#6 – The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkinson

The second I read the New York Times review of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew I wanted to read this book. I immediately ran to the library.*

I wasn’t disappointed. Rather I found it was even more gripping than I had imagined.

Isabel Wilkerson follows the stories of three people who made the journey from the South to Northern cities. Louisiana to Chicago. Georgia to California. Florida to New York.** Really epic.

Good research and reporting just oozes out of the book. Yet it never disrupts the story. It’s just astonishing to me that a book as big as this one is so incredibly well-crafted. Historical asides provide context for the Great Migration, dismantling myths about the people, time, and places. At the same time the three individuals’ stories are so well-told — I laughed and cried. The three people whose stories Wilkerson follows are not heroic saints. They are not perfect. But they are smart, ambitious, brave, flawed — and just very human. Very American. Just wanting a better life for themselves and their children.

White-guilt-related aside: I often recommend The Warmth of Other Suns to people who tell me they enjoyed The Help. Frankly, The Help was okay (well-paced, good prose), but it left a weird taste in my mouth. Why should I, a white lady, read a white lady’s story about a white lady who, through telling the stories of black ladies, becomes a hero to the grateful black ladies? Can the black ladies not tell their own stories? I felt like a lot of the book was spent trying to convince me that the white lady had to tell the black ladies’ stories for them, that there was no other way. And that just felt creepy and maybe exploitative to me, as a reader. Plus the dialect. Eugh.

So, if you wonder what the lives of real African Americans were like in the ’50s and ’60s, then this book is required reading.

*Haha! Just kidding! I went to the library website and put a hold request on it. We’re in the digital age, people! And I looooooooooooooove the public library. Isn’t my library the cutest?

**Reminding me of some of the longest routes in Ticket to Ride.

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#12 – Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints by Joan Acocella

If I could magically trade places with anybody and try out their career for a day, I might choose Joan Acocella. She gets to review dance and books for The New Yorker. What could possibly be more fun?

Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints is a collection of Acocella’s essay profiles of creative people. (As you may have guessed from the title, 28 of them are artists and two are saints — Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene). Resisting cliches about art and suffering, she considers the lives of artists and asks thoughtful questions about the relationship between art and life.

I loved the profiles of Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, and other dancers. I discovered a writer, new to me, whose work I enjoy — Penelope Fitzgerald. I also loved her essay on the history of writer’s block in which she considers famous cases — Ralph Ellison, Coleridge — and asks why and how it happens.

“Possibly, some writers become blocked simply because the concept exists, and invoking it is easier for them than writing,” she says.

I may have skipped a few essays. But I would recommend this book to anybody interested in how creativity works.

#13 – The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

“Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare. … There were, in classical ballets, the moments when one or another abandoned lover tries to find and resurrect one or another loved one, the blued light, the white tutus, the pas de deux with the loved one that foreshadows the final return to the dead: la danse des ombres, the dance of the shades.”

The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s pas de deux with her dead husband in a sense. This book’s energy comes from the tension between Didion’s desire to be a “cool customer,” the elegant, detached observer who narrates her nonfiction, and her very real need to mourn her husband.

I cried a lot reading this book, even though is basically the opposite of sentimental. Maybe because of that. I started to think about how it will when I lose someone close to me. Hasn’t happened yet, for which I am grateful every day. When it does I might reach for this book.

Extra credit:

Where I Was From is also excellent. That Didion’s account of California — and the idea of California — attempts to make sense of both Thomas Kinkade and the prison guard lobby is pretty amazing. A thought-provoking, beautiful book I want to read again.


#19 – The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Here is, basically, the impetus for writing The Art of Travel:

“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than [sic.] our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside of the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems — that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing.'”

I read it while I was here:

I am the luckiest girl in the entire universe.

It was perfect. You don’t have to go to Florence to read this book. Just read it when you travel somewhere. In fact, one of the chapters is about a journey around the author’s bedroom. Travel doesn’t get more budget than that.

#22 – When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

This book begins with the story of a young woman getting kicked out of traffic courts because she is wearing pants and it ends with the story of a female Pentecostal bus driver being told she can’t wear a skirt on the job.

It's hard not to think about Mad Men as you read some of the early scenes.

In between, Collins interviewed heaps and heaps of American women from as many living generations as she can get her hands on, so the book ends up being a thorough, story-driven, well-reported account of women’s lives over the last 50 years. I’d call When Everything Changed an oral history, but she switches back and forth between broad historical brushstrokes and individual women’s stories who make up those brushstrokes.

I especially appreciated how she reported on the beginning of the women’s movement. NOW was quite small when it started, in Betty Friedan’s hotel room at a conference in 1966. But as soon as it started it swelled — it seems like the country was really ready for a change.

Collins kind of portrays the women’s movement as riding the coattails of the Civil Rights movement whose positions were so well-articulated and clear (her treatment of the underrecognized role of women in the Civil Rights movement is excellent). Yet even very early on in the feminist movement there were differences about what women really wanted. Ending discrimination in the workplace, obviously (wouldn’t that be awesome!). But beyond that — you start to see that feminism has always meant different things to different people.

But this book isn’t just about feminism – it’s about American women. A whole bunch of them. There are some big gaps (religion as a topic is hardly touched on at all). But there’s a lot of fascinating stories here.

#25 – St. Augustine’s Confessions

Now we venture into “classic” territory.

I first read Augustine’s Confessions as a college freshman. But I’ve found myself returning to it multiple times over the years. This year, it was after listening to an intriguing lecture on how Augustine understood memory in relationship to the public spaces of the cities in which he lived his life. I’ve gone back to it as an imperfect Christian. And mostly, I’ve gone back to it as a writer of personal essays, many times, because this is the original text of someone writing about his own life in order to seek a deeper understanding of it and the world around him. Otherwise, why bother writing about yourself?

If you are interested in any of the following topics, I recommend this book:

1. Time

2. Memory

3. Pears

4. Heresy

5. Autobiography

6. Not being nice to your concubine

7. God

8. Gardens in Milan

9. Gladiators

10. Regret

Are the "pears" a metaphor for "something else?" (I find this interpretation annoying.)

27 – The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan O. Hatch

Okay, I waited a couple of days to drop a big one on you. Here it is.

Here’s the thing. We know that we Americans are ignorant about history. We know Americans are ignorant about religion.

And, I would posit, this makes us especially ignorant of religious history in our public discourse. This is a problem, especially when terms like “evangelical” get thrown around by people who have no idea what they mean.

Christians tend to act like the timeline of our religion goes something like:

Jesus……………………………………….Martin Luther* ………….Our Church As It Exists Today!

However, sometimes those critiquing us are just as ignorant. Case in point:

Nice try, atheists. The (pre-mill pre-trib dispensationalist) rapture was invented in the 19th century.

So, I really think everybody — no matter what you believe — should do a bit of reading about the history of Christianity in America. Smart books like Hatch’s present a compelling, well-supported argument about how to understand the past in a way that can help us make sense of the religious landscape of the present day.

This book is dense, but very readable. There’s even a story about Thomas Jefferson and a giant cheese! If that doesn’t whet your appetite, I don’t know what will.

Extra Credit

Also try the works of religious historians Mark Noll and George Marsden.

* Or John Calvin, Menno Simons, John Wesley, or whoever, depending on your denomination. It is possible that Catholics don’t have this problem…but then they didn’t score very high on the Pew Forum’s religious knowledge test either.