Ashe's favorite books of 2014

This year I made a concerted effort to read books almost exclusively by marginalized people. Below are my top 12 of 2014, in no particular order.

With a list this short, you could read just one book a month and make it through the year happy with the quality of books you've read :)

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [general fiction, feminism]

"In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters. They are people with loving families, regular folk who pay taxes. Somebody needs to get the job of deciding who is racist and who isn’t. Or maybe it’s time to just scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute."

The story of a Nigerian-born woman coming to terms with what it means to be Black in America. Throughout the book, she writes a series of blog posts about how confusing it all is, often funny and poignant.

2. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood [science fiction, and I would argue for Horror]

"We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves."

One of the more horrifying science fiction stories I've ever read, the story follows a young woman living in a monotheocratic dystopian society. 

3. Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman [feminism, anthology]

"I took my B+ -- feminism can be graded, after all -- and abandoned feminist activities at Stanford."

This year we read a number of anthologies in the intersectional feminism book club this year, and this was my favorite. In it are discussions of identity, religion, abortion, class, femininity and machismo, being adopted into a transracial and transcultural family, and being an Arab in a country with prejudices and misconceptions about the Arab world.

4. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu [science fiction]

"I have traveled, chronogrammatically, out of the ordinary tense axes and into this place, into the subjunctive mode."

This book is very much in the vain of Douglas Adams-style cleverness and I immediately fell in love with it. This is a time travel story that uses grammar tenses to discuss points in time. My new favorite time travel book!

5. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot [non-fiction, science, investigative journalism]

“Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.” 

This is one of the better books I've read in the past few years. It's written by a woman who ended up becoming close with the family of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose genetic material was taken without her permission and has been in use in science and medical labs across the world since 1951. She was immediately erased and forgotten -- her genetic material being referred to only as HeLa. The story follows the heartbreaking reality of Henrietta Lacks and her family.

6. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh [science fiction, general fiction]

"All of that work to make a little more money. But I will still be Zhang. I carry myself wherever I go, and it is myself I want to escape from. I hate myself. I hate this place. And I find it is very tiring to carry hate all the time. So I sit and listen to the night on the Arctic tundra, defeated before I start. And sick to death of all of it."

China Mountain Zhang reads much more like a general fiction novel set in a science fiction universe. The story follows Zhang, a man who was genetically altered to appear Han Chinese in a world where China is the super power and has control over what once was the United States. A lot of neat tech and beautiful story-telling. (Note: this book has quite a few problematic aspects. Trigger warnings for suicide, rape, and homophobia.)

7. The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates [non-fiction, auto-biographical, race, American culture, narrative]

"Who among us would integrate into a burning house?"

I picked up this book after devouring a bunch of Coates' writing in the Atlantic. The Beautiful Struggle is the story of his childhood and life as a young adult growing up in Baltimore with a father who worked with the Black Panthers and ran a publishing company from his basement to promote and disseminate the work of African writers and visionaries.

8. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon [non-fiction, auto-biographical, race, American culture, narrative]

“Not so deep down, we all know that safety is an illusion, that only character melds us together. That’s why most of us do everything we can (healthy and unhealthy) to ward off that real feeling of standing alone so close to the edge of the world.” 

I came across Laymon's work through a blog post he published on his site and quickly fell in love with his writing. The book is a collection of letters to loved ones, self-reflection, and cultural critique. It's heartwrenching, eye-opening, and funny.

9. Nevada by Imogen Binnie [fiction, trans-feminism]

"She mumbles a no and turns away, still smiling because what else are you going to do, explain patriarchy to this fucking rando?"

Nevada follows the life of a trans* woman who watches as everything in her life crumbles. It's amazingly written; I don't think I've ever felt I was reading myself so much in a character. Highly recommend.

10. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano [feminism, trans-feminism, narrative]

"The constant threat of being ostracized, which is directed toward people who show even the slightest interest in marginalized cultures and perspectives, creates within the center an enforced ignorance regarding those at the margins."

Another one I read in the feminism book club. I've had friends champion this book and at the same time point out a list of problems with it. For the most part, I really enjoyed and learned a lot from this book. I loved the time spent on examining masculinity, which I wasn't expecting.

11. The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell [non-fiction, humor, history]

"Of course, this America does exist.

It's called Canada."

As someone who grew up in New England and had much of the history of colonial America through the Revolutionary War drilled into her, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I learned from her writing. Her style is casual, funny, and super informative. If you're into history, definitely pick up her stuff. (Sidenote: if you like comedic retellings of history, Viva la Revolution, which is about the French Revolution, may be up your alley.)

12. How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston [humor, American culture, race]

“As I've reflected back on both, I realize that my neighborhood was just like The Wire. We had the drug dealing, the police brutality, the murders. Well, it was /almost/ a perfect match. We had everything The Wire had except for universal critical acclaim and the undying love of white people who saw it.” 

This book was hilarious, sharp, and informative; so much so that I finished it over the course of one domestic flight and immediately passed it to a friend of mine to read so we could gush about it together. (Sidenote: I got a recommendation to read Some of My Best Friends Are Black from this book, which is problematic, but has great discussions of things like redlining, bussing, and social segregation.)

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