Over at Book Riot, Rebecca Hussey recommends five great genre-bending nonfiction books that “combine memoir with history, travel, philosophy, literary criticism, politics, religion, and more.”
On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera
Far from home, in the confines of a dim New York apartment where the oppressive skyscrapers further isolate her, Jazmina Barrera offers a tour of her lighthouses-those structures whose message is “first and foremost, that human beings are here.”Starting with Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather, an engineer charged with illuminating the Scottish coastline, On Lighthouses artfully examines lighthouses from the Spanish to the Oregon coasts and those in the works of Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Ingmar Bergman, and many others.
In trying to “collect” lighthouses by obsessively describing them, Barrera begins to question the nature of writing, collecting, and how, by staring so intently at one thing we are only trying to avoid others. Equal parts personal memoir and literary history, On Lighthouses, takes the reader on a desperate flight from raging sea to cold stone-from hopeless isolation to a meaningful one-concluding at last in a place of peace: the home of a selfless, guiding light.
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The Toni Morrison Book Club by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Piper Kendrix Williams, & Cassandra Jackson
In this startling group memoir, four friends—black and white, gay and straight, immigrant and American-born—use Toni Morrison’s novels as a springboard for intimate and revealing conversations about the problems of everyday racism and living whole in times of uncertainty. Tackling everything from first love and Soul Train to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, the authors take up what it means to read challenging literature collaboratively and to learn in public as an act of individual reckoning and social resistance.
Framing their book club around collective secrets, the group bears witness to how Morrison’s works and words can propel us forward while we sit with uncomfortable questions about race, gender, and identity. How do we make space for black vulnerability in the face of white supremacy and internalized self-loathing? How do historical novels speak to us now about the delicate seams that hold black minds and bodies together?
This slim and brilliant confessional offers a radical vision for book clubs as sites of self-discovery and communal healing. The Toni Morrison Book Club insists that we find ourselves in fiction and think of Morrison as a spiritual guide to our most difficult thoughts and ideas about American literature and life.
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Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick
Unfinished Business is Vivian Gornick’s celebration of passionate reading, of returning again and again to the books that have shaped her at crucial points in her life. In nine essays that traverse literary criticism, memoir, and biography, one of our most celebrated critics writes about the importance of reading—and re-reading—as life progresses. Gornick finds herself in contradictory characters within D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, assesses womanhood in Colette’s The Vagabond and The Shackle, and considers the veracity of memory in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. She revisits Great War novels by J. L. Carr and Pat Barker, uncovers the psychological complexity of Elizabeth Bowen’s prose, and soaks in Natalia Ginzburg, “a writer whose work has often made me love life more.” After adopting two cats, whose erratic behavior she finds vexing, she discovers Doris Lessing’s Particularly Cats.
Guided by Gornick’s trademark verve and insight, Unfinished Business is a masterful appreciation of literature’s power to illuminate our lives from a peerless writer and thinker who “still read[s] to feel the power of Life with a capital L.”
American Harvest: God Country, and Farming in the Heartland by Marie Mutsuki Mockett
For over one hundred years, the Mockett family has owned a seven-thousand-acre wheat farm in the panhandle of Nebraska, where Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s father was raised. Mockett, who grew up in bohemian Carmel, California, with her father and her Japanese mother, knew little about farming when she inherited this land. Her father had all but forsworn it.
In American Harvest, Mockett accompanies a group of evangelical Christian wheat harvesters through the heartland at the invitation of Eric Wolgemuth, the conservative farmer who has cut her family’s fields for decades. As Mockett follows Wolgemuth’s crew on the trail of ripening wheat from Texas to Idaho, they contemplate what Wolgemuth refers to as “the divide,” inadvertently peeling back layers of the American story to expose its contradictions and unhealed wounds. She joins the crew in the fields, attends church, and struggles to adapt to the rhythms of rural life, all the while continually reminded of her own status as a person who signals “not white,” but who people she encounters can’t quite categorize.
American Harvest is an extraordinary evocation of the land and a thoughtful exploration of ingrained beliefs, from evangelical skepticism of evolution to cosmopolitan assumptions about food production and farming. With exquisite lyricism and humanity, this astonishing book attempts to reconcile competing versions of our national story.
Afropessimism by Frank B. Wilderson III
Why does race seem to color almost every feature of our moral and political universe? Why does a perpetual cycle of slavery–in all its political, intellectual, and cultural forms–continue to define the Black experience? And why is anti-Black violence such a predominant feature not only in the United States but around the world? These are just some of the compelling questions that animate Afropessimism, Frank B. Wilderson III’s seminal work on the philosophy of Blackness.
Combining precise philosophy with a torrent of memories, Wilderson presents the tenets of an increasingly prominent intellectual movement that sees Blackness through the lens of perpetual slavery. Drawing on works of philosophy, literature, film, and critical theory, he shows that the social construct of slavery, as seen through pervasive anti-Black subjugation and violence, is hardly a relic of the past but the very engine that powers our civilization, and that without this master-slave dynamic, the calculus bolstering world civilization would collapse. Unlike any other disenfranchised group, Wilderson argues, Blacks alone will remain essentially slaves in the larger Human world, where they can never be truly regarded as Human beings, where, “at every scale of abstraction, violence saturates Black life.”
Radical in conception, remarkably poignant, and with soaring flights of lyrical prose, Afropessimism reverberates with wisdom and painful clarity in the fractured world we inhabit. It positions Wilderson as a paradigmatic thinker and as a twenty-first-century inheritor of many of the African American literary traditions established in centuries past.