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Confederates and Immigrants, Punks and Riot Grrls

A selection of 12 of the best books of 2019.

by and


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Celadon Books; 256 pages; $26.99

National Public Radio tech reporter Aarti Shahani chronicles her South-Asian family's tribulations with immigration authorities and the criminal justice system in her affecting new memoir, Here We Are. Of Indian descent, Shahani's father moved to Flushing, Queens in 1981, expecting that he would quickly find a job that matched his facility with math and languages. When all he was offered was manual labor, Namdev fell into an emotional tailspin that threatened the family's stability. Worse still, after he and his brother opened a successful electronics shop, they were arrested for selling merchandise on behalf of the Cali Colombian drug cartel.

Shahani writes with grace and precision as she recounts her father's legal ordeal and the toll it took on her mother, her siblings, and herself. Namdev Shahani spent eight months imprisoned at Rikers Island, with the threat that he would be deported as soon as he completed his sentence. Aarti Shahani prevented that outcome, and her passion for justice shines through Here We Are, reminding readers how vulnerable immigrants are right now. Shahani's father was lucky in having a daughter with the acumen to navigate the system. Here We Are is a bracing clarion call for reform. — MB


How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell

Melville House; 256 pages; $26.99

Like a lot of us, Oakland artist Jenny Odell found herself overwhelmed by the noise generated by the Trump election. To counter the clamor in her brain, she took to walking the paths of the Oakland Rose Garden and found that literally taking the time to smell the roses had a therapeutic effect. In 2017, Odell gave a speech at the Eyeo Festival that went viral after it was posted on Medium. Now that speech has been expanded into How to Do Nothing, a treatise on how to let go of our interest in the new and shiny and find a way through life that avoids the counterproductive distractions of the attention economy.

Odell writes that she began to think about the project "as an activist book disguised as a self-help book." With wit and conviction, she reports on the differences between Cupertino and Oakland, compares the gig economy and the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, examines the refusal of Greek philosopher Diogenes and the supposed inclusiveness of Facebook. Doing nothing is more than goofing off, and really getting to know a place requires a lot of attention. Being in nature works for Odell, and it may be in birdwatching (or "bird-noticing") that she finds the greatest level of support. Not everyone is able to drop everything for a hike on the spur of the moment, but Odell makes a case for unplugging and paying attention to the biological world that sustains us. — MB


Olive, Again

By Elizabeth Strout

Random House; 304 pages; $27

Elizabeth Strout didn't exactly push her signature character over Reichenbach Falls, but there was no indication at the end of Olive Kitteridge that there would be any sequels to the Pulitzer Prize-winning eponymous novel. Now Strout has found the impetus to continue Olive's story in Olive, Again, and the result is a welcoming, rewarding, and unexpected tour de force. The novel-in-stories follows the template of the earlier book, with the grouchy, irascible and insecure Olive — now in her seventies — sometimes at center stage and sometimes on the periphery as she navigates the mysteries of small town life in Maine and her own fractured family. Among her adventures, Olive marries for the second time, counsels a young girl grieving for her father, delivers a baby at a baby shower, and makes accommodations for her advancing age. All along the way, Strout advances the narrative through pitch-perfect dialogue and telling character details. Hilarious and heart-breaking, Strout's latest is definitely focused on endings from multiple perspectives, but there's plenty of life left in this complicated character. — MB


This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto

Suketu Mehta

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 320 pages; $27

Impassioned, rigorous, and richly stocked with memorable stories and characters, This Land Is Our Land is a timely and necessary intervention in an age of brutal anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. Drawing on his own experience as an Indian-born teenager growing up in New York City and on years of reporting around the world, author Suketu Mehta explains how the West is being destroyed not by immigrants but by the fear of immigrants, by juxtaposing the narratives of populist ideologues with the ordinary heroism of laborers from Dubai to Queens, and showing why more people are on the move today than ever before. Whether it's caused by civil strife or climate change, it is little surprise that borders have become so porous as told through the stories of refugees around the world and their struggles to escape oppression and death by risking everything to cross borders. Now that they are here, as Mehta demonstrates, immigrants bring great benefits, enabling countries and communities to flourish. He also examines the destructive legacies of colonialism and global inequality on large swaths of the world. When today's immigrants are asked, "Why are you here?" they can justly respond, "We are here because you were there." — DSM


The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

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