January was an unusual reading month for me, because it didn't include any novels. Instead, I read a collection of short stories and two works of nonfiction. All three were great, powerful books, but they all focused on bleak topics, so I may need to seek out some more escapist literature next.
→ DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay is an incredible and intense collection. The opening story, "I Will Follow You", which features sisters who share a bond after suffering horrific sexual violence together, introduces subjects and themes that are repeated throughout the book. Most of the stories revolve around women figuring out how to survive brutality, grief, and other terrible circumstances, so while there are some hopeful endings, this isn't easy reading.
The narrator of "Break All the Way Down" is one of several in the collection mourning the loss of a baby, but Gay makes this and every other story specific and individual by delving deep into the character's particular journey through pain. I was constantly struck by the complexity of the lives established in a short space. "La Negra Blanca", for example, is a compact and nuanced portrait of both a college student who strips for tuition money and the customer who lusts after her, and the plot builds piece by piece to a terrible climax in just 15 pages.
Several stories have magical elements, such as "Water, All Its Weight" about a woman who is followed by dampness and mold. A couple are structured as a series of vignettes, like "FLORIDA", a powerful look at how class and body image affect the residents of a gated community. Whatever the style or tone, Gay's gorgeous writing exposes the emotional core of the difficult lives that produce difficult (ill-treated, hurting, misunderstood) women.
→ WHAT WE DO NOW: STANDING UP FOR YOUR VALUES IN TRUMP'S AMERICA edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians: Following the election, the independent publisher Melville House pulled together this anthology of essays and speeches by activists, politicians, and writers. The contributions, divided into topics like Racial Justice, Immigration, and Women's Rights, address the country's current situation (or at least, the situation as anticipated before the inauguration) and attempt to offer guidance, motivation, and hope.
Two essays from ACLU directors, one by David Cole and the other by Anthony D. Romero, remind readers that legal action and the protections of the Constitution will continue to have power against the Trump administration's policies, a fact demonstrated sooner than we might have imagined. Brittany Packnett of Campaign Zero asks the important and difficult question, White People: What Is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency? and suggests a few starting points. ("Here's a simple test: If the action you're taking isn't really costing you your comfort, chances are you're not doing enough.") Cristina Jiménez, director of United We Dream, delivers a rousing call for "local grassroots organizing, the daily practice of using an intersectional and cross-movement lens, and the discipline to do the hard work."
I found some of the entries more useful and engaging than others (I question the choice to open with a rather dry proposal for economic reform by Bernie Sanders), but every writer had something worthwhile to add. Taken as a whole, this collection provided much-needed inspiration for facing what's ahead.
→ IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN by Erik Larson: This work of nonfiction looks at Germany in 1933-34, as Hitler rose to power, by focusing on the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family, particularly his adult daughter Martha. The Dodds arrived in Berlin at a time of upheaval but initially disbelieved or downplayed reports of Nazi persecution and brutality, a position that's chilling from the perspective of both history and current events. The family's interactions with many of the prominent people in Berlin at the time, from leaders of the Nazi party to Jewish journalists, provide a fascinating view into how German society changed in the course of a year that eventually convinced the Dodds to recognize the danger of Hitler's reign.
Larson tells the story with a novelistic technique that makes for page-turning reading, though at times I found the literary style a bit overdone and would have preferred more straightforward prose. I did appreciate Larson explaining upfront that anything presented as a quote is taken from a diary, letter, or other primary source, so it was clear that despite the use of devices from fiction, this is a factually accurate, heavily researched account of history. I didn't know a lot about this period, and I learned a great deal.
I picked up this book in January expecting a cautionary tale, but I was still alarmed at spotting quite so many parallels to the xenophobia, discrimination, and governmental chaos happening right now. One of many sentences that resonated: "Hitler's government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another." By the end, though, I felt hopeful on reading, "Throughout that first year in Germany, Dodd had been struck again and again by the strange indifference to atrocity that had settled over the nation, the willingness of the populace and of the moderate elements in the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest." Germany's silent acceptance was a terrible mistake that we aren't taking any chances with today.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Eileen Webb shares strategies for Productivity in Terrible Times: "Blocking off time -- whether for volunteering or regular work -- can feel daunting, and disconnecting from our news sources and friends can feel simultaneously like guilty relief and anxious negligence. But the world will still be burning when you come back, and you'll feel better for having given your time, or completed some work that will enable you to keep fighting."
→ At Literary Hub, Anna Pitoniak reveals What Being An Editor Taught Me About Writing: "Every sentence or passage ought to perform a function, whether it is moving the action forward, or developing a character, or deepening an emotion, or something else that truly enhances the story. I am wary of writing that is merely beautiful. And if you’ve convinced me that a character is a certain way, you don't need to keep convincing me of that again and again."