For the past few years, Law Center staff compile a list of our favorite books we read from the year before. We share books that we couldn’t stop thinking about. Books we’ve gifted to our family because they changed our lives. Books that expanded our sense of self and the way we navigate the world. And if you work your way through this list and need more reading material, take a look at our past book recommendations here: 2022, 2021, 2018.
Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership by Brenna Bhandar
Recommended by Dorian: As my first read of the year, this book was so important for me in challenging the linear narratives of property development that tend to be pernicious to our movement, and at worst, have us wanting to replicate racial regimes of ownership. As our work at the Law Center changes in relation to our organizing, we’ve also come across fertile discussions as to how our land justice work can be better informed by labor struggles, and vice versa. I found that in the same way that racial subjectivity and property are produced through one another, which is the underlying theme of this book, so too have land and labor work been co-constituted seeing as they map rather analogously. As my understanding of the colonial legacy of the land grows through its classification as property by reading books such as this one, so has my capacity to build more expansively in all my work. I especially encourage folks to read Chapter 3, where Bhandar explores how much the American colonization of California informed the colonization patterns of Israel, and how Israel used European notions of improvement in justifying the occupation of Bedouin lands. Bhandar shows us how the Anti-Semitic trope of the wandering Jew would go on to inform the Zionist emphasis on laboring the land as a key to the redemption Jewish people in Palestine. I leave you with this quote:
“The Zionist return to Palestine incorporated both Christian theological and Enlightenment perspectives on history that posited the Jews on the side of modernity in opposition to the Orientalist world of the Arab, who became for the Jewish, as for Christian Europeans, a backward, inferior people. The ideology of improvement and progress, informed entirely by a European episteme, was an inherent part of modern political Zionist ideology.”
Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination by Avery F. Gordon
Recommended by Dorian: How do we move from the overbearing presence of the now, saturated with paralyzing horror? Or in Avery Gordon’s words, how do we “move analytically between that sad couch that sags in just that place where an unrememberable past and an unimaginable future force us to sit day after day” and the “conceptual abstractions,” namely the -isms that we use to poorly make sense of the world? According to Avery, we sit in the horror. In this book, she invites to see haunting as a meditation, to befriend the ghosts and listen to them. This isn’t to say that we spend our times in the past, replaying the traumas in our head. Rather, we hear the whispering possibility of the worlds that never materialized but continue to run parallel to ours. Despite us believing we abandoned them in those historical junctures that define our life, they remain with us. Our task at hand is to embody possibility, or what Avery Gordon calls the “something-to-be done.” This book was really challenging to read, but it promised me the respite of deep realization multiple times between its pages. Largely focusing on a Dirty War inspired novel by Luisa Valenzuela titled “Como en la guerra,” and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ghostly Matters taught me to contemplate the cloak of hypervisibility, and the crevice between agency and the lack thereof - what she calls complex personhood. She reminded us to arm the subjective with the social so that we may get to experience life differently. I leave you with this quote:
“Reckoning is about knowing what kind of effort is required to change ourselves and the conditions that make us who we are, that set limits on what is acceptable and unacceptable, on what is possible and impossible. Both Valenzuela and Morrison are concerned with change
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Lewis Herman
Recommended by Erika: This groundbreaking nonfiction book, originally published in 1992 by psychiatrist, researcher, and feminist Judith Lewis Herman, was recommended to me by my therapist. And he was right—it completely revolutionized my thinking about how humans respond to and recover from trauma of all different kinds as well as the mental health field in general. One of the most unexpectedly interesting parts of the book to me dealt with the repeatedly uncovered and re-obscured history of the study of trauma in the field of psychology. Herman describes how Sigmund Freud (of all people) accidentally found out about the widespread and extreme sexual violence against women in his society and connected this trauma to the phenomenon of “hysteria.” He interviewed and believed women, published a book about it, and then became disgraced and disavowed his book when his society wasn’t ready to hear this truth. Thus, in addition to dealing with clinical understandings and treatment of trauma, Herman weaves together a compelling story about the way our society has denied the existence of trauma and repressed victim’ stories over hundreds of years and in different iterations.
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis
Recommended by Hasmik: As an immigrant, activist, and lawyer passionate about reimagining our future and working towards a just and ecological society, I find Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis deeply resonant. Varoufakis skillfully criticizes the current capitalist system and proposes an alternative world where economic and environmental justice are intertwined. It envisions a society that prioritizes sustainable resource allocation and care. This vision is both inspiring and grounding. It helps me remain in a space of critical hope, while recognizing the immense challenges and essential hard work required by our species to overcome these deeply entrenched systems that currently propel us towards climate catastrophe.
Raising Antiracist Children: A Practical Parenting Guide
Recommended by Hope: I know that some folks aren’t planning to have a child in the immediate future. Regardless, it is a phenomenal read! As we carefully curate our world and the people that represent an extension of the best versions of ourselves, I have, from time to time, come across individuals who are not a part of that order. Performative, microaggressive, not knowing the difference between impact versus intent, and sometimes outright racist. Let me tell you, reading this book has enabled me to meet them at their level with the hope that there could at the very least be some modicum of change in their values, ideology, and world view. At times it has felt like a hopeless endeavor, but this book has enabled me to dust off the old “Combatting Racism” tools after having lived (and continue to live) in a world that loves me, sees me, and doesn’t need me to define “white supremacy” and its impact and intent. My friends and coworkers are bonafide co-conspirators and I am so grateful as they make me a better version of myself every single day.
Post Colonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Recommended by Hope: The book opens with a quote from Joy Harjo: “I am singing a song that can only be born after losing a country.”. This book is not for the faint of heart. You will cry. The author pushes you through the landscape of their world. It isn’t a song that we colonizers can sing or understand. Only feel and live with the feeling of the author’s pain and beauty. It’s generational trauma told through a series of Pulitzer Prize winning poems. Love, sex, blood, bullets, knives, domestic violence, fetishization of indigenous peoples, racism, drug use, and genocide. “Catching Copper”, “Manhattan is a Lenape Word”, and “Postcolonial Love Poem” hit me the most on the first read.
“Wake up and ache for your life.”
Beautiful, heartbreaking, violent, and breathtaking. Period.
The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City
Recommended by Hope: I am a wannabe diehard policy wonk who lives in San Francisco. Both are some variation of a disease that I have… I can’t help it! I love reading non-fiction that uncovers racial inequality in San Francisco. This book came recommended from a starry eyed intern that I met at City Hall. We were trying to solve the world’s problems, or at least one of them. There’s a municipally owned housing complex in the Fillmore Western Addition that has fought tooth and nail to stay housed and their arch nemesis is the City itself (thanks London Breed!). Ideas were being discussed and someone had the audacity to recommend a municipal bond. As a wannabe policy wonk still in the early stages of learning, I naively thought that that was a phenomenal idea. The intern set us straight. The dust jacket describes it better than I ever could: “Indebtedness, like inequality, has become a ubiquitous condition in the United States…American cities’ dependence on municipal debt or how the terms of municipal finance structure racial privileges, entrench spatial neglect, elide democratic input, and distribute wealth and power.” It’s a guide towards preemptive thought and I can’t recommend it enough.
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson
Recommended by Itzel: No matter how old we get, we will always be the children of our parents. This has been a helpful thing for me to remember. Every birthday since I turned 18, I’ve thought to myself “ok, I’m older now. I don’t need my parents the way I used to need them so any pain or desires I have related to them should go away”. Spoiler alert: they don’t. We will never stop wanting our parents to love and hold us and accept us fully. And they may never be able to do that for us. This book has helped me understand myself more and accept the parts of me that are in pain. I have been able to put words to my confusing feelings and have been able to rebuild my relationship to myself and with my mom.
Inciting Joy by Ross Gay
Recommended by Mwende: Poet, professor, and community gardener Ross Gay reminds me that pursuing joy is serious work because in order to feel the depth of joy, we have to keep ourselves tender; which means also feeling the depths of grief and suffering. If we numb ourselves to pain, we lose the ability to feel anything at all. But how do we keep from being subsumed by our personal griefs? According to Ross, by joining together in as many ways possible to bear witness to each other's suffering, which curiously enough, incites joy.
I love how with depth and curiosity, Ross investigates the practices, habits, and rituals that make joy available to us. “My hunch is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity. And that that solidarity might incite further joy…My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow — might draw us together.”
The chapter Grief Suite (Falling Apart: The Thirteenth Incitement) brought me closer to cis gendered men and their griefs more than any other piece of writing I’ve ever experienced. He starts the chapter with a quote from writer Eileen Myles, “I want fiction by ‘men’ in which they go into real detail about the internal mechanics of their own masculinity. I want evidence of that interiority on that page. Does it exist. All I’ve ever seen is silence or violence.” I’ve been dying to know this all my life. The following essay from Gay is a rare glimpse into cis male interiority. Gay shares how his participation in American Football — as player, trainer, coach, fan — and it’s cult of masculinity, indoctrinated him into a “pedagogy of shame and strategic belittlement” to break the players down “Like a slave, kind of like a slave getting off the boat”; and then how he’s spent his adult life trying to process, heal, and ultimately confront this indoctrination.
The abuse he suffered through his high school and college football years detail how “We were deputized in our own unmaking, thirsty for approval, for whom to obey.” I learned a Black cis male value: Real niggas don’t stay down. Even when you’re injured, broken, devastated, torn up inside, a real nigga don’t stay down. This mentality eventually led him to having uncontrollable daily vomiting for years, that ramped up into a full mental and emotional breakdown after his very last college game. In the following pages, you get to witness how Gay wades into the deep waters of grief he had been denying his whole life. And in attempting to confront his grief, he realizes his conditioning as a cis man has left him with zero skills on how to actually do so. I’ve heard many times that patriarchy hurts men and male bodied people too. Only after this essay have I understood the depth of the pain.
Monster Friends by Kaeti Vandorn
Recommended by Mwende: This chapter-book graphic novel is perfect for young kids who are excited to learn how to read on their own and are learning the nuances of complicated feelings like regret, loneliness, embarrassment, and longing. The main character Reggie wants to spend the whole summer alone, stewing in regret over his latest adventure gone wrong, but keeps getting interrupted by his plucky neighbor Emily. I was just as invested in finishing this book as my kid and even read it front to back alone by myself. The illustrations add great depth to the nuanced feelings. This story reminded me how our first experiences of complicated feelings can be scary and overwhelming. I’d like to think it’s helped me to listen with more seriousness to my kids feelings and concerns as she grows up and navigates her own relationships.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
Recommended by Sue: Far and away my favorite book of this year. I’ve now read everything she’s written. My new favorite genre-feel-good Sci-Fi my favorite line: “You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.”
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingslover
Recommended by Sue: I am biased. I was one the booksellers who hand-sold Kingslover’s first novel The Bean Trees back in the early 90’s. I love everything she has written. But this novel is one of her best. Not a feel good read but such a real and well written portrayal of addiction and of Appalachia (where my people are from and it is such a misrepresented section of this country) Not sure what Kingslover’s relationship to addiction is but she nailed it in my and many friends opinion. She is also from, and currently living in the part of the country portrayed so she writes a much truer picture of the joys and sorrows of the place not to mention her always beautiful and accurate writing about the natural world.
Recommended by Sue: Beautiful essays about how to be in community. Including my new mantra “whoever did it, Did it right!”
The Book of More Delights by Ross Gay
Recommended by Sue: A really beautiful book. I’m currently listening to the audio book which Ross Gay recorded. Great to hear these sometimes very personal essays in the author's own voice. His relationship to joy is so refreshing and inspiring!
Recommended by Sue: Not a ton of brand new info for me but organized and supported in a really great package.
Recommended by Veryl: One of my intentions in joining SELC has been to deepen my personal connection to land. As someone raised on mass produced, heavily processed commodity foods in grocery stores, it has been a long process for me to discover the life-giving source of sustenance in land. Part of this process included reading Healing Grounds, which provided a useful introduction in understanding the connection between contemporary land justice and climate justice movements. Liz Carlisle resituates the increased interest in regenerative farming to fight climate change within richer histories of indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian American farming practices. For example, popular scientific techniques that are highlighted to farmers today, such as regenerative grazing – where farmers relocate their livestock for a certain amount of time to allow plant communities to recover – are rooted in indigenous relationships with the natural grazing patterns of buffalo. The American settler colonialist project consisted of massacre of both indigenous peoples and creatures with whom they lived interdependently for generations, including the slaughter of nearly thirty million buffalo over the course of the nineteenth century. In place of the natural biodiversity of the prairie ecosystem cultivated by buffalo, including soil microbes belowground, settler agriculture emphasized monocultural crop growth for profit, which depleted the land’s fertility, required chemicals to supply nutrients, and released carbon to the atmosphere. Thus, the key to saving our climate lies in restoring the buffalo and returning land to original inhabitants, and in turn, reconstructing ancient memories and connections with the land and nonhuman species that had been erased through material and cultural genocide.
The Communism of Love by Richard Gilman-Opalsky
Recommended by Veryl: Another standout book that contributed to my personal growth in 2023 was The Communism of Love. Since my post-adolescent years, I have developed an uneasy association with love because of its central role in our socialization under capitalism and its nexus to family forms of state and religious control and property constructs like possession. In contrast, much of my self-liberation developed reactively from a desire to be free from such controlling paradigms and institutions. Instead of love as a motivating force, my activism stemmed from anger, rage, and hatred of oppressive systems. However, just as Carlisle recontextualizes regenerative farming in broader epistemologies of the oppressed, Richard Gilman-Opalsky differentiates corrupted forms of love under capitalism from love as a creative power that participates in the abolition of society based on individualism. As he argues, “love breaks laws and interrupts psychosocial life, yet it tends towards the generation of new modalities of being together” or towards a collective becoming that is unmediated by identity and legal constructs designed to separate us. I now think about my work in SELC motivated by this creative-disruptive conception of love that brings us closer to an actualized human community.