Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
This book is perfection, and it should be required reading. I’d say that’s all you need to know, but it would make for one very short post.
If you’ve somehow managed to miss out on this book, it’s non-fiction. Though the book is largely about race, it also covers class and gender – the other ways we tend to label people without knowing them. The book goes through the ways that having a caste system affects, permeates and damages societies, looking at India, America and nazi Germany.
What makes this book a phenomenal read is the stories it contains. It’s one thing to read facts about lynching, but it’s another to read about a boy being shoved off a cliff into a river to drown while his father was held and forced to watch because the boy sent a valentine to a white classmate. Or that Germany actually took notes on how America managed to oppress citizens so well without public uprising and used these tactics in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Nothing I write can do this book justice. It’s a heavy read, for sure, but a worthy one. The fact is, until we take a hard look at the history of our country and how we’ve treated each other, until we really grapple with how that affects us, and until we actively take steps to do better, we won’t have any lasting change. We can’t walk towards the light unless we admit that we’re in the darkness. We can do better, but will we?
You will be challenged, you will be brokenhearted, and you will be angry. But let it change the way you see the world, and the systemic problems that keep people oppressed. But first read the book, and then pass it on.
Homegoing is Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, published in 2016. Her second novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was good, but having read it right on the heels of Homegoing, I much, much preferred the first. This book is incredibly engrossing, and I found myself wanting to read just one more chapter while also wanting to save and savor it.
The book follows two daughters of one woman – they don’t know each other, and they never will. One daughter is captured and taken to America as a slave. The other marries a British official and stays in Africa. Each chapter that follows is a story from one of their descendants, ending many generations later. Because of this structure, Homegoing almost works like a series of short stories with a theme, rather than a cohesive novel. Nevertheless, I loved this book. Part of it is definitely because I find myself wondering what happened to characters after the novel ends – and this book repeatedly scratches that itch for me. Sometimes, the lives of the characters improve and their descendants are better off, but often, they’re worse off or face consequences their ancestors never intended.
That’s another thing I loved about this book – sure, it’s sweet and romantic when two characters abandon their settled lives to start fresh where no one knows them. But when the story picks up with their daughter, we find that while the couple was happy, their circumstances have been dire for many years – so much so that no one wants to marry the daughter because they believe she’s cursed. Consequences abound when a story has to carry over multiple generations. But the stories are both heartbreaking and satisfying.
I’ll be honest, I don’t tend to gravitate towards novels about African culture. I have relatively little understanding of it, and I probably wouldn’t have picked this on my own if it weren’t for Barnes and Noble choosing Transcendent Kingdom as one of their book club picks. But I am so glad that I read this book. It was so well done, from start to finish.
Circe is the retelling of the goddess, character from the Odyssey, underrated daughter of Helios. I love the idea of myths, however, I’m not super well-versed in them. This book gave the feel of a myth, while not feeling unwieldy or hard to understand. The scale of it felt both epic and satisfying, and I’d love to read Miller’s other mythological themed book The Song of Achilles.
What I really enjoyed about this book is that Circe, while immortal and part god, still has a lot to learn, and she does throughout the course of the book. Circe has some really good character growth – while Circe doesn’t exactly start out unlikeable, she transforms from a naive girl whose punishment makes her easy to pity, into a clever force to be reckoned with.
While it’s probably a more engaging story if you’ve read the Odyssey, being familiar with it isn’t a requirement to enjoy this book. It’s quite fun on it’s own.
For having very memorable characters, and an epic story that spans continents and generations, Circe makes my top 10 at number 3.