Words as Medicine: 2020 Book Review

Tracking books I’ve read is now a pattern of sorts. I started in 2018, did it again in 2019, and this year somehow managed to read more books than I have in the past years since I started tracking my reading, despite having not reading goals and navigating a global pandemic and racial justice uprising.

Like many in our world, this past year was marked for me by time and energy dedicated to some major challenges related to health, wellbeing, and community safety.

In times like these, words truly felt like medicine.

The days were marked by turning to podcasts, music, and books for joy, and sometimes, escape.

In previous years I tried to “stay in my lane” and share books related to motherhood, health, and entrepreneurship.

This year it all went out the window, and I just tried to read what was inspiring, uplifting and comforting.

 

Some stats and facts I uncovered as I reviewing what I read:

  • I read 31 books this year, most during Q4 (13!), a time of life typically marked by end-of-the-year madness. Not sure what happened there.
  • 29% of the books I read were by queer authors, 81% were by women authors, 90% were by BIPOC authors.
  • True to form, 65% of the books were non-fiction, 12% fiction, and the remaining books anthologies of poetry or short essays.
  • I truly loved 11 of the 31 and would read them over and over again. I’ve noted which ones below.
  • There were 6 books I started to read but could not get into. I listed these at the very end.

 

Quarter One (January-March 2020) – read 5 books

January

How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir, by Saeed Jones (LOVED)

A stunning coming-of-age memoir about a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

 

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a childhood friend, a new mother who wanted to know how to raise her baby girl to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s letter of response: fifteen invaluable suggestions—direct, wryly funny, and perceptive—for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. Filled with compassionate guidance and advice, it gets right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century, and starts a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

 

February

Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business, by Paul Jarvis

A new take on on staying small and avoiding growth, for any size business. Not as a freelancer who only gets paid on a per piece basis, and not as an entrepreneurial start-up that wants to scale as soon as possible, but as a small business that is deliberately committed to staying that way. By staying small, one can have freedom to pursue more meaningful pleasures in life, and avoid the headaches that result from dealing with employees, long meetings, or worrying about expansion. Company of One introduces this unique business strategy and explains how to make it work for you, including how to generate cash flow on an ongoing basis.

 

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations—and whose story inspires us to do the same.

 

March

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (LOVED)

Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

 

Quarter Two (April-June 2020) – read 4 books

April

Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs, by Nathalie Molina Niño and Sara Grace

Refreshingly frank and witty, author Nathalie Molina Niño is a serial tech entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of BRAVA Investments, and a proud daughter of Latinx immigrants. While teaching budding entrepreneurs at Barnard College at Columbia University and searching the globe for investment-worthy startups, she has met or advised thousands of entrepreneurs who’ve gone from zero to scalable business. Here she shares their best secrets in the form of fifty “leapfrogs”–clever loopholes and shortcuts to outsmart, jump over, or straight up annihilate the seemingly intractable hurdles facing entrepreneurs who don’t have family money, cultural capital, or connections.

 

May

We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, by Dani McClain (LOVED)

In We Live for the We, first-time mother Dani McClain sets out to understand how to raise her daughter in what she, as a black woman, knows to be an unjust — even hostile — society. Black women are more likely to die during pregnancy or birth than any other race; black mothers must stand before television cameras telling the world that their slain children were human beings. What, then, is the best way to keep fear at bay and raise a child so she lives with dignity and joy?

 

Audience of One: Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake, by Srivinas Rao

Creating for your own pleasure–whether you’re writing a novel, composing songs, or painting a landscape–can seem pointless. It’s tempting to focus on pursuing money and fame, rather than the process itself. But as Srini Rao warns, creating then turns into a chore that can harm your self-esteem and suck the pleasure out of life, rather than being a source of joy. Rao, host of the podcast The Unmistakable Creative, argues that we should counter this thinking by intentionally creating art for ourselves alone–an audience of one. In this book he shares the fascinating true stories of creatives who took this path, along with actionable tips and the research of creativity experts.

 

June

This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (LOVED)

I first read this book 15 years ago in college, and turned to it again during the pandemic for its eternal wisdom and beauty. This groundbreaking collection reflects an uncompromised definition of feminism by women of color. Through personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art, the collection explores, as coeditor Cherríe Moraga writes, “the complex confluence of identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—systemic to women of color oppression and liberation.”

 

Quarter Three (July-September 2020) – read 9 books

July

Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Ma’ia Williams. (LOVED)

Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines is an anthology that centers mothers of color and marginalized mothers’ voices—women who are in a world of necessary transformation. The challenges faced by movements working for anti-violence, anti-imperialist, and queer liberation, as well as racial, economic, reproductive, gender, and food justice are the same challenges that marginalized mothers face every day. Revolutionary Mothering is a movement-shifting anthology committed to birthing new worlds, full of faith and hope for what we can raise up together.

 

The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You, by Julie Zhuo

The Making of a Manager is a modern field guide packed everyday examples and transformative insights, including:

* How to tell a great manager from an average manager (illustrations included)
* When you should look past an awkward interview and hire someone anyway
* How to build trust with your reports through not being a boss
* Where to look when you lose faith and lack the answers

Whether you’re new to the job, a veteran leader, or looking to be promoted, this is the handbook you need to be the kind of manager you wish you had.

 

There There, by Tommy Orange

Tommy Orange’s wondrous and shattering bestselling novel follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Together, a chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American—grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism. Hailed as an instant classic, There There is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable.

 

August

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper

In the Black feminist tradition of Audre Lorde, Brittney Cooper reminds us that anger is a powerful source of energy that can give us the strength to keep on fighting. Far too often, Black women’s anger has been caricatured into an ugly and destructive force that threatens the civility and social fabric of American democracy. But Cooper shows us that there is more to the story than that. Eloquent rage keeps us all honest and accountable. It reminds women that they don’t have to settle for less. This book argues that ultimately feminism, friendship, and faith in one’s own superpowers are all we really need to turn things right side up again.

 

The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, by Minda Harts

Drawing on knowledge gained from her past career as a fundraising consultant to top colleges across the country, Harts now brings her powerhouse entrepreneurial experience as CEO of The Memo to the page. With wit and candor, she acknowledges “ugly truths” that keep women of color from having a seat at the table in corporate America. Providing straight talk on how to navigate networking, office politics, and money, while showing how to make real change to the system, The Memo offers support and long-overdue advice on how women of color can succeed in their careers.

 

September

Lessons on Expulsion: Poems, by Erika L. Sánchez

An award-winning and hard-hitting new voice in contemporary American poetry.  Sánchez tells her own story as the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants and as part of a family steeped in faith, work, grief, and expectations. The poems confront sex, shame, race, and an America roiling with xenophobia, violence, and laws of suspicion and suppression. With candor and urgency, and with the unblinking eyes of a journalist, Sánchez roves from the individual life into the lives of sex workers, narco-traffickers, factory laborers, artists, and lovers. What emerges is a powerful, multifaceted portrait of survival.

 

Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (LOVED)

In 1996, poet Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha ran away from America with two backpacks and ended up in Canada, where she discovered queer anarchopunk love and revolution, yet remained haunted by the reasons she left home in the first place. This passionate and riveting memoir is a mixtape of dreams and nightmares, of immigration court lineups and queer South Asian dance nights; it reveals how a disabled queer woman of color and abuse survivor navigates the dirty river of the past and, as the subtitle suggests, “dreams her way home.”

 

The Body Is Not an Apology, Second Edition: The Power of Radical Self-Love, by Sonya Renee Taylor and Ijeoma Oluo

The Body Is Not an Apology offers radical self-love as the balm to heal the wounds inflicted by these violent systems. World-renowned activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor invites us to reconnect with the radical origins of our minds and bodies and celebrate our collective, enduring strength. As we awaken to our own indoctrinated body shame, we feel inspired to awaken others and to interrupt the systems that perpetuate body shame and oppression against all bodies. When we act from this truth on a global scale, we usher in the transformative opportunity of radical self-love, which is the opportunity for a more just, equitable, and compassionate world–for us all.

 

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, edited by adrienne maree brown

How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience? How can we awaken within ourselves desires that make it impossible to settle for anything less than a fulfilling life? Editor adrienne maree brown finds the answer in something she calls “Pleasure Activism,” a politics of healing and happiness that explodes the dour myth that changing the world is just another form of work. Drawing on the black feminist tradition, including Audre Lourde’s invitation to use the erotic as power and Toni Cade Bambara’s exhortation that we make the revolution irresistible, the contributors to this volume take up the challenge to rethink the ground rules of activism—they create new narratives about how politics can feel good and how what feels good always has a complex politics of its own.

 

Quarter Four (October-December 2020) – read 12 books

October

Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriqueñas, by Aurora Levins Morales (LOVED)

Full of medical folklore and healing tales, Remedios presents the history of the many women—and cultures—who have met at the crossroads of the islands of Puerto Rico. Beginning with the First Mother in sub-Saharan Africa more than 200,000 years ago, Aurora Levins Morales takes readers on a journey through time and around the globe. We learn of Juana de Asbaje, author of the “Reply to Sor Filotea” in 1693, the first feminist essay written in the New World; Gracia Nasi, Constantinople’s “Queen of the Jews”; the African-American activist and warrior of words Ida B. Wells; and the unlikely martyr and symbol, Ethel Rosenberg. Levins Morales weaves in her own story of pain and healing, ameliorated by the restorative power of memory, and bears witness to a larger history of resistance and abuse by women and men.

 

Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals, by Aurora Levins Morales

In this revised and expanded edition of Medicine Stories, Aurora Levins Morales weaves together insights and lessons learned over a lifetime of activism to offer a new theory of social justice. Calling for a politics of integrity that recognizes the complicated wholeness of individual and collective lives, Levins Morales delves among the interwoven roots of multiple oppressions, exposing connections, crafting strategies, and uncovering the wellsprings of resilience and joy. Intimately personal and globally relevant, Medicine Stories brings clarity and hope to tangled, emotionally charged social issues in beautiful and accessible language.

 

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover (LOVED)

Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

 

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado

We in America have certain ideas of what it means to be poor. Linda Tirado, in her signature brutally honest yet personable voice, takes all of these preconceived notions and smashes them to bits. She articulates not only what it is to be working poor in America (yes, you can be poor and live in a house and have a job, even two), but what poverty is truly like—on all levels. Frankly and boldly, Tirado discusses openly how she went from lower-middle class, to sometimes middle class, to poor and everything in between, and in doing so reveals why “poor people don’t always behave the way middle-class America thinks they should.”

 

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice. Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

 

Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power, by Jennifer Worley

When graduate student Jenny Worley needed a fast way to earn more money, she found herself at the door of the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco, auditioning on a stage surrounded by mirrors, in platform heels, and not much else. So began Jenny’s career as a stripper strutting the peepshow stage as her alter-ego “Polly” alongside women called Octopussy and Amnesia. But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill strip club—it was a peepshow populated by free-thinking women who talked feminist theory and swapped radical zines like lipstick. As management’s discriminatory practices and the rise of hidden cameras stir up tension among the dancers, Jenny rallies them to demand change. Together, they organize the first strippers’ union in the world and risk it all to take over the club and run it as a co-operative. The book explores critical questions about what keeps women from fighting for their rights, who benefits from capitalizing on desire, and how we can change entrenched systems of power.

 

November

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (LOVED)

As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together. Kimmerer shows how other living beings―asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass―offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.

 

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

In this collection of essays, Lambda Literary Award–winning writer and longtime activist and performance artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explores the politics and realities of disability justice, a movement that centers the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, Black, and brown people, with knowledge and gifts for all. Care Work is a mapping of access as radical love, a celebration of the work that sick and disabled queer/people of color are doing to find each other and to build power and community, and a tool kit for everyone who wants to build radically resilient, sustainable communities of liberation where no one is left behind. Powerful and passionate, Care Work is a crucial and necessary call to arms.

 

Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Transformative justice seeks to solve the problem of violence at the grassroots level, without relying on punishment, incarceration, or policing. Community-based approaches to preventing crime and repairing its damage have existed for centuries. However, in the punative atmosphere of contemporary criminal justice systems, they are often marginalized and operate under the radar. Beyond Survival puts these strategies front and center as real alternatives to today’s failed models of confinement and “correction.” In this collection, a diverse group of authors focuses on concrete and practical forms of redress and accountability, assessing existing practices and marking paths forward.

 

December

We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, by adrienne maree brown

“Cancel” or “call-out” culture is a source of much tension and debate in American society. The infamous “Harper’s Letter,” signed by public intellectuals of both the left and right, sought to settle the matter and only caused greater division. Originating as a way for marginalized and disempowered people to address harm and take down powerful abusers, often with the help of social media, call outs are seen by some as having gone too far. brown explores the question from a Black, queer, and feminist viewpoint that gently asks, how well does this practice serve us? Does it prefigure the sort of world we want to live in? And, if it doesn’t, how do we seek accountability and redress for harm in ways that reflect our values?

 

The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, by Mark Gevisser (LOVED)

More than seven years in the making, this book is an exploration of how the conversation around sexual orientation and gender identity has come to divide―and describe―the world in an entirely new way over the first two decades of the twenty-first century. No social movement has brought change so quickly and with such dramatically mixed results. While same-sex marriage and gender transition are celebrated in some parts of the world, laws are being strengthened to criminalize homosexuality and gender nonconformity in others. As new globalized queer identities are adopted by people across the world―thanks to the digital revolution―fresh culture wars have emerged. A new Pink Line, Gevisser argues, has been drawn across the globe, and he takes readers to its frontiers.

 

A River of Stars: A Novel, by Vanessa Hua (LOVED)

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the married owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. To ensure that his child—his first son—has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited, pregnant teenager who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. A River of Stars is a vivid examination of home and belonging and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

 

Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, by Camille T. Dungy

As a working mother and poet-lecturer, Camille Dungy’s livelihood depended on travel. She crisscrossed America and beyond with her daughter in tow, history shadowing their steps, always intensely aware of how they were perceived, not just as mother and child but as black women. From the San Francisco of settlers’ dreams to the slave-trading ports of Ghana, from snow-white Maine to a festive yet threatening bonfire in the Virginia pinewoods, Dungy finds fear and trauma but also mercy, kindness, and community.

 

Started (but didn’t finish)

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership
Why Women Earn Less: How to Make What You’re Really Worth
Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals

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