Staff Picks for Spring Reading

Social justice is central to Agape’s mission, and we thought we’d share with you some books that have changed and challenged us. We don’t intend this to be a comprehensive list – just some of our recent or perennial favorites. Represented among them are fiction, poetry, and nonfiction; works old and new; authors of different races, genders, religions, and sexualities. We hope you’ll enjoy and perhaps pick up a new book or two! Of course, we urge you to read our own wonderful authors as well!

Jessica Walsh: My first choice would be The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us. The authors Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger take on what they refer to a “covenantal friendship,” or what I would term an accountability pact, to help each other through a year of small acts done in the spirit of Jesus. It’s incredibly challenging, asking readers to think about the ways in which they can make real sacrifices in order to live their faith. Both families embrace intentional downward mobility for the sake of social justice. They give all they can and spend as little as possible, open their homes to strangers, seek the poor and marginalized in order to help them and be among them. It’s faith at its most inspiring, justice-minded, and challenging.

But I’d also have to add The Amputee’s Guide to Sex by Jillian Weise, a book of poetry that challenges and champions the disabled body. Sometimes fetishized, at other times rejected, a prosthetic limb becomes the instrument of forceful reimagining. It’s an incredibly powerful book, an act of social activism through art. Both of the books I selected will make many readers uncomfortable at times – in productive, growth-oriented ways. Most of us need to be pushed into an unsettled space before we can transform.

Jen Fitzgerald: Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Our relationship to social activism changes as we change, but all of this is built on a foundation of relationship to and reconciling of the self. We can bring the best versions of our many selves to the table, with the best of intentions, drive, energy, compassion, and determination. But if we haven’t done the inner work, haven’t been seated in ourselves long enough to understand the unconscious modes, methods, and madness that inform our behaviors and interactions, we will always run straight into the brick wall of old patterns. No matter how much of a head start we have or how much speed and momentum we build up, we will never break through that particular wall without personal confrontation and growth. Heal one, heal the many.

Jasmine An: Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. Rarely have I encountered a more generous book. Ross Gay is a black man writing unapologetically about flowers – and grief, love, violence, race, family – and still, flowers. I’ve been fortunate to be in the audience several times while he’s read from this book and each time I’m blown away by the warmth and weight that these poems, and his voice, bring into a room. It’s truly beautiful.

Eniko Vaghy: My pick would definitely be Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. Though this book is a collection of purely creative short stories, Machado has a very deft way of analyzing and animating subjects such as queer identity, feminism, sexual violence, and body dysmorphia. Being a former dancer who struggled with severe body image issues after separating from the profession, I found Machado’s way of discussing women’s bodies – the traumas they suffer, how they are used cruelly and shamefully by individuals who are supposed to love them, how they are both metaphorically and literally erased, how they become unrecognizable – to be extremely poignant as well as radical. For example, in one of the stories titled “Eight Bites,” a mother undergoes an irreversible surgery to lose weight and is left haunted by the brokenhearted presence of her former body which she does not learn to accept until she has inflicted multiple acts of abuse against it and abandoned it in the basement (yikes, I know). There’s something healing about these stories, though. Regardless of how they end for Machado’s amazing, multifaceted, complex, engaging, and (above all) relatable heroines, something empowering always occurs. A new truth has been revealed, the social conscience of the reader has been awoken just a little bit more, or you become emboldened to insist on accepting yourself as you are regardless of the opinions of others so that when you look at your reflection you are able (and happy) to recognize, own, and love it.

Fox Frazier-Foley: I have a weird little cross-section of books I’ve read over the years that I wanted to share here because it was difficult to pick only one and I thought, well, why not just name several then? So, for starters, American-Uruguayan author Isabel Fonseca’s Bury Me Standing is, to my mind, a very fine piece of immersive, long-form journalism about the decades-long Romani struggle for civil rights across Europe. It also discusses the genocide perpetrated against the Roma during WWII. In a culture (read: ours, American, current) where the racial slur ‘gypsy’ is still widely romanticized and appropriated to sell clothing, makeup, and faux-bohemian lifestyle – I think everyone should read this book at least once.

Morgan Jerkin’s recent book This Will Be My Undoing is a fantastic read for so many reasons – as multiple glowing reviews from major outlets have already attested! Something I particularly appreciate about this book is the attention given to her religious beliefs and what her spirituality means to her. It isn’t something I’ve heard other people talk about very much, but I’ve read a couple interviews where she makes a point to mention it, and for me – as someone who has had the experience of sitting quietly in academic rooms and listened to people disparage “simple-minded” folks the world over who still actively pursue religious knowledge and/or commitments – that was a very satisfying quality in this book, and a very politically and socially aware one.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, while it definitely has its limitations, has been important for many people, I think, who went through a typical American secondary-school educational curriculum; it presents (at least partial) narratives of many who, historically, have been silenced by both scholarship and popular/media representations of American history.
bell hooks’ Where We Stand: Class Matters is one of my favorites in the way it addresses the nuances of intersection among race, class, and gender – I haven’t seen many books able to do this with the level of success that I think this book accomplishes. It manages to be stunningly insightful and analytical while remaining unfailingly compassionate. There’s a wonderfully open quality to the intelligence behind this book – there is no fear-based edge to it, and it’s continuously engaging, which I think makes it especially valuable at this historical moment, when for a number of reasons I think dialogue has become particularly difficult. I aspire to those levels of lucidity, grace, and tenacity.
And, because I want to mention at least one book of poetry, and because this one in particular is so great – J. Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Be Flowers. This book of poetry, which came out from CCM a couple years ago, really enacts for me that familiar proverb/idiom about the personal being political and vice versa. The poems are short, conversational, accessible, daring, and will probably get you all choked up one way or another – close to tears and/or feeling like you can’t breathe. I think of this book as Art As Resistance. And it’s also very much itself, its own contained thing: it acknowledges its influences, but never feels derivative. I admire the originality of this work, especially in how it blends so seamlessly with the accessible and direct qualities. (And to me, that’s also political, and also socially engaged, as an aesthetic choice.) I love it!

Do you have suggestions for us? Feel free to email your social justice reading picks to me at jessica [at] agapeeditions dot com.

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