My name is Jay Stansell, and I am writing as both a BLC Board member and one of the founders of the BLC Poverty & Justice Book Club. We’ve been meaning to share information regularly about each of the six book club sessions we had in 2019, but time got away from us and here we are at the end of the year. As we start to gear up for the 2020 Poverty & Justice Book Club, and also the season of giving, I wanted to offer one post that incorporates books that we covered and ones that we have yet to read. Please enjoy!
Once our kids got old enough to get beyond toys, we instituted a family tradition of celebrating Hanukah/Christmas primarily with gifts of books, which also involved trips to the lovely bustle of Elliot Bay Books during this season. I thought I would put down some suggestions for others, gleaned from our successful Poverty and Justice Book Club selections of the past year; some of the books I vetted and liked a lot, but didn’t select for the Book Club; and some other ideas I have for books that have moved me.
Here they are in no particular order.
There, There, by Tommy Orange, a Book Club selection that I think everyone really enjoyed, won a number of award last year. A great, multi-character, window on the robust lives of “urban Indians” in America.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer. This is on my wish list for the season. I read the first chapter from a borrowed copy, and loved it, but it is a “big book”, so I feel like I need to own it. Really great writing, this is a history, a collection of stories of American Indians surviving and thriving throughout the US, and a memoir. Treuer describes it as a “counter-narrative” to Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, to show that Indians lived on after Wounded Knee “as more than ghosts and more than the relics of a once happy people. . . . I have tried to catch us not in the act of dying but, rather, in the radical act of living.”
We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is a collection of Coates’ compelling long-journalism pieces in The Atlantic, written over the eight years of the Obama presidency. Our Book Club read the article “The Case for Reparations”, and I think everyone found his writing as compelling as I do. The book republishes each of his eight Atlantic pieces, with new reflections from Coates about each piece from the benefit of hindsight.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. This memoir-like work was published the same year that Coates was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” In my mind, this is one of the most important books on race written in many decades. It is intense and dark, but powerful and important, and I think changes the lives of everyone who reads it. It is a short book, and would be a great companion to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a work written 50 or more years before Coates’ book, that has equal relevance our present era (sadly), and which uses the literary form of a letter from Baldwin to his brother’s son, a narrative style consciously adopted by Coates in his book.
The House of Broken Angels, Luis Alberto Urrea. I love this writer, and loved this book, which was a hit with the Book Club. A great, funny, sad, and poetic saga of a border family, that shatters the “them against us” lens that some in this country look through to other Mexicans, Chicanos, and “real” Americans. A good sneeker-book for that relative who doesn’t quite yet grasp the humanity of folks who might speak more than English.
Evicted, Matthew Desmond. A Pulitzer Prize winning book about the devastating trauma of the eviction cycle on folks struggling in poverty throughout the U.S., with a focus on the author’s immersive experiences living among the housing insecure poor in Milwaukee. A Book Club hit, the writing is fluid, engaging, and compelling. I learned a lot by reading it.
Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochschild. This was not a Book Club selection, but reminded me a lot of Evicted because of the high quality of the writing and the author’s approach to her subjects, Tea Party residents of southern, rural Louisiana, who have kept voting for officials who have de-regulated the wild areas they love into a state of toxicity. The question is: what makes people so clearly vote against their own interests? Of the many things written about the Trump era, this is the most insightful work I have read. Hochschild consistently writes respectfully throughout, with kindness and compassion for her subjects.
Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman. A strong Book Club selection, this is non-fiction and history, that is more challenging than many of our selections, but well written and extremely informative. It covers the full sweep of the struggle for voting rights, and the erosion of the gains since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was published in 2015, and won a number of awards. Though the voter suppression saga continues in new and ever weirder ways, this book is a solid foundation for understanding what is at stake.
Toni Morrison. We lost this national treasure this year, so I am working my way through the novels that I have not yet read. I think we all should. When asked how best to understand race in America, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggested reading every one of Toni Morrison’s novels. I recently read, and really liked, Jazz. And of course, Beloved is an American classic. All of her books examine suffering, discrimination, and struggle, but they also all evoke resilience, courage and power. I also can’t say enough about The Origins of Others, which is a short non-fiction collection of speeches Morrison gave at Harvard. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this book’s strong introduction, which reminds me that this book, Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time would make a great trio of compelling profound works for those with a New Years’ resolution to think more about the puzzle of race in America.
Marilynne Robinson. I note the works of novelist, essayist and public intellectual Robinson, because her novels are rich with the beauty, kindness, and compassion that exists in small town America, though we are apt to forget it these days. Her book Gilead is a wonder of grace, and deals with power of spirituality in a way that never is heavy handed, judgmental or proselytizing. Her books remind me to be kind, to care for others, to celebrate my neighbors. Her “Gilead trilogy” is made up of Gilead, Home, and Lila. All three are great, and will remain on our shelves. Reading them in sequence probably makes the most sense. Robinson’s first book was the fabulous Housekeeping.
BLC Board Member & Head Book Club Wrangler