Light to Heavy Reading The books that got us through 2019

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The folks at Voices of Monterey Bay love books. We read them. We write them. We try to write them. And we love to share what we’ve read. As 2019 comes to a close, we asked some of our friends to share with readers the books they read this year that rocked their world. And we asked them to tell us why. The following are what we read to get us through the year.

The Best We Could Do (Abrams Books, 2017)

William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” What does this notion feel like — in our families, in our bodies, in our psyches, in our hopes for the future? Echoes of these questions permeate Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do,” an illustrated memoir about the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese people as explored through the lens of family history.

In the opening scene depicting the birth of Bui’s son, Bui writes, “Family is now something I have created — and not just something I was born into. The responsibility is immense.” Part of a family forced to flee Vietnam as refugees, Bui must disrupt an inheritance of trauma. Bui’s family story is rendered graphically — hunger amidst food shortages, the killing of women, men and children, fleeing, and finally, the experience of being refugees in the United States. The arrival in the U.S. does not bring a conventional happy ending; instead, Bui’s family faces a host of difficulties in their new home.

Yet the spirit captured in the book’s title “The Best We Could Do” is perhaps its own kind of happy ending. In Bui’s family, no one is healed but everyone is healing to the best of their ability. Bui’s art and words are an incantation that offer the possibility of healing for her son and future generations.

On a recent visit to CSU Monterey Bay, Bui noted that the world has more displaced people than ever before. “The Best We Could Do” invites us to think of the real-life dimensions of the issues Bui explores not only for Vietnamese and Vietnamese American peoples, but for the legions of others who will suffer the horrors of war and the trauma of displacement in our generation and beyond.

— Maria Villaseñor

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Vintage Books, 2018)

There are many excellent nonfiction books that deal with true crime, but one of the best I’ve ever read is “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which weaves in American history and Native culture in addition to true crime. For me, it was also eye-opening in the degree of the ongoing white abuse and disregard of Native Americans, even after Natives were parceled out to the reservations.

Journalist David Grann looked long and hard at a series of murders and suspicious deaths that occurred in the 1920s among members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. The discovery of oil on their lands made many of them rich but it also made them targets of violence, often by white people the Osage knew and trusted.

As the death toll rose, the case was taken up by the newly created FBI and its young director, J. Edgar Hoover, who was looking to make a name for himself and his fledgling agency. Agent Tom White spearheaded the investigation, discovering a gruesome conspiracy to steal tribal members’ wealth.

The book is a triumph of research, reporting and further investigation into the events that took place, with Grann unearthing new information about the case and those involved in it. It’s a sad chapter in the saga of racial injustice in the United States, but essential for all of us to know, and to keep fresh in our minds.

— Kathryn McKenzie

The Stonewall Reader (Penguin Classics, 2019)

This summer marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, widely credited as the start of the United States LGBTQ rights movement. LGBTQ groups across the country commemorated the occasion in their own ways and local groups were no exception; Monterey Peninsula Pride hosted “Riot! A Dance Party,” Pajaro Valley Pride’s theme was “Remembering 50 Years of Stonewall Trailblazers,” and Salinas Valley Pride Celebrations asked guests at the 10th Annual Salinas Pride to observe a moment of silence in honor of the trailblazers whose courage made the gathering possible.

Yet, despite Stonewell’s cultural ubiquity within the LGBTQ community, a lot about what happened on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn remains in question. Eyewitness accounts contradict who was present. Multiple theories explain why the riots started. Broader questions linger: should Stonewall be remembered as a series of riots or uprisings and has it been so central to LGBTQ history when other uprisings and organizations predate it?

The Stonewall Reader, a collection edited by the New York Public Library, aims to provide clarity. Avoiding prescriptive interpretations, the collection presents testimonies from the NYPL archives, newspaper articles, and excepts from prominent LGBTQ writers grouped in three sections — before, during and after Stonewall — allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about Stonewall’s significance.

The book’s central strength is its inclusion of diverse writers to reflect LGBTQ members’ varied lived experiences. The result is an often jarring reading experience. Audre Lorde’s prescient recognition of intersectionality in the LGBTQ community clashes sharply with Franklin Kameny’s deeply capitalistic defense of homosexuality. Elsewhere Miss Major Griffin-Gracy’s sobering reminder that Stonewall did little to alleviate the mistreatment of the trans community contrasts with Lucian Truscott IV’s triumphant remembrance of Stonewall as an immediate turning point for gay pride.

Every group has its share of myths and origin stories. Whether those myths are factually true is perhaps secondary to what they tell us about how group sees itself and the values they espouse. The Stonewall Reader invites readers to revisit the LGBTQ community’s central origin myth.

— Eric Mora

The Power of the Dog trilogy (Penguin Random House)

I read eight books this year by Don Winslow, an American mystery writer whose work has all the requisite elements: high action, smart characters, insider knowledge of cops and crooks. All of that plus American settings over the past four decades that allow snappy plots and journalistic detail to rise from page-turners into the realm of fine literature of social realism.

There are three that I particularly recommend. They total more than 1,500 pages. But you won’t tire of the characters who are interwoven throughout. They range from New York mobsters and Mexican drug-cartel assassins to Guatemalan orphans in refugee caravans and Mexican journalists caught in murderous crossfire.

“The Power of the Dog,” (1991), “The Cartel,” (2015), and “The Border,” (2019), make up Winslow’s “Cartel” series. The three tell the sad, horrifying and futile story of the America’s longest unending war — the floundering war on drugs against the Mexican suppliers who make billions and corrupt governments to satisfy our nation’s bottomless craving to get high.

The war, seen through the jaundiced eye of a Mexican-American DEA agent, spans more than 40 years from the Nixon to the Trump administrations. The drug-war fronts range from Sinaloan poppy and pot fields in the 1970s and Columbian coca fields in the 1980s, to today’s factories making fentanyl with Chinese chemicals shipped through Mexico’s Pacific ports.

The main bad guys are a dizzying series of sophisticated drug gangs, forming and reforming in the wake of paramilitary crackdowns. They amass money, arms and soldiers to vie for Mexico’s “plazas,” long-established smuggling routes on the U.S. border from Matamoros to Tijuana. Their allies include corrupt cops and government officials on both sides of the border, and Wall Street bankers laundering the billions spent by U.S. drug users.

Especially in “The Cartel,” Winslow shows how the bloody drug trade has wreaked havoc on Mexican society and culture. With unforgettable characters, he shows how a ragtag arts and literary community at a Juarez newspaper falls prey to cartel terror.

The dedication page of  “The Cartel” is haunting and infuriating by itself. The book is for the dozens and dozens of Mexican journalists who died at the hands of drug warlords. The list of their names fills the page.

— Larry Parsons

A Man Called Ove (Atria Publishing Group [English], 2012)

When Voices of Monterey Bay asked me to do an end-of-year write up on my favorite book, I experienced a Malcolm Gladwell “blink” moment. I didn’t have to think about it. “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman immediately surfaced to my psyche. As of this writing it is my favorite book because it is the most recent book which garnered such an emotional impact with me. The last time I read a book that shared the same emotional magnitude was John Irving’s “A Prayer For Owen Meany.”

The book’s protagonist, Ove Lindhal does not suffer fools lightly. He is 59 years old and is firmly set in his ways. Ove has lived in the same house for more than 30 years and held the same railroad job for 43. He is a strong believer of the “If you want something done right, do it yourself” school of thought. Ove is also very particular in his type of auto. He drives a Saab with pride and God help anyone else who drives anything else which, to Ove, is everything less.

Ove is also a widower and the story takes place six months after he lost his wife to cancer. The present story is interrupted to back in specific sections to his younger days when he was in love and a much different person. The book is two stories; it’s a story of Ove coping with modern times encroaching on his old ways, and it’s a love story, his love story. The reader gets to see how his wife affected his life. The reader is excited to see how the younger Ove lived and loved knowing his present cantankerous disposition. Even after her death, Ove is still devoted to his wife, and these flashbacks soften some of Ove’s rough edges.

I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s the first time in my life where I have entertained the thought of re-reading a book. I never, ever, re-read something I have already read.

— Clark Coleman

We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

“We the Animals,” Justin Torres’ debut novel, is hauntingly beautiful. The story follows three mixed-race boys: Manny, Joel, and an unnamed narrator. It’s a bildungsroman, told from the perspective of a young 7-year-old child whose parents, Puerto Rican and white American, are caught up in excess dysfunction, abuse and violence.

The children spend their hours mostly alone, fighting and tearing into the world, like “animals,” while the parents are physically and emotionally absent. There are many grotesque scenes, symbolizing what can go wrong when young children are exposed to parental neglect, toxic masculinity and lack of positive role models.

While the book is short (128 pages), every page is filled with symbolism and words that are rich in double meaning. “We the Animals” is a book that audiences must slow down to read if they are to fully appreciate and understand its deep significance. Despite the violence, danger and tension that lurk in every chapter, the language and writing are achingly beautiful and moving. As a reader, you feel for these neglected, hurt boys. If they fight like rabid “dogs” and tear at each other “kennel style,” it’s a symptom of their pain, confusion and suffering as a result of the domestic violence, poverty and neglect they experience.

“We the Animals” reads like both a dream and a nightmare, a prayer and a curse. One of the freshest Latinx voices in American literature today, Justin Torres hypnotizes, keeping readers spellbound, with a magic that is his unique craft. I am not surprised the novel has received rave reviews, is a national bestseller, has been translated into 15fifteen languages, and was recently made into a motion picture (2018).

 — Victoria Bañales

Sweeping Up Glass, (Delta, 2008)

In the midst of reading two books on Harvey Weinstein, I needed to wash my hands, in a literary sense, so I re-read an old favorite. “Sweeping Up Glass” by Carolyn Wall.

I’m a sucker for good writing and rural locations, Southern preferably. One of the best examples is Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone,” which became the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Wall’s novel, her first, is nearly as nicely written and addresses larger themes.

Star of the piece set in 1930s Kentucky is Olivia Harker Cross, who needs to solve the mysteries of who is killing the wolves on her hill and who wants to do what there.

Olivia must also grind a living out of the little store she runs with the help of grandson Will’m and avoid being hurt by the looks she receives from those who know more about her prodigal daughter than she does.

“Stepping aside to let my daughter in is maybe the most confused thing I have ever done. Part of me wants to throw my arms around her, forgive her for everything and ask for the same. I could peel potatoes, kill us a hen — I’ve been planning to anyway — and make a fest with fried bread and cream gravy. But I heard what she said, and my heart bangs in my chest like a wild bird in a cage. ‘You can’t have him.’”

It’s a serious work with an occasional wink.

“The Reverend Culpepper, a small man with frizzled white hair and a big voice, raised his hand and bowed his head, and I held my breath while he asked God to deliver this bounty to our bellies as he had delivered Jonah to the belly of the whale. He asked that we find faith with every mouthful of collards and fatback. A-men.”

— Royal Calkins

Midnight Chicken: & Other Recipes Worth Living For (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019)

I love cookbooks. I love cookbooks just about as much as I love cats, which is a lot. It’s the section of any bookstore I head to first, practically sprinting past the best sellers and historical fiction as if someone yelled, “Free cinnamon rolls in the cookbook section!”

And, really, what’s not to like? The splendid illustrations and sumptuous pictures, the weight of the pages as your turn them, the writer’s perspective on kitchen tools and ingredients and, of course, the anticipation of preparing the recipes. Cookbooks are like potato chips, you can never have just one.

To that end, one of the most intriguing cookbooks I purchased this year is “Midnight Chicken: & Other Recipes Worth Living For,” by Ella Risbridger. This beautifully illustrated, Bridget Jones Diary-ish memoir chronicles Risbridger’s struggle with depression and how she quite literally finds the will to live through creating her own version of easy-to-prepare comfort food with her partner, John, the Tall Man.

Woven in between deliciously simple recipes like “Proper Oatcakes” just like her grandmother used to make, “Stuck in a Bookshop Salmon & Sticky Rice,” “Midnight Chicken,” and “Walnut, Clementine & Cardamom Cake for Christmas,” are stories about grieving, loss and Risbridger’s struggles with depression. What’s particularly refreshing and inspirational is her raw account illustrating how food nourishes the soul in good times and in bad. I found myself bringing the book with me to the grocery store so I wouldn’t have to write down the ingredients for three or four recipes at a time.

On the downside, this may not the book for you if you’re staying away from dairy or gluten — my two favorite food groups — or can’t Google how to convert metric to USCU (Risbridger’s British); however, “Midnight Chicken” is a clever and compassionate book about life, love, and healing, buy this book for them.

— Christine Winge

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons, (Villard, 2007)

Reading anything about self-destructive old rock stars is like watching a train plunging off the trestle. You really don’t want to see it, you slap your hands over your eyes, but you can’t help but peek between your fingers. So it is with “Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons,” by David N. Meyer.

This is an old book, published in 2007, and one of about a half-dozen efforts to write the all-everything biography of the 1960s rock icon with a musical reputation that never really matched up with his output. I’ve been immersing myself in old rock stuff lately, and Parsons seemed to be a nagging thread through it all. Something about the innovation of melding country music with hippie shit. I picked the Meyer bio based on its reputation as an exhaustive journey into Parsons’ sad life.

And exhausting it is.

Parsons was a poor little rich kid who nonetheless survived a truly tragic childhood. His potential was destroyed by self-sabatoge, killer heroin and a folly compunction to keep up with Keith Richards. About midway through “Twenty Thousand Roads,” the engaged reader feels a desperate urge to reach into the page, grab Parsons by the embroidered lapel of his Nudie suit, and shake some sense into the guy. He was the bull in the china closet for every supergroup he ever belonged to, the bad boyfriend and the kid you really want to root for, despite it all. Meyer quotes someone close to Parsons: “He had coke up his nose and booze down his throat and his head up his ass.”

And then, of course, the weirdo stuff that happens to Parson’s post-mortem corpus is appropriately bizarre.

In the end, Parsons came to represent the self-destructive indulgences of the peace-love-dope era of hippiedom. I mean, the guy was at Altamont, fleeing the carnage of that nightmare in a helicopter with the Stones and their entourage. But while everyone else was in panic mode, Parsons was hitting on Michelle Phillips. Ugh.

Meyer did the research, talked to all the right people, and dumped it all into this uncomfortable account of wretched excess. Someone had to do it, I suppose.

— Joe Livernois

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (AK Press, 2019)

Marie Kondo revolutionized housekeeping  with the simple reminder to only keep items that “spark joy,” and to adopt systems that make it easier to regularly use, see, and enjoy those things. The idea spread like wildfire: who doesn’t want more joy?

adrienne marie brown’s Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good recognizes pleasure as a measure of freedom and extends Kondo’s framework to every aspect of life: what would it look and feel like if the world sparked joyfor all of us? The questions driving Pleasure Activism are as simple as they are pragmatic: “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?” Part manifesto, part self-help text, part journal, Pleasure Activism is precisely the kindhearted note-to-self the world needs to stay inspired to get our collective house in order.

Building off her previous text, Emergent Strategy and rooted in Black Feminist theory and the science fiction of Octavia Butler, brown presents a collection of interviews, blog posts, poems, artwork, essays, and guest pieces exploring how to prioritize pleasure as we struggle against climate change, inequality, and systemic oppression.

And don’t let the silhouettes of copulating animal pairs dotting the cover fool you: this delightfully nonlinear and non-authoritative text is only kind of mostly about sex. In addition to sections on the politics of sex and pleasure (covering everything from how to flirt in the #MeToo era to sustaining liberated relationships and raising sex-positive children), you’ll also find reflections on mindful drug use, the joys of fashion, pleasure while aging/dying, indigenous leadership, and my personal favorite: “The Pleasure of Living at the Same Time as Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.” I genuinely can’t recommend this book enough. You might not read every section, or read it in order, but there’s something here for everyone, even if it’s not all your cup of tea in the end. As brown writes: “Yes is the way. […] Your no makes the way for your yes.”

Mara Reynolds

Victoria Bañales is an instructor at Cabrillo College.

Maria Villaseñor is an instructor at CSU Monterey Bay

Kathryn McKenzie is an editor for Voices of Monterey Bay

Christine Winge is director of Access Monterey Peninsula

Clark Coleman is a writer from the Monterey Peninsula

Larry Parsons is a retired reporter from Salinas

Royal Calkins is a contributor to Voices of Monterey Bay

Eric Mora is a graduate student at Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey

Joe Livernois is an editor for Voices of Monterey Bay

Mara Reynolds is a contributor to Voices of Monterey Bay

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