CULTURE CLUB: SUMMER READING RECOMMENDATIONS

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Culture Club is a new column that will fill out the Indy’s news and opinion coverage with discussions of all things related to cultural affairs in Amherst. It takes the word “culture” most broadly, to mean all the arts of all stripes, from literature and poetry to visual arts, dance and theater. Potential columns will range from updates on cultural events in town, to reviews of TV shows, exhibitions, records, to anything else related to the arts and humanities that seems especially noteworthy. Art Keene proposed the subject of this first article: suggestions for summer reading from the Indy Editors. Please add your own reading picks in the comments and send me suggestions for future columns at wkaizen@gmail.com.

Editors’ Picks For The Summer

William Kaizen

For the past several years, my fiction reading has almost entirely focused on queer and feminist science fiction and fantasy. I recently completed N.K. Jemison’s Stone Earth Trilogy and am in the middle of Samuel Delany’s Tales of Neveryon Tetrology. 

All three of Jemison’s books—The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky—won the Hugo Award for sci-fi novel writing, making her the first black author to have won this award and the first woman to have won three in a row. The books follow the story of a woman in a distant, post-apocalyptic future when Earth is plagued by a never-ending series of catastrophic weather events triggered by volcanic activity. The protagonist is an “orogene,” one of a small handful of people whose ability to control seismic activity has lead to their being both feared and treated as second class citizens, a deftly handled parable for slavery and its legacy. 

Delany’s series of short stories and one novel, which consists of Tales of Neveryon, Neveryona, Flight from Neveryon, and Return to Neveryon, handles slavery more directly. Set in a fantasy world transitioning from oral to written society where capitalism is just burgeoning, the books circle around the legendary Gorik, a former slave whose mission to free others enslaved parallels the decline of slavery during the 19th century. Delany wrote the Neveryon series during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Heavily influenced by postmodernism and the emergence of queer theory, the book continually undermines the reader’s expectations of gender roles and questions its own methods of storytelling through devices that include unreliable narrators and mock academic appendices that re-frame its main story lines. One story reframes the AIDS crisis as an allegorical plague. Many include sadomasochistic sex. Read the first if you’re looking for a place to start.

The best non-fiction book I’ve read recently is Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk by Sam McPheeters, singer of Born Against. A thoughtful memoir of the early 90s hardcore and DIY music scene, I was there for many of the events he recounts, and am sympathetic with how he reckons with music as a force for cultural activism. 

Laura Quilter

I’ve been reading the graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, who also adapted Butler’s Kindred. It’s just out! I’ve also been reading The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. It was a book series before it was a TV series with a catchy song! Start with The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, which include the short stories made into Season 1 of the TV series. The prose is a little heavy sometimes, which is an odd sensation with what is, fundamentally, something quite campy. Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender is hot off the presses—a new YA-friendly book about a young queer demi-boy wrestling with love, gender, and homophobia. My 12 year old loved it. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America edited locally by Whitney Battle-Baptiste of UMass’s W.E.B. Du Bois Center and Britt Rusert is a stunning collection of Du Bois’ infographics that reminds us that he was truly a polymath. His innovative infographics look stunningly modern, and demonstrate compellingly why he has been called the father of sociology. 

Art Keene

Non-Fiction

Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Kendzior. Kendzior is an anthropologist and journalist who previously studied the rise of autocracy in Uzbekistan and now writes extensively about democracy. She was among the first to predict Trump’s  win in 2016 and her warnings about how that presidency would play out now appear prescient. The book describes Trump’s rise to power and his history as the head of an international crime family. It’s worth the purchase price just for Chapter 3, which covers the entanglement of child sex trafficker Jeffery Epstein with some of the most ppwerful people in the world, including Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr.

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells. This is a grim and excruciatingly clear account of the doom facing us if climate change continues unabated.  Wallace-Wells does not say we are doomed—there are options available to us for saving the planet and ourselves—but he doesn’t see much evidence that we are going to embrace those options. Lots of the latest science is presented in admirably accessible prose.

The Future Earth: A Radical Vision for What’s Possible in the Age of Warming by Eric Holthaus.  Leading climate change advocate and weather-related journalist Eric Holthaus (“The Rebel Nerd of Meteorology,” says Rolling Stone) offers a radical vision of our future, specifically how to reverse the short- and long-term effects of climate change over the next three decades

How To Be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi. Everyone seems to be reading this book this summer so you should consider it too. From the National Book Award winning author of Stamped From The Beginning.

Fiction

The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabelle Allende. A compelling love story set in the years from the Spanish Civil War through Pinochet’s Chile.  Sufficient revolutionary fervor to help sustain us in these dark times. 

Weather by Jenny Offil. Here’s your beach read. Short witty chapters and an engaging story capturing the emotional turmoil of living in the Trump era. A librarian in NYC becomes a ghost-writing advice columnist for an established successful podcast. 

Kids

The Winterhouse Trilogy by Ben Gusterson. An orphaned young girl (they’re always orphans) discovers that she has magical powers during a stay at a mysterious hotel. Kind of Harry Potter and The Magicians meet a female protagonist. The books are filled with mystery, nice illustrations, and word puzzles, and are great for middle-grade readers. 

Jennifer Page

Audiobook Recommendations

Lately it seems that the only way I can “read” a book is to listen to an audiobook. I’ve long been a fan of audiobooks, and have alternated between printed books and audiobooks for years. With the state of current affairs, I find that my brain can’t focus on reading a printed book, and that listening to an audiobook is a great way to escape current events, if only for a little while.

My two sources of audiobooks are Audible and Overdrive. Audible is a subscription service—you pay a monthly fee for credits and in most cases one credit gets you one book. The lowest subscription level is $14.95 per month for one credit. Once you buy a book, you keep it forever, even if you cancel your subscription. You can also put your subscription on hold at no cost, and maintain access to books you’ve already purchased.

Overdrive is an app that gives you access to e-books and audiobooks from your public library. CW MARS patrons can log in with your library card. Any Massachusetts resident can sign up for an ecard from the Boston Public Library, and then you also have access to all of their ebooks and audiobooks. The great thing about this is that it’s free! However, like with physically printed books, there are a limited number of copies of ebooks and audiobooks to lend out, so there is often a waiting list for popular titles and new releases. I have found that between CW MARS and the Boston Public Library, I can find almost any book, though I may have to wait for it.

Here are some of my recent favorites. 

Born a Crime: Stories from a South Africa Childhood by Trevor Noah, read by Trevor Noah. Noah has such a beautiful voice. I would be happy to listen to him read the phone book, as they say. His personal story of growing up in South Africa is harrowing, heartbreaking, and inspiring. 

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes, read by Cary Elwes, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Wallace Shawn, Robin Wright. Fans of the movie will love this book! Cary Elwes shares personal stories from the casting and making of this beloved classic. Portions of the audiobook are read by almost every cast member. 

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, read by Nicole Chung. Oof! This book was so painful, but I couldn’t turn it off. Nicole Chung was born to Korean parents and adopted as an infant by a white couple. When she searches for her biological parents, she learns that her story is not as simple as she always thought. 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, read by Jenna Lamia. A book for middle-grade readers about a trio of friends and how they help each other in a world that can be unkind. The companion books (Louisiana’s Way Home and Beverly, Right Here) are equally compelling. 

Dear Girls by Ali Wong, read by Ali Wong. Comedian Ali Wong writes this book as a series of letters to her young daughters about the life lessons she wants to impart to them. It is equally hilarious, filthy, and sweet. 

Kitty Axelson-Berry

Non-Fiction

Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s: A Groundbreaking Approach For Dealing With the Disease by Joanne Koenig Coste.  More than four million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, and as many as twenty million have close relatives or friends with the disease. Revolutionizing the way we perceive and live with Alzheimer’s, Joanne Koenig Coste offers a practical approach to the emotional well-being of both patients and caregivers that emphasizes relating to patients in their own reality.

The Invisible Rainbow, A History of Electricity and Life by Arthur Firstenberg. Over the last 220 years, society has evolved a universal belief that electricity is ‘safe’ for humanity and the planet. Scientist and journalist Arthur Firstenberg disrupts this conviction by telling the story of electricity in a way it has never been told before―from an environmental point of view―by detailing the effects that this fundamental societal building block has had on our health and our planet.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson chronicles one of the great untold stories of American history: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, in search of a better life.

Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning by Thomas Moore. Using examples from his practice as a psychotherapist and teacher who lectures widely on the soul of medicine and spirituality, Moore argues for a new vision of aging: as a dramatic series of initiations, rather than a diminishing experience, one that each of us has the tools―experience, maturity, fulfillment―to live out.

Fiction

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi.  Hegi brings us an unforgettable story in Trudi, a dwarf,  and a small town, weaving together a profound tapestry of emotional power, humanity, and truth.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  This magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart.  An intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe.

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2 thoughts on “CULTURE CLUB: SUMMER READING RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. I am delighted to see this addition to the Indy. I would love even more – reviews of performances at the high school and local colleges, art shows at the various museums located in town and performances of community based organizations such as the Pioneer Valley Symphony and Valley Light Opera. Informed reviews would restore a service to local community culture that has been lacking for a long time. It used to be that one could expect such reviews in the Gazette, and the Gazette has made commendable efforts to enhance its cultural columns, but it has not been able (or willing) to review community cultural offerings. Let the Indy be the place to go to find out about shows at the colleges and the high school!

  2. So I have another book to recommend, actually several in the SF genre, but let’s start here. I recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. Sure it was written in 1974 but it is, nonetheless, a book for our times, exploring the travails of a group of revolutionaries who attempt to establish planetary anarchism on a desolate moon following a revolution on their earth-like planet. I taught this book any chance I had during my years at UMass, probably at least once/year for my last 20. This book explores in a most positive way, the idea that a better world is possible.

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