Lit recs for the reader exhausted by the weight of history | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Lit recs for the reader exhausted by the weight of history 

The current book obsessions of Reader culture editor Aimee Levitt and essayist and Women & Children First co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck.

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In Book Swap, a regular feature that is entirely unique, about books, and not at all related to the music feature In Rotation, a Reader staffer recommends two to five books and then asks a local wordsmith, literary enthusiast, or publishing-adjacent professional to do the same. It is awesome. Way better than it would be if it were about records.

In this installment, culture editor Aimee Levitt swaps book suggestions with Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville and an essayist and live lit performer.

Aimee Levitt, Reader culture editor

Lately I've been reading a lot about American history. I find it comforting in a weird way because the more I read, the more I realize that this country has always been batshit and nothing that has happened in the past two years has been exactly new. Right now I'm making my way through These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore (2018, W. W. Norton), very slowly because the book itself is way too heavy for me to schlep on the el every day. I've just reached the Mexican War and already there have been at least three stolen elections, a lot of dirty politics, and some really ridiculous showboating, like the early 19th-century equivalents of Fox News and Twitter. And lo, the country endured!

But this particular book is also enraging because it explains the origins of our government in a way that I have never seen it explained before. (Or maybe it was explained to me, but my high school government teacher had nothing on Jill Lepore.) It's enraging to realize that the Constitution was built on the assumption that the government would always be run by rich white men, just like the rich white men who wrote it in the first place. I know I should be inspired by all the people over the past 230 years who have fought that system, but thinking about the colossal weight of that history and what it will take to dismantle it—short of another revolution—makes me tired.

When I am especially tired and angry, I read romance novels for comfort because I know they will always end happily, with the characters learning to bring out the best in each other. (Rape as a plot element went out of style about 20 years ago; now everybody's all about enthusiastic consent.) One I have been thinking about a lot lately is The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan (2014, self-published). It's about a feminist newspaper publisher in England in the 1870s who is fighting off a conspiracy to destroy her paper led by a misogynist peer who is angry that she wouldn't sleep with him. A self-described scoundrel offers to help her because he, too, hates this misogynist peer. At one point he asks the publisher why she keeps putting out her paper in the face of so much opposition. He compares her fight for equality to emptying the Thames with a thimble. She reminds him that her paper is for women. They're not trying to empty the Thames, she tells him. They're taking those thimbles full of water and using them to grow their own gardens. It's a beautiful metaphor, I think, and it makes me a little less tired and a little more hopeful.

Sarah, what are you reading?

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Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First

Currently, I'm finishing the final chapters of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, by Rebecca Traister. If you tilt the book back and forth, you can see embossed letters shouting across the book's cover: "F*ck F*ck F*ck." That alone could probably sell this book. But, wait, there's more! Traister documents the catalytic power of rage in shaping American history and politics. She analyzes the ways in which white male rage (like that of the founding fathers) is taught as rational and admirable, while women's anger—especially black women's anger—is characterized as ludicrous, unhealthy, and—worst of all—unattractive. When I first got this book, I was afraid that it was just going to be a painful rehashing of the 2016 election and thereafter, but it illuminates a long legacy of anger from the shirtwaist factory strikers to Emmett Till's mother to gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson and so many others. Traister's writing pushes me to own my anger as a tool and asks, now, what are you going to do with it?

Although I finished it a few months ago, I cannot talk about books right now without talking about Heavy by Kiese Laymon. This memoir, written to Laymon's mother, is not the book that he set out to write. "I wanted to write a lie. You wanted to read that lie. I wrote this to you instead." In a largely chronological account, Laymon writes with exceptional vulnerability about family trauma, sexual violence, and systemic racism, conveying the weight that all of this history has placed on his own body as well as the bodies of those he loves—especially his mother and grandmother. And that is perhaps the most astonishing thing about this book—the way in which it pulses with such relentless, fierce love. I honestly read whole passages holding my breath, not wanting to disturb the reverie.

I also have to mention H. Melt, my colleague at Women & Children First, who has a new chapbook called On My Way to Liberation. It's a beautiful reckoning that begins with direct, unflinching testaments of the erasure and the violence inflicted on trans people every day but then moves forward to imagining a future of joyful and fearless trans visibility. This has been such an exciting year for Chicago poetry, and H. Melt is a critical voice within that community.   v

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