Reads for the Rest of Us: Best of the Rest 2020

The Feminist Know-It-All: You know her. You can’t stand her. Good thing she’s not here! Instead, this column by gender and women’s studies librarian Karla Strand will amplify stories of the creation, access, use and preservation of knowledge by women and girls around the world; share innovative projects and initiatives that focus on information, literacies, libraries and more; and, of course, talk about all of the books.

Each month, I provide Ms. readers with a list of new books being published by writers from historically excluded groups.

The aims of these lists are threefold:

  1. I want to do my part in the disruption of what has been the acceptable “norm” in the book world for far too long—white, cis, heterosexual, male;
  2. I want to amplify amazing works by writers who are women, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, APIA/AAPI, international, LGBIA+, TGNC, queer, disabled, fat, immigrant, Muslim, neurodivergent, sex-positive or of other historically marginalized identities—you know, the rest of us; and 
  3. I want to challenge and encourage you all to buy, borrow and read them!

Well, I think we can all say that, overall, 2020 can suck it. 

But we’ve almost made it through and if nothing else, there were some amazing books released this year. I’ve reviewed my Reads for the Rest of Us monthly lists and chosen the 35 below as my very favorite reads of the year (in alphabetical order). It was almost impossible to choose but I think there’s something here for everyone.

And also: We heard you! Thanks to readers who suggested we link out to indie booksellers instead of, ahem, the other guys. So now when you click on the links of the book titles, you’ll go to IndieBound and if you make a purchase a small portion will go to support Ms., but this in no way affects the cost you pay. Thanks for supporting us and your local booksellers!

(And if you’re looking for feminist books for future activists, check out “15 Feminist Books for Kids That Prove You Can Be a Feminist at Any Age.”)

Reads for the Rest of Us: Best of the Rest 2020

Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist

By Judith Heumann (@judithheumann) with Kristen Joiner (@kristenjoiner). Beacon Press. 232 pages.

This is the triumphant memoir of Judith Heumann, who drove the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and is one of the most influential activists of our time.

Black Futures

By Kimberly Drew (@museummammy) and Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe). One World. 544 pages. Out December 1. 

This is an original, fresh and radiant volume centering the variety and depth of the Black experience as seen through the collected works of artists, writers, academics, public figures and more. Over 500 pages more! This is an essential volume.  

Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard 

By Echo Brown (@helloechobrown). Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). 304 pages. 

In this semi-autobiographical debut, Echo Brown confronts themes of drug addiction, sexual abuse, and depression within an evocative framework of magical realism, and cements herself as a brilliant new literary voice at the same time. This book will speak to readers on many levels.

A Black Women’s History of the United States

By Daina Ramey Berry (@dainarameyberry) and Kali Nicole Gross (@kaligrossphd). Beacon Press. 288 pages. 

The authors don’t claim that this volume is “the” definitive history of Black women in the U.S., but instead offer readers glimpses into lives all-but-lost to history and the importance of critical historiography to locate and share the experiences of Black women.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

By Isabel Wilkerson (@isabelwilkerson). Random House. 496 pages.

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns, comes another powerhouse examination of U.S. history and society, this time of the unspoken caste system of human hierarchy. Definitively researched and immersively written, this is a crucial book for our times.  

The Color of Air: A Novel

By Gail Tsukiyama. HarperVia. 320 pages. Out July 7.

The latest book by bestselling author Gail Tsukiyama is historical fiction centering a Japanese American family in Hawai’i. When Daniel returns home to the island, he is hit with a secret about his family and the possible eruption of Mauna Loa volcano. Lushly written, this is a story of family ties, immigation, resilience and home. 

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Dancing After TEN

By Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber (@gee_webber). Fantagraphics. 128 pages. Out June 2.

This utterly unique graphic biography centers dancer, singer and artist, Vivian Chong, after a rare skin disease, Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN), caused her to go blind. As she was losing her sight, she drew as much as she could and those drawings are part of this beautiful volume detailing her life now.

The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: A Memoir

By Wayétu Moore (@wayetu). Graywolf. 272 pages. Out June 2.

The author of the captivating novel She Would Be King has penned an exceptional memoir of her life in and exodus from war-torn Liberia and her adjustment to living as an African immigrant in the U.S.

The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide

By Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell). Hachette Books. 224 pages.

If you’ve ever seen or heard Zerlina Maxwell on MSNBC or on her SiriusXM morning show, you know she calls it like she sees it. Her first book is an imperative read for our times. Arguing we need to lean into identity politics, Maxwell explains what we need to do—now—to move the Democratic party, and the nation, forward. 

Fairest: A Memoir 

By Meredith Talusan (@1demerith). Viking. 320 pages. 

In one of the most insightful memoirs of the recent past, Meredith Talusan tells her story of being born a Filipino boy with albinism to becoming a Filipino American woman with albinism. Truly triumphant in form and content.

Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity

By Paola Ramos (@paoramos). Vintage. 336 pages. 

In her crucial debut book, Paola Ramos presents a long-overdue examination of identity and belonging while living as Latinx in the US. From farm workers to drag queens, from Oaxacan to Muslim, the people Ramos highlights illustrate the complexity, diversity and beauty of Latin@s from coast to coast.

From Slave Cabins to the White House: Homemade Citizenship in African American Culture

By Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori). University of Illinois Press. 272 pages.

In her second book, Ohio State University professor Koritha Mitchell explores the connection between Black women’s domestic lives and citizenship. By analyzing descriptions of Black homes from Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and others, Mitchell sheds light on Black homemaking in the midst of anti-Blackness and oppression.

Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary

By Sasha Geffen (@sashageffen). University of Texas Press. 264 pages. Out April 7.

This is a unique examination of gender fluidity and queerness across genres of popular music; a must-read for music lovers.

Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of a Life

By Ruby McConnell (@RubyGoneWild). Overcup Press. 212 pages. 

Captivatingly written, the latest work by geologist and adventurer Ruby McConnell is part geological history, part memoir, part ode to the Pacific Northwest and part ecofeminist call to action. Against the backdrop of the devastating eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, McConnell examines notions of self and our relationships to the natural world in this significant new book.

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot

By Mikki Kendall (@karnythia). Viking. 208 pages. 

With this unflinching collection of essays, Mikki Kendall serves feminists the reality check we need in order to make a more inclusive, equitable and useful feminism for the many—not just the privileged few. 

Hot with the Bad Things 

by Lucia LoTempio (@lucialo). Alice James Books. 100 pages. Out May 12.

In this unsparing, unapologetic collection of poems, Lucia LoTempio addresses violence against women in intricate, powerful and potent style and language.   

How We Go Home: Voices from Indigenous North America

By Sara Sinclair. Haymarket Books. 320 pages.

This is a remarkable collection of Indigenous voices all too commonly neglected and exploited within settler spheres and narratives. Centering firsthand Indigenous accounts of violence, land, connection, Standing Rock, resistance and renaissance, it is a  testament to the power of storytelling. Be sure to read my interview with Sara Sinclair

I Know You Rider

By Leslie Stein (@leslieamstein). Drawn and Quarterly. 144 pages.

I love this candid graphic novel about one woman’s life before and after an abortion. Gently told with humor and grace, I Know You Rider will resonate with many who’ve reflected on reproductive decisions—past, present and future. 

In Good Relation: History, Gender, and Kinship in Indigenous Feminisms

Edited by Sarah Nickel and Amanda Fehr. University of Manitoba Press. 272 pages. 

This well-researched and highly readable volume is a collection of broad and historically underrepresented voices of artists, activists and scholars in an attempt to Indigenize feminism in necessary and critical ways.  

Just Us: An American Conversation

By Claudia Rankine. Graywolf Press. 352 pages. 

Truth be told, this one wasn’t on my monthly list for September ONLY because it was getting so much play already and I wanted to give the space to others who may not have been getting as much attention (September is a big month for great new releases!). But seriously, this is absolutely one of the most brilliant books of the year (decade? century?).

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America

By Ijeoma Oluo (@ijeomaoluo). Seal Press. 336 pages. Out December 1. 

If you’ve made your way through So You Want to Talk About Race, I’m Still Here and White Tears/Brown Scars, this is the next book for you to pick up. The brilliant Ileoma Oluo examines the mediocre white male and imagines what he may look like in the future. 

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning 

By Cathy Park Hong (@cathyparkhong). One World. 224 pages. 

With radical candor, Cathy Hong Park critically examines what it means to be Asian American today and challenges herself and her readers to abandon the idea of a monolithic Asian American experience and instead acknowledge a range of racialized emotions which have been heretofore dismissed.

My Baby First Birthday

By Jenny Zhang (@jennybagel). Tin House Books. 200 pages. Out May 12.

In her latest compelling poetry collection, Jenny Zhang dares you to flinch as she explores love and existence, innocence and anger, patriarchy and whiteness, capitalism and womanhood. 

Our Voices, Our Histories: Asian American and Pacific Islander Women 

Edited by Shirley Hune and Gail M. Nomura. NYU Press. 520 pages.

This immersive anthology begins to address gaps and transform understanding in history and literature by, for and about Asian American and Pacific Islander women.

Out of the Crazywoods

By Cheryl Savageau. University of Nebraska Press. 256 pages. 

In this unique and poignant memoir, Abenaki/French Canadian poet Cheryl Savageau describes her bipolar disorder in lyrical, clear and candid prose.

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America

By Candacy Taylor (@candacytaylor). Abrams Press. 360 pages. 

This book is but one piece of a larger multidisciplinary project focused on Black mobility and culture through the lens of the Green Book; there will also be a board game, a children’s book, a Smithsonian exhibit and walking tours via mobile app.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

By Deesha Philyaw. West Virginia University Press. 192 pages. 

This is a powerful collection of nine stories focused on Black womanhood and the church over four generations of characters. Sex, friendship, freedom and agency are centered throughout this cheeky, insightful and irresistible new book. 

Stop Telling Women to Smile: Stories of Street Harassment and How We’re Taking Back Our Power

By Tatyana Fazlalizadeh (@fazlalizadeh). Seal Press. 256 pages. 

This is the book supporting the anti-harassment street art campaign created by Fazlalizadeh in 2012, which continues to light the flame of knowledge and resistance to fight for the safety and respect all women deserve. 

Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

By Martha S. Jones (@marthasjones_). Basic Books. 352 pages. 

If you read no other book on suffrage this centennial of the 19th Amendment, read this one. Let the incomparable historian Martha S. Jones take you to school.

Vanishing Monuments

By John Elizabeth Stintzi (@stintzi). Arsenal Pulp Press. 304 pages. 

I recently told John Elizabeth Stintzi how hard it has been for me to express how much I was truly moved by this book, and it still is. With a complex nonbinary character at its heart, this is a tender and honest reflection on family, memory and movement.  

We Had No Rules

By Corinne Manning (@corinnemanning). Arsenal Pulp Press. 192 pages. Out May 12. 

Corinne Manning’s debut short story collection spoke to me on so many levels. Spanning 1992 to 2019, the stories feature glorious and imperfect queer characters searching for truth, identity, validity, love, connection, understanding and self. 

We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics

Edited by Andrea Abi-Karam (@wolf_hour) and Kay Gabriel (@unit01barbie). Nightboat Books. 296 pages. 

Groundbreaking and urgent, this collection features poems that investigate, interrogate and innovate trans relationships, embodiments, ecologies, emotions and expressions. It shines a much-needed light on the power of poetics in care, understanding and resistance.

We Want Our Bodies Back: Poems 

By jessica Care moore (@jessicacaremoor). Amistad. 224 pages.

Master poet jessica Care moore gifts us this latest collection of sharp, smart, and defiant pieces, and we will be better humans because of it.  

When No One Is Watching: A Thriller

By Alyssa Cole (@alyssacolelit). William Morrow. 368 pages. 

Acclaimed writer Alyssa Cole is back with this mysterious, suspenseful and poignant thriller focused on greed, racism and the gentrification happening across Brooklyn. 

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

By Ruby Hamad. Catapult. 304 pages.

In this endlessly readable debut, Ruby Hamad expertly illustrates the multitude of historical and contemporary ways in which white feminism has been used as a tool of white supremacy. White feminists: READ THIS BOOK. 

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Karla J. Strand is the gender and women’s studies librarian for the University of Wisconsin. She completed her doctorate in information science via University of Pretoria in South Africa with a background in history and library science, and her research centers on the role of libraries and knowledge in empowering women and girls worldwide. Tweet her @karlajstrand.