It’s been nearly a year since I moved to America. What!? I’ve been alive 25 years and am still amazed at how time works. Anyway, despite the bleak political atmosphere prevalent in – well, the whole world, I’ve found America to be marginally less bleak, slightly more resilient in political mood. My being fed-up of British-style passive-aggressiveness and cynicism might also have something to do with it. In any case, a lot of the books I’ve been reading in the past year reflect this shift, both geographically and emotionally – so here’s a li’l retrospect. P.S. Support the Brooklyn Public Library.
First off, I am still super into Young Adult. I have no time for people who claim to have ‘moved on’, from YA, or undervalue its existence and impact. During my last year of university, my college made a Children’s Literature collection in the library, and I spent the majority of my downtime feasting on some of the best YA I’ve read – books like Lies We Tell Ourselves (Robin Talley) and Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire (Susan Tan) were an absolute revelation. What!? Characters can be gay now!? They can be mixed-race and part-Asian!? What!? I missed the memo! When I was a teenager (although this phrase makes me sound older than I am...or am I actually just old?), To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book I’d read that even talked about race. Because, you know, book characters were always white. The best representation of an East Asian character that I’d seen was an old Japanese WWII survivor named Kensuke, chilling on an island (okay, he’s not just chilling on an island, he doesn’t want to go back to Japan after the atomic bombs, etc etc. But as a li’l Japanese kid I mostly remember him hanging out with monkeys on a beach). So. Hurrah for contemporary YA*.
The Sun is Also a Star (Nicola Yoon), and The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas) are easily two of the best books I’ve read in the past year. The former deals with deportation and immigration; the latter with police brutality and racism. Nicola Yoon’s prose is wonderfully evocative, her characters written with great detail and love. I didn’t enjoy Everything, Everything as much, but her second book is amazing and one I’d recommend to everyone (except for the YA-hating fools who don’t deserve happiness). The Hate U Give is raw and hits you right in the heart; police brutality is hard to read, but of course it’s a must-read topic that everyone should educate themselves about. More about being Black in America later. The other YA novel that blew me away with its dark writing was And I Darken (Kiersten White), a genderswapped take on Vlad the Impaler. It’s serious, good, and seriously good (sorry not sorry).
But the majority of the YA I’ve been reading is queer-centric (and mostly about girls of color, yay). Hannah Moskowitz’s Not Otherwise Specified, about being chasing dreams of New York while being too bi for the lesbian clique at her school. It’s one of the most (and few) relatable things I’ve read in my life, which makes it pretty unique in itself; most of that is probably due to Etta’s relationship with her ex-girlfriend/best friend, Rachel. Give it a read and imagine teenage Miz. The other good thing about the string of YA I’ve been reading is that there are enough Black female leads for there to be a diverse take on race. Etta’s blackness is touched upon but doesn’t affect her affluent life too much, in a major contrast to Starr from The Hate U Give**. Suzette from Little and Lion (Brandy Colbert), on the other hand, is a Black bisexual teen who has also converted to Judaism, along with her mother, as her stepfather’s family is Jewish. The fact that YA is exploring these identities in all these brilliant stories makes me incredibly happy. The other one I would recommend is Sister Mischief by Laura Goode, focusing on the relationship between a Jewish girl in Minnesota and her Indian-American girlfriend, both of whom are part of a feminist hip-hop collective. It’s fun and sweet, a classic coming-of-age high-school romance – except queer and not White.
The other big development in 2017 for me was that I got married. Mazel Tov, me! Or as my friend Phoebe says: Mizel Tov! My husband is not very religious, but we both enjoy studying and discussing religion, and are definitely becoming more interested in our Jewishness. As part of this, I started reading a whole bunch of Jewish kid’s books, mostly found off wonderful lists created by Tablet Mag. The highlight has to be Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, a surreal gem. I also enjoyed Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam (Fawzia Gilani-Williams and Chiara Fedele), which is about the (mainly food-based) friendship between a Jewish girl and a Muslim girl (the food aspect was very pleasing to me). The Language of Angels (Richard Michelson) is another good story about the reinvention of modern Hebrew in Israel. I also got to glimpse the future by reading This is Just a Test (Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang), about David Da-Wei Horowitz preparing for his Bar Mitzvah among his warring Chinese and Jewish grandmothers. Fortunately my family is not that intense...I hope.
And now for the big one: America. 2017-8 has been the year of me re-discovering the importance of history and collective memory (so much that I'm switching fields from History of Political Thought to Public History for grad school, hopefully), especially because of the immense frustration I've felt at the rhetoric surrounding immigration in politics – has no-one thought of their place in history, colonialism and racism? Ever? But I guess not. My first foray into history this year was reading Sarah Pragar's Queer, There and Everywhere, a fun and colorful book on historical figures who thought of themselves as what we would call queer today. It's incredibly heartening to see yourself in history, where you might not have before. And then I moved onto Black History – something I've been keen to read more about since moving here.
In terms of fiction (not history, but it's relevant, I promise), Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's Americanah was a great read, but the struggles and conflicts were more recognizable to me as a Brit than I thought they would be (I guess unsurprising, since one of the two main characters has a stint in the UK). Reading about the South, though, took me to a different history. Freedom Summer 1964 (Susan Goldman Rubin) is a good, condensed read on the voter registration movement and the violence organizers faced; however, also reading Why the Vote Wasn’t Enough for Selma (Kathryn Forner), which traces the economic and political oppression African-Americans faced in Alabama, really makes clear that white supremacy's fight to maintain power is unending and constant. Reading books like this, as well Ta-Nehisi Coates' instant-classic Between the World and Me (beautifully, beautifully written), gave me the chance to revisit my political conscience and resolve to combat anti-Blackness where I can, especially within the East Asian community. Finally, though, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge) was a vindicating, well-argued read that I think should be a must-read for all people who have never experienced oppression. This read was a little closer to home not only because it wrote about Britain, but also because some of the experiences and arguments discussed in the book are ones that I've faced a lot, too.
There were many other good political reads, too: Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit), Women Writing Resistance (Jennifer Browdy, ed.), and Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution (Shiri Eisner) were all wonderful political books touching on activism and organization, and also focused on Latin America and Israel/Palestine – and their links to the US. I also enjoyed other non-fiction writing such as Mission High (Kristina Rizga), about a pubic high school in San Francisco, and Sarah Lohman's Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, which did a mouth-watering and wonderful job of weaving tales of food, people and immigration.
I also continued to read a lot of autobiographies, which was fun, but with the backdrop of the current political climate it's harder for me to consume straightforward 'hey, this is my life' tales. Anna Kendrick seems lovely but I didn't find her autobiography particularly easy to relate too; Mara Wilson's was a more interesting look at fame and awkwardness. Joan Didion and Carrie Fisher remain classics, and Roxane Gay seems to be on her way up there, too. My favourite new find, though, was Sara Saedi (a TV writer who I wasn't aware of – she's the co-creator of iZombie)'s Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card. Her memoir about the long immigration process and charming (slightly bizarre) family was really, really, fun.
Final shout-out to Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half. I've seen it over-used as meme material on the internet, but it's the funniest thing I've read this year. Sometimes I had to put it down to laugh for a full five minutes.
I guess I should wrap this up now. Until next time, bitches.
*But not-hurrah for Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwek), which has Asians (yay), but they’re mostly super rich (boo). My husband pointed out that I should’ve guessed that from the title. Thanks mate.
**Moskowitz isn’t black and I feel like the race element was slightly underdeveloped (also because Rachel is Japanese American, but this is only mentioned once?), but it did exist and in general was handled well.
Other books I read::
My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok
Something From Nothing — Phoebe Gilman
The Tale of Meshka the Kvetch — Caroline Chapman
The Golem’s Latkes — Eric A. Kimmel
Chik Chak Shabbat — Mara Rockliffe
The Magic Driedels: A Hanukkah Story — Eric A. Kimmel
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat — Simms Taback
The Bad Mood and the Stick — Lemony Snicket
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit — Judith Kerr
Gena/Finn — Hannah Moskowitz
Ask The Passengers — A.S. King
Hamilton...and Peggy! — L.M. Elliott
Lucky Broken Girl — Ruth Behar
The Power — Naomi Alderman
Blue Nights – Joan Didion
The Unwomanly Face of War — Svetlana Alexievich
Hyperbole and a Half — Allie Brosh
The Stranger — Albert Camus
Everything I Never Told You — Celeste Ng
The Girl With All the Gifts – M.R. Carey
everyone’s an aliebn when ur a aliebn too — jomny sun
Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari
You're a Horrible Person, But I Like You – David Cross (ed)
Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay
The Princess Diarist – Carrie Fisher