Recommendations for when neither doomscrolling nor making your ripples in the pond are keeping the dysthymia at bay.
Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System, by Andrew Gumbel
This book is non-fiction about policy and politics in recent history and it will make you hopeful. No, I’m not shitting you and no, I haven’t even had even one glass of wine yet. Won’t Lose This Dream is the story of Georgia State and how it was transformed from a backwater, racist, second-tier night school that was a place of learning mostly in name only into a major educational institution that managed to close achievement and graduation gaps of every kind while expanding its footprint and impact in a once-declining downtown in a majority Black city. In it you’ll meet administrators and teachers and counselors and advisors with vision and relentless commitment to create change — and politicians with the wherewithal to support them! And you’ll meet inspiring students with stories both heartbreaking and aspirational who stuck it out and, in many cases, ultimately got the educational opportunities they were entitled to.
If you’re a policy nerd, you’ll love this book. If you’re a data nerd, you’ll love this book. If you’re an education nerd, you’ll love this book. If you love aspirational stories about inspirational people, you’ll love this book. If you’re looking for reasons to believe that systems can and do change for the better, you’ll love this book. I loved this book so much I read it all the way through the notes at the end. Won’t Lose This Dream is a perfect mental antidote to 2020. I might read it again.
The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel
Sumptuously written with sentences I wanted to read out loud to someone so they could enjoy them with me, The Glass Hotel is a tightly woven story of intersecting lives and how events big and small (a mother’s apparent suicide, the economic collapse of 2008) affects them. The Glass Hotel covers a lot of plot and by the end I found I couldn’t read fast enough to keep up with my curiosity about what would happen next, but it’s not really plot-driven. And while it’s also character-driven, there’s a big cast of primary and just-to-the-side-of-primary characters to keep track of.
The story of Vincent, named after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay by her now-dead mother, is the coherent central path of the book, and the stories of the people at the center and the margins of the largely mundane things that propel her life — deaths, friendships, complicated family, work — are the incredibly compelling container for Mandel’s musings on finding meaning amidst change, and dealing with one’s past(s). A plot summary is impossible (see the attempt on Wikipedia for a giggle), so this recommendation is going to stay as strangely, and end as it started, just like the book: The Glass Hotel is a glorious, diverting read.
Uncanny Valley, by Anna Weiner
Uncanny Valley is a part memoir, part mea culpa, and part tell-all about the early days of Silicon Valley start ups and the (young white) men at the ground floor of making extraordinary amounts of money building the surveillance and attention economy, while disrupting and breaking everything including norms against sexual harassment and basic HR principles. Covering the few years when Weiner moved from her job in the publishing world in NYC to SF for a series of customer service jobs in tech startups.
Describing SF at the time as a city that was “trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected, heterosexual masculinity,” her take is a fun, gossipy, vindicating, and important read. The upshot: if we’re wondering what fresh hell will be wrought, we’d be well served by a keener understanding of who and what created the current hell.
The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa
When I finished reading The Memory Police I asked my husband for a hug — I needed to shake one of the saddest fiction books I’ve ever read. So, if what you’re looking for is an escape from doom put this one on the list to read later. But definitely keep it on a list, because it’s a truly beautiful lamentation on the experience of loss.
The plot is deceptively simple: people in a small island community periodically lose all memory of something, and with their memory they lose that thing. It starts slowly — one morning, umbrellas are gone, and by the end of the day no one can conceptualize what that is. Another morning, the rivers are full of flower petals from the botanic garden at the top of a hill, and by the end of that day no one remembers flowers. The pace of disappearances and the importance of what disappears amplifies, in a slow-moving catastrophe of loss. There are people who aren’t affected by the disappearances — the things themselves are gone, but the memories are retained.
Translated from the original novel published in Japan in 1994, The Memory Police is haunting, sad, and far too relevant for these modern times of loss.
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
Part of the joy of this book is following the winding path that connects each of the dozen main characters and hunting for the easter eggs in each story that reach back to prior chapters. The rest of the joy is in the characters and stories themselves, and the deeply and lovingly developed explorations of the relationships between women — moms and daughters, partners and friends, neighbors and coworkers — in the context of racism and sexism and the intersections of the two in and around every relationship. I grew to love each and every one of these women and saw myself in the good and bad decisions they made and the way they built their lives. This is a fun, interesting, thought-provoking, and diverting book and excellent to escape into for a bit.
Bonus for if you just need to cry a bit: this heartbreaking, sublime, powerful essay by Jessamyn Ward: On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic