Recent Books+ I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: October 2020

These have not been easy months for anyone, and for me, feeling things deeply if I didn’t have to was not on the agenda. Even low-level TV drama has been too much. The most tension I’ve been able to stomach has been the pastel earnestness of the The Great British Baking Show. And that was only when it wasn’t pastry week. 

So I spent September doing puzzles and re-reading timeless fantasy, listening to podcasts, volunteering, volunteering, worrying, resenting the weather. Then it was mid-October, and time to stop hiding my heart. I cracked open a book ...

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

I always fall under the spell of writers who truly love their cities, and so, unsurprisingly, Ms. Kim’s novel grew into my skin once it became clear that it was a hard-won love letter to Los Angeles. The story is about a Korean-American woman living in Seattle who visits her estranged mother in L.A., is shocked to find her dead and tries to understand what happened despite little interest from the police or world. The murder mystery (is it, is it not?) has a whiff of the classic L.A. noir, but the real story is the deliberately unseen high drama of the immigrant women who power the overwhelmingly male dreams that claim space under Los Angeles’ burning sun. This is a quiet book, and the love, where it happens, has endless paper cut edges and other barbed edges. Which is to say, it feels very right now.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

OK, so this is a book that I’m recommending less for its particular story—a white woman lives her life out of chronological sequence starting at age 18, thanks to some unknown magic—and more for the escape therapy it provides for us real people living in the year of our lord, 2020. The book begins with the main character turning 19 on December 31, 1983 in New York City, so we get to jump around NYC’s music scene in the 2010s, 2000s and 1990s. And if you’ve ever lived in New York, yeah, that’s a real fun f*cking exercise. Though, I found it slightly unbelievable that our heroine didn’t buy a bunch of real estate in say, downtown Brooklyn or the Meatpacking District, in the early 1990s in addition to stocks. I mean, I can’t be the only one? 

Anyway, the other part of this book that makes it particularly therapeutic right now is the idea that we could potentially skip from 2020 to, say, 2030. We could just skip right over 2021! Straight to 2024! 2028! 2050? Just skip all the years where presumably the hardest work of healing from our current administration—assuming things go well next week—is already done. Skip past the death throes of the Republican Party. Skip, hop, float ... to some better future where we don’t even own any masks anymore.

Or not, of course. Thanks to climate change and the pandemic of ongoing racism, 2020 is probably going to be a pretty good year compared to times in the future. But a girl can dream, can’t she? 

Anyway, enjoy life as Oona. Life pre-smart phones and soy lattes, no Uber and Prop 22. The life where struggle makes no difference because your redemptive plot is already set.

Why Does He Do That? By Lundy Bancroft

To be clear, I’m not reading this book because I’m in an abusive relationship (though thank you for wondering for a second, since that’s a healthy thing to do for any friend or Internet stranger). Rather, I heard about this book from people discussing prison abolition a while back, and wanted to understand their points. I also wanted to process the (now long-ago) behavior of two men in my family. This book helped me with both those goals, but also delivered a lot more. In fact, it’s incredibly timely. Bancroft asks, can you fix and heal from the trampling damage of controlling/angry men? I wonder, how about a political party full of them? A nation?

Bancroft’s main argument is that abusive men are not the product of personality disorders or substance abuse, as commonly imagined. Instead, they’re the product of toxic values and ways of thinking: Women are less. I need to be in control. I am entitled to control. Nothing is my fault. Sound familiar? If Lundy is right about individual abusers, and I’m inclined to believe he is, we can’t fix and heal on a societal level until we a) refocus our attention on the survivors and their needs b) confront and challenge these men’s thinking and c) hold them accountable. In other words, no more himpathy. Instead, de-centering and justice.

I could go on at length about particularly useful elements of this book, but suffice it to say that it’s a great book to give to any young woman or man to help prevent them from getting into relationships with abusers, as well as a tremendous resource for people suffering through abusive relationships now or recovering from life with an abuser. I understand what those two men in my family were doing all those years ago, and how to take them off my back once and for all now. Goodbye.

However, I want to focus on what this framework means for moving forward in the U.S. I would say post-election, but this work needs to be done within the Democratic Party, including its progressive wings just as much as anywhere else, starting yesterday. Women have, of course, been pushing for years to acknowledge the sexism rife in the culture of these groups, and getting swatted at by men (and women) who live in their own, toxic frameworks where their words don’t factor. Mr. Rights, if you’ve read Bancroft. That’s how we got nightmare judge elected to the Supreme Court last night. And yes, I am furious and terrified.

Anyway, reading Bancroft’s book also made me think about whether this same framework also applies to racism, which is another form of abuse. If the solution to dismantling the universal racism in us all—though some more so than others—is not the gentle, consequence-free coddling that we white people have traditionally demanded. But direct confrontation and consequences (in a supportive environment that genuinely wishes us to succeed), and a wholesale de-centering of white needs. What a thought. Of course, Bancroft admits that counseling for abusive men rarely works because it requires a bone-deep commitment to changing one’s core values and thought processes. Not exactly hopeful, on so many levels.

So can we heal as a nation? Some, maybe. But honestly, probably not until we at least purge the one iconic, walking iteration of abusive men from our lives: the police. It can’t just be voting out the Republicans. Ordinary cops are the living, breathing embodiment of everyday (abusive) white patriarchy in our nation. There’s a reason they’re so difficult to hold to even the most basic consequences for violence or reform on their own terms: we are still in thrall to their narrative. The uprisings this summer and beyond have forced the less enlightened of us to step just a bit away from that worldview, to begin to imagine de-centering the rights of police officers just the slightest bit, which was one of the first steps towards healing. Have any doubts, listen to this jaw-dropping podcast from While Black.

Voters willing, healing and justice will be the topic dejour for years to come. Bancroft’s book will be required reading for people who want more than performative justice.


Recent Books+ I’ve Clutched In My Hands With Joy: August 2020