Weekly updates and mini nonfiction reviews of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, and Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.
This week, I exited a reading slump and read four out of the five books that were on my TBR list for the week. I started working regularly again this week, while continuing to freelance on the side, but I found that setting aside one or two hours each weeknight helped me reach my goals. It also didn’t hurt that I enjoyed almost all the books I read, from James Baldwin’s genre-bending meditation on national identity to Rebecca Solnit’s latest collection of feminist essays. Next week, I’m planning on reading more nonfiction as well as a few poetry collections, before shifting to fiction for the month of October. Looking at my shelves on Goodreads this weekend, I realized just how many novels I want to read before the year ends, and I’m excited to start reading/listening to them just as book awards season kicks into full gear.
(1.) Men We Reaped: Meditative and moving, Jesmyn Ward’s memoir places personal tragedy against the backdrop of systemic racism and poverty. Ward alternates between recounting her childhood in rural Mississippi and sketching biographies of five young Black men she intimately knew, all who died within the span of four years. Each chapter consists of a series of loosely connected vignettes, written in plain but powerful prose. The book’s associative structure and accessible language would make it a swift read, were it not for the pain of the stories Ward tells. Overdose, murder, suicide, and a pair of fatal accidents are juxtaposed against the hardships Ward herself faced as a working-class girl growing up in a virulently anti-Black state. The memoir isn’t without some flaws, as several have noted; at times it moves too quickly, and the author could have far more explicitly tied the deaths of her loved ones to the poisonous effects of white supremacy in America. But Ward’s grasp on narrative is astounding, her descriptions memorable, and her observations on the social life of the South astute.
(2.) Transgender History: First published in 2008 but recently revised and rereleased, Susan Stryker’s Transgender History overviews a wide array of American individuals, events, and organizations related to trans history. The book lacks an overarching narrative that ties together all the chapters, though each proceeds chronologically. The main chapters are preceded by an introduction featuring a catalogue of terms and definitions. Stryker’s meandering focus and lack of a thesis often makes her book read like a history textbook more than a work of social science or narrative nonfiction. Still, the book’s well-cited information makes it decent as a reference guide for those interested in LGBT issues, as does its extensive list of further reading.
(3.) No Name in the Street: Divided into two parts of similar lengths, with a short epilogue, James Baldwin’s fourth work of nonfiction contemplates the collapse of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The book, first published in 1972, begins with an overview of the author’s childhood in Harlem. Baldwin soon turns his attention, though, to considering a constellation of other topics. The assassination of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, McCarthyism and the rise of fascism in Spain, French hostility toward Algeria, Northern and Southern forms of racism. Anecdotes tend to act as jumping-off points for extended discussions of these race-inflected social issues. Compared to Baldwin’s first three nonfiction books, all published in the 1950s and 1960s, No Name in the Street is less driven by hope. The author’s anger pulses throughout the book, and it propels the narrative forward toward an epilogue that anticipates the onset of violent revolution across the globe.