The Five Best Books I Read This Year and One to Avoid

For the first time since 2011, I didn’t get to my goal of 75 books read in a calendar year. In fact, I didn’t even get close, with 53 being a best case this year. There are a number of reasons why I didn’t read as much as I like to, but I’m going to give most of the blame to Meredith Grey and the months-long funk that led to watching way too many episodes of her story on Netflix.

That being said, I read some great things, and here are a few I’d recommend. To a great 2018 to all of us, even Meredith.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

While I thought the last section of the book was underdeveloped and less successful than the rest, it was a compelling read about an episode lost to history.

“There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defense never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceedings: Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian? One skeptical reporter noted, “The attitude of a pioneer cattleman toward the full-blood Indian…is fairly well recognized.” A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

This book might have had everything going for it. At the start of an adventure to Finland and the Baltics, there was nothing that could tear me away from reading this novel while the sun was in the air at 3:00 in the morning. The best novel I’ve read since John Williams’s Stoner, and that’s saying something.

“Where we are from, he said, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change….But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.”

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin

I only gave this book a four-star rating when I read it in April, but it’s probably the non-fiction title I’ve thought the most about since reading it this year. It’s the kind of book that will have you yelling at some of the arguments, cheering at others, and despairing at the wisdom contained in others. 

Your first encounter with feminism should make you uncomfortable. It has to break through all of the messages you’ve been indoctrinated with. You’ll have to experience regret for your behavior, and you will have to acknowledge all the ways you’ve been consciously and unconsciously misogynistic during your lifetime. One way to avoid that discomfort is to ask women to reassure you that you are one of the good ones. To perform your sensitivity. It’s manipulative. Another way to avoid that discomfort is to sit alone with your dark thoughts about what is wrong with feminists.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

I read three books by Rebeccas Solnit over the past year, but this was the one I found most thought-provoking. All of these collections of her essays suffer a bit from unevenness and some repetition within the texts, but her discussion her about the roots of misogynistic violence and the way women are silenced was especially powerful.

Masculinity is a great renunciation. The color pink is a small thing, but emotions, expressiveness, receptiveness, a whole array of possibilities get renounced by successful boys and men in everyday life, and often for men who inhabit masculinized realms—sports, the military, the police, all-male workforces in construction or resource extraction—even more must be renounced to belong. Women get to keep a wider range of emotional possibility, though they are discouraged or stigmatized for expressing some of the fiercer ones, the feelings that aren’t ladylike and deferential, and so much else—ambition, critical intelligence, independent analysis, dissent, anger. That is to say, silence is a pervasive force, distributed differently to different categories of people.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

I’ve always imagined that I understand poverty, both from lived experience and observation of the lives of the students I teach, but Desmond describes the experience of eight families in searing detail that exposes the challenges of their lives and lays bare the myth that we live in a country where every person has the same opportunity.

Inside the house, the movers found five children. Tim recognized one child as the daughter of a man who used to work on the crew. It wasn’t uncommon to evict someone you knew. Most of the movers lived on the North Side and had at some point experienced the awkward moment of packing up someone from their church or block. Tim had evicted his own daughter. But this house felt strange. Dave asked what was going on, and John explained that the name on the eviction order belonged to the mother of several of the children. She had died two months earlier, and the children had simply gone on living in the house, by themselves.

And One to Avoid: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Vance’s book has become required reading for a certain kind of conservative and liberal who, despite their differences in policy goals, want to pin the plight of the impoverished on their personal failures, not systemic oppression. That Vance succeeded in his life, despite real challenges, is commendable, but he seems to ignore advantages that just aren’t the case for many of the nation’s poor. He casually mentions home ownership and an uncle who could send him a spare pair of golf clubs when he was interested in the game almost without realizing that his circumstances were much different than those of many poor Americans. And the book falls into lazy stereotyping about the poor, couched in the same personal experience that conservatives often use to condemn the poor. 

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over.