CHICAGO — Every holiday season, I make a point of highlighting books that are diverse, but not specifically about diversity.
These books transcend our differences to spotlight issues that affect us all, regardless of our race, ethnicity or gender.
Sometimes people think this category disses books that delve into the important ways that people of color come to terms with who they are when straddling the intersecting worlds of their dual cultures.
Not at all.
The world needs more stories about people of color reckoning with how their outsider status amplifies the identity struggles we all have. Two books stand out in this genre: “Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir” by Jean Guerrero, which investigates her father’s descent into severe mental illness and her attempt to make sense of it by interviewing family members in Mexico; and “The Line Becomes a River” a memoir by Francisco Cantu that chronicles his teeth-grindingly awful four years as a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
Still, I’ll paraphrase the thoughts of countless writers, artists, journalists and filmmakers who bemoan the singular expectations audiences carry around with them because of their gender, race or nationality: We contain multitudes and hold interests outside our demographic characteristics.
Here are a few exceptional books that are worth your time because they add to our understanding of ourselves as humans and citizens, not census data.
First up, is “Flashes & Verses: Becoming Attractions,” by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, a book of poetry that speaks to people who adore pop culture. Cepeda (no relation to me) paints word pictures about everything from Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece “City Lights” to candy bars, comic book heroes, the heartbreak of severing romantic relationships and the emotional toll of gun violence. If you’re someone who usually doesn’t care for poetry, I’d say this is the poetry book for you.
Next, a book offering a painful look at how dependent we are on other countries for our sustenance. “Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico,” by Alyshia Galvez is a story about how the industrialized food movement has simultaneously wiped out the healthful, locally grown slow-food culture of Mexican farmers while making Americans less knowledgeable about how food gets on their table.
Galvez says that although there would likely be a fiery revolt if the flow of avocados from the south dried up, the more urgent worry is about how secretly negotiated trade deals threaten America’s democracy.
Speaking of food, Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel “The House of Broken Angels” made it onto several lists of important “Latino” books of 2018. But in my reading, it’s really about how “American” families are, even when holding on tight to their ancestors’ roots.
In this passage, the protagonist, Little Angel, returns home for a birthday party for his half-brother, Big Angel, only to be disappointed by the menu.
“Little Angel was thwarted in his hopeless search for homemade Mexican food. In his mind, chicken mole and pots of simmering frijoles and chiles rellenos were to be displayed in pornographic lushness. But the reality of the day was folding tables groaning with pizzas, Chinese food, hot dogs, potato salad and a huge industrial party pan of spaghetti. Somebody was allegedly on the way with a hundred pieces of KFC. He noted Uncle Jimbo at his table with a paper plate heaped with noodles and buffalo wings.”
Little Angel takes his complaint to his mom, who declared that these days she was a “refugee from the apron.”
Lastly, I offer a left-field pick: “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro,” by journalist Rachel Slade. This tense, jaw-dropping story recounts the October 2015 sinking of container ship El Faro, the deadliest American shipping disaster in thirty-five years.
After a cultural and political “Year of the Woman,” women’s voices have been elevated like never before, speaking out about gender disparity, inequality, victimhood and the taking back of power.
It’s a move in the right direction, but let’s never forget that women are professionally amazing in their own right. Slade went where few women have trod — crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a dangerous cargo ship — and, added to black box transcripts, came back with a thrilling account of a tragedy at sea.
Slade’s storytelling will grab hold of you and drag you to the darkness of the ocean floor. Like the rest of these selections, you’ll be captivated, completely forgetting the gender, race or ethnicity of the storyteller.