Vital Books for Polarized Times

Today I’d like to share three books I’ve recently ordered for our library collections which feel like they have something very important to say about living in modern times. These authors have taken up their pens to encourage all of us to approach the world with more open minds and an understanding that people are varied, complex, and not ours to change.

See No Stranger: a Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur

Valarie Kaur is a renowned Sikh activist and in this book, she argues that Revolutionary Love is the call of our times. When we practice love in the face of fear or rage, it has the ability to transform an encounter, a relationship, a community, a culture, even a country. Drawing from her personal experiences, Sikh wisdom, and the work of civil rights leaders of all kinds, Kaur has reenvisioned love as a public ethic: a commitment to loving others, opponents, and ourselves. She argues that this type of love is not a passing feeling; it is an act of will. It is an active, political, and moral response to violence, hate, and otherness.

Conversations With People Who Hate Me: 12 Things I Learned From Talking to Internet Strangers by Dylan Marron

Dylan Marron’s work has racked up millions of views and worldwide support. From his acclaimed Every Single Word video series highlighting the lack of diversity in Hollywood to his web series Sitting in Bathrooms with Trans People, Marron has explored some of today’s biggest social issues. Yet, according to some strangers on the internet, Marron is a “moron,” a “beta male,” and a “talentless hack.” Rather than running from this online vitriol, Marron began a social experiment in which he invited his detractors to chat with him on the phone–and those conversations revealed surprising and fascinating insights. Now, Marron retraces his journey through a project that connects adversarial strangers in a time of unprecedented division. 

The Believer: Encounters with The Beginning, The End, and Our Place in the Middle by Sarah Krasnostein

Some of the people Krasnostein interviews believe in things many people do not: ghosts, UFOs, the literal creation of the universe in six days. Some believe in things most people would like to: dying with dignity and autonomy; facing up to our transgressions with truthfulness; living with integrity and compassion. By turns devastating and uplifting, and captured in snapshot-vivid detail, these six profiles of a death doula, a geologist who believes the world is six thousand years old, a lecturer in neurobiology who spends his weekends ghost hunting, the fiancée of a disappeared pilot and UFO enthusiasts, a woman incarcerated for killing her husband after suffering years of domestic violence, and Mennonite families in New York will leave you convinced that the most ordinary-seeming people are often the most remarkable and that deep and abiding commonalities can be found within the greatest differences.

Redoing Gender by Helana Darwin – Now on Overdrive

Remember my previous posts on transgender and non-binary reads (Either Both Neither and Invisible In-betweens)? Well, buckle up, because I’ve got a new read to help you build compassion for non-binary folks, by reading their experiences in their own voices. The book is Redoing Gender: How Nonbinary Gender Contributes Toward Social Change, by Helena Darwin, and it’s an ebook available through Overdrive or the Libby app. Check out this description from the e-resource:

Redoing Gender demonstrates how difficult it is to be anything other than a man or a woman in a society that selectively acknowledges those two gendersGender nonbinary people (who identify as other genders besides simply man or woman) have begun to disrupt this binary system, but the limited progress they have made has required significant everyday labor. Through interviews with 47 nonbinary people, this book offers rich description of these forms of labor, including rethinking sex and gender, resignifying genderredoing relationships, and resisting erasure. The final chapter interrogates the lasting impact of this labor through follow-up interviews with participants four years later. Although nonbinary people are finally managing to achieve some recognition, it is clear that this change has not happened without a fight that continues to this day. The diverse experiences of nonbinary people in this book will help cisgender people relate to gender minorities with more compassion, and may also appeal to those questioning their own gender

It’s easy to understand diversity as a concept, to imagine that there are a wealth of experiences in the world, but it’s a different thing to hear directly about some of those different experiences. This book helps to bridge that gap between intellectual understanding and real insight, combining sociological practices and academic rigor with a deep care for inclusivity and respecting LGBTQIA experiences. Moreover, it begins to fill a glaring gap in research literature, which is mostly focused on divisions between “men” and “women” without any imagination of other genders.

A good read for sociology buffs and allies alike, this book is recommended for anyone who loves an ebook and likes picking apart harmful patriarchal structures.

Cultish by Amanda Montell

Okay, language lovers–You have to add Cultish to your to-read list! Amanda Montell’s explorative work weaves together several interviews and primary accounts of people who have been entrapped by the linguistic power of, yes, cults, but also of organizations like Crossfit or multi-level marketing schemes. With each former cult member and cult-like group that Montell examines, she picks apart the diction that is used to isolate and persuade potential followers–and how saturated our society is with this linguistic phenomenon. 

She begins by discussing the heavily debated difference between religious groups and cults. It turns out that even incredibly well-researched academics cannot narrow down criteria that technically distinguishes one from the other. One difference that has been pointed to, though, is the age of the organization or faith-based group. Christianity, Islam, and Judiasm are ancient and that passage of time grants a respect to organized religions that newer organizations do not have. They do, however, still use language that makes individuals feel special and eventually creates a divide between them and those outside the group. Cults, Montell argues, do this as well and then some. 

What sends cults and cult-like groups into territory that alarms most people in ways religion doesn’t is the way they warp language. A commonality amongst all the groups that Montell examines is how they expand the standard definition of words in the English language to fit their needs. The end result is believing in a shared language that is fundamentally different from the vernacular our society uses to function together, which is ultimately divisive. 

Montell also debunks and demystifies the idea of “brainwashing,” explaining that it is incredibly unlikely for so many minds to be overtaken by buzz-words, mantras, and glossolalia against their will. For one’s mind to become complacent in what we colloquially refer to as “brainwashing” they must already be in a state of mind where they want to be controlled and validated. There is a “charisma” that cults have, Montell argues. They make people feel safe and not alone, which is attractive to most and is the reason why so many people get caught up in cultish groups. 

As someone who loves words and how powerful language is, I hung onto every word of Cultish. There is an incredible variety to Montell’s research, which provides an approachable reading experience that allows you to put it down and pick it back up without disrupting the narrative flow. I could write many more paragraphs about her findings and arguments, but I will leave you all with this sliver of insight into this riveting book. I cannot recommend this enough! 

This title is also available as a Book-on-CD

 

ICYMI: 2021 Honorees from ALA’s Rainbow Round Table

Every year, the American Library Association (ALA)’s Rainbow Round Table (RRT) releases booklists which honor quality publishing on LGBTQ topics. The Rainbow Book List collects titles for children and teens, and the Over the Rainbow Book Lists (Fiction and Poetry, Nonfiction) collect titles for ages 18+. In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the three lists, released earlier this year.

Rainbow Book Listsee the full list here

The Every Body Book by Rachel E. Simon and Noah Grigni (juvenile non-fiction): an inclusive guide to bodies, gender, relationships, puberty, families, and more.

Goldie Vance: The Hotel Whodunit by Lilliam Riviera (juvenile fiction): in the 1960s, a hotel detective in training investigates a missing swim cap during the filming of a movie at the hotel, with the help of many entertaining characters including her parents, a Hollywood megastar, the hotel’s official detective, and Goldie’s crush Diane.

Troublemaker for Justice by Jacqueline Houtman, Michael G. Long, and Walter Naegle (middle grade non-fiction): details the life of Bayard Rustin, a lesser-known figure in the civil rights movement whose work was repressed because of his sexual orientation.

Ana on the Edge by A.J. Sass (middle grade fiction): a young figure skater sorts through gender identity while preparing for a big competition.

Queerfully and Wonderfully Made: A Guide for LGBTQ+ Christian Teens edited by Leigh Finke (YA non-fiction): a compassionate and informative guide to living an authentic and fulfilling LGBTQ life in Christian community.

The Winter Duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett (YA fiction): when her family plunges into sleeping sickness unexpectedly, Ekata finds herself thrust into the role of duke, marrying her brother’s warrior bride and struggling to wield her family’s magic and power.

Over the Rainbow Book List, Top 10 – see the full fiction and poetry list here and the non-fiction list here

Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America by R. Eric Thomas: a collection of biographical essays on being an outsider in many arenas of life.

Homie: Poems by Danez Smith: highlights the struggles of modern queer life and the ways they’re counterbalanced by the saving grace of friendship.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: an emotional novel about an African-American gay man coming to terms with his identity in the context of his university community.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri: a collection of stories highlighting the longing for home, representing a broad spectrum of characters and situations.

A History of my Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt: a memoir of coming-of-age in a First Nation community exploring memory, gender, shame, and more.

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels: the story of a man coming back to his hometown to live out the final days of his battle with AIDS.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir by Jenn Shapland: a chronicle of the author’s journey into the life and living spaces of noted author Carson McCullers.

What’s Your Pronoun: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron: a historical look at the evolution and usage of gender neutral personal pronouns, with recommendations for best and most sensible usage today.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth: a story of queer women, historical and modern, and the eerie goings-on that threaten them all at an all-girls’ school.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen: a comprehensive look at the diverse world of asexual individuals and experiences, with insight into the ways asexuality can and should reform societal values around sex and relationships.

Fear of Missing Out by Patrick McGinnis

Fear of Missing Out by Patrick McGinnis is a book I’ve always needed – and most likely, you do too. In it, he describes the concepts of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), FOBO (Fear of a Better Option) and their evil combined force, FODA (Fear of Doing Anything), as well as how to combat them in your own life to be more decisive and independent of social manipulation.

McGinnis first identified FOMO and FOBO back in the early 2000s (though they date back to the earliest days of human history), but he since observed them turning into an epidemic as social media and internet technology became widespread. The wealth of options and opportunities that we see every day on our phone screens can be paralyzing, leading us to feel left out, run ourselves ragged trying not to miss anything, and to constantly seek that ‘perfect’ choice. With this detailed examination of the phenomena, their underlying causes, and the tools at our disposal, he seeks to give the reader back the power to make choices that actually reflect their values and desires instead of reflecting what they’ve been told to want (or what others want).

Perhaps the most important insight McGinnis shares into FOMO and FOBO is their roots in narcissism and their poisonous effects on our relationships with others. When we constantly strive to keep our options open, running after the imaginary ‘perfect’ choice and scrambling not to miss out on cultural trends, we not only do ourselves no favors, but we don’t show much respect for the people around us. Our friends, family, potential employers and more are left hanging as we procrastinate making decisions until we’re sure it’s the ‘right’ choice. This part struck home for me, as someone who’s made many a lunch companion die of boredom while I struggle to decide what to order. Importantly, he urges readers not to waste time on unimportant decisions like a lunch order, because there are no bad options. Careful decision-making processes must be reserved for high-stakes decisions only, where the outcome is very important to your life.

For the most part, I found this book helpful and interesting, though his focus on corporate entities and professional corporate life wasn’t relevant or interesting to me. Luckily, most of his strategies remain relevant outside corporate life as well. If you want to work on being decisive and/or less addicted to social media validation and guilt, I recommend giving this book a try.

Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton

“It was always possible to trace my experience in a park to the experiences of those who had walked the land long before I ever set foot on it.”

I’ve always been more of an armchair traveler than a globe-trotter (luckily for me in this year of canceled plans). I prefer living vicariously through books by people like Bill Bryson and David Sedaris, who can portray the joys and headaches of their various travels with gentle humor. My latest read in this category was Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton, published earlier this year.

In this non-fiction read, Knighton (a CBS correspondent) tells the story of the year he spent visiting 59 of America’s National Parks. He undertook this ambitious project in 2016 after a broken engagement left him desperately in need of a change of scene, and over the course of the year crisscrossed the country from Maine to Arizona to American Samoa to North Dakota and back again. In the process, he met park rangers, locals, and other travelers who gave him the inside scoop on the beautiful landscapes and ecosystems, and he also had lots of solitude to reflect on the meaning of nature, community, history, God, and more. With the book, he seeks to describe the lifechanging effects both of the individual awe-inspiring parks and of his journey as a whole, making a case for humility, unity, exploration, and conservation.

As a nature lover, I adored this book. His description of the cathedral-like Redwood forest and the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula sparked my imagination and increased my longing to see them for myself someday, and his appreciation for desert landscapes in the Southwest gave me a greater appreciation for their unique beauty. I especially appreciated his taking the time to delve into the unique cultures of parks in more remote locations like American Samoa, Hawaii, and Alaska; the history and peoples in these places are just as important as the landscapes. All in all I thought this book was a beautiful introduction to both our National Parks and to the wide scenic diversity of the United States as a whole.

That said, it took me a little while to get used to the book’s structure. Rather than taking a strictly chronological, “travel diary” approach to his journey like I expected, Knighton divides the book into topical chapters, grouping together similar parks under one heading; these headings can be as straightforward as “Volcanoes” or “Mountains”, or as unexpected as “Love” or “People”. For me, it felt like the individual parks and his time in them weren’t necessarily described in much detail. Instead, each park was given a broad overview before being compared to another one, interspersed with Knighton’s epiphanies and inspiration from his experiences. The book was still effective, but it seemed like the ambitious scope of the project sacrificed a sense of narrative in order to keep things concise.

However, the humor is on-point and Knighton is relatable, with an infectious enthusiasm for our national scenic heritage. If you like travel narratives, hiking, the National Parks, or historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, I recommend you try this book.

An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff

guest post by Georgann

invisible threadWow. This book was so good. It captivated me from beginning to happy ending. The Invisible Thread is just an amazing true story about a well-to-do career woman and a street kid she meets. He asks her for money and she, like many other New Yorkers, walks on by without actually seeing the boy. Suddenly, in the middle of the street, nearly getting hit by a car, she stops. She turns around, goes back to the boy, asks him if he’s hungry, and takes him to McDonald’s. They spend the afternoon together, just hanging out, and an unlikely friendship is born that spans until today, almost 30 years later.

The story of Laura and Maurice is so powerful! Laura chooses to invest her time, money and family in this young street kid. As you can imagine, everyone tries to tell her what an awful idea this is, but she persists. She sees something in him, something special, and her instinct proves correct. She gives him experiences that he had seen on TV but never imagined would actually be for him.

He comes from a home life that is foreign and unimaginable to most of us. Laura comes from a very rough background, as well; perhaps that is the basis of her compassion.  He says she was his lifeline. She says she has learned much more from him than her learned from her. I say all of us will benefit greatly from reading their story!