Feature Image Credit: @thestackspod
I’m back with more backlist book recommendations to go with some new literary releases. If you want to get more of an introduction to me and this column, check out last month’s inaugural piece.
THE FINAL REVIVAL OF OPAL AND NEV by Dawnie Walton
In this fictionalized oral history we follow the rise of an interacial rock duo, Opal and Nev, who, in the 1970s become an iconic rock band after a public tragedy. The book follows the challenges and joys that come from a meteoric stardom based on music and pushing against the establishment. A true feat of creativity—and a book that uses history to help contextualize what is going on in the here and now. Racism, feminism and capitalism are all addressed and subverted in Walton’s debut novel.
If you like The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, check out
I, TINA: MY LIFE STORY by Tina Turner with Kurt Loder
Tina Turner is an iconic rock and roll legend. In her autobiography, Turner tells us about her humble beginnings, her abusive relationship with her husband Ike, and her return to the stage to claim her spot as Rock and Roll royalty. The book plays into the same ideas of race, feminism and pushing up against the establishment that are present throughout The Final Revival of Opal and Nev. It’s also worth noting I couldn’t read The Final Revival of Opal and Nev without thinking of Tina Turner. If you’re a fan of Tina, you should also check out the brand new documentary about her life, Tina, on HBO.
THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff
I love the form of oral history; it is an immersive way to read about a person or event and still honor the opposing views and contradictions that are present. In The Only Plane in the Sky this form is executed brilliantly. The book is chilling and deeply emotional, and helps to bring more nuance and depth to a day that many American’s remember in their own personal way. While the content in this book diverges from that of The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, The Only Plane in the Sky shows how powerful stories can be when they are told using only the words of the people who were there.
BIRD UNCAGED: AN ABOLITIONIST’S FREEDOM SONG by Marlon Peterson
Marlon Peterson is a leading prison abolitionist who writes about his childhood in Brooklyn, his time behind bars, and his hopes for a world that is free of the cages that harm us all. In his memoir, Peterson shares his own experiences and those of his family, and incorporates generational trauma and resilience to help us imagine a future with more possibilities. This is not your typical prison narrative—the book moves in a multitude of ways with a fluidity that is hard to classify.
If you enjoyed Bird Uncaged you might like
FELON: POEMS by Reginald Dwayne Betts
I love the idea of pairing this poetry collection with Bird Uncaged, because of the similarities between the authors’ stories. Both Peterson and Betts are Black men who were incarcerated for crimes they committed as teenagers in the 1990s. These books are addressing the same systems of oppressions but through different forms. In Felon we get a more intimate and less linear look at the world, from the perspective of people who have experienced what prison can do to a human being. The poems are haunting and bring out the humanity in a group of people America would rather we throw away. You can hear Reginald Dwayne Betts on The Stacks discussing his poetry collection and his nonprofit, Million Book Project, that brings books into prisons.
Please consider making a donation to Million Book Project as part of The Stacks fundraiser, as we attempt to raise $50,000 to bring new books into prisons.
JUST MERCY: A STORY OF JUSTICE AND REDEMPTION by Bryan Stevenson
This is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s an incredible story of Bryan Stevenson, the man behind the Equal Justice Initiative and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Just Mercy gives the story behind his start as a lawyer and the ways he grew to be an advocate for people who have been sentenced to death or imprisoned without the possibility of parole. In the book we get the story of one wrongfully convicted man and the fight to win his freedom, alongside the stories of many of Stevenson’s clients. We also look into the systems in place that allow for such harsh sentencing. The book changed the way I understood prisons and the legal system. It is a must read.
FROM A TALLER TOWER: THE RISE OF THE AMERICAN MASS SHOOTER by Seamus McGraw
A deeply reported examination of the many mass shootings in the United States, starting with the first mass shooting at the University of Texas in 1966. The book attempts to unpack our responses to these crimes and explain what’s missing from our understanding of these events, while also revealing more about who is behind these atrocities. While the book can be graphic at points, it is striving to uncover something more than just the headlines.
If you’re interested in From a Taller Tower, you should consider reading
COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen
This is another one of my most favorite books. An incredible combination of reporting, research and compassion. Cullen tells the story of the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999. This book reveals a truth about these events that the media and the public overlooked in place of stereotypes and high school tropes. There is nuance and subtlety in this book, something we so rarely get when discussing these types of mass murders. Columbine gives the reader a chance to understand much better what really happened that day. I was lucky to interview Dave Cullen on The Stacks; please check out all he has to say.
On an average day in America, seven children will be shot dead. In this book, Younge picks a random day, and writes about each of the children who were killed because of guns. The day is November 23, 2013, and these stories will change the way you understand gun violence in America. It is not only about mass shootings and inner city gang violence. The book travels across the country, from the rural midwest to San Jose, California, and into the homes of families who are dealing with the unbearable sadness of losing a child. This book is moving and infuriating; a reminder that America has an enormous problem with guns and it is killing our most vulnerable.