OK. There are lightning rods up our spines this month, in the wake of an election no one expected to turn out as it did. Some fear the future at this point, while others are sanguine about the result. But questions about race, poverty, immigration and human rights have been raised, and this is a good time to seek perspective through the experiences of other people, other places and times. It's also a good practice to keep up with what current historians and experts say. But in the meantime, book groups may find much to consider in this list of books.
There have been equally trying times, terrifying experiences, and countless books reflect them. I can only refer here to a few—some of it fiction but mostly nonfiction books spanning the world. This is a good time to understand others' struggles, and no time at all to live in a vacuum:
— "A Fine Balance" is Rohinton Mistry's novel about a woman cast out of her brother's home for refusing to buckle to family and societal expectations, during a time that Indira Gandhi is ruthlessly cleansing India of its own "deplorables," the untouchables. An amazing glimpse into a world of rules and losses, and unfathomable courage. Fiction.
— "First They Killed My Father" is a heartbreaking story, told a few decades later by Houng Ung, separated from her family in Cambodia during 1975. In Pol Pot's ruthless Khmer Rouge slaughter, Ung, a child of five, searches without success for her brothers and sisters, only to be placed in a work camp. She persists, she lives. And in the end, she finds life and family again. Memoir.
—"Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" is a surprise. Alexandra Fuller is the daughter of a white family in Rhodesia during the Civil War. She combines the winsome details of a child's life against harrowing changes to the world she inhabits, as they cling to their African home amid the terror of war. Memoir.
—"Lakota Woman," Mary Crow Dog (aka Brave Bird) married Leonard Crow Dog, a leader in the American Indian Movement. She died young—58. She wrote of the cruelly impoverished life she led on a Sioux reservation, and of her education in a school which forbade Sioux language and force-taught Christianity. She continues her story into the time of the second Wounded Knee conflict, in an autobiography made into a profound documentary on PBS. Memoir.
—"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, one of our times' most striking voices. Her words feel more pertinent this month: "We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. That in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeats so we can know who we are what can we overcome, what makes us stumble and fall and somehow miraculously rise, and go on." Memoir, poem.
—"Love Medicine" by Louise Erdrich is the first of her many novels about contemporary Native American life, in all of its aspects—humor, loss and violence, family. It was, for me, an open-eyed look into the soul of the Native experience in America and an entry into the work of an amazing American writer. Novel.
— "Men We Reaped" by Jessamyn Ward ("Salvage the Bones") is a stark recollection of growing up in Mississippi and watching five young men she knew and loved as they encounter violence, drugs, hopelessness and, ultimately, death. Not the easiest subject, but certainly an important one, and beautifully written. Memoir.