Our Missing Hearts by Celeste NG is a tale that feels all too true set in a United States that is so frightened of China that everything Chinese, including Chinese Americans, is demonized. Children of any ethnicity are taken away from parents who aren’t considered patriotic enough and sent to other families who try to erase their identities.
Mecca by Susan Straight is a fine story about POC characters, mostly descendants of early Californians or people who hail from Mexico or countries further south, living in inland Southern California. I grew up in Los Angeles, and this was a side of California I didn’t know.
Yara Zgheib’s No Land to Light On is a beautifully written novel about a Syrian man who is a US resident caught up in Trump’s Muslim ban after he visits his parents in Jordan. The viewpoints shift between him and his pregnant wife, a scholar living in the US.
Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck is a story about African refugees stiving to stay in Germany and get jobs there from the viewpoint of a retired German intellectual who tries to befriend them.
Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman is my favorite of her many books. It’s a novel based on her grandfather’s attempt to keep Congress from delisting her tribe, the Chippewa, which would have led to a loss of federal aid for education and health. The book also is the story of a young woman looking for her sister who has been kidnapped.
Indian author Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us is the story of a friendship of sorts between an upper-caste and upper-class woman in Calcutta and a poor woman who works for her. Unsurprisingly, the differences undercut the friendship.
Bisi Adjapon’s The Teller of Secrets is the story of a Nigerian-Ghanaian young woman who keeps secrets about her father’s adultery but faces punishment for her own sexuality as she tries desperately to get a college education.
Ngugi wa Th’iongo’s novel A Grain of Wheat takes place in the 1950s during Kenyans’ struggle against the British occupation. As the country achieves independence in 1963, a village looks back to the killing of its leading warrior in the struggle and tries to learn who betrayed him to the British.
Lan Samantha Chang’s The Family Chao is about a domineering Chinese restauranteur who has emigrated to the United States and how he bullies his wife and his three sons. It’s a brilliant retelling of The Brothers Karamazov (one of my favorite books) in a Chinese-American setting.
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu is the story of a mother and young son facing danger in Japanese-occupied China and later in the war between the Communists and the Nationalists. They flee to Taiwan but they are still afraid, afraid of Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Tragically, the son will always fear everyone Chinese.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris is a story of two formerly enslaved brothers working on a plantation towards the end of the Civil War. It’s beautifully written.
Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds tells about suffering during the Dust Bowl winds in the Southwest in the 1930s. A girl from a privileged family winds up living with a farming family that is later hit by extreme winds that destroy almost everything. Eventually some of them move to California to survive and meet with intense discrimination.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler is the story of a science professor who brings a chimpanzee to live in his home and tries to raise her as a sister to his young daughter. Everyone suffers as a result, especially Fern, the chimpanzee.
Sheree L. Greer’s A Return to Arms is about a young woman who joins a Black activist group and falls in love with another activist. Problems, including homophobia, in the group affect their relationship.
Caren J. Werlinger’s Turning for Home tells about a woman who dreads going home to a Kansas small town. She has never told anyone what happened there, and that affects her lesbian relationships. Her partner strives to reach her emotionally.
Testimony by Paula Martinac is the story of lesbians working for a university in Virginia around 1960 who hide their relationships to keep their jobs. The characters are complex. Martinac’s Dear Miss Cushman is about a nineteenth century young lesbian who is inspired by actor Charlotte Cushman to try to become an actor playing male parts.
Sue Graham is a South African author. Her novel For the Love of Life takes place in a reserve where wild animals are supposed to be protected. But poaching is a problem. A believable love story takes place there.
Aimee’s As War Goes By is a well-told story of British lesbians and other young women working with the British government against Nazi Germany.
Osprey Calling by Ellen Hoil is about a woman who is a successful wildlife photographer, but pain has left her awkward in social relationships. An assignment takes her to her hometown in Maine, a place she never wanted to see again. This is a good depiction of a troubled woman and efforts to help her.
I read some fine nonfiction this year. Only a little was history, but that was my priority.
The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by scholar Serghi Plokhy is a long history that gave me a much better sense of Ukraine’s history, how and why Russia claims it. Ukrainians have gone through many periods when they sided with some outside power—the Ottoman Empire, Poland, Russia, and even Lithuania—to protect them from being dominated by another power. Things never worked the way they wanted: the country they turned to for partnership always took more than it gave. That certainly happened with Russia. One point I learned was that Ukrainian peasants weren’t serfs (people bound to stay on the estate of the landowner they worked for) until Russia dominated them. That’s why many of those peasants flocked to the factories that Russia started to build in Ukraine’s East.
Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by British scholar David Anderson is a long, detailed study of the British dispossession of Kenyans and suppression of any resistance. In addition to the hangings mentioned in the title, the British built concentration camps and forced many Kenyans to live in them, including many thousands of Kikuyus from Nairobi. The Kikuyus led the rebellion because they were the people who lost the most land when the British seized it.
Born After: Reckoning with the German Past by Angelika Bammer tells how Bammer, who was born in Germany after World War II and now lives in the United States, went back to Germany to learn what her parents and grandparents did during Hitler’s reign; she tries to determine their degree of guilt.
Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai is the autobiography of the incredible woman who started the green spaces movement in Kenya to preserve and restore the natural environment despite facing much sexist pressure to desist because she was a woman.
I Laugh So I Won’t Cry: Kenya’s Women Tell the Story of Their Lives by Helen Halperin is a book in which Halperin, an American sociologist, interviews more than a hundred Kenyan women. After a few years, she came back and did follow-up interviews with as many of them as she could. Although she concluded the book in 2003, I suspect that conditions haven’t totally altered. The saddest thing is that most women said their mothers taught them that they have to accept beatings from their husbands and the women accepted that.
Leftover Women by American journalist Leta Hong Fincher, who lived for several years in China, is also based on many interviews as well as research of Chinese media. She recounts how the transition to private property since the 2000s has left most property in the hands of men. Only one person has title to a property, and that person is almost always the man. Moreover, a government-backed media campaign that began in the 2000s says women who haven’t married by 27 are “leftover” and will lead miserable lives. The reason is that many men are actually leftover because the ratio of men to women increased greatly during the one-child campaign. There are now many educated women. The media ridicules educated, independent women and tells them they shouldn’t wait for a partner who’s as successful as they are.
Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, also by Leta Hong Fischer, tells how feminists in China in the 2110s began demonstrating against discrimination, sexual harassment and other abuse of women and how the state has punished them.
We Don’t Know Ourselves by Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole looks at corruption in modern Irish history and the dramatic changes in Ireland in recent years, especially regarding its adoption of laws allowing lesbians and gays to marry and permitting abortion.
Free by Lea Ypi is the memoir of a young Albanian woman who grew up under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Her parents were marginalized and scrutinized because they came from middle-class backgrounds, but she was taught in school that everything good comes from Uncle Enver. The dissolution of authoritarian rule leaves her confused and searching for meaning.
The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams by gay historian Jonathan Katz tells the story of Eve Adams, a Jewish immigrant who came from Poland to the US in 1912. She was a radical who knew Emma Goldman and wrote a book titled Lesbian Love. The novel is included in Katz’s book. Adams was deported for being “immoral” and perished in the Holocaust.
Coming of Age With Elephants by Joyce Poole and Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss tell about African elephants’ lives and the struggle to protect Kenya’s elephants from poaching.