I’ll spare you the apologetic preamble about resurrecting the blog after two years, as well as the promises to do better about providing content more frequently going forward. We all know how this goes.
We’re here today because I’ve been making a long ass annotated list of all the books I read in 2019 and I needed to organize it, reflect on it a little bit, and then after I did all that work, I wanted to put it somewhere that wasn’t my documents file.
So, here is Part One of two: the 29 books I read in 2019 for work. Why two parts? Because ain’t nobody got time, all in one go, to read an annotated list of 60 plus books some random person read last year. But anyway …
I read 63 books in 2019.
29 for work
34 for not-work
Of the not-work books:
28 audiobooks. 6 in print.
This list doesn’t include any of the theory or criticism I also read, because largely boring.
My absolute favorites that I read for the first time this year are in order of appearance below:
Laymon’s Long Division (2013)
Coval, A People’s History of Chicago (2017)
Sidibe, This is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare (2017)
Sylvester, Everyone Knows You go Home (2018)
Gambito, Loves You: Poems (2019)
Serpell, The Old Drift (2019)
Luiselli, The Lost Child Archive (2019)
Hartman, Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (2019)
You can also follow @sherireadsbooks on Instagram, where I’ll eventually post a less essay-like rundown of all 63 and what I will read going forward.
Highlights from 2019 reading includes:
- listening to all of Toni Morrison’s novels, as read by her, and throwing in a little Faulkner and Mary Shelley too, because I’ve been thinking about intertextuality and gothic horror.
- Morrison reads all her novels in a tone just above a whisper. It is intimate, as though you’re being taken into a conspiratorial confidence and hearing her read her words have been among the highlights of my year.
- bad things happen to children in every single Toni Morrison novel.
- thinking through African American satire in a way that lead me to Fran Ross and (surprisingly) Mark Twain. Who knew Huck Finn popped up I’m so many places?
- I’m in a phase of reading that is preoccupied with death. According to one of my grad students, I’ve been there for a couple years now, based on the books I’ve been assigning for classes. Students in the freshman lecture also asked why I picked such morbid bummers.
- Reflecting on all the things I’ve read over the last year has helped to shape the directions my work will take in the next year.
Books I Read for Work
I taught four courses this year: a grad seminar called “New Black Iconoclasm”; an upper division undergrad class called “Glow Up Literature”; an honors tutorial organized around the authors who would attend a local book festival; and a freshman lecture called “Coming to America”.
New Black Iconoclasm
I’ve taught New Black Iconoclasm now three times, to help me think through what I hope will be my second, maybe third academic book. Both book and course are inspired by Marlon James first novel, John Crow’s Devil, and examine authors and texts that are puzzling in their sometimes-irreverent rejection of the beliefs, institutions, and practices normalized in black discourses. This time around, I think I had a much better sense of what I was doing. I divided the course into four areas: post-blackness, humor and satire, experimental fiction, and queer post-backness. None of these categories are mutually exclusive but serve as a way to bracket different theoretical and critical approaches that I think are relevant to how this new book — if I ever get it written — will think about iconoclasm in contemporary black fiction
1. Jones, The Known World (2003) – The saga of a black slave owners. I fux with long books, but whew, this one is long, and have one bag a people in it, and it’s cool in how it thinks about the imbrication of race, capitalism, and slavery, but did I say this was a long-ass book?
2. James, The Book of Night Women (2008) – A neoslave narrative that’s a mash up of Mary Prince, Jane Eyre, and Wide Sargasso Sea, and where James writes all the violence, sex, and sexual violence in ways that would make its predecessors gasp and clutch their pearls. I’ve read this novel so many times and I am still shocked and even scandalized by everything Isobel.
Humor and Satire
3. Laymon, Long Division (2013) – A hilarious satire that will make you feel ashamed for laughing, about a time traveling preteen boy name Citoyen, (City for short) and is one of my favorite books of all time right now. Come for City’s wit. Stay for the allusions to Huck Finn.
4. Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) – An absurdist narrative that presents an alarming anti-racism strategy. Someday I’ll be able to write intelligently about how in Long Division, the scene where City watches his grandma take a bath after she and his uncle beat up a guy she has locked in the shed out back, is an affective allusion to the scene where Psycho Loco showers at Gunnar’s house after killing a bunch a people in The White Boy Shuffle, which furthermore, is somehow connected to the affective registers of sentimentality that Mark Twain was also working with in the scenes where Tom and Huck play at helping Jim escape from the shed, while ultimately terrorizing him. Today, clearly, is not that day though.
5. Everett, Erasure (2001) – This book was the first Christmas presents Andy ever gave me. It was ten years ago and it was a way to show me how the mind-boggling things going down in James’ novels were also going down in other ones as well. In Erasure, a disaffected black male professor holds the esoteric and lathers on the popular to write a book that makes beaucoup money. This absurdist narrative includes satirical versions of Sapphire and Oprah and a novel within a novel titled My Pafology and Fuck.
6. Johnson, Pym (2011) – A satirical fantasy inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. In Pym, another disaffected black male professor (there’s a pattern, more soon) experiences a collection of apocalypses, each one more absurd than the one before. After this third rereading, I’ve decided it’s an allegory for diversity work in universities. All of it. Even the parts that come after Chris gets fired from his job as a professor.
7. Beatty’s, The Sellout (2015) – This first ever American winner of the Man Booker Prize is framed as the backstory that leads up to the contemporary Supreme Court case “Me v. the United States of America,” on the charge of slave ownership, me is a black man named Bon Bon and his slave is a guy who played Buckwheat’s younger brother on Little Rascals. Even after three readings, I still can’t quite wrap my mind around what all it is in aid of yet, but it’s mind bending and wickedly hilarious nonetheless.
8. Senna, New People (2017) – Because women write satire too and this one, in the spirit of Fran Ross’s Oreo and haunted by Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, skewers ideas about racial authenticity, by filtering them through themes of wealth, love, and belief.
9. Oyeyemi, The Icarus Girl (2005) – Oyeyemi was working on A-Levels when she wrote this novel that asks is eight year old Jessamy Harrison haunted by her dead twin? Does she have a personality disorder? Both? Other? Oyeyemi certainly does not tell.
10. Oyeyemi, What is Not Yours Is Not Yours (2015) – I have yet to read any of Oyeyemi’s writing without feeling paradoxically enthralled yet utterly perplexed, and this short story collection is no different.
11. Emezi, Freshwater (2018) – A startling and contentious book about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, told from the perspective of the spirit beings occupying the protagonist’s body. Though, now that I write that I want to think some more about what it might mean to call their brother/sister spirits protagonists too.
12. Thompson-Spires, The Heads of Colored People (2018) — A haunting collection about race, gender, love, and culture, with stories that I still can’t shake. Like a wickedly funny one told entirely through letters between two black mothers fighting, with zero chill, about their daughters, that includes a satirical take on the class quirks of the Jack and Jill social club.
13. Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (2017) — A collection of short stories, some of them horrors, wherein the ones that have stayed with me are the ones about the husband stitch, Benson and Stabler from SVU, and a boutique where the ghosts of women are sewn into the seams of dresses.
14. Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2019)— A story about the Ashanti-Fante wars that center on a girl sold into slavery and her defiant mistress, who is a daughter of a chief. I’m inclined to agree with one of my grad students who described it as a western. Shoutout to Elrom Nutakor for that gem.
Glow Up Lit
This was/is a weird reading phase that was stalled a little bit by Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I’m going to think about this while I teach Becoming this semester alongside Mary Prince, Saidiyah Hartman, Angela Davis and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. This is the anti-Glow Up Lit course, I think, largely because I want to be careful in parsing how things that entertain me, that also give financial independence to women who otherwise wouldn’t have it — independence that extends to their families, also contribute to a dangerous “you can do it too if you work hard enough ethos.” The fact is, this isn’t true, and success stories from the exceptional few who get through, work as a safety valve that also to keep the rest of us on the hamster wheel.
In any event, before reading Obama’s memoir, which I love ambivalently, I was super into how black women make it big through successful social media and cable tv self-marketing. I still am to some degree, but more critically these days than celebratory. From Tiffany “New York” Pollard’s beginnings on VH1 to Issa Rae parlaying YouTube success into 4 seasons of an HBO series, I’ve been mulling — largely from my couch — the convergence of social media and reality tv success and how it creates spaces for the entrepreneurial success of black women for years . Of course, as with everything else, access to the channels of success isn’t entirely democratic. Nonetheless, there is an astonishing proliferation of book deals for these women to write about how they found success in markets that have long discriminated against them. They’re triumphant and inspiring, yet ultimately a dangerous placebo.
Anyway, enough of the song and dance about how this is all just complicity with a discriminatory system; you’re probably still with me on here for the reads and not the soapbox.
My absolute favorite book from this self-described genre where women write about how they achieve success either professionally or self-developmentally isn’t one I read this year. If I’m honest, I think I even like it better than Becoming. It’s Retta’s So Close to Being the Sh*t, Y’all Don’t Even Know, because it is not self helpy, is completely funny, and so full of joy, it is exactly the pick me up you didn’t know you needed.
But anyway, here are the ones I taught in 2019, not to gain the keys to building a successful media empire like Shondaland, but rather to consider black femaleness as a brand; to learn about how black women are writing about race, gender, and politics in the popular rather than literary sphere; and to think about what is conventional or not about this writing.
15. Sidibe, This is Just My Face, Try Not To Stare (2017) — Sidibe is funny and honest about her journey to success and the challenges that persist even after making it big because of her race and her dress size. This one is among my favorites.
16. Ramsey, Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist (2018) — I like Ramsey’s narrative about moving from clueless viral stardom to informed activism on social media. Especially useful is the glossary of terms associated with social justice discourses at the back of the book.
17. Rae, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (2015)— She’s a pioneer of YouTube to mainstream crossover stardom, but I’m still too mad at Issa Rae for the glam bomb of Insecure’s 3rd season that felt less like the shows early grittiness and more like HBO’s sexpot glossiness. This book is ok. Her tv is better. I am also going to watch Season 4 of Insecure, because FOMO is real and how can I possibly be out here in these streets blabbing like I know shit, without doing this kind of home work?
18. Rhimes, The Year of Yes (2015) — I didn’t expect to identify with Shonda as much as I did, but I low key love this book and how it thinks about the intersections of success, beauty, race, gender, marriage, and motherhood. But much like Obama, Rhimes’ antiracism is too invested in the system to be revolutionary.
19. Robinson, You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain (2016) — I want to like Phoebe and her work, but I may just not be the audience for her stuff, and maybe my thoughts on this book say more about me than it does about the book. Her narrative voice and the oral quality of this book, while true to its writer’s persona, is among its most annoying aspects. From the belabored obsession with Bono and U2 to her insistence on neologisms every third word, pop culture digressions every fifth, and I. Just. Can’t. I dig excess in writing, done properly. Haterade aside, the essay where she talks about what it means to be the only person of color in an art school (Pratt Institute) senior workshop is gold, I think largely because the persona is dialed back a lot.
20. Bauer, American Prison: A Reporter’s Underground Journey Into the Business of Punishment (2018) — Part history of America’s prison for profit system that begins with its slavery roots and part undercover expose, reporter Shane Bauer writes about his experience going undercover as a guard in a private prison. Come for the eye opening history, stay for the ways Bauer struggles against devolving into violence and cruelty.
21. Coval, A People’s History of Chicago (2017) — Have I ever told you that I don’t really like poetry? It’s not poetry’s fault. It’s me. I’m a bit too thick for it. I don’t understand it. Plus, I’m *still* traumatized from an instructor’s public derision at a not so spot on reading of Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in undergrad. So traumatized that while I remember all my UWI tutors, for the life of me cannot remember who this person was beyond his public ridiculing of me for incorrect homework. I haven’t always been this erudite, you know. It’s been a journey. But this collection! As the title suggests it’s a history of Chicago in poems and it is one of my favorite collections. I only have like five of those when it comes to poetry. The other collections that I like are by Tanya Shirley, Kei Miller, Lorna Goodison, and Sara Gambito. Notice how I didn’t actually talk about Coval’s poems there? I cant with poems.
22. Imarisha, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015) — If you like sci-fi, this is an eclectic collection of stories that work in multiple ways at thinking through just and equitable survival and futurity. If you don’t like sci-fi read it anyway, because this is a cool book. Among my favorites are the ones with the scary wave that kills people, the one with Sun Ra, and all the ones with badass women warriors.
23. Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) — Sure, a book about a dead boy isn’t the best choice of first book to start reading after giving birth, but despite the misguided choice, I like this polyvocal story that takes place over the course of one night, in a graveyard, among ghosts. I’ve taught it a couple times and think the audiobook version is among the best of this genre. With a cast of so many characters voiced by the likes of Nick Offerman — who kills at reading Mark Twain’s books btw —, Carrie Brownstein, Keegan-Michael Key, Lena Dunham and Don Cheedle, the audiobook for Lincoln in the Bardo is a theatrical feat of sorts.
I also moderated a session at the Unbound Book Festival and had the absolute pleasure of talking with the authors of these three books on stage in front of a whole-ass audience:
24. Sylvester, Everyone Knows You go Home (2018) — This one is another of my absolute favorites from this year. It begins on the Day of the Dead, also the main characters’ wedding day, when the bride’s dead father appears in the newlyweds’ car between the ceremony and reception. Unlike other narratives about border crossing journeys, this one lingers longer and beautifully on the quotidian and the mundane in the lives of its characters — a mother playing with her children for example — than it does on the horrors endured during border crossings and immigration precarity. It made me rethink what I wanted to see in this kind of narrative and why. It helped me be even more deliberate about the books on these subjects that I assign to students.
25. Gambito, Loves You: Poems (2019) — Another all time favorite collection of poems. It’s made up of poems as recipes and recipes as poems and my favorites include one about not eating Filipino cookies and an incredibly detailed recipe for French macarons at the end. I continue to think about how Gambito juxtaposes traditional Filipino recipes alongside critiques of imperialism, in order to suggest a new ethics of informed consumption that neither marginalizes nor fetishizes. I’m also totally going to make macarons from that recipe.
26. Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016) — Among the things that struck me about Orduña’s account of his own journey to naturalized American citizenship was the chapter on the uses of biometric data and its wandering quality that reminded me of Teju Cole’s Open City. When I asked about this — brownie points to me — Orduña said he was thinking about Cole and Sebald (who inspired Cole) and I was the first person to notice how he models his own movement in the book through the figure of the flaneur.
Freshman Lecture: Coming to America
Because immigration narratives are now so familiar that they are conventional — immigrant arrives, struggles, and then assimilates into happiness — in this course, I wanted to work with texts that thought counterintuitively about immigration, and this conventionality. It was tough going. You should have seen my students’ gymnastic efforts to make a happy ending out of Brother, I’m Dying.
27. Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (2007) — This one is one of the few books that I teach over and over again and it’s about how Danticat’s elderly uncle ended up dead in ICE custody after fleeing Haiti, and requesting asylum. It is a devastating narrative that makes me weep every single time I read it, but it’s a really good way to teach students about the longstanding relationship between Haiti and the US.
28. Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) — A super short book introduced to me by one of my colleagues, in which the myth of Mictlan stows away in a narrative of a young woman crossing the border from Mexico into the US. But also, Mictlan, Mexico and the US are never mentioned in this novel.
29. Hamid, Exit West (2017), — A pair of almost lovers escape their war-torn country through magical doors. The author thinks he’s written a hopeful vision of our time’s refugee crisis. He’s wrong. As someone who grew up in the poorest parish of a postcolonial Caribbean country, I like indoor plumbing and electricity far too much to be about Hamid’s vision of a hopeful life.
Next up, click here for the books I read for fun.