What I'm reading

here’s my 2017 list, inspired by shane parrish’s what i’m reading that he started doing back in 2013.

in some reviews i make a hat tip (ht) to the person who recommended the book to me. other times i just say ‘recommended by.’ sometimes i say nothing because i didn’t keep good notes. *shrug*

finally, all these reviews are initially written and posted on my goodreads list.

december

Mind of My Mind (Patternmaster, #2) by octavia e. butler

note: tried to write this in such a way that it doesn’t spoil too much.

this second book in the patternist series might have been even more mind-blowing than the first (which i didn’t think was possible). there were two moments in this book where i reacted audibly. butler deals deftly with issues of race, slavery, transformation, power, relationship, greed, empathy, and so much more. sometimes dealing with these things so well that i didn’t realize she was weaving them in until deep into the story. in my mind, that is brilliance. and sometimes, all it took was a single sentence for her to reveal the real issue she’s been handling all along. simply brill.

i’m already starting to think about my friends and community as a pattern… but like… without the shitty slavery part.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

a shimmering, stunning autobiography. this book is written in 5-10 page vignettes that make it possible for angelou to fast-forward to important scenes, not need to weave every detail in between, but still somehow paint (what to me seems like) a full picture of her childhood and adolescent life. some of the stories are deft in their ability to pierce and others are so beautiful that i may never forget them. every few pages i’d stumble on sentence that was just so powerfully crafted that i wanted to hold it in my hand like a precious stone. on another front, though, particularly of note to me as a queer black man are the ways that she handled sex and sexual violence. i’ll need many years to process that stuff (specifically as i think about my role as an actor to make sure things like what happen to her aren’t possible in the future).

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

this is an excellent read extolling the confoundingly obvious and yet underprioritized ability for individuals to do focused work. after making a convincing case for the value of deep work over shallow work, newport oscillates between strategy and example of strategy applied that make it clear how to (over time) implement structures in your life to allow deep work to be ever more possible. the one glaring fallacy of this book newport’s complete lack of acknowledgement of the impact of his identity on his ways of behind in the world: the implicit power of his whiteness and maleness (as well as the whiteness and maleness of almost ALL of his case studies) makes many of the implementations of his strategies impossible for people without that power. i still the strategies are often still relevant but what they look like needs to be different depending on one’s demographic position in society.

ht maggie tishman - Oct 8 ht Joel boutin - 19 Nov ht cameron russell - 25 nov

november

Wild Seed (Patternmaster, #1) by Octavia E. Butler

this book blew my entire mind. butler’s brilliant, seemingly effortless way to weave together fact, history, fiction, and vision are breathtaking. like i literally noticed holding my breath paragraphs at a time. the breeding of humans, witchcraft, torture, love, food, happiness, confusion, just everything. the characters are compelling, the plot twists gut-wrenching, and the overarching messages chilling. i’m afraid to read the next one in the series, but i know i can’t not.

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

by far the strangest book i’ve read all year… maybe ever. i probably understood about 30% of the content of this book; mostly in the form of vignettes strung together between ideas either too complex or too embedded within french culture for me to understand. that said, the parts of this that i did understand were incredibly powerful. some of the ideas and conceptual frames are just unreal. ideas about past, present, & future, race, relationships across race, internalized whiteness supremacy, anti-semitism as it relates to anti-blackness, just… so… much. also, the conclusion is fire.

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler, illustrated by Damian Duffy & John Jennings

phew. this was simultaneously a page-turner and a book i wanted to literally throw down at times. i haven’t yet read the novel. the scene shifting is a masterful move to show the threads between the past and present and how “the past isn’t even past.” the way the main characters relate to each other is so powerful and so so so honestly illustrative of the complex dynamics that racism creates. love, hate, fear, protection, need for family, sexual desire, just… everything is so intertwined. and the characters here really bring all of those things to life. excellent read.

Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard

dr. gordon nembhard has done a thorough excavation of the history of cooperatives & cooperative-like structures among african americans from ~1900-2000. in this, she challenges that mainstream notion/popular perception that cooperatives are (and have always been) white. by showing how black folks have needed and used cooperative economics to survive, gordon nembhard has opened new doors for understanding today’s socioeconomic thinkers and doers to understand, learn from, and build on the history of folks working together to get their basic needs met.

note: i read this book as a part of the collective courage online book club that nene igietseme and i ran.

october

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

blisteringly hot to the touch. these poems are searing in their brevity and weight. it seems that the fewer words in a poem, the more punch it packs. shire here goes deep (using a tiny number of words) into family, sexual violence, love, and memory. favorite poems in this collection: grandmother’s hands, birds, the kitchen, fire, you were conceived, ugly, in love and in war.

physical copy given to me by annemarie gray who was given it by cameron russell.

september

What Was the Underground Railroad? by Yona Zeldis McDonough

this was a shockingly informative read given the amount of schooling i’ve been through. i saw this in a neighborhood free library and wanted to give it to my nephew, but wanted to make sure it was good before passing it along. a colorful, accurate, yet appropriate, real, and powerful account of some of the highlights of the history of slavery, the underground, and abolition in the u.s.

Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by Angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah

ht jax

looking backwards, ground in the present, dreaming forwards, this book explores how white cis heteropatriarchy has tainted all american spirituality. this book focusing on buddhism is the reflection of three queer black buddhists (a collective) who wrestle with what i means to challenge the old and be new faces of buddhism. the authors argue that in order to achieve liberation we must both stand on the shoulders of our ancestors while getting deeply comfortable with transcendent, intersectional movements.

august

Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2) by Octavia E. Butler

the second part of the earthseed trilogy (of which only 2 books were published), we’ve moved forward in time and focus to the child of lauren olamina, our original protagonist. this book is shockingly prescient given the 2016 election of donald trump. butler introduces the messy nature of multigenerational changemaker families. it also leans hard into the very real possibilities of explicit slavery as natural ecosystems fail and power/wealth/control of technology are concentrated in shrinking small number of hands. how do you create a community that can sustain itself against all odds? turns out, that’s even harder than it sounds…

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

the tragically sad story of a young black couple in the middle of racist ass nyc. the couple is pregnant when racism, writ large and small, rips the young expectant father out of his life and pours him into jail. the narrative delicately, beautifully, crazily illustrates how racism and survival are fundamental to the black American experience. the story teeters on the edge of sanity for pages on end and makes pages fly by. I’ve never read a book with sections (chapters) like this one and i love the way baldwin did it.

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert

ht sharon de la cruz. note: i read this as a part of the princeton studiolab & p5js interactive book club.

mindstorms is a book on its surface about how children use computers. but it’s so so so much more than that. it’s really a treatise about how computing could have (and potentially still could) create a paradigm shift in what we think education is and how we then go about the process of “educating” future generations. essentially, papert firmly rejects (as does his contemporary, paulo freire) the idea that knowledge is something that can be passed from one person to another. instead, he believes that the process of theory creation, testing, and then recreation is the fundamental building basis of education. he believes that the western model of education has completely crushed that reality. we “learn” in school that some things are too complicated for us to learn our way through (like calculus) and so at certain point, we must accept that someone has the right answer somewhere and our way forward is to just learn the answer from someone else who has figured it out.

papert says that what computers actually give us the ability to do is illustrate to ourselves how our individual processes of theory creation, testing, and recreation work. and, once we understand that for ourselves, we can then (theoretically) learn anything by going through that process. unfortunately, the decision that has been embedded into computing culture is that only some people can be programmers (rapid learners) and everyone else just has to use the computer like a simple tool. we have decided that computers should just be used to “transfer knowledge” more efficiently, instead of help us each to discuss our capacity to create new knowledge.

he convinced me and i’m thinking totally differently about what education even is. well played.

Dreads by Francesco Mastalia and Alfonse Pagano with intro from Alice Walker

i got this as a coffeetable book some time ago and slowly read it around the time i started to loc my hair again. the book starts out with an essay about the global histories of (dread)locks in different contexts. from spiritual leaders in south east asia to africa to the caribbean, most locks have deep cultural, historic importance to the people who wear them. the essay was fascinating, for sure. most of the book, though, is 2-page spreads: one page being a full page portrait and the other being a statement from the subject of the image. it was really eye-opening to see how so many different people from around the world and different traditions think about their locked hair.

ps - i’m not totally sold on the cultural pluralism taken by the authors (e.g. that people of all backgrounds, regardless of how they understand their identities, can wear locs without cultural appropriation). i feel like people who have a historic, spiritual or not, connection to the practice of locking hair, have a different relationship to it than people (especially people whose hair doesn’t lock naturally and/or people who are prone to appropriate cultures) who just do it for the aesthetic.

june

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

recommended by ambroise nahas.

strange little allegory about the strangeness of adulthood. also took a strange amount of time for me to read given its length. somehow i could only put away a few pages at a time. following the main character, a small, strangely wise child, this story explores how adults have pretty much everything in life wrong, especially their priorities.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

my third baldwin read. a completely character-driven book that feels semi-autobiographical. baldwin seems to be exploring the different important people in his young life as a way deal with himself and the complexity of his childhood. i got a lost a few times, but it makes more sense further in. also, some of the sentences in this book are absolutely fucking brilliant. they burn images in the mind like acid.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown

this book is somehow both mindblowing and breathtakingly obvious. brown here speaks (and speaks is an understatement here) what people in social justice movement spaces have been feeling for years. the seamless way brown weaves prose, quotes, nature, poetry, and reflection together is a perfect analogy for how our movements and lives should be. i wouldn’t be surprised if this was the movement book of my time.

may

From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp

standard part of the sharp works. this is a short, straightforward guide to the thinking, strategy, and tactics of how to overthrow a dictatorship. contrary to its name, however, it is also a guide for how to slow the growth of a dictatorship in progress or prevent dictatorships in the first place. consistent in its logic and also (sideways) addresses how to handle violent actions in a nonviolent struggle. a valuable read in the modern political era where democracy as an ideology seems to be crumbling from many angles.

Frog and Toad Are Friends (Frog and Toad, #1) by Arnold Lobel

gift from ross chanowski

surprisingly meaningful and complex story about two dear friends. they support each other through thick and thin, even when the process of supporting causes trouble for the supporter. impressive way to capture the difficulty and yet striking beauty of a true friendship. what a great gift. =]

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

this collection of futurist stories is an experiment in individual and collective imagination; it is a step in the direction of decolonizing our imaginations and that process is critically important. some of the stories were clear favorites for me, but i think only because they resonated with my specific context and perspectives. i can imagine other stories resonating for other people and the ones that were good for me not being so good for them.

april

The Autobiography of Malcolm X dictated by Malcolm X to Alex Haley

after (finally) picking this up, i totally get why people say it’s one of the most important of its time. well-written, complex, brutally honest, and thorough. the evolution of this man over the course of his life (which was really several lives) gives me hope for all of humanity. if he can go through what he did and end up where he did, there’s gotta be a way out (of racism).

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

utterly devastating. kincaid eviscerates neo-colonialism (aka tourism) in this tiny, vitriolic polemic. in this book (really like a long essay) kincaid destroys what means to be a tourist and forcefully, accurately, appropriately reminds us that the tourism industry is basically infrastructure for short-term colonialist excursions. everybody who is ever going to travel anywhere other than places they are from needs to read this before traveling again.

Albert Einstein: The Human Side

recommended and gifted by ross chanowski

this is an incredible book. it does exactly what its title hints at: or shows Einstein as a full human being, with science as just one part of his identity; not his entire identity. the way in which he spoke out against oppression, acted with kindness and love towards everyone (dear friends, family, and strangers alike) sheds huge light on what it takes to actually be a figure that history cannot forget.

march

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

recommended by jonathan krones.

fascinating futurist story about a future in which the west coast has seceded from the united states and become its own sustainability driven country. framed as a series of alternating personal entries and “official” journalist news stories, the narrative of this book is a tool to extrapolate on a world where a number of current different sustainability trends reach their logical conclusions. curious (if not accurate and/or supremacist) handling of black people: they basically just create a sovereign nation within ecotopia and live happily ever after.

The Anti-Coup by Gene Sharp

very short no nonsense handbook about how to use non-violent struggle to prevent or topple a coup d’etat. after an initial definitional section and some case studies, the authors highlight and explain general strategies and approaches useful to undoing hostile government takeovers. surprisingly (or maybe not), the best strategy against a coup is a strong democratic society. go figure.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

devastating. unbelievably powerful. rankine’s flow between prose, verse, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction parallels her experience and explanation of race and life. the sections alternate between microaggression vignettes, storytelling, and poetry that, combined, left me literally angry, crying, and soothed. had to read it in two days because i literally couldn’t take it any more.

february

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman

the irony that this book is so unfocused is uncanny. the first half of this book does earnestly seem to be about how the brain functions to support or hinder the type of focus our modern world requires. the second half wanders through into leadership and management theory, interpersonal habits (good and bad), and environmental/climate/social change. in spite of the fact that the book, in my opinion, needed 2-3 additional rounds of solid editing, i did generally enjoy how focus was (loosely) connected to (dis)functioning of the world at large.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

a foundational work in anti-oppression theory. speaking from experience and the academy, freire links dialogue, praxis, and revolution in very concrete ways. he brilliantly (if somewhat laboriously) lays out the pathway from continual awakening to revolution as people work together (which is the only way true revolution is achieved) towards liberation.

at the end of the book, he explains what the work is about in no uncertain terms: “… just as the oppressor, in order to oppress, needs a theory of oppressive action, so the oppressed, in order to become free, also need a theory of action.”

january

Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1) by Octavia E. Butler

unbelievably gripping futurist fiction book. butler explores one pathway of what could happen if the major problems our society is dealing with at present continue on their existing trajectories. the issues include (in butler’s own words): “drugs and the effects of drugs on the children of drug addicts, the growing rich/poor gap, throwaway labor, our willingness to build and fill prisons, our reluctance to build and repair schools and libraries, our assault on the environment, increased vulnerability to disease, and the loss of coastline as the level of the sea rises.” terrifyingly possible and energizing to the socially engaged reader who wants not to see this world come to be. unfortunately, as of me finishing this book (25 jan 2017) some of the fictional realities posed in this world are already coming to life.

Salvation: Black People and Love by bell hooks

brilliant read expanding on hooks’ thinking in all about love, the first book in her love trilogy. in each chapter, hooks lays out amazing insights about love in different contexts. hooks weaves together of other intelligent thinkers, historical contexts, and personal insights in a way that produces incredible instruction for how to actually make progress as individuals, groups, and societies. she points out that, without a love ethic, our social movements are bound to recreate the same problematic structures that generated the need for the movements in the first place.

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