8 Great Books, Summer-ized
8 Great Books, Summer-ized
Summer. The time of year when it’s too hot to move. The perfect time for reading.
In a world where billionaires control more than 90% of the media you see, reading can be a welcome respite, an opportunity to think for yourself. A chance to use your imagination, send yourself back in time, or explore another world. It also helps you learn how better to express yourself; the best writers are almost all prolific readers.
But what to read? To Kill a Mockingbird is more nuanced, better written and more problematic than you could have appreciated when you read it in ninth grade. But if you read it again, you won’t have anyone to discuss it with except rising tenth graders and a bunch of people who read it fifteen years ago and weren’t even paying that much attention.
So here are a few suggestions of books that are a little further off the beaten path. If you want to buy them, don’t forget to support your local bookstore. If you don’t want to buy them, you can scour The Book Thing in Baltimore, but also remember that libraries are one of the most truly democratic things supported by tax dollars, and they’re air conditioned!
You can support your local bookstore and learn more about libraries by following my Library-A-Thon. Over the next month, I’ll be driving across the country, stopping at as many libraries as possible. You can pledge a small amount per library, or a flat one-time donation, which will go to support the expansion of Red Emma’s, the collectively owned and operated bookstore restaurant I work with here in Baltimore.
And if you suddenly realize you love reading, and want to help awaken that love in young people, Patterson High School, where I will be teaching in the fall, is holding a book drive. Please help!
No one loves every book they encounter, and some people are pickier than others. I’m convinced there’s a book for everyone. So...
For teens and the adults who love them:
Stay Solid!: A Radical Handbook for Youth, published last month by AK Press, is the most fun book I’ve had in my hands in a while. It’s a collection of essays, drawings, poems, stories and cartoons curated by Matt Hern and the Purple Thistle Center in Vancouver, BC. Although some parts are very sentimental, it doesn’t fall into the trap in which many such collections find themselves: it doesn’t paint a perfect picture. This is no Chicken Soup. This is an honest look, thrthiough many eyes and many hands, at the challenges and the beauties of growing up. Different writers, artists, and thinkers address issues like supporting people with disabilities, not perpetuating sexual harassment, navigating the waters of schooling and unschooling, and the importance of talking openly about race and racism.
This is a good book to have around in the summer, because you can pick it up and read a few things and then put it back down while you process what you read or go make more ice pops. It’s also an important book for high school teachers to keep in our classroom libraries, and for parents of teens to keep around the house. It makes a good companion for anyone interacting with teens and the media, as it gives succinct, dynamic jumping off points for conversations about various stereotypes and power relationships.
If you like this, check out Hey Shorty!, which is a young person’s guide to dealing with sexual harassment, and Putting the Movement back in Civil Rights Teaching, a guide for educators on teaching about the struggle.
For teachers and education policy wonks:
Stupidity and Tears is my favorite of Herbert Kohl’s more than thirty books. Published in ‘05 by The New Press, it drills holes in the narrative of “accountability” and lets the reader peer in. What we see is teachers, parents and students trying to break through the impersonality of educational bureaucracy only to be targeted for censure by administrators.
His thesis is that schools actually encourage students and teachers to “act stupid.” He explains that we’re dealt with harshly when we try our hardest and don’t achieve the results that are expected. Therefore, as teachers we end up doing things we know won’t work, and as students we goof off and pretend not to care. In this way, we protect ourselves from being called failures, and remove our emotional selves from the path of the lash. We also keep from innovating, experimenting, and really learning.
If you like this, try Multiplication is for White People by Lisa Delpit, The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravich, and Radical Equations by Bob Moses.
For the lost soul:
A Certain Ambiguity is a wild ride. Written by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal and published on Princeton UP, it won the 2007 Award for Best Professional/ Scholarly Book in Mathematics. But it’s a novel. A novel about a young man studying business at Stanford whose love of Jazz leads him to take a class on infinity his senior year. During research for the class, he finds that his grandfather, a famous Indian mathematician, had been jailed in New Jersey more than 50 years before his birth for his belief in the certainty of mathematics.
It’s a story about family, friendship, love, coming of age, history, music, and the infinite. I learned a lot about infinity theory from this book--did you know there are different types of infinity, some of which are bigger than others? But you don’t need any background in math to understand it. And discovering his grandfather’s saga through his eyes is quite gripping. Overall a really fantastic read.
For the fatalistic capitalist:
Parable of the Sower is an eloquently conceived dystopia which shows a world not much more driven to destruction by greed than our current world is. The amazing thing for me about this book is that Octavia Butler published it in 1993, right after the fall of the USSR. Around that time there was a lot of pro-capitalist, anti-communist fanfare and flag-waving. This book, where people live in walled communities and ration overpriced water, was a bold statement to make at that point in time.
At times frighteningly graphic, the book describes a visionary young Black woman who loses her family to violence and has the wherewithal to organize a group of survivors. She is moved to create a religion she calls Earthseed, which posits that God is Change. While race and racism are not the hinge pin of the plot, they do figure centrally. At one point her multi-racial community is asked to choose between their frightening freedom and indentured servitude. Her father wisely keeps his family free, knowing that life controlled by “benevolent” Whites would be worse than death.
Not for the depressed or faint of heart, this beautifully written book is an important imagining of how quickly we can lose our humanity in the face of presumed scarcity, but also affords a view of how to get it back.
if you like this, try other books by Octavia Butler, including the sequel, The Parable of the Talents. If you liked the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, you may well like the Parable stories. And I haven’t read The Uglies, but it’s in a similar vein, and I want to check it out.
For the thrill seeker:
Sinister Pig is one of Tony Hillerman’s most recent books. I recently found out that Hillerman died in 2008. I was crushed. More than any other author, I gobble up anything I can find by him, and am rarely disappointed. Born on a farm in the dustbowl of Oklahoma, Hillerman attended a missionary school for Indian girls, and developed lifelong friendships and a deep respect for the cultures of the people who had first lived on and with the land.
Sinister Pig is the 16th of 18 mystery novels he set on Navajo Tribal land. The characters are old and well developed--he’d been writing them into stories for over twenty years by the time he wrote this one in 2003. As is his m.o., characters defy stereotypes, so that the result is a story that is not overtly political, but that doesn’t pigeonhole people or relegate them to roles that match societies expectations for their race or gender.
I’m being vaugue about the plot on purpose--the part that makes this one so relevant to folks from Baltimore isn’t really revealed until the end of the book. I refuse to spoil it, so I’ll just tell you that if you don’t have time to fall in love with a set of characters and feel compelled to read 17 more books about them, don’t bother reading this book.
If you like it, read everything you can find by Tony Hillerman (although I didn’t think Shape Shifter was really that great.) Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlin’s books are great, though unlike Hillermans they should really be read in order, since later books sometimes include spoilers from earlier ones. And I like Gregory McDonald’s Fletch mysteries, even though they’re a far cry from politically correct.
For the young and the weary:
Malcom X: A Fire Burning Brightly, published by Harper Collins, is a phenomenally beautiful picture book. Its author, Walter Dean Myers, is a prolific writer of fiction for young adults who continues to challenge his readers to see race, class and gender as forces that shape the world. He manages to do this without writing flat novels that play into our expectations, instead writing elegant, nuanced stories that draw the reader in and show them the lives of complicated people who don’t fit in boxes.
This particular book is aimed at older children (it’s written close to a fourth grade reading level), but the vibrant, beautiful illustrations by Leonard Jenkins help draw the attention of the very young and help make the story accessible to those who don’t read well.
For the philosopher:
Calvin and Hobbes is the best way to step back and examine your life. Bill Watterson’s deft ability to fuse the cynical spirit of John Calvin with the raw wonder and irreverence of a six year old. The comic form makes it light and funny, but you walk away with a lot to think about. The Tenth Anniversary Book is a good historical document, and the only glimpse into the man behind the cartoons I’ve ever seen. In it, Bill Watterson explains the characters and relationships. My personal favorite Calvin and Hobbes book is The Revenge of the Babysat, but that’s because the kids I used to babysit for regularly gave me their old, dog-eared copy of it when I went off to college. I still have it, and it has shepherded me through many trials and tribulations.
If you like this, try playing Calvinball. I would tell you to go read xkcd, but this is about books, damnit. The Boondocks is great in a similar way to Calvin and Hobbes, in that part of the humor comes from seeing little kids deal with heavy, adult topics.
For poets and dreamers:
Another Country is one of my favorite books of all time. Set mostly in Manhattan in the 1950s, it’s way ahead of its time. James Baldwin is a master craftsman, weaving together stories of people, places, feelings and sounds with elegance and sensitivity.
In a lot of ways, it’s a book about love. But not the dominant paradigm of exclusive, heterosexual love. The characters love each other in so many different ways. As lover, as friends, as predators and saviors. The book takes a wide-eyed, unabashed look at race, gender and sexuality. It finds no one blameless and no one purely evil. It is honest in ways that few others are, and really helped shape my views of responsibility to others, accepting people’s limitations, and loving people unconditionally.
Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.