July and August 2021 Reads

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Review that most resonated: “This is a story at once intimate and global, as much about childhood friendship as international aid, as fascinated by the fate of an unemployed single mother as it is by the omnipotence of a world-class singer…Smith’s attention to the grace notes of friendship is as precise as ever…Swing Time uses its extraordinary breadth and its syncopated structure to turn issues of race and class in every direction…We finally have a big social novel nimble enough to keep all its diverse parts moving gracefully toward a vision of what really matters in this life when the music stops.” Ron Charles, Washington Post

International development, dance, voluntourism, the perpetuation of inequity in all its forms, the ebb and flow of friendship…this novel does it all. A 2021 favorite with elegant prose and witty choice of words like “a cartoon thinness,” “her pat phrases were like lids dancing on top of bubbling cooking pots,” and “his bloodless conference-room smile.” Smith captures life’s layers vividly, at times painting a visceral feel of friendship and in others outlining the antiseptic, artificial atmosphere of expectation surrounding “aid” against the backdrop of reality. Highly recommend this book.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Recommended to me by an English professor, this part-memoir part-creative-writing-course book was just right. I gravitate toward writing non-fiction though King’s teachings on fiction writing felt accessible and applicable. I recommend this book to storytellers, book lovers, and people who wish to understand and better flex the art and science of writing.

Favorite quote: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy…Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire

A classic, Freire’s book is a part of every educator’s reading list though should be on everyone’s radar (including public health practitioners). The heart of Freire’s framework and methods of teaching lies in viewing the individual as a full human being—with a brain, with rights, with the ability to act and love and live and think for oneself. In short, education is tied to one’s liberation. This book has been circulating the global health and international development space for a while now, as we discuss (and, more slowly, act on) the industry’s decolonization and turn toward theories and approaches that are most equitable. I see myself consulting Freire’s words throughout my personal and professional life and will keep this book close to heart.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

On the surface, the title, feel, and plot of this book appear light and fluffy. The content is nothing but, which is my favorite part of this book—that it embodies contemporary American life with simultaneous subtlety and intensity. The novel centers on Alix and Emira. As a white woman, Alix can easily switch her savoir complex on and off when it suits her, making her interactions with Emira, Alix’s Black babysitter, both ordinary and extremely dissectible. Reid pulls the reader in with gripping prose and dialogue, lightly puncturing unconscious biases and racist remarks in exchanges between the two main characters and others. A great satire. I hope Reid comes out with more books.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

I’m always open to reading books that critique our current world with the purpose of imagining (and acting on) a better one, and this book was exactly that. Gladwell underscores the collective, structural inequities that pervade all our systems and bubble up to the surface in the form of our interactions with strangers, which, you guessed it, we’re terrible at. Gladwell states, “We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy.” Each chapter dissects an aspect or event in society, weaving storytelling with evidence-based strategies that depict how broken we are as a community. I was heartened to see Gladwell acknowledging that his thoughts and concepts shared were rooted in a western perspective, with its own metrics of (for instance) understanding facial expressions and social behavior.

I found myself revisiting this book after I put it down, particularly, I think, because Sandra Bland’s death and the events leading up to it have stuck with me since 2015…Gladwell shares Bland’s story, concluding, “The death of Sandra Bland is what happens when a society does not know how to talk to strangers.” The systematic, racial prejudice and discrimination is analyzed using sociological concepts that explain issues like the “transparency problem,” coupling, and “default to truth,” which Gladwell sheds light on and urges people to realize these truths in themselves.

The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay

“It also requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn’t hoard it. No scarcity of delight.”

I came across this book at the perfect time, as the ongoing global covid pandemic has taken a toll, on top of the current covid situation in Thailand. This book, exactly as the title suggests, focuses on appreciating the little things in life, the quotidian delights that add a spark to our lives. (Almost) every day for a year, Dr. Gay catalogues at least one item, person, or aspect of his day that brought him delight, be it a praying mantis, observing a mother and daughter sharing a shopping bag, nicknames, or pecans. I try to live life with a positive outlook but doing so has admittedly become more difficult. This book helped reset my focus and drive, and I’m grateful to Dr. Gay for that.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown

Quite simply, this is a book that I’ll come back to throughout my life as it is a compass for “wholehearted living.” Dr. Brown unpacks topics woven with vulnerability, including shame resilience, perfectionism, empathy, mindfulness, and a “strengths perspective,” among many others, and does so with powerful imagery and storytelling. Recommend to all.

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad

Favorite quote: “Life is not a controlled experiment. You can’t time-stamp when one thing turns into another, can’t quantify who impacts you in what way, can’t isolate which combination of factors alchemize into healing. There is no atlas charting that lonely, moonless stretch of highway between where you start and who you become. But by the time New York looms into view, the city’s mad, glittering skyline blotting out the stars, something in me has shifted, maybe even on a molecular level.”

A 2021 favorite and one of the most raw, brave, and gripping memoirs I’ve ever read. Rarely does a book evoke all five senses as this one does on both imagery and visceral levels. I won’t go into the book’s details as this is one of those books that solicit the most personal impact if you let the author speak to you on every page. Though here’s some of Jaouad’s phrases I had to highlight: “the phone became our umbilical cord” (describing daily calls with her mother), “my limbs heavy containers filled with cement,” “baby-food beige” (describing hospital space), and “clouds floating flimsily overhead like tissue paper.” Jaouad writes with truth as her compass, even when it’s the most difficult and she explores the deepest emotional wounds and physical trauma that come with cancer: “living with a life-threatening illness turned me into a second-class citizen in the land of time,” “watercolors and words were the drugs we preferred for our pain,” “to learn to swim in the ocean of not-knowing—this is my constant work,” and “to be well now is to learn to accept whatever body and mind I currently have.” Yet another book I’d recommend to everyone.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Mbue moves away from the mainstream narrative we often hear about immigrants in the US, portraying main characters Jende and Neni Jonga, Cameroonian immigrants, as their whole selves—with lives, feelings, and stories that stretch beyond who they are once in the US. This novel depicts how opportunity fares against privilege and power—with the plot unfolding when Jende becomes a chauffeur for a Lehman Brother senior executive. Each chapter takes on each main character’s perspective, from the Jongas to Clark and Cindy Edwards who employ the Jongas. You read the novel with the sense that some form of catastrophe is impending, and once it strikes, characters fall back on what they know best and are most familiar, positioning this book as a glimpse into how privilege shapes choice, behavior, and sense of self-worth. Thank you, Pat, for recommending!

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

A historical fiction novel loosely based on Frazier’s great-grand-uncle W.P. Inman, Cold Mountain is set toward the end of the American Civil War and follows Inman, a wounded “deserter” from the Confederate army, as he walks for months on end to return to Ada Monroe, his love. While the flashback structure didn’t work great for me, I appreciated Frazier’s depictions of the rough terrain Inman faces, the characters he crosses paths with along the way, and the rural farm life that Ada leads. With Cold Mountain, Frazier crafted a slow book that simmers at the heartstrings instead of tugging at them. The plot mirrors the rhythms of farm life and war, capturing the undertones of loss and grief and how they ravage the body and mind across generations (while cheering for Inman and Ada to return to one another!).

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