I don’t know about you, but I’ve been angry lately. My anger grew slowly over time, but it recently billowed up so big that I found I couldn’t handle even teeny tiny things going wrong in my life without having a gritted teeth, pillow-punching meltdown. It’s not a good way to live. Every time I’d read the news, every time I’d think about the ways in which life has gotten harder for vulnerable people in the past year, my rage would grow. It’s kind of crazy to me how something on a big scale, like the goings-on of the federal government, can result in me not being able to handle things in my life on a small scale, like extending other people basic courtesy. I want to be an informed citizen and voter, but I also need to be able to make small talk with my coworkers and smile at waitstaff at restaurants and not be a G-D Eeyore all the time at home with my husband. (He’s been very patient.) So I did what I always do. I bought some books.
The news cycle can be emotionally exhausting, but books allow you to sit with one topic for longer than five minutes. They provide thorough analysis instead of drive-by outrage, and--get this--sometimes they even pose solutions to society’s troubles. I’m not going to opt out of the news completely, but I do appreciate how books have allowed me to more deeply engage with issues while giving me hope for the future and basically not turning me into a puddle of gloom.
So here are some recommendations for books that made me a better person. As always, your mileage may vary, but it’s a good place to start.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Powerful men who have used their positions to hurt women are being called out left and right these days, which is exciting and empowering but also distressing because we’re finally seeing how pervasive that kind of behavior is. This book ponders what would happen if women were able to physically overpower men. Teenage girls throughout the world suddenly have the ability to send electric shocks from their fingertips, and as the mysterious power spreads to adult women as well, the balance of the world begins to shift. Told through the eyes of a handful of compelling characters, The Power will make you question everything you think you know about gender politics.
Dog Whistle Politics by Ian F. Haney-Lopez
At first I wasn’t sure how relevant this book would feel to me considering it was published before the 2016 election, but it turns out dog whistle politics aren’t new at all, they’ve just become more overt in the Trump era. Haney-Lopez’s analysis of how politicians on both sides of the aisle have exploited the fear, anger, and suspicion of white people to garner votes and control the electorate provides useful context for people who are dismayed by the blatant bigotry they see in our country today. While I thought Haney-Lopez fell short when it came to his promised solutions, understanding the historical context goes a long way towards building a vision for the future, so that in itself makes the book a worthwhile read.
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell
I love rambly memoir-style books written by comedians, and W. Kamau Bell’s riff on the genre does not disappoint. Bell covers everything from being raised by an activist mom who spoke to him like an equal, to his long, slow journey to becoming a successful comedian doing shows that are true to himself and his values, to his marriage to a white woman and parenting his biracial daughters. In performing the audio version, Bell comes across as affable and genuine, and he is willing to own his mistakes even as he learns to hold others to a high ethical standard.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Issa Rae has had an interesting life, and she still has a lot ahead of her. By my math, she had just turned 30 when this book was published, but she’s well traveled and has some impressive creative achievements under her belt. She tells stories of going to private schools, busting out her fluent French at a dance club in Senegal, and meeting with studio execs to pitch shows with a casual air. Would her memoirs have carried more oomph if she’d waited a little longer to write them? Probably. But she has some funny stories to tell and a unique voice, and I always love stories of people who know what they want to do with their lives and are willing to take risks to make it happen.
Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown
I have been aware of Brené Brown’s work for a while now but had put off reading her because sometimes self-help seems a little too...something for me. I’m very committed to the idea that I am perfect in every way and therefore need no help of any kind. I’m also cynical and get squicky when venturing too far into feelings territory. Of course, since Brown has made a career of studying vulnerability and shame, reading her book challenged me a lot and made me consider some uncomfortable ideas. The themes of Braving the Wilderness are seemingly contradictory: finding belonging and gaining the courage to stand alone. But Brown explains how the two are inextricably tied together. While I’m still wrestling with some of her claims, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully agree with her on everything, I did take away one tidbit that for me was worth the cost of the book all on its own. She talks about how when we’re afraid, we want to cover the entire world with leather so that when we run up against things, they won’t hurt us. But of course that’s bound to fail because we can’t control everything about the world. Instead, we should put our shoes on. It’s a simple metaphor to express a simple idea, that we can only control ourselves and not the people or systems around us, but I realized I had been wasting a godawful lot of energy trying to bend and contort and force my world to be more accommodating of me, when what I should have been doing was armoring myself up a little bit.