We read books for a variety of reasons, sometimes just for sheer enjoyment and other times to learn a thing or two. Although none of us enjoy feeling sad or angry, some of the best books spark such emotions while also informing us about important events of the past and present. Be sure to check out these nine books that made me sad, frustrated or even angry but were well worth the read.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. I shared with a friend a few excerpts from the book about the sexual assaults Harvey Weinstein committed and how so many people turned a blind eye to his abusive behavior toward women for so long. The friend responded by innocently asking “Why do you read books like that that make you mad? Why do you want to read about that?”
With more conviction than was probably necessary for the conversation, I responded with my thoughts on the importance of understanding these types of events, relationships, and circumstances so we can learn from the stories and dismantle the systems that allow them to perpetuate.
To no one’s surprise, our world is not all rainbows and butterflies. Emotional strife and social injustices layer our lives in subtle and obvious ways. I believe we have a moral obligation to work towards social justice, and learning about the painful details of our history and current events is an integral step in fixing unfair and immoral social structures.
And so… sometimes I read books that make me mad and sad, frustrated and confused. Over the last year or so, I’ve read many books in this vein and have compiled a few of my favorites that I believe we should all read. Some are non-fiction and recap facts and truths. The fiction titles I chose do not document true history but are rooted in historical truths that have defined our past and present. By reading these books, hopefully they can be a step toward ensuring this history that plagued our past does not also define our future.
9 Great Books To Read That May Make You Mad or Sad
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Page after page, the authors describe in detail their experience discovering and uncovering the wrath of Harvey Weinstein and the network of people who knew about his behavior yet never said a word or took action to stop it. Simultaneously, his victims were isolated from each other and signed non-disclosure agreement after non-disclosure agreement (if they even spoke up) so many victims thought they were alone or one of few. Certainly they did not understand that they were each part of an orchestrated habit of exploiting young woman through abuse of power and influence.
Beyond Weinstein, the book hopefully continues the conversation that Weinstein is but one example of recurring abuse of wealth and power, often but not exclusively by white men, at the expense of vulnerable or less powerful people in their sphere of existence.
Related Listening: Broken podcast about Jeffrey Epstein
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Such a beautifully written book, Coates captures the voices and perspectives of slaves on plantations and those working the Underground Railroad. These are voices who too often have been silenced in the stories of our history. He developed the characters so fully, and he conveyed their depth, emotion, connections and presence flawlessly. This book captured my interest on the first page and never let it go. I can’t say enough about this book other than it’s worth all the hype and you should definitely read it!
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu
A former border patrol agent tells the very personal side of real life along the border between the United States and Mexico. Despite the media’s politically-driven portrayals of the issues at the border, Cantu offers a very intimate look at so many of the day-to-day issues that border patrol agents face and the relationships they develop with people involved in all facets of managing entrance to the United States through Mexico. He highlighted wonderfully the relationships and emotional weight that drive decisions of many people impacted by border patrol activity.
Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas
Money may not buy happiness (although that’s debatable to an extent) but it surely buys power and influence. Giridharadas lays out the ways in which the wealthy control the world and how they use their money to protect their privilege even under the cover of charitable and generous acts. In some cases, the selfishness is egregious. In many cases, it’s innocent. Yet the way our economies operate, wealth has the last word and those who have not are left to the intentions of those who have much.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
What if we all treated nature with respect granted to it by Indigenous peoples like Native Americans? Braiding Sweetgrass shows the world through the eyes of a Native American woman who is also a botanist. She reflects on many of the assumptions we hold about how we interact with nature and challenges the belief that we can’t more positively impact the Earth and its ecosystems. The book is both disappointing, when it reflects on native communities and wisdom lost, but also hopeful when offering potential solutions for the future by reincorporating the regenerative native practices that cared well for the land for so long.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The story starts with two African sisters separated from each other when one is taken as a wife for a European colonist and remains in Africa while the other is sold into slavery across the Atlantic Ocean. The chapters flip between the two families, following each sister’s lineage through many generations into the current times. Each chapter digs into and reflects on the lasting effects of slavery and colonialism in each respective society through the lived experiences of the families. Although it’s a fictional story, it is seeded in historical fact and painful at times to witness. Yet it is important to bring light to the continuing costs endured still today by people of color and descendants of slavery as a result of colonialism and slave trade.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The death penalty and mass incarceration have plagued a generation of people, primarily poor and brown, in incredibly unfair ways. Stevenson is an attorney who has made it his mission to change this narrative through his work as a death row defense attorney. The book details a few of his clients over the last couple of decades whose experiences reflect the unfair costs and injustices endured by those who can’t afford to hire the biggest name lawyers to protect their innocence and defend their rights. Our criminal justice system is incredibly unjust, and Stevenson knows firsthand precisely how unfair it can be.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
The American Dream begs us to believe that hard will work will boost anyone into a life of prosperity. Stephanie Land, a woman and mother who lived in poverty despite working long hours for many years, shares her perspective on the weight of poverty on every life and the structural barriers in place to escaping poverty.
Full-time employment at minimum wage doesn’t cover the most basic needs. Too many jobs lack health care benefits and don’t pay enough to cover child care. Even worse, companies prioritize profits over predictability and quality of life for employees. Employees are subject to dynamic hours, cancelled shifts and last minute requests to work that make building a life around work nearly impossible. Land highlights through her memoir how unfair the odds are for keeping impoverished in poverty.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
After September 11, 2001, the perspective of Muslims shifted dramatically for many Americans, due in large part to fear. Many kind and innocent Muslims faced significant prejudice and hatred simply for their religious beliefs. Mafi tells the story of a young teenage girl who received a wrath of hate and disrespect from her peers, teachers and parents of students in her high school. Through her novel, she highlights the everyday trauma many Muslims face simply for wearing headscarves or being from a particular country, even from those who purport to be their friends and neighbors.