Mothers of Massive Resistance by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae
I really am not exaggerating when I make this proclamation: Mothers of Massive Resistance may be the most crucial book I have read this year. I am not joking, I swear. As a white woman, I have been working diligently to do my part in activism, namely, owning up to the ways in which white women have participated in the oppression and suppression of women of color. It’s unglamorous, introspective, and uncomfortable work, but it’s one of the most vital things I can do to make real progress and use my privilege to lift up people of color in this world. This is a book I discovered through Cannonball Read. I am actually going to link to ElCicco’s amazing and comprehensive review, because her analysis is incredible. I’ll be vague about plot in my own review, as a result, and focus mainly on my own reflections that came about from reading the book.
The only thing I can really add is: damn. White women have depended on whiteness as a means of protecting their fragile ecologies for a really long time. This is not unique to 2016 and beyond. It has always been there. It’s an inconvenient truth that I have shamefully not faced up to, and now I am staring at it after reading this book and wondering how I have participated in this lie throughout my life. Like I said, this book is uncomfortable, but McRae’s unflinching historical data-gathering and analysis is deeply necessary and cuts through a lot of myth-making about the South and white women in general. She also gets at the kind of internalized misogyny that drove so much of this myth-making.
I am recommending this book to everyone I know, because it caused me to rethink history in significant ways. That’s, to me, the sign of an effective, timely, and significant book. This is not easy reading—you may find yourself raging at things that women did to perpetuate the idea that segregation was good or excuses they made to separate their children from children of color. What I hope is that we use this book to educate ourselves and our communities to develop inclusive and integrated worlds that pull everyone up, not just our own families.
What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson
I’m fairly mixed on Marilynne Robinson’s novels. I hated Housekeeping, but loved Gilead. I liked Home and Lila okay, though neither got to the level of the first novel in the sequence. I had never read any of her nonfiction, but I couldn’t resist What Are We Doing Here? when I saw it in the library. I had read Robinson’s interview with President Obama and enjoyed it thoroughly, so I wanted to see how her newest nonfiction would go.
Robinson writes on a huge variety of topics, but they deal with religion and faith, the Puritans (A LOT), and the state of intellect in the United States after 2010. A variety of lectures and talks are interspersed throughout the book, and she speaks critically to fellow liberals and academics about the state of affairs in the US.
I am mixed on this book. I think that Robinson makes many salient points. I do not share her deep enthusiasm for John Calvin or the Puritans, and as a literary scholar, I think she conveniently ignores some of the problematic aspects of Puritanism, as well as their long-lasting effects on American culture. That said, the essay “Slander” is excellent. It makes an interesting critique of misinformation and desire to live in one’s confirmation bias that plagues contemporary Christianity today. I just hope that the people who most need to read it will (though I fear that the majority of this book’s readers will be preaching to the choir, so to speak). I do wish there had been a clearer organizational structure that divided essays by rough topic (religion, politics, etc.). This book was dense and at times rather more arid than I anticipated, but it was thought-provoking, as well.
The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
I’ve been hearing a lot about Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls, and Our Shared Shelf just made it (or The Hate U Give) the May/June book. I’ve not read a lot of nonfiction over the last several years, and I’ve been trying to be more well-read in less-known issues. This book was compelling, but I should warn you, also infuriating.
After the Curies discovered radium, it became enormously popular. Manufacturers used it in paint for watches and dials, and this meant hiring lots of young women to paint these dials. This book is about their story: the fun times working in a relaxed environment; sudden, unexplained illnesses; devastating diagnoses; and painful deaths. The women were treated dismissively and cruelly by their respective companies and exploited by the payrolled doctors. Several women refused to go down without a fight, even if they faced pain and unspoken suffering. This book goes through several phases in exploring their work, and the years of mystery surrounding their illnesses. Finally, the book ends on the women’s legal fight to take their companies to task and get justice for their families.
This book made me angry—not at it, but at the corporate greed, which has been exploiting working-class individuals since industrialization. I think it’s important to hear untold stories and voices of people who were sacrificed because of their innocence. That said, I wish the book had undergone a serious round of edits, as the writing was fairly elementary in style and relied heavily on adverbs in order to convey emotion. Overall, though, it was a worthy and crushing read.
Winter by Ali Smith
I am fresh off the Autumn reading high, and I am so curious to see how Ali Smith is going to use the seasons to make social commentary. I read both Autumn and Winter fairly quickly, so there is absolutely something compelling about Ali Smith’s literary style that has grabbed me.
In Winter, Smith completely changes the characters and basic plot, although the post-Brexit Britain is ever in the foreground. This time, Sophia and Art, a mother and son, are the major characters. Sophia is haunted by a baby’s head and she is trying to adjust to a series of memories that have come to sit with her at Christmastime. Meanwhile, Art is being doxed by his ex-partner Charlotte and trying to make a go of his Art in Nature blog. Trying to cope with the reality of being single at Christmas, he recruits a young woman to pose as Charlotte, all while trying to find out her own background and story. Sophia’s sister Iris, a lifelong activist, has been perpetually estranged from the family, but an emergency brings the family together.
This book was harder to grasp, because there were so many moving parts to piece together. There were, however, many allusions to Donald Trump that were dismaying and upsetting. The final lines of the novel are a gut-punch and reinforce the “winter” theme that Smith is conveying. I’m not sure where she is going to go next, but I am very curious. I don’t think Winter is quite as lyrical or interesting as Autumn, but it was a worthwhile read.
Autumn by Ali Smith
I’ve been curious to see how British literature would be changing post-Brexit. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time begins to address this shift in Britain post-2010, but it foreshadows Brexit. Therefore, I was interested to see how Ali Smith’s Autumn would be incorporating Brexit into its main plot. I had heard buzz about her seasonal cycle, but had not made the plunge until my end-of-school-year library binge saw this and the next book make its way into my basket. I am really, really glad I gave this a read. I’m really eager to continue reading the cycle, as well as more Smith novels.
This novel has three distinct timelines: one involves Daniel in an afterworld that strangely resembles a coastline. He is magically young and haunted by people of his past; one involves Elisabeth, a woman born in 1984 and now struggling as a young adult to reconcile her perceptions of the world with Britain as it exists today; the other concerns Elisabeth as a child and teenager who has kept touch with Daniel, an older neighbor who has dabbled in music and is gay. The stories converge as the world shifts in a way that no one can quite understand or reconcile.
I realize that this may sound boring or slow, but the prose is really good. And there are moments that describe the post-Brexit world that will resonate, because they are familiar. I very much recommend this book if you are interested in a state-of-the-world kind of novel and current affairs. Smith also relies on the autumnal image, including John Keats’ poetry, to reinforce the theme of seasons and change. I’ll be interested to see where Smith takes the cycle next.
Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
I wasn’t sure I wanted to read Leah on the Offbeat, the Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda sequel. I wasn’t in love with the first book (after really loving the film), so I didn’t know how a different book would change my perception of the world Becky Albertalli created. I really liked the world and the friend group she created, and I was curious about how a Leah-centered novel would work. I did find the representation of Leah in the book to be a bit anemic, so I was game to try the book. Plus, my husband blazed through it in about a day and begged me to read it, so that we could discuss it together. As it turns out, I have PLENTY to say.
Leah Burke is a proud member of a band, a senior in high school, queen of sarcasm, and Simon Spier’s best friend. She’s also proudly bisexual, though she’s not out to anyone, not even Simon. She also finds herself in a romantic conundrum within her friend group, and that’s when she wonders if she can overcome her natural tendencies and fight for herself.
I’m going to be frank here: I did not enjoy this book at all. I’m really glad that Albertalli is bringing LGBT+ characters to the forefront, but so much of this book depended on the complete unmaking of the previous one so as to ruin a great deal about what made the last book enjoyable. Further, the “chasing a straight girl” plot has been done before, and the resolution was not convincing (like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe before it). Finally, there was SO MUCH DRAMA and manic pixie dream girl realness, and that’s not my jam at all. I found Leah to be unpleasant and prickly a great deal of the novel, and I just don’t like cynicism for its own sake. This is obviously a personal taste matter, and my taste does not run that way, especially in YA novels. Your own mileage may vary, of course.
A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit
I’ve stated before that I’m researching dystopian literature, and part of that includes looking at climate change, natural disaster, and catastrophe (and if you have any recommendations, by all means, provide me book titles!). In the Dawson book I read and reviewed this year, there was a citation for Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell. I’ve only ever read Men Explain Things to Me, but I loved that, as well as some of her recent essays about the election and feminism, so I was absolutely game to give it a try. WOW. It’s such a fascinating book. I had vaguely remembered that Solnit is a historian/naturalist writer, but I was not prepared for her masterful and ingenious take on the subject of natural disaster.
Solnit examines natural disasters that took place in North America from the early 1900s to the early 2010s and examined the way community emerged as a form of resistance and response to authoritarian federal government’s ineptitude or corruption. Every disaster is well-researched, though the best chapters are, in my opinion, on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. One important term I have walked away with is the idea of “elite panic,” which signals a narrative construction around death and disaster as a way for those in power to control and frighten citizens into distrusting each other. Solnit’s argument is that communities who rely upon each other and innovatively solve their own problems by subverting bureaucratic red tape are communities that succeed and survive disasters successfully. It’s a compelling argument, for sure.
This was an interesting and provocative book, particularly the unpacking of 9/11. By now, we’ve all read plenty of theories and op-eds, but this one felt fresh, somehow. Solnit commits to her research, but it doesn’t feel stuffy or dense. I very much recommend this book, but a small warning: she wrote it in 2009 and was deeply optimistic about where the United States would go after the election of Barack Obama. I felt sad about how far we have fallen as a country and how much rot we’ve been uncovering in the last few years.