Time for mid-year updates on my favorite reads! I had a long reading slump in 2022, a mix of feeling down generally because life is hard and feeling like I couldn’t bear thinking about issues that typically make up my reading selections. But 2023 has seen a great recovery, clocking at 55 books by mid-point, propelled by a bunch of fun fiction reads (which also got me out of the slump).
Here are my favorites from the first half of the year.
By the way, I’m also on Threads, where there’s a bunch of fun book people. It’s giving me the good vibes from that other app ten years ago. If you’re there too, find me @josephineelia!
Mott Street, a namesake of the famous street in New York’s Chinatown, is a gorgeous and extensively researched memoir of Ava Chin’s family. Seeking to understand her family’s history, she discovered the weighty impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was in effect for six decades on the lives of her family members.
I love how the nation’s history is intertwined with her family history in this book, because I’m one who believes that they are the same. We can learn much about our country’s history by learning about our family history, because the subject of history–policies, wars, and laws–are lived out in the flesh and bodies of people–people who become our grandmothers and grandfathers. I also love the coverage of Asian American history here that is very rarely part of contemporary conversations. I would have never known about the Chinese Exclusion Act if not for books like these!
Ok, let’s be real. It’s hot. I’m writing this from hot Texas on the last day of July 2023, which is set to be the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, a record that I’m sure will be broken again soon. Did I mention that it’s hot?
I don’t love the politicized conversation on climate change in the US, and that’s an understatement. It’s a terrible starting point to learning what climate change actually is. This book, on the other hand, is a great primer to understanding, step-by-step, how we got to a time in history where human activities are greatly impacting the way nature behaves. With an eloquent teaching voice, Hope Jahren walks us through the changes in human lives and habits that have taken place in the last 200 years or so, from mobility, agriculture, to manufacturing, and more, that necessitates more and more energy usage that we mine from the Earth. It’s simply a story of what has happened. And if you drive a car, use a fridge, or use electricity, then you are a part of this story.
I must admit I’m part of the population that gets bogged down by the reality of climate change, but Jahren infuses her book with hope and cautious optimism, and we should listen to her because she’s so smart. By the way, she also wrote Lab Girl, one of my favorites from way back in 2016, which is still one of my favorite science memoirs.
It’s not hard for me to like this book, because Adam Grant advocates for a habit of rethinking–rethinking knowledge, beliefs, opinions, and assumptions that we may need to revise or let go. It’s an approach that is core in scientific endeavors (hence, my affinity to it). Grant contrasts this mindset to the preachers, prosecutors, and politicians mindsets.
“We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.”
“If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on data… We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for the truth: we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge.”
I think Grant’s message in this book is very relevant for our current moment; there are many spaces that can benefit from a season of rethinking. In general, I’m inclined to agree that evaluating and revising our own ideas is a good (yearly?) habit.
As the title suggests, this book is a celebration of the Black Church in America and the many layers of meaning and impact it has had on Christianity, history, and culture. The Black Church is more than a place of worship; it is the center of everything that has been critical in the Black community through out history.
From the book’s descriptions:
“In this tender and expansive reckoning with the meaning of the Black Church in America, Gates takes us on a journey spanning more than five centuries, from the intersection of Christianity and the transatlantic slave trade to today’s political landscape. At road’s end, and after Gates’s distinctive meditation on the churches of his childhood, we emerge with a new understanding of the importance of African American religion to the larger national narrative—as a center of resistance to slavery and white supremacy, as a magnet for political mobilization, as an incubator of musical and oratorical talent that would transform the culture, and as a crucible for working through the Black community’s most critical personal and social issues.”
On a personal note, I warmly thought about the Black churches that had been safe spaces for me at various points in my life. They embraced me as an international student, the single Asian person in their congregation. They shared their experiences to this kid whose ideas about America were only shaped by movies and TV shows. They were a refuge in times of questioning when I was figuring out the things that were important to my faith. As the book points out, the Black Church’s impact is wide and deep, and I’m truly grateful for their witness.
An American Sunrise is a staggering collection of poems by Joy Harjo, who served as the 23rd United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that honor. Her words channel the feelings of exile, of loss of homeland, and of displacement that were the experience of her ancestors. Deeply moving.
Favorite Books Lists
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