Fiction I Read in 2019

Once again, I put together a list of the fiction that I read over the past year that I loved and want to recommend. I found that in doing so, both this year and last, I was reminded of what I learned through reading literature. Indigenous author Rebecca Roanhorse suggests that fiction, and especially science fiction, is important because “the future you imagine is the future you get.” She goes on to say: “for me, it is important to imagine a future that centers Native people,  that highlights our stories and our ideas and our languages, science, and art. Otherwise, the world suffers. Stuck in colonizing language and thought (Space conquest! Colonizing planets!) without considering that there might be another, better way.”

  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
    • A haunting, beautiful, and thoughtful book about colonialism and children taken from their families on the southern border
  • The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai
    • A wrenching, powerful book about love, death, and politics that takes place across decades about the beginning of the AIDS crisis
  • Akata Witch – Nnedi Okorafor
    • Kids and magic, better than Harry Potter. I finished the first book and immediately downloaded the second from the library, Akata Warrior.
  • The Sympathizer  –  Viet Thanh Nguyen
    • I was a little slow on this one, in part because I was worried it was going to be reactionary, but I found this book to be satisfying politically and quite funny in parts. I wish everyone could read the section skewering Vietnam War movies.
  • Trail of Lightning – Rebecca Roanhorse
    • A quick-moving, adventurous read about monster killing. Also a thought provoking piece of literature that taught me in a new way (as I hoped it would) that representation really matters. Let’s hope there is a movie or TV option. I’m #50 on the waiting list for the next book.
  •  Brown Girl in the Ring – Nalo Hopkinson
    • Second book I have read and absolutely loved by this author of Black speculative fiction. my favorite part of this book might have been its insights into family dynamics although it is also leaving me thinking about the skills I should be building for the climate crisis.
  • Disoriental – Négar Djavadi
    • A story of a family and particularly one woman (a punk rock aficionado) in exile from Iran. A beautiful novel about state terror and family drama.
  • The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
    • I didn’t see the movie, so I don’t know how it compares. I really liked the book and felt like it was a good companion read to When They Call You a Terrorist; each covered certain things the other did not. I liked the emotional terrain and complexity of this book which used the power of fiction to tell another side of the story of police murder. If you want to know about the Black Lives Matter movement though, you should do further reading.
Picture of three women in an attic (the Vera sisters) looking at a large old book (the Book of Shadows).
The Vera sisters understand the power of a book.

Saturday Rec: Fiction I Read in 2018

To celebrate the end of the year I’m recommending a whole slew of things to read! This is a non-exhaustive list of the novels I read this past year that I loved and would love for you to read. Why read fiction, you ask? Please watch the fabulous (and dearly departed) Ursula K LeGuin at the National Book Awards in 2014 explain that it is in part because we “need writers who can remember freedom” (transcript here).

  • LaRose – Louise Erdrich
    • I’ve read several of Erdrich’s books and I plan on eventually reading all of her work – but slowly, so I don’t run out of it.
  • The Killing Moon and the Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood Duology) – NK Jemisin
  • She Would Be King – Wayétu Moore
    • A magical realist tale of the founding of Liberia. I actually recommend not reading any more summary than that.
  • Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante
    • A painful but beautiful novel about the sudden disappearance and loss of the narrator’s mother in Ferrante’s signature style. I think I have now finished Ferrante’s catalog and I feel a bit lost.
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
    • A book about four generations of a Korean family from before the two Koreas and their migration to Japan. A great transnational novel on race, identity, and migration.
  • Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver
    • I’ve read and loved all of Kingsolver’s work and this is her newest.
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
    • A very beautiful and surprising novel about nonbinary genders and the militant struggle in Kashmir.

If Ursula K Le Guin did not convince you, my favorite academic advice columnist has also recommended reading fiction among many other wonderful suggestions for those experiencing “outrage fatigue.” Here’s to imagining (and building) a different world in 2019.

leguinbookawards

Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards in 2014.

Saturday Rec: Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu’s Netflix Comedy Special “Warn Your Relatives”

Pairs well with: a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the long forbidden episode of the Simpsons where they go to the World Trade Center, and mangoes

Picture of Hari Kondabolu head and shoulders with his tongue sticking out, eyes wide open to the camera

There are a lot of good, politically savvy stand-up specials on Netflix right now. This one was my favorite so far. In part because Kondabolu opens with a 9/11 joke, “in order to show the audience that he means business!” (The joke is hilarious even though I’ve just given away part of the punchline.)

You should watch this special if you really need comic relief right now. (If you don’t need comic relief right now, what kind of monster are you and why are you reading my blog?) You should try watching this special if you don’t think you will like it. Maybe you will. Or maybe you will at least learn something. A perspective like Kondabolu’s is rare on TV and in comedy, and it’s refreshing and eye opening. I felt like an ocean breeze was suddenly bursting through my windows and filling my lungs with air listening to Kondabolu’s direct and political jokes. I can only imagine what South Asian American friends felt like seeing themselves represented in any way on screen. At any rate, warn your relatives. Whiteness makes for a pretty funny joke.

Saturday Rec: Even the Rain

Even the Rain – También la Lluvia

Pairs well with: all the other movies starring Gael García Bernal, a copy of the Open Veins of Latin America, a willingness to reflect on your own positionality in the world

This is a movie about colonialism and a movie about the Cochabamba water war. In fact, it’s a movie about some people who purport to make a movie about colonialism and in doing so perpetuate some really colonialist behaviors, which is the movie about colonialism that those of us who grew up benefiting from colonialism really need to see. And, somehow, as if that wasn’t a clever enough trope (and trust me, it really is), it’s also the best movie out there about the water war.

two men stare at each other. One man is in costume as an indigenous Taino man in the time of Columbus while the other wears a t-shirt.

Juan Carlos Aduviri and Gael Garcia Bernal in Even the Rain

And then, as if all of that wasn’t enough to make you go watch it now (but it should be), it’s also a movie starring Gael García Bernal!

Here are some other excellent movies starring Gael García Bernal:

  • No (and bring your cynical sense of humor – don’t be too North American while watching)
  • Neruda
  • Y Tu Mamá También
  • The Science of Sleep

Saturday Rec: Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin

Pairs well with: summer, popcorn, resting up before and after organizing around migration issues

Photo with four characters from show walking in Target store: Xo looks determined, Jane is smiling, Rafael seems unhappy and has baby Mateo strapped to him, and Alba is smiling and playing with the baby.

This is a light-hearted show with shockingly good feminist and racial politics. I never feel guilty after watching it (although one downside is that there is a cop  who is a “good guy” character). The show actually has amazing immigration politics, including a plotline that basically showcased Lisa Sun-Hee Park’s research.  Some of the other things I appreciate about it are that one character never speaks English; Jane’s mom is unapologetically sex positive although Jane has a more conservative (titular) approach; the family and show is based in Miami but they are Venezuelan, not Cuban; feminism is sometimes an explicit topic of the show; and it is simply very nice to watch a show that is led by a POC cast and not full of white people. Plus, it’s a very funny show with some smart jokes.

Saturday Rec: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pairs well with: organic foods, soil-testing kit, and solitary activities once you become unpopular for wanting to make space for the truth and criticizing “Pinktober”

This is another documentary based on a book, an academic text by Samantha King who also appears in the documentary. The film covers the problems with reducing fighting breast cancer to buying stuff with pink ribbons on it and includes many of the problems people have with the Komen foundation. More interesting, however, the film is a powerful discussion of the ways that relentlessly positive thinking is really harmful to people. It shows persuasively that when we focus on positive thinking, we center quick and easy solutions and end up missing real solutions, which are harder and take more time. We do not think about what causes cancer (e.g., living near oil refineries), and how more people are getting it. Instead we focus on finding it early on as if it were an inevitable fact.

Most strikingly the film includes interviews with women dying of breast cancer who discuss how there is no room for them or their experiences in a “movement” which only wants to hear happy stories and see pink objects. Where can one process the experience of dying from a horrible disease if people only want to hear about happy things? How can this be a “good” way of dealing with a disease if there is no room for the people actually experiencing its effects in an authentic way?

A great film for understanding how focusing only on the positive can literally harm the people around you.

Saturday Rec: Wormwood

Wormwood

Pairs well with: plaid suits, elaborate cocktails, a blanket to hide under for the rest of your life, and maybe more cigarettes. Just don’t let your cocktail out of your sight for a moment.

CIA document approving use of LSD through MKULTRA project with redactions

Dr. Sidney Gottlieb’s approval of an MKULTRA subproject on LSD.

Watch it if you feel yourself becoming a little bit sympathetic for the FBI in the Trump era. Although it is about the CIA, this is guaranteed to immunize you from forgetting the darkness of the United States security apparatus and its allegiances.

This docuseries, directed by expert filmmaker and story teller Errol Morris, goes beyond the MKUltra premise that it starts with and gets more and more upsetting, linking the sci-fi mind control premise (although it’s true, not fiction) to contemporary military operations. Much of the series was eye-opening and shocking even for a cynical anarchist who studies Latin America like me.

I believe it is only episode two or three when one of the family’s lawyers describes seeing the “burn bowls” inside of the agency. These instruments were meant for quick and regular document destruction.

You can learn more about Frank Olson (the subject of the documentary) and his son’s ongoing struggle for justice here.

Also recommended: everything Errol Morris has directed, including

  • Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (experts on mole rats and hedge sculpture!)
  • The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (somehow not a boring talking head documentary!)
  • Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (about the electric chair, yet watchable)
  • Gates of Heaven (film about a pet cemetary that made Werner Herzog eat his shoe)
  • The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld (it will cure whatever trust you have left in authority and war-mongering after the Fog of War)
  • The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography (will remind you life is still worth living after watching Donald Rumsfeld, without being cliché)

Saturday Rec: I Am Not Your Negro

(On Saturdays, I’ll be posting recommendations for movies and books and other stuff. Here’s my first.)

I Am Not Your Negro

Best paired with: cigarettes and a typewriter

Not an incredibly unique documentary recommendation,  but if you haven’t yet seen it, see it now. Even if you already know a lot about race and racism, you will probably see something in a different way or appreciate something differently. The film is beautiful and well-made. The argument, which belongs almost entirely to James Baldwin, is interesting and deep. I re-watched it this week and was again amazed at how ahead of his time Baldwin was. Not because he’s saying things that have relevance in 2018 (although that’s true too), but because he seems to have anticipated the late 1960s and the 1970s well in advance: Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955.

Director Raoul Peck highlights the contemporary resonance in Baldwin’s words beautifully and devastatingly through images.

The flaws: the film is an intersectionality fail. There are almost no Black women in the movie, although Black women played an extremely large and critical role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is a problematic reflection of how history is told rather than how it was. And although Baldwin is well known to have been queer, it’s downplayed in the film.

But even so, see it. See it.

Here’s a teaser of Baldwin’s brilliance:

Photograph of James Baldwin

Click for video of Baldwin. (Photo by Allan Warren)