It’s been just a week since the last horrifying school shooting in the US. We at The Rumpus remain certain that America’s gun-loving culture which prioritizes the individual freedoms of white men over the collective safety of our country will not be changed through thoughts and prayers. The toxic masculinity that pervades our society’s understanding of gender roles will not disappear if we think good thoughts.
We must carefully consider why our country is the home of more mass shootings than any other nation, and we must continue to demand stricter gun control laws and reliable, engaged mental health services in the public school system. The books on this week’s list all engage with toxic masculinity, racism, gun violence, and the patriarchal underpinnings that create these uniquely American disasters. We offer these reading suggestions as a starting point, but know that real change must take place off the page.
How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister
Recently suspended for a so-called outburst, high school English teacher Anna Crawford is stewing over the injustice at home when she is shocked to see herself named on television as a suspect in a shooting at the school where she works. Though she is quickly exonerated, and the actual teenage murderer identified, her life is nevertheless held up for relentless scrutiny and judgment as this quiet town descends into media mania. Gun sales skyrocket, victims are transformed into martyrs, and the rules of public mourning are ruthlessly enforced. Anna decides to wholeheartedly reject the culpability she’s somehow been assigned, and the rampant sexism that comes with it, both in person and online.
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality―the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood―and a diagnosis of HIV positive. “Some of us are killed / in pieces,” Smith writes, “some of us all at once.” Don’t Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America―“Dear White America”―where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.
Loner by Teddy Wayne
David Federman has never felt appreciated. An academically gifted yet painfully forgettable member of his New Jersey high school class, the withdrawn, mild-mannered freshman arrives at Harvard fully expecting to be embraced by a new tribe of high-achieving peers. Initially, however, his social prospects seem unlikely to change. Then he meets Veronica Morgan Wells. Struck by her beauty, wit, and sophisticated Manhattan upbringing, David becomes instantly infatuated. Determined to win her attention and an invite into her glamorous world, he begins compromising his moral standards for this one great shot at happiness. But both Veronica and David, it turns out, are not exactly as they seem. Loner turns the traditional campus novel on its head as it explores ambition, class, and gender politics.
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
The Harder They Come explores the volatile connections between three damaged people—an aging ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran, his psychologically unstable son, and the son’s paranoid older lover—as they careen towards an explosive confrontation. On a vacation cruise to Central America with his wife, seventy-year-old Sten Stensen unflinchingly kills a gun-wielding robber menacing a busload of senior tourists. The reluctant hero is relieved to return home to Fort Bragg, California, after the ordeal—only to find that his delusional son, Adam, has spiraled out of control. Adam has become involved with Sara Hovarty Jennings, a hardened member of the Sovereign Citizens’ Movement, right-wing anarchists who refuse to acknowledge the laws and regulations of the state, considering them to be false and non-applicable. As Adam’s mental state fractures, he becomes increasingly schizophrenic—a breakdown that leads him to shoot two people in separate instances. On the run, he takes to the woods, spurring the biggest manhunt in California history.
The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture by Pamela Haag
In The Gunning of America, historian Pamela Haag overturns conventional wisdom. American gun culture, she argues, developed not because the gun was exceptional, but precisely because it was not: guns proliferated in America because throughout most of the nation’s history, they were perceived as an unexceptional commodity, no different than buttons or typewriters. Focusing on the history of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, one of the most iconic arms manufacturers in America, Haag challenges many basic assumptions of how and when America became a gun culture. Through the meticulous examination of gun industry archives, Haag challenges the myth of a primal bond between Americans and their firearms.
Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence edited by Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader
Focused intensively on the crisis of gun violence in America, this volume brings together poems by dozens of our best-known poets. Each poem is followed by a response from a gun violence prevention activist, political figure, survivor, or concerned individual. The result is a stunning collection of poems and prose that speaks directly to the heart and a persuasive and moving testament to the urgent need for gun control.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy by Sue Klebold
How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently? These are questions that Sue Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In A Mother’s Reckoning, she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing upon her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and on countless interviews with mental health experts.
The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Paul Coates was an enigmatic god to his sons: a Vietnam vet who rolled with the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian and new-age believer in free love, an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement dedicated to telling the true history of African civilization. Most of all, he was a wily tactician whose mission was to carry his sons across the shoals of inner-city adolescence and into the safe arms of Howard University, where he worked so his children could attend for free. Among his brood of seven, his main challenges were Ta-Nehisi, spacey and sensitive and almost comically miscalibrated for his environment, and Big Bill, charismatic and all-too-ready for the challenges of the streets. The Beautiful Struggle follows their divergent paths through this turbulent period, and their father’s steadfast efforts—assisted by mothers, teachers, and a body of myths, histories, and rituals conjured from the past to meet the needs of a troubled present—to keep them whole in a world that seemed bent on their destruction.
Monday Monday by Elizabeth Crook
On an oppressively hot Monday in August of 1966, a student and former marine named Charles Whitman hauled a footlocker of guns to the top of the University of Texas tower and began firing on pedestrians below. Monday, Monday follows three students caught up in the massacre: Shelly, who leaves class and walks directly into the path of the bullets, and two cousins, Wyatt and Jack, who heroically rush from their classrooms to help the victims. This searing day marks the beginning of a relationship that will entangle these three young people in a forbidden love affair, an illicit pregnancy, and a vow of silence that will span forty years. Reunited decades after the tragedy, Shelly, Wyatt, and Jack will be thrown back once more to the event that changed their lives, and confronted with the lingering power of a secret none of them are ready to reveal.
After Jubilee by Brionne Janae
Brionne Janae’s After Jubilee is a collection of finely tuned narratives presenting characters in a precarious balance between love and hate. Many voices collude to answer for both the jubilation and horror that has plagued black people from the beginning, including the black man with the white father, the parents donating their infant son’s organs to save other lives, and those ignored and forgotten in the massacre at Slocum, Texas in 1910.
Columbine by Dave Cullen
What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we “know” is wrong. It wasn’t about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book—widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world’s leading forensic psychologists, and the killers’ own words and drawings. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed. Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr. But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case, and the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including a Native American agent who infiltrated the region, and together with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
Testify by Simone John
Simone John’s first full-length book of poems experiments with documentary poetics to uplift stories of black people impacted by state-sanctioned violence. The book’s first section weaves Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon Martin trial with Kendrick Lamar lyrics, fixed form and found poems, and personal artifacts. The second section centers on the audio of the dashboard recording that captured Sandra Bland’s fatal police encounter. Excerpts from this exchange are punctuated with elegies for other dead black women, creating a larger commentary about race and gender- based violence. Testify is ultimately a book of witness. It “burdens” its readers
“with knowing.” Combined, both chapters serve as an unflinching critique of race and gender supremacy in the United States.
CRAWLSPACE by Nikki Wallschlaeger
CRAWLSPACE collects thirty-six pieces built on the foundation of the sonnet, ranging in length from fourteen lines to longer works stacking multiple sonnets into linked sequences. CRAWLSPACE deepens and extends the house metaphor from Wallschlaeger’s first book, while opening up more intimate and sometimes darker intellectual territory. Where Houses explored the mental/emotional/physical sheltered spaces in which we live out and construct our lives, CRAWLSPACE explores the more constricted spaces, the tighter concealed passages running above and below. These sonnets aim to be “very very fraught with you.”
The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman
The Second Amendment was written to calm public fear that the new national government would crush the state militias made up of white adult men—who were required to own a gun to serve. Waldman recounts the public debate that has surrounded the amendment from its inception to the present. Waldman shows that our view of the amendment is set, at each stage, not by a pristine constitutional text, but by the push and pull, the rough and tumble of political advocacy and public agitation.
Thousand Star Hotel by Bao Phi
Thousand Star Hotel confronts the silence around racism, police brutality, and the invisibility of the Asian American urban poor.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Eva never really wanted to be a mother—and certainly not the mother of a boy who ends up murdering seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage, in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.