by R.B. Brooks (they/them), director of programs
Dinosaurs. Completely reconceptualized health care systems. Revisiting the basics of writing. Discovering the purpose behind seemingly mundane design choices. Entering into fictional worlds that hold lessons about our lived realities.
These are a few of the themes brought to me through my book selections this year and while they may seem disparate and unrelated, making connections between creatures that walked the earth billions of years ago with the science fiction worlds of queer Black femmes alongside reflective questions about the Midwest’s role in systems change made for a thought provoking and encouraging year of reading.
I started 2022 with a goal to read 45 books by year’s end. This was based on previous personal records of reading 47 books in 2020 (one of the few highlights of lockdown life) and 41 books in 2021. I missed that target by a longshot– I logged a little over half my total goal with 27 books.
Even though I didn’t reach my objective, the quality and impact of my top ten books of 2022 made this a meaningful year of reading and just means my to-read list maintains its gargantuan length, giving me something to look forward to heading into the new year.
If you’d like to read along with me in 2023, I am (begrudgingly) on GoodReads– but you should check out The StoryGraph if you’re looking for a great book tracking tool that isn’t affiliated with billionaires.
In no particular order, here are the books that left a lasting impression.
1. Midwest Futures (2020) by Phil Christman
This collection of essays was a compelling combination of history, prose, memoir and critical insight as Christman contends with the origins and opportunities of the Midwest. I was dumbfounded when I reached what I couldn’t fathom was the end of the book and was left wanting the questions and reflections to continue.
In this relatively quick read, Christman documents the legacy of writers, historians, politicians and laypeople attempting to accurately and effectively describe the liminal space that is the Midwest region of the United States. He lays out the contradictions of the Midwest as both a beacon of futurity incarnate and a cesspool of moral and industrial failings, all coalescing into a hodgepodge experience of being both nowhere and everywhere at once.
This is a satisfying and affirming read for anyone born and raised in the Midwest. I’m eager to superimpose some of the ideas and assertions provided by Christman into a queer and trans context as I think about the Midwest as a playground for systems change.
2. How Fast Did T.Rex Run?: Unsolved Questions from the Frontiers of Dinosaur Science (2022) by David Hone
This was a fun and interesting local library find that sandwiched nicely between reading Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and The Lost World this year– which, spoiler alert, play out VERY differently than the movies.
Each chapter covers a different element of dinosaur life– including anatomy, habitats, appearance, etc– and breaks down what we’ve amazingly been able to discern with the limited remains we do have and also unpacks the large swath of things we don’t know based on Infinite factors.
The read was a little textbook style, but as a huge dinosaur nerd I found this book fascinating and truly hope for more queer and trans paleontologists to undo some of the rigid, gender essentialist conclusions it seems the field has landed on when it comes to reproduction, mating, and familial roles
3. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Mending of Our Bodies and Hearts (2017) by Resmaa Menakem
This book has been oh-so-patiently waiting for me to pull it off my home bookshelf for awhile and I finally made mental space to take on what I already knew would be deep self-work. Having had the pleasure of participation in workshops with Resmaa, I was eager to learn more from his perspective as a somatic healer and trauma specialist.
This book focuses on body supremacy, where race is not necessarily erased but in which the intergenerational legacy of trauma passed down/on/through lineages is a collective burden and that the work of doing that legacy differs for “white bodies,” “Black bodies” and “police bodies,” There are tons of useful practices outlined and offered throughout the book to ensure readers are not just reading about how to undo our traumas, but to actually do it.
This is a book I anticipate revisiting and recommending to others doing social justice work who are looking to add more self-work skills to their toolkits.
4. The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer (2022) by Janelle Monae
I want to live in the fictional world Janelle Monae has offered in this series of stories. Queerness is lauded, communities collaborate and roles in those communities are often based on strengths and interests versus compulsory adherence to capitalism.
But this world is not perfect or utopic. In line with tropes from speculative fiction, Monae and the contributing authors contend with an alternative history that is certainly “made-up” but doesn’t depart too dramatically from familiar power dynamics, governmental operations, and attitudes about gender/sexuality as our current reality.
Many of the characters in these stories were incredibly compelling, the kind you miss and wish were physical beings you could actually interact with after reading.
5. Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness (2021) by Da’Shaun Harrison
This is a book, a word, that will have major implications for a long time. And if it doesn’t, then that’s just evidence of the exact points Harrison makes. Each chapter breaks down a different facet of the larger theme, the interconnectedness of (anti-)fatness and (anti)-Blackness.
One thing I appreciate most about Harrison’s approach to the book was that they maintained a precise and exacting focus on Black fat experiences, in ways that make it harder to co-opt into overgeneralizations about all fat folks. The lessons extracted from the narratives, from both Da’Shaun themself and other Black fat folks who were interviewed for the book, gives “yes this does impact fat folks on a large scale, AND ALSO, we’re not talking about all fat folks right now.” From a writing perspective, I’m gleeful to witness a queer/trans author able to circumvent having to provide extensive baseline information (such as Trans 101 or terminology breakdowns) and pinpoint the core message they wish to convey.
That message was conveyed boldly, sumptuously and I’m eager for what grows from this vital book, collectively and personally.
6. Transgender Marxism (2021) edited by Jules Joanne Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke
This book satisfied a cognitive itch I didn’t know needed scratching. I came upon this book by way of “ask and you shall receive” when I reached out on Twitter for a copy to review (which is still a work in progress, procrastination be damned).
I don’t have much background in studying or reading extensively about Marxism, but I was glad to find that didn’t make reading “Transgender Marxism” impossible. In fact, I felt like I was receiving a general lesson about Marxism by way of other trans folks’ gripes, agreements, and expansions of major Marxist themes– which, in my opinion, is the best way.
The contributions to this collection dig deeep and really upend mainstream, neoliberal conceptions of what trans folks need, desire, deserve and fight for.
7. The Care We Dream Of: Liberatory & Transformative Justice Approaches to LGBTQ+ Health (2021) by Zena Sharman
This book was so incredible, I suggested it to my doctor. Through a combination of essays penned by Sharman herself, as well as guest essays to further enrich the ideas explored, this collection examines the existing status of our healthcare systems.
The systems examined are more vast than just hospitals and the doctor's office, making this a truly holistic cover of all things health and wellness– family planning, harm reduction and substance use, advance care directives, end of life care, and so much more.
The first sentence of this book’s introduction includes “what if queer and trans people loved going to the doctor?” and if you never pick up this book, at least use that question as a guiding light for the transformations and modifications needed to improve the lives of queer and trans people.
8. The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer's Life in Prison (2022) edited by Caits Meissner
This book serves dual purposes– a guide to writing for incarcerated people as well as insight for those of us “living outside” on the power and utility of writing as a connection point, a tool, and an obstacle for incarcerated people.
As an English major, I was humbled and hype about the visit back to writing basics and appreciated the care and consideration involved in being informative but not prescriptive about how to write in various genres and styles. Through this book, I also learned about the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, which pairs incarcerated writers with writers and editors in the community. I am both impressed about this model of community-care and am hopeful to be completing an application to be a mentor this year.
9. The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens– and Ourselves (2020) by Arik Kershenbaum
Look, this book sent me into existential crises so hard my entire body went cold. But beyond the deep feeling of dread evoked from talking about what human-like beings millions of years from now will discern about our current ways of living– this book was mind-blowing (plus the cover is stellar and I’d like it as a full-sized poster).
Kershenbaum bypasses the common question of “does intelligent life exist elsewhere in the universe?” by proclaiming that it is inevitable other lifeforms exist and we can make informed guesses about appearance, function, evolution, and more by considering what we already know about animals on Earth.
This book also offers a hearty dose of commentary about what we even consider intelligence and how our supposition that when we do encounter aliens we will be the smarter of the two parties shows a lot about our arrogance and interpretation of animal behavior.
10. This is Your Mind on Plants (2021) by Michael Pollan
For reasons I can’t really explain, something about being a vegetarian made me feel like I needed to read at least one Michael Pollan book in my lifetime. And this was the one I finally picked up.
There were plenty of things I newly learned about plants-that-double-as-recreational-drugs (and plenty of things I already knew as the long-time partner of a harm reductionist), including the complex and inconsistent enforcement of laws pertaining to planting poppies.
This was an overall interesting read, though I did find myself wishing that folks who use drugs that don’t have a literary platform such as Pollan could have the same opportunity and freedom to share their musings and lessons from psychedelics and mind-altering substances.