2017 Books in Review

I read 104 books this year. I had planned to read more longer books and therefore I was planning to only read about 72 books, but I realized this was not a good year for that plan. I’m working on my dissertation and I need to read mostly books that are either for my dissertation or for nourishment (otherwise known as fun). Most of my reading was re-reading favorite mysteries by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Rex Stout. Of the new fiction and non-fiction that I read this year, my favorites and those that had the most profound impact on me are listed below with comments. My goals for next year are to read what I need to read to provide me comfort as I write my dissertation. I won’t have any loftier reading goals until after graduation!

Fiction (In no particular order)

  1. Only Time Will Tell (Clifton Chronicles #1) by Jeffrey Archer (2011)
  2. A Study in Scarlett Women (Lady Sherlock #1) by Sherry Thomas (2016)
  3. Some Danger Involved (Baker and Llewelyn #1) by Will Thomas (2005)
  4. Hold Fast by Blue Balliett (2013)
  5. The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg (1996)
  6. Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros (2012)

 

The Clifton Chronicles is Jeffrey Archer’s tour de force. I have read the first three books in this septology and I am in love with the characters. It is one of those series where you can know what is going to happen to the characters (like knowing the titanic is going to sink or who wins WWII) but still love the process of the story unfolding. The characters are richly detailed and there are so many strong, amazing women in this series. I’ve enjoyed his work for a while and I was quite surprised that his prison sentence did not make him more cynical. If anything his writing now seems more hopeful!

Sherry Thomas takes the Sherlock Holmes series and weaves women’s conditions and the problems of the poor into the story in ways that are instructive without any disservice to her intricate plotting. Her characters are rich and varied. There was much humor in the book too. I am on the waiting list for the next book at the library and cannot wait for the second installment!

Llewelyn is “Watson” to Baker’s “Holmes” but their partnership is much different and the robust immersion into facets of London usually left out of Holmesian-style mysteries makes this series particularly engaging.

Hold Fast is another wonderful middle school to young adult book set in Chicago by Blue Balliett. This one features an African-American family and the Chicago Public Library. Balliett is able to touch on the unfairness of the shelter system and other disparities affecting poor people of color in Chicago without seeming preachy or making her characters seem desperate or like they need to be saved by white people. I have to say I’ve never read a book featuring contemporary, young people of color that was able to balance problems and hope. I am certain many authors of color have written them (Blue Balliett is white), but I was not exposed to them. I plan to work on finding more books like this written by people of color.

The View from Saturday is a fun and meaningful middle school/young adult book from the incomparable E. L. Konigsburg. I can’t say much about the story, but it is heartwarming and I laughed and smiled a lot.

Sandra Cisneros made a picture book for adults to help her process her grief about her mother’s death. It is a quick read, accessible and powerful. I felt that it was less triggering than other books about grief might be and that it was applicable to a variety of kinds of grief as it doesn’t focus on death.

 

Non-Fiction (In no particular order)

  1. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West (2016)
  2. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (2016)
  3. Don’t Think of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff (2014)
  4. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2014)
  5. The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression by Angus Burgin (2012)
  6. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now by Toure (2011)
  7. How to Be Black? by Baratunde R. Thurston (201)
  8. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014)
  9. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (2016)
  10. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2011)
  11. On Intellectual Activism by Patricia Hill Collins (2012)
  12. Rising Strong by Brene Brown (2015)

 

Shrill really helped me work on my self-image and how I want to present myself to the world. I highly recommend it as she packs so many different ideas in this book. There are many books on the topic of fat acceptance and there are many different approaches to the topic. The bottom line that I got from reading this book is that no matter how you look, no matter what you are doing or not doing to improve your appearance, it is okay to like how you look and it is okay to be comfortable in your body. Your self-negation and your discomfort do not need to be the price for existing in the world as a fat person. That was a powerful message. But there is also so much more about other topics too! She’s funny and real.

Dark Money is a detailed book about the Koch brothers and how they have influenced so much of our world to their extreme libertarian views. The chapter on how they have co-opted elite higher education was especially instructive.

Anyone interested in politics, the news, campaigns or non-profit work needs to read the updated 2014 version of George Lakoff’s book. He’s got great ideas for framing ideas.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz brilliantly frames the genocide of indigenous people and their survival and resistance in the Americas. Even if you know the events, this book can change how you think about them. This book gets to the heart of the matter. I’m grateful Spring Lenox recommended it to me!

Anyone who wants to know about the origins of neoliberalism and the nuances should read the Great Persuasion. I was blown away by how much I learned and grateful to Hanne Blank for the recommendation. This is essential to my dissertation.

I really appreciated Toure’s insights into the breadth of what it means to be a black person in the world today. For most of the book he is talking to other black people and it was an important process for me to read a book that was not meant for me. I’ve read many books that are by people of color and about race and yet so many of them are written with the white gaze (ear) in mind. It is rare that I feel excluded from the conversation. That exclusion was not bad. It was just that this didn’t apply to me. I was a true observer. The fact that as a white person I was so conscious of that and it was so noticeable to me is evidence of how rare that is and how pervasive my white privilege is. I look forward to including this in my dissertation as well as what I can learn upon re-reading.

How to Be Black? was a funny book with some poignant moments. Another one where I don’t want to give anything away and one I plan to re-read.

Bad Feminist is an excellent contrast to Shrill. Roxane Gay provides so much nuance and vulnerability in her writing. Whereas Lindy West helped me to feel more comfortable in who I am, Gay gives me comfort in still feeling uncomfortable. Gay analyses problematic TV and movies and talks about all the ways in which she is an imperfect or “bad” feminist. Her analyses make it easier to be a person who can’t get it right, but who still wants to try to get it good.

Hidden Figures is the book upon which the movie is based about the black women mathematicians of the space program. I highly recommend the book as the movie had so many flaws, especially in its accuracy and introduction of white saviorism.

The Warmth of Other Suns describes specific people from the period known as the Great Migration. This is an excellent approach to understanding this period in greater depth.

Patricia Hill Collins is an inspiration for those of us who aspire to be public intellectuals grounded in academic rigor and contributing insights to our fields and positive change to our communities. These essays and speeches help to show how she has done that and changes that have occurred over her career.

Brene Brown continues her examination of the vulnerability with insightful storytelling and exercises that helped me to grow in my understanding of myself and those I know. I recommend reading the book slowly as it is a deeply emotional journey.

 

Note: For reference, the dates of publication are listed in parentheses at the end of each book in the lists.

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How Do You Love Your Enemy?

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In September, I addressed the question “What Is the Place of Love in Politics?” My answer was that contrary to the mean gut reaction that love and politics are separate. Rather love is fundamentally part of political life. Love should be front and center motivating us to see our political fellows empathetically. That still doesn’t seem too difficult to me. What is difficult is not the love but opposition with love. How do I maintain my opposition to the forces of oppression while expressing love? There is a tenuous balance here. I need to stake my claim about what is fundamentally wrong without giving into odious tactics or hurting others. The ends do not justify the means. The means are always important.

So then, how do I maintain my opposition to the forces of oppression while expressing love?

My answer to this is a little more abstract. It is to love without fear. I have learned one very important thing today: I have been afraid. I have been afraid of asking people for help. I have been afraid of bothering people with my dedication to justice. My means will always be respectful, but I am no longer afraid of asking. I understand that I will be rejected. I understand that the rejection will not always be polite or even safe. But it is worth it. The stakes are too high to avoid asking.

I am going to do two things from now own. I am going to tell everyone I love them. I will not shy away from those words. I will not soften them with ones that seem more appropriate. I love you. Because I do. Because it is my goal to love everyone. I will fail. But I will keep working at it. And the second thing I am going to do is ask you to join me. Join me in working hard – the hardest I have ever worked for anything ever – to love each other. To stake our claim to the value of love. We are asking for nothing less than our lives, and we will accept nothing less than our lives. I am asking you to join me in love.

Yours in Love,

Amy E. Harth

@pracadamy

Claim Your Identity

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I just finished reading an article by Debra Jarvis’ in Reader’s Digest about why she doesn’t claim the identity of a cancer survivor. There are more useful narratives for her to tell and she derives different meaning from her experience with cancer than being a survivor. Her story struck a chord for me as I learn to manage my chronic pain. I’m a member of a wonderful Facebook group called Surviving Chronic Pain, but I honestly don’t like that name. I also don’t like that the administrators sometimes refer to us as Chronic Pain Warriors. While I don’t take on these labels for myself, I understand they may be quite helpful to others in our group. What disturbs me is the idea of applying battle imagery to my own body. I don’t want to be a war with myself. I need to learn how to navigate my daily pain. I need to accept my new limitations. I need to be gentle with myself. War is not gentle. I talk about managing pain and about living with it. I don’t have words that can be easily screen printed on a T-shirt. But that actually works for me because nothing about living with chronic pain is easy or simple. There really are no words for this.

Chronic pain isn’t my entire identity. It is an important part of who I am now not because of the limitations or the changes, but because as Debra Jarvis noted, I get to decide what it means to me. I choose to make it mean that there are things I don’t know. I used to think I knew my purpose. I’m struggling with that now. I’m not as confident that I know what I’m supposed to do with my life. There is more urgency in finding ways to do things that matter right now. And that is a good thing. My long game is still important, but finding a short game – immediate ways to make a difference – is a side effect that I’m glad I’ve indulged. Being unsettled and feeling uncomfortable mentally isn’t easy. I’m on an emotional roller coaster and most of the time I’d rather get off than ride the next wave. But I’m learning to claim my feelings as part of my life instead of expecting that I’ll get over them or escape from them.

Just four days ago, I climbed out of one of the valleys of that roller coaster. Two things made it possible to feel better. I talked to two friends. The conversations were not typical for me. I wasn’t upbeat. And I didn’t feel better after talking to them. The other thing was a new deadline to write something for one of my classes. It was a short summary/proposal for my final paper for a course in my PhD program. I only had one day of warning to write this. I’ve written lots of proposals. One page is no big deal, but in my current state I worried. I was worried about preparing to write this. I had some research to do. I only had one day. I wasn’t sure I knew what my professor wanted. I’ve always been a champion worrier, but lately I’m winning gold medals daily. After talking to my friends and worrying quietly in my mind about this for a day, I woke up the next day feeling better. I had purpose and a reason to take care of myself. And I did. I spent the day doing the things that I know make it easier to manage my pain. I also cared for others because it is part of who I am – another one of my identities. I had set aside the evening, after dinner, to work on the research and writing. Just after dinner, a migraine hit. I felt betrayed. This is my story of chronic pain. Yes, I was still in pain all day, but I felt emotionally better, and I thought I was ready to write. This migraine was my body rebelling – again. I did what I thought was best took my medicine and rested. It didn’t help. By 8:30 pm, I realized I’d have to do this research and writing regardless. And I did. This is common. It is frustrating. The story of chronic pain is not the story of doing everything right and it all works out. It is the story of doing everything right and my body still not cooperating. That is why it is an emotional roller coaster. The unexpected and unreliable aspects of being in pain make planning hard. They make it hard for me to know who I am. But the identity I claim today is one that makes that okay. I’m still learning my purpose. Perhaps I’ll define who I am and my purpose as I live each day gently.

Jarvis, Debra. “Whatever You Do, Don’t Call Me a Cancer Survivor. Here’s Why.” Reader’s Digest October 2016 http://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/cancer-survivor/

 

#VoteAnyway

I was a proud Bernie supporter. I am also very proud of the Democratic primary. In my opinion, the Democratic primary included a variety of potential presidential nominees who were qualified, thoughtful and caring. During the primary process, motivated groups of people joined the political process who had previously felt excluded. Those engaged in the primary helped to create a new vision for the Democratic party. To me, this is how politics should work.

I would love to see both parties have primaries with highly qualified candidates who care about issues. I would like to see them debate the merits of policy changes. I would like to see knowledgeable, informed candidates and voters engaging in the political process. I was disheartened that the Republican primary did not display this thoughtfulness.

I identify as a liberal. I have voted for liberal Republicans and rejected conservative Democratic candidates. My loyalty is to my liberal values – inclusion and care – not to a party. Yet I am also proud to be associated with the Democratic party for this election. I am proud of the primary. I am proud of the nominee. Hillary Clinton is a compassionate, immensely qualified, hard-working, knowledgeable person. I am confident she will be an excellent president.

I am honestly terrified of Donald Trump as president. He seems extremely cruel and reckless.

As a liberal, I am dedicated to inclusion. I want everyone to vote. I want everyone to be included in our political process. I want this even though one of the candidates scares me. Therefore, I encourage all Americans to vote for the candidate they believe will be best for our country. Whether that is a vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate, a third party or write-in, I want all our voices to be heard.

Our presidential election is extremely important. The president sets the direction for federal policy, and many federal policies and programs impact our daily lives. Our state and local elections matter too. We need a Congress that can work with the president. We need governors with our best interests at heart. We need local leaders who are responsive to our communities. The policies at these levels directly impact our health, safety and prosperity.

Your vote matters. I’m excited to cast my vote for the candidates that represent my values. Voting is one privilege and responsibility of government by, of, and for the people. I hope that in addition to voting, you consider engaging in your government – attend a town hall, write or call your leaders, join a civic organization. Our government is not separate from us, it is us. Please join me and #VoteAnyway.

To register to vote, or to confirm or update your voter registration, click here.

On Fear and Love

Where do I begin? I am confused and hurt. So many people are right now. More people shot and killed in the United States – my home. These people were gay and they were people of color and they were celebrating who they were and they were gunned down. And this is happening when we also have continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have refugees from Syria and ISIS terror – refugees who too many people don’t see as people but as political pawns or monsters. We have political candidates – yes, more than one – who use race and gender and sexuality and ability and other aspects of identity and life to label and exclude and ridicule. We have hunger here at home in a land of plenty as well as around the world. We have a tendency – much too strong – to care more about the people we can see and the people who look like us and to reject the concerns of anyone else. We look for easy answers in sound bites. And the biggest problem is that we think we find them.

And each one of us has individual problems. As I struggle emotionally with all of these things, I wish I knew how to be a better activist. I wish I knew how not to worry about my small problems. My chronic pain seems to prevent me from doing so much. My massive debt and all the time it takes to manage a small budget to avoid it getting too much worse prevents me from contributing much financially to the causes I care about.

I wish I didn’t feel so alone. I’ve never had what I call “real” friends. No one calls me just for fun. I don’t have people in my life who want to do things with me. I’ve never understood why. Magazines might tell me that this is because I’m not thin or the right kind of pretty. That hurts, but it doesn’t hurt as much as thinking I’m just not good enough to have “real” friends. Everyone can feel alone. And because I do, I often feel like I don’t have much political power, but I want to do something. I join groups. I sign petitions. I will do this more. I will write more, because this is the only power that I know that I have right now. And there is one more. I am angry and hurt. I am so gladdened that I know so many people on social media who are angry and hurt too. They are not apologists for acts of terror. They are not looking the other way. And more importantly they care about people every day. They care about people of color. They care about gay people. They care about Muslim people. They care about refugees. They care about people who are suffering. Every. Day. Not just when the news says it is time to care. And they make their voices heard. They are active. Much more so than I. And I learn from them. They make me a better person.

This anger and hurt is powerful. And I am hearing it calling for new policies. I am hearing it as a clarion call for real, substantive change. What I want to say is something uncomfortable. I want to say that I still believe in radical love. What does that mean? I think it means being ready to be against people’s ideas and actions and still value their lives. That is hard. And I mean that both for the people who aim the weapons and the politicians who protect them. I don’t think we need a national conversation about guns. It isn’t working. We need a national conversation about the underlying issue – it is the issue that is at the heart of all of this: race, gender, sexuality (and more) – and that is fear. We need to start talking about what it is that we each fear. We need to be vulnerable and real with each other. Right now we are talking (yelling) past each other. We do not have shared values. And because of this we cannot demonstrate respect for each other.

I am terribly guilty of this. Part of me just wishes all these people who think differently from me would just go away. I don’t wish ill of them, but couldn’t they just magically evaporate. I don’t want to think about how hard and how long it will take to have meaningful conversations. I don’t want to think about how slow real change is. I don’t want to think about how uncomfortable it is to be in the same room with someone who thinks I don’t have certain rights. But then I feel the same way. I’ll be honest. I do want to take away your guns. I don’t think you have a right to a semi-automatic weapon. I understand that some people find that very threatening. I want to understand how we can protect each other. How can we find a way for each of us to feel safe? And because we aren’t having this conversation, I don’t know how we can make each other feel (and be) safe. And I’m fearful that we will never know.

Can we love everyone? Can we believe in the inherent worth and dignity and goodness in everyone – even those who have hurt others? Do we believe that every individual is redeemable? Do we want to risk seeing ourselves as fundamentally the same as those who cause pain? The line is very thin. How do we ensure that love prevails?

On Meditation

I have not been meditating regularly. This is stupid. I know that I should be doing this. It helps with my pain. It helps me sleep better. I’m able to do more and function better. I’m not forgetting. I think about it and then don’t do it. I have reminders set-up. But I’m still not doing it. When I’ve done it recently it helps, but I noticed that each time I do this I’m reminded of flying. I’ve been associating my favorite guided meditations and meditation music with flying because I used to listen to these when I flew regularly.

 

I was flying every 4-6 weeks to see the love of my life before I discovered the train. Flying for me is a challenge. I have an inner ear disorder called labyrinthitis.  The body has an internal gyroscope that distinguishes up from down and left from right. With labryinthitis this internal gyroscope ceases to work in certain situations – such as flying or gymnastics  This causes nausea, dizziness, headaches and general discomfort. It is also really scary. My body is working really hard for the entire flight to try to tell me this basic information about the world, and it can’t. I have a lot of confidence in science and the flight crew. I’m not afraid of flying. I understand they are going to get us there safely. My body does not understand this. I don’t really think of dying except that my body is so confused. So yes, I’m scared too. Couple this with the emotional roller coaster of being so excited to see the love of my life when I get off the plane and this is exhausting. Of course, it makes sense that I would use every tool I have to cope with this. I have anti-nausea wrist bands. And I meditate for the entire flight. It makes a huge difference.

 

So now when I meditate I associate my favorite meditations with flying. But I know I’m not flying so why would this bother me. Why can’t I just be grateful not to feel the way I do in an airplane? It was asking this question that made me realize that my whole life has suddenly become a bit like flying. I have been dealing with chronic 24/7 pain from an increasingly challenging spinal injury since October. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had to fly since September. So just as one fearful experience for my body ended a new one began. They are, of course, related. I stopped flying and found a different way to travel because the new pain would make air travel unbearable. But I did not realize until today how similar the experience of chronic pain is to the bodily confusion I experience when flying.

 

I have been living with this pain every day for six months. My body is scared. I am scared. I do not know when – or if – it will ever end. It is not tolerable. But I am tolerating it. There is no escaping it. Just like no one can let me off the plane mid-flight no matter how much I want that. When flying, it is hard to remember what normal feels like. Similarly, with this chronic pain, I can remember how great I felt in March 2015. But I can only remember that mentally and emotionally. I can’t actually remember how it felt physically.

 

This realization helps though. I meditated today and realized that it was okay to feel really scared. That perhaps admitting how scared I am was really important. Meditating isn’t just about the end result. It isn’t about getting better sleep or feeling better. It is about taking the time to be with myself during the pain. It is accepting my feelings of fear and worry and not punishing myself for them. Not meditating has been my way of punishing myself – of saying I don’t deserve to feel better. But I do. Even though it isn’t a miraculous difference, meditating helps. I still feel the intense physical pain, but I won’t make my soul suffer too.