By Harriet Washington
Ever since I read this article on how the growing popularity of pet cats in Europe centuries ago may have brought with it the eruption of severe mental illness, especially schizophrenia, I’ve been fascinated by germ-theory research on mental health. In the case of cats and schizophrenia, the culprit may be a microorganism called Toxoplasma gondii. But T. godii is far from the only microscopic agent that may get into our heads. Harriet Washington’s Infectious Madness: The Surprising Science of How We “Catch” Mental Illness chronicles a bevy of them. Science!
By Ryan Avent
Ryan Avent’s The Gated City was another highlight of my book pile. Avent is an Economist reporter who started looking into the macroeconomic consequences of expensive local housing. One thing led to another, and he realized he was onto one of the biggest economic stories going: that tight constraints on local land uses is holding down prosperity, boosting inequality, and dragging down US competitiveness. The implications of the research he summarizes are so big that I’m still coming to terms with them. (Sightline’s Dan Bertolet did his own summary of some of this research here.)
I’ve already written up all of my top reads of 2016 in various weekend reading posts throughout the year, but they’re rounded up below with links to my original reviews:
By Paul Beatty (Man Booker Prize winner)
By Maggie Nelson (MacArthur Genius Grant winner)
By Seattle native, former Stranger writer, and comedic genius Lindy West
By Robert Moor
By Jonathan Safran Foer
I also recently enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (hat tip to Sasha S.), an artful and compelling exploration of America’s meat industry. It weaves deftly between snippets of family history, philosophical arguments for vegetarianism, fascinating—if terrifying—public health implications of modern meat-raising, and testimony from others who are intimately involved in various aspects of the industry.
By Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing is a multi-generational family epic filled with compassion. Starting in Ghana, two half-sisters are separated: one sold into slavery, one marrying a British slaver. The story follows the generations of family after them, in Ghana and the United States, for over 300 hundred years of history. Each chapter builds a compelling personal narrative of a family member, weaving in past stories and characters. The legacy of captivity carved into the foundation of American history and the inter-generational trauma caused by slavery is visceral in Homegoing and can’t be ignored
Homegoing fits well with a documentary I recommend called 13th. Named after the Thirteenth Amendment, the documentary is a look at the history of racial inequality in America and how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery—a form of racialized control. It made me think about the power of words and the coded language—war on crime, war on drugs, law and order—that target African Americans. It also shocked me to learn that most inmates take a plea bargain for crimes they didn’t commit because people are incentivized to plead guilty for lesser sentences instead of going to trial. The case of Kalief Browder, a 22-year-old who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime is a tragic example. This movie is packed with shocking facts that will both infuriate you and make you think, “what can I do?” In the current political climate, we need to be vigilant and continue to fight for equality more than ever.
By Maggie Nelson
I second Serena’s recommendation The Argonauts. Maggie Nelson’s memoir explores motherhood, gender identity, and queerness. Nelson is experiencing pregnancy while her trans-gendered partner’s body is also transitioning. Here’s a quote to wet your appetite:
Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?
By Matthew Desmond
A raw and astonishing look at extreme poverty and economic exploitation in America. Sociologist Matthew Desmond follows the lives of seven people living in Milwaukee who pay 70-80% of their income for homes unfit for human habitation. Evictions used to be rare but are now all too common. Similar to incarceration, eviction can brand a person for life and prevent someone from a wealth of opportunities.
By Andrew Solomon
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By far the most interesting book I read this year was Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon. The author spent 10 years interviewing more than 300 families with children who have what he refers to as “horizontal identities”— “ inherent or acquired trait[s] that [are] foreign to [our] parents and must therefore [be acquired] from a peer group”, as opposed to the “vertical identities” we inherit directly from our parents. Some examples he explores are dwarfism, schizophrenia, and autism. “This book’s conundrum,” he writes, “is that most of the families described here ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.” I found this book to be a deeply inspiring examination of what it means to be a parent, and to truly love unconditionally.
By Alice Dreger
In the category of “dear god, everyone is this country should be forced to read this book”, I offer Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, by Alice Dreger. In a world where previously benign and accepted concepts like “truth” and ‘facts” have become arguable and political, this is, IMHO, a critically important case study of the relationship between science and politics. And in case anyone is wondering, this is the same Alice Dreger who wrote that Stranger article about her son’s sex-ed class last year.
By Catherine Price
And finally, because our food system is another realm in which I think Americans should be more informed, I suggest Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, by Catherine Price. The fact that so many people seem to think that healthy eating consists of ingesting enough protein powders and so-called “supplements” has always driven me crazy, and Price explains both how we got here and why no amount of fortification can replace real food.
By Innosanto Nagara
Honorable mention goes to A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara, a toddler board book which I will be from here on out acquiring for all of my friends who have kids. One reviewer described it as “Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but for two-year olds.” Enough said.
By Roberto Bolaño
By Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
By Alejandro Zambra
By Ramez Naam
By Andy Stern
I’m lucky to find enough time to read an entire magazine article these days, so I’m taking notes on my colleagues’ reading lists. The next year—heck, make it the next four years—I plan to return to the book. Escapism. Yes, please. I’m going to read novels. How else can we better understand our species? But also, I’ll be looking for the sociologists and historians who might help explain humans to me. Meanwhile, here’s what I’m burying my nose in:
Born to Run
By Bruce Springsteen
The self-indulgent memoir of a mega-rock-star? Yes. That it certainly is. But Bruce is—as always—an alchemist. He is singular (IMO) in turning introspection, personal exploration, and the recounting of his own particular experiences and observations (aka navel gazing) into universal truths and a certain kind of collective American Story (or at least the illusion that such a thing might actually exist). Like the songs that helped me through puberty and every stage of life since, the autobiography is honest and raw. Bruce bares his soul about his own depression and difficult relationships. And a window into his unstoppable drive is fascinating. The book is that signature—and almost impossible—combo of sad and exuberant that characterizes so many of my favorite Springsteen songs. Admittedly (obviously) I’m a big fan. So: Grain of salt with all this, but, I’m telling you, the prose is lyrical. As you read, you can almost hear him signing it—all 510 pages!