Professors Kellie Carter Jackson and Dan Chiasson Share Favorite Books, Films, Podcasts of 2019

January 6, 2020
A collage of various book titles.

As we turn the corner into 2020, we asked Dan Chiasson, Lorraine C. Wang Professor of English, and Kellie Carter Jackson, Knafel Assistant Professor of Humanities and assistant professor of Africana studies, to discuss some of their favorites from 2019.

Was there a book published in your field in 2019 that you particularly admired?

Dan Chiasson: Jana Prikryl, No Matter. Wallace Stevens put it most simply: A poet’s subject is her “sense of the world.” Prikryl is my favorite poet among my own contemporaries. She writes about being a soul in the circuitry of the 21st-century city. Her gifts include perhaps the rarest one among contemporary poets—wit, which in these poems turns out to be a survival skill. 

Kellie Carter Jackson: In a shameless plug, I would say my own book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. It examines how some black abolitionists believed slavery could only be dismantled through violent force. The stories are exciting and empowering, allow readers to look beyond a romanticized view of the Underground Railroad, and illustrate how fleeing often required force. I was also shocked by how well it paired with the 2019 film Harriet, a must-see!

Did you come across a book related to your area of expertise this past year—not necessarily one published in 2019—that you would especially recommend?   

Chiasson: I claim this as my “field” because I’m a poet, and poets love ruins. The book I’ve been spending the most time with is an old coffee table book, Abandoned New England, which has all the shuttered asylums, dry canal beds, collapsing barns, cellar holes, animal pounds, and forgotten churches a New Englander could want. There’s an entire town in Vermont, including an 18th-century spa, that’s been for sale for decades. I think Wellesley should buy it.

Carter Jackson: One of the biggest moments that hit me this year was the death of Toni Morrison. This year, I bought every single book that she ever wrote. Her passing was felt so deeply in the literary community and beyond. Even books I’ve read long ago still seem fresh and timely. I recommend anything by Morrison, her novels or her essays. In her words, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”  

Outside of your field, what’s one book you read this year that you absolutely loved?

Chiasson: Orange World and Other Stories is Karen Russell’s latest book of haunted, frightening, magical stories. Russell will visit Wellesley this April. She’s the greatest storyteller I know. You’re utterly seized by curiosity from the first sentences of her stories. Learn more about Russell’s collection in my review of Orange World for the New York Review of Books last June.

Carter Jackson: I love audible! When I can’t read, I listen. This year, I listened to Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. She narrates the entire book, which details her sexual assault by Brock Turner on Stanford’s campus in 2015. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral. It is by far the most personal, powerful, and provocative piece of writing that I have read (listened to) in a long time. It is full of hope, resilience, and humanity. Everyone should read it or listen.  

What was your favorite film, album, TV series, performance, or exhibition of 2019?

Chiasson: The best experience of any art form I had this year was seeing the seven-plus-hour Hungarian film Sátántangó (1994), directed by Béla Tarr, at the MFA. An entire world, bleak but intricately real. I lost any sense of outside reality, and at one point tried to check the time on one of the characters’ watches.

Carter Jackson: My guilty pleasures consist of bingeing on movies, TV, and podcasts. My favorite film this year was Harriet! It stayed with me for days. It was inspiring and beautiful. Harriett Tubman was the ultimate boss! My favorite TV series was HBO’s Watchmen. Two words: Regina King! It is a visual assault on white supremacy that can’t be missed! I love it, even when I don’t get it. My favorite podcast remains Still Processing, by Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham of the New York Times. It’s all things pop culture and race. I live for their analysis week to week. They could teach a master course on analyzing our current cultural climate.