2019 in Books

The last time I wrote up a post about what I read over the past year, it was for 2017! I really should have done this sooner – so the list that follows likely contains books I read in both 2018 and 2019, but mostly for the last year. It can be a real challenge for me to read during the school year, and I tend to focus mostly on non-fiction, since fiction is my daily teaching job. But it’s fun to review what I made time to read, and a list helps me recall what I learned and what I actually enjoyed!

Atomic Accidents, James Mahaffey and Command and Control, Eric Schlosser – I wrote about these two books before, here and here. They are terrific sources of information about nuclear power, weapons, and organizational culture. Schlosser’s book is a particularly great read, as it alternates the history of nuclear research and weapons in the US with a suspenseful narrative about a missile silo explosion in Arkansas in the 1980s.

There, There, Tommy Orange – This was a huge debut book from the author Tommy Orange, who studied writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), which has a famous creative writing program. His novel intertwines twelve narratives, some first person, some third person, of native Americans who ultimately converge at a powwow taking place at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. It is by turns funny and heartbreaking, and very much indebted to the style of Sherman Alexie, who Orange thanks in his acknowledgement in the book. Alexie taught for years at the IAIA before his (much deserved) fall from notoriety, and his influence in clear in Orange’s text. I am going to teach There, There this semester for the first time, and I am looking forward to discussions about it.

Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stockyard and the World it Made, Dominic A. Pacyga – This may seem like an odd choice for a sensitive vegan to read, and it was certainly disgusting in many parts, but it’s a fascinating look at the way the meatpacking industry developed, grew, and eventually created the modern city of Chicago. Pacyga also argues that the stockyard helped create contemporary business and organizational practices that influenced the US far beyond just animal slaughter.

Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, Joshua Blu Buhs – I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a ludic and yet well researched book about the fascination Bigfoot as a myth and, oddly, as a person, has had in US culture, and why. One of the main arguments the authors makes is that Bigfoot became an icon of woodsy masculinity and powerful (hetero) sexuality in the 1970s in part as a reaction against both the feminist movement and the hippie/anti-war movement. Bigfoot was a natural, powerful, virile creature who existed independently and couldn’t be tamed. This made him an attractive figure, despite the notable handicap of not being real.

Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser – Possibly my favorite book on this list and the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in biography, this carefully researched book tells the combined biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. For a US girl who, like so many others, was raised on the Little House books (and, to a lesser extent, the TV show), Fraser’s book was a revelation. These very real persons had existed as book characters in my mind, and getting to learn about their lives was a treat, even though their stories tended to be a bit sad in many places. Fraser also traces the contested authorship of the Little House books, which is a fascinating tale in and of itself.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Heather Ann Thompson – This Pulitzer Prize winner in history tells the story of the infamous Attica prison revolt, which had not been told in full until this book was published in 2016. I knew almost nothing of this event, and it was a tragic instance of sanctioned state violence against vulnerable inmates at the state prison in upstate New York. With meticulous research and significant relational work, Thompson patiently lays out a story that began in 1971, but did not end until the 200s (and really, is still perhaps not fully ended). I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in issues of abolition, state violence, history, Black Power, or general civil rights topics.

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, Robert Perkinson – I heard recommendations for this book several times before I finally picked it up. It traces the history of US prison and carceral culture through the lens of the Texas, going back to the days of the Texas Republic. Perkinson argues that because Texas has the largest prison “industry” in the nation, it is a useful lens through which to examine the expansion and culture of US prisons. I learned a lot about prison construction and history here, which is significant if only for the perspective of how things came to be. Prisons were not always like they are now, and they came into being for specific reasons and through specific choices. Thus, the abolition of prisons, or at the very least, wide scale reform of prisons, is not impossible or naive or foolish – in many ways, it would merely be an undoing of these previous choices.

Egyptomania, Ronald Fritze – this was a rather long, but neat book that focused solely on the ways the “west” has imagined, enjoyed, thought about, and generally been obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Fritze goes way back, and takes this story all the way to almost the present day. In was in this book that I learned the myth of the pyramids as grain storage facilities, so famously intoned by one Ben Carson, was a myth that dates back to the Middle Ages and is based purely on imagination and an attempt to find links between the Egypt of the Old Testament and the real Egypt itself.

Tangled Memories and Tourists of History, Marita Sturken – these two books offer a terrific analysis of the way the US remembers and memorializes. The first book, Tangled Memories, examines the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the AIDS Memorial Quilt alongside other related topics to illustrate that we impose particular ways of remembering and seeing traumatic events so as to relieve guilt, fear, and other “negative” responses, or, in other cases, to engage with/evoke those response. The second book, Tourists of History, explores the two cases of the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks in New York as the ways those events have been memorialized and remembered. Sturken is a thoughtful scholar and these books are well worth your time.

Remembering Emmett Till, Dave Tell – Tell’s book has a central argument: that the lynching of Emmett Till, the subsequent trail which acquitted his killers, and the efforts to memorialize his death are inextricably a part of the literal landscape of the Mississippi Delta where the murder took place. While not a book about Till himself or even necessarily the murder, Tell weaves an important narrative about how and why the murder has been framed as a tourist opportunity in Mississippi, and how in doing so, Till’s murder became erroneously connected to the Civil Right Movement.

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