and in adverse surroundings.

Notes From No Man’s Land: Essays on how America has handled race, on NAFTA, and one absolutely brutal essay I’ve taught many times about lynching and telephone poles.

Fun Home: One of the best graphic memoirs I’ve read, addressing gender, sexuality, suicide and mental health, and how all of that shit mixes together in the USA

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion’s crushing novel on the experience of a woman who is tired of living in a certain kind of male reality.

The Bell Jar: A good poet’s excellent novel. Gender, femininity, mental health, and a seemingly intractable fortresses of sexism.

The Demon-Haunted World: The King of Nerds explains why we all need to science way harder.

MAUS: Because this shit has happened before.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Because war sucks, and children wind up with the heaviest shit piled on them.

The Pillowman: A Fascist police state that pretends to care about children and tries to censor artistic expression. Imagine that.

Animal Farm: A pig that superficially resembles a human fucks everyone over in order to obtain an unprecedented and obscene amount of power, then continues to fuck over everyone, especially those who have worked very hard in his service, so as to make himself more comfortable and to further cement his power.

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BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever

“BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever” is a Kindle Single written by Tony Horwitz, detailing his investigative reporting of as many aspects of the contemporary domestic oil situation as he can fit into 117 pages and 4000 miles (Canada tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries and all the pipeline drama in between). This project was written before the Dakota Access Pipeline drama, which was unfolding as I read it -a confluence that I’d love to recommend, were it possible.

As might be expected, “BOOM” reads like good old-fashioned investigative journalism -while Horwitz himself is inserted into the narrative, this is more Gonzo-Lite than some of the more contemporary forms of creative nonfiction, the kind of pieces that perform more as a personal essay viewed in an external framework. Neither of these forms is necessarily superior, but Horwitz has certainly chosen the correct one for his purpose, with mainly concerns exposition. You will learn shit about how Northern America does fossil fuels here. You will come into contact with good people who participate directly in potentially damaging practices, and you will have some sympathy for them. This is something that Horowitz does really well.

All in all, I think that E-readers and E-reading apps offer, if not a better media form, then an additional and valuable one. I can’t think of many magazine publications of 100+ word narrative nonfiction/reporting -the closest thing that comes to mind are the essays of David Foster Wallace, but that seems to be the exception that proves the rule. I don’t want to read a weighty-ass tome on this shit -as much as I perhaps ought to- and a fifteen-page distillation is going to leave a lot of worthwhile shit on the cutting room floor. I was reminded of the value of Jon Ronson’s The Elephant in the Room. These kinds of things are time-sensitive and valuable, and digital publication of much longer longform work that simply isn’t book material is something I intend to keep paying close attention to.

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Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a novel in three parts, a very common and standard thing with regard to form and execution. It is a story of adolescence and a trouble family, a story where a father’s religious zeal and hypocrisy. It’s a story about abuse and familial schism. None of these things are especially uncommon, but this story is set in postcolonial Nigeria and depicts an Igbo family defined by their father’s abusive imitations and worship of all things European. This is, needless to say, a hard break from the kind of “novel of ideas” that are so often the first things that come to mind when one hears of this narrative arc.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel isn’t worth reading on account of its novelty –Purple Hibiscus is objectively well-written and possess one of the most engaging narratives I’ve encountered since the thematically pulpy but equally prose-driven The Twelve trilogy. The further into this book you get, the more invested you become. That’s almost always the goal of good novel-length fiction, but it’s hard to pull of as completely as Adichie has here.

A bit of time has passed between my reading of this novel and my writing of this reading log, as I try to do. The neurological digestion of Adichie’s characters and narratives, her prose and her ideas, has produced nothing but further positive descriptions. The novel is a bit slow to start, but that’s all a part of the things’s intrinsic pacing, and only adds to my appreciation. This is a fantastic book, and I intend to seek out more of Adichie’s writing as soon as I can -check out her Amazon Single “We Should All Be Feminists” for a quick and easy-reading essay on her own experiences with the label.

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Blackout, Sarah Hepola, and Addiction Memoir

Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is probably the best memoir I read in 2016. It’s not only exceptionally well-written, it’s brutally self-honest and open in a way that is sometimes unflattering but never sinks to the kind of misery-porn wallowing that makes addiction memoirs such a mixed bag. The self-reflexion and self-condemnation are firmly rooted in reality and don’t seek any end other than the narrative itself.

It’s a long-reaching memoir, a directed autobiography. Hepola’s relationship with alcohol is both the narrative focus and the frame of this story, but this doesn’t feel like much of an external imposition on account of the major role that drinking (and selectively, temporarily not drinking) plays throughout her entire life. The voice is conversational and confessional, refraining from any linguistic backflipping, but this restraint serves to emphasize the thoughtful and deliberate simplicity of Hepola’s communication, her skill displayed well at low wattage. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, in spite of the sometimes difficult subject matter.

A well-framed and well-executed memoir is almost always worth reading. There’s certainly no shortage of books detailing some aspect of somebody’s lived experience, but they are far too often either well-written fluff that teeters toward self importance or a fascinating story that’s told adequately at best. It’s nice to not have to settle. This book is up there with Wolff and the like.

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Swamplandia!

So this is a book that got a lot of buzz a few years back. It took me a while to get to it. It took me a while to get through it. I probably took a break from this book four or five times, often for longer than a month. It’s a bit on the longer side, but much so than many other books that took far less time and featured far fewer interruptions.

Russel’s prose writing chops are more than up to the task she sets herself, and the narrative arc provides plenty of juicy plot and well-executed character development. Nonetheless, this book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The somewhat fantastical narrative voice means the reader isn’t really sure what the rules of this universe are until the very end of the book, and the conclusion doesn’t mitigate, resolve, or make worthwhile this awkwardness. The shifting perspectives -first person for one character, a close third for another, and perhaps an omniscient third?- are far too similar in voice for their intended effect. It all gets far too messy.

There is some impressive prose writing on display here, and Russel has created a fascinating collection of characters, but the execution, for me, falls flat. I don’t regret reading this book, but I’m not going to go back to it, and I’m not likely to recommend it. I’d certainly be interested in reading other work by the author, however.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

So this book won a shit-ton of prizes. Katherine Boo’s decision to depict strict nonfiction/reporting within a novelistic framework is ballsy as hell and hard to do, but she pulled it off perfectly. There are so many pitfalls in this approach and Boo managed to navigate around them all perfectly. Everyone in here comes off as both a real and living human being and a character, but never to the detriment or exclusion of either of those identities. Her authorial chops within the context of nonfiction were already very well established by the Pulitzer, but the knack she has for long-form narrative is even more impressive.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers deals with the daily realities of living in a Mumbai undercity. These slumdwellers are just as fully realized as the inhabitants of any other piece of Earth-based real estate, but the realities of their situation have forced the potential of their lives into the kind of narrow confines that mirror the actual living conditions. Everyone is on very shaky ground -tragedy abounds in a terrifyingly random way, and people respond to this reality in the best and worse ways that humans are capable of.

I really like the idea of an intersection between novel-form storytelling and investigative journalism. There’s certainly a diverse skill set required to do this sort of thing well -especially in the mode that Boo has presented here- but the payoff is great, and the audience is wide. This kind of book appeals to the kind of policy wonks that aren’t going to be picking up a Milan Kundera novel any time soon, and it appeals to the poets and other artistic types who aren’t really reading, say, The Atlantic. While other instances of creative nonfiction have been just as good -I’m thinking specifically about Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, here- few of them have the kind of mass appeal that Behind the Beautiful Forevers does, nor do they relate such important realities.

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If Chins Could Kill -Bruce Campbell

Don’t worry people, I’m still reading lit fic. But sometimes you just need to sit down and hear Bruce Campbell tell a bunch of stories about the ridiculous shit he’s been involved in, because that’s fun. And Campbell has the kind of voice that I don’t mind being around for a few hours. Sure’ you’re not going to get any insights into the nature of humanity, but you’re going to learn some cool shit about mildly interesting things.

I’m a latecomer to the cult movies of Raimi and his ilk, but I certainly enjoy their brand of camp. Campbell’s close association and involvement with the brothers means that this book offers an enjoyable perspective on another kind of good-time media. It’s not the kind of books I want to read all the time, but it’s a fun reprieve from the heavier shit.

Recommendation: Need a palate cleanser? Yeah? Then, yeah.