As a personal project this year, I read a pile of books and articles about mass incarceration in the United States. The pick of the litter was James Forman, Jr.’s new book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. It may be the best complement and counterpart to Michelle Alexander’s classic The New Jim Crow yet written. Forman, son of two civil rights leaders from the 1960s and now a Yale law professor, provides an insightful examination of the issue. Unlike Alexander’s book, which provocatively but somewhat simplistically argues that the phenomenon is a form of racist social control, Forman argues for a more nuanced and historical understanding of the United States’ conversion into a prison nation. Class joins race in playing a decisive role in his tale, as do particular trends in the drug trade, crime rates, and politics. Racism has a part, but it’s a complicated one. “Mass incarceration,” Forman writes, “is the result of small, distinct steps, each of whose significance becomes more apparent over time, and only when considered in light of later events.”
His book focuses in particular on Washington, DC, where he long served as a public defender. DC (where I also lived for some of the years he describes in the 1980s and 1990s) is a fascinating case study because it was and is a majority African-American city that throughout the period of mass incarceration’s emergence has been led by black politicians, policed by a majority-black and black-led police department, and judged (and lawyered and juried) mostly by African Americans. And still, Washington, DC, marched as swiftly toward mass incarceration as any other jurisdiction in the United States. By exploring this paradox, Forman revealed much that was less visible in other books I read this year on criminal justice.
Locking Up Our Own is also sensitively crafted, carried along by profiles of people Forman defended as a lawyer and of various protagonists in the four decade drama: from once-Mayor Marion Barry to once-US Attorney for DC (and later Attorney General) Eric Holder. Highly recommended!
The Cormoran Strike series, by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowlings)
Compelling murder mysteries with a well-developed protagonist. My only complaint is the too-familiar age difference between the leads—a woman in her late 20s and a man in his late 30s. Apparently women expire at 30 while men only start getting interesting.
No is Not Enough: Resisting the new shock politics and winning the world we need, by Naomi Klein
An insightful analysis of how we got to where we are, and the underlying problems with current culture. She guides us through the history of corporate and personal branding, and points out some deep-seated flaws in our thinking: first, that commercial brands can replace the sense of community, connection, and mission that humans deeply desire; second, that people who are rich must be more smart or more competent or more worthy than the rest of us; third, that we can buy-in to a culture that ranks the worthiness of human life based on race, religion, gender, sexuality, physical appearance, or physical ability and expect it not to harm us all. Unfortunately, her call to action feels inadequate to overcome these dire problems.
Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone, by Brene Brown
I particularly like Brown’s explanation that not belonging may seem like a first world problem, but is actually a deep spiritual pain. And I like her discussion of dehumanization and moral exclusion, how those have enable atrocities such as genocide and slavery, and how we must work to re-humanize those people whom our power structures have excluded.
I wish I could say I had read more grown up books in 2017. I do like to stack a bunch of lovely books by my head while I sleep. I do manage a couple dozen audio books a year (sometimes also while I sleep). Mostly I read kids’ books. Here are a few favorites from this year:
Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. It’s a beautiful, lush picture book that situates Earth within the solar system and then talks about how natural systems work on the home planet, situating the kid you’re reading to within their natural context and subtly encouraging stewardship. My wee ones really like it—and most adults love it.
Town is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Sydney Smith. Gorgeous pictures here, too, make irresistible a serious historical story contrasting a boy’s experience of his Cape Breton, Canada, seaside paradise with the wretched conditions of the undersea coalmine where his dad toils.
Here’s a great conversation on WAMU’s 1A about American dystopian fiction, with host Joshua Johnson and authors Cory Doctorow, N.K. Jemisin, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Omar el Akkad. If I can stomach it, I’ll dig into a sci-fi subgenre this panel introduced me to, “cli-fi,” the stories of climate dystopia.
On the utopia side of things, my favorite non-fiction book this year is one I’ve mentioned in Weekend Reading before: singer-songwriter Dar Williams’ keen (and instructive) observations of what makes (or breaks) a small town community. Touring the US for her music career, she’s found herself in the heart of all kinds of towns. In What I Found in 1000 Towns she synthesizes what structures and rituals and elements seem to add up to a happy, healthy place where people are connected and little economies are thriving.
Electric Arches – Eve Ewing
Eve Ewing is a sociologist of education whose research focuses on racism, social inequality, and urban policy. In Electric Arches, Eve weaves poetry, prose, and visual art together and introduces you to a world that lets you think about the everyday magic in your life. In Eve’s world, children use time machines to speak with their ancestors and ride flying bicycles. In her words, Electric Arches is an “afrofuturist Black feminist book about coming of age and growing up in the city.” I’d also highly recommend following her on Twitter @eveewing.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce – Morgan Parker.
A fearless book of poetry that explores black womanhood in contemporary America. Her sparkling stanzas tie together pop culture, politics, history, and identity—an antidote to white supremacy.
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Black Wave – Michelle Tea
Black Wave “investigates addiction and apocalypse in a hallucinatory tale that’s as sobering as a blast of cold air.” Couldn’t have said it better myself… It’s a sharp and dreamy dystopian meta-memoir.
I was feeling bad about the fact that I barely read any books at all this past year, and none that I would recommend. And then I read my colleague Anna’s contribution, and I realized that I had in fact read quite a large number of books this year—possibly even thousands, if you count the number of times each book was read—and many of them were totally worth recommending. It’s just that they all happen to be toddler books. Because we have a two year old, and we now spend most of our non-adulting daylight hours reading Dr. Seuss and Sesame Street (does that count as adulting?). In any case, I have become quite opinionated on the subject of board books and other kid-oriented media, and so I present my list of best parent- and toddler- worthy books of 2017:
The top spot in our household definitely goes to The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man, a comic book-style crowd-pleaser with several nice moral and behavior lessons hidden within. I don’t know that the anti-tantrum lesson has hit home with the kiddo yet, but it’s definitely given us parents some good ideas!
Runner up for most requested goes to Some Bugs, a guided tour of tiny backyard ecology. Because of this book, our just-turned-two year old knows that rhinoceros beetles fight, ants steal food from picnic baskets, and some bugs look like sticks so they can hide from birds. He’s also kind of obsessed with butterflies. I’m impressed.
All four books from Hazy Dell Press are great, but Monster ABC gets special props for being the one alphabet book our toddler wants to read over and over again ad nauseum.
The award for parent favorite goes to Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. A great way to teach your toddler about the benefits of collective bargaining!
For nonreligious parents like us who would nonetheless like to impress upon their kids a sense of awe at the vastness of the universe and a sense of connection with other living things, I highly recommend the classic All I See Is Part of Me. The only problem is that I still can’t get through it without choking up a bit.
And last but not least, I give you Punk Farm. Just try and read it without using your hardcore voice. Our kid thinks it’s a riot.
I’m a deep admirer of the Kennedys, and throughout 2017, I powered through Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s biography of Robert F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and his Times. Though a little less prominent than his JFK biography, A Thousand Days, Schlesinger’s treatment of Bobby Kennedy was no less thoughtful and poignant, in my opinion. Originally published as a two-volume set in the late 1970’s that covers 956 pages, you can find a single-volume copy on Amazon pretty readily.
As for books that were published in 2017, I’m currently reading Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott. As someone with management experience who’s always looking to be better as a leader, I generally gravitate toward these types of books (when I’m not reading historical biography, of course). The insights provided by Scott are useful for any leader in any walk of life, whether it’s the first time they’re managing people or are long-time leaders in their industry. (The ideas behind this book also became a podcast series, if you’re so inclined.)
Yep, I can’t help but be predictable on this one: Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is this year’s must MUST read for anyone interested in the history of zoning and segregation in the US. Rothstein lays bare how the federal government knowingly imposed official rules and policies intended to segregate African-Americans from Whites, and in so doing, violated the US Constitution. Because these government actions deprived many Black families the opportunity to build wealth through home ownership, the ugly legacy remains today in the gaping wealth disparity between Blacks and Whites—a disadvantage that robs opportunity generation after generation. The inescapable conclusion? Reparations are due.