I haven’t recommended a single book on this blog all year. Considering that I recommend them almost daily — both to strangers in the library and my patience-of-a-saint friends — my lack of book-related posts is absurd. But every time I sit down to write, I can’t decide which book to review. Should I talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates or James Baldwin? Michael Eric Dyson or The Hate U Give? Sister Outsider or All About Love? So many landmark titles and so little time…
But then Monday arrived and my birthday with it, and I realized I had the perfect opportunity to rave about a bunch all at once.
Below are the books that shaped my 23rd year. Most were written by women, many by women of color, and even more of them queer. It’s a list of novels and nonfiction, of poetry and prose. Most are geared toward an adult audience, but a few are for younger readers, because hey, if the book is good, you’re never too old to try it (also I’m trying to become a better-read librarian — stay tuned to find out if I ever tackle urban fiction).
Because this list spans half of 2017, you’ll see a few titles you recognize; hopefully, you’ve read them by now, but if previous posts didn’t convince you to pick them up, maybe this one will. (And before you leave, be sure to check out my new recommendation page. It’s a work in progress, but every request helps!)
1. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
I’m relatively new to food memoirs, but Reichl’s witty prose pulled me in with the first page and refused to let me go. (It’s also the first book I checked out as a newly-minted 23-year-old living in my new city, so it holds a special place in my heart.)
2. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Potok’s books have been a staple on my shelf since I first encountered him in high school. The Chosen is his most famous work, a beautiful novel about faith, friendship, and father-son relations in the face of changing worldviews.
3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Olive Kitteridge will forever remind me of new cities and first summers, of job-searching and getting lost on the way to the grocery store. “It’s just that I’m the kind of person that thinks if you took a map of the whole world and put a pin in it for every person, there wouldn’t be a pin for me,” says one of the characters at the end of the novel. It is a beautiful book.
Every once in a while a book will come along that changes the landscape of my thinking. All About Love and Sister Outsider were two of those books for me. Whether it’s Audre’s essay on “The Uses of Anger” or bell’s examination of society’s definitions of love, not a day goes by that I don’t think of these books and the brilliant women who wrote them.
You’ve heard of the Bechdel test, but have you ever read anything by the woman who coined it? If not, you’re in for a treat. I loved Fun Home so much that I immediately checked out the sequel, then spent a month falling in love with the vast and varied characters featured in Dykes to Watch Out For. If you’re looking for queer lit, I’ll recommend Bechdel. If you’re looking for graphic novels, I’ll recommend Bechdel. If you’re walking down the street and minding your own business, I’ll stop you and recommend Bechdel.
9. We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me is the book that catapulted him to fame, but his latest is the book that cemented Coates as one of my favorite authors. Featuring eight articles written during Obama’s presidency and strung together with interstitial memoir, We Were Eight Years in Power is the kind of book I could only dream of writing. In fact, if I could write one essay half as articulate as a Ta-Nehisi Coates article, I think I’d die happy.
10. Thrall by Natasha Trethewey
One of the most shocking revelations of the past year is that I don’t hate poetry. I actually kind of love it, especially Natasha Trethewey’s. Blending history and memoir as deftly as an artist blends paint, Thrall offers a powerful commentary on race in the Americas while showing just how much poetry can do.
11. Home by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison always sneaks up on me. The full force of her genius doesn’t dawn until the last fifty pages of a novel, but when it does, oh man. It’s moments like those that convince me Morrison is the greatest novelist ever to grace the English language.
12. Carol by Patricia Highsmith
You probably recognize it as the 2015 film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but Carol started off as a novel by Patricia Highsmith titled The Price of Salt. A staple in the lesbian canon, Thérèse and Carol’s tale is as gorgeous as it is rending, a love story whose value lies not in its romanticization, but rather in its flaws.
13. Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
I’m trying to read more authors of color than not this year, which has led me to diversify my “quick reads” canon. This decision has turned out to be a fantastic one, because now when I crave a YA novel to cleanse my palate between heavier reads, I turn to authors like Renée Watson instead of grabbing the latest dystopia I know I’m bound to hate. Piecing Me Together was a quick but high-quality read, the kind of novel that checked my privilege even as it encouraged me to broaden my worldview. Even better, it introduced me to a new author whose work I’m eager to explore.
14. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Baldwin has been on my to-read list since high school but rocketed to the top when I discovered that The Fire Next Time is the work that inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Between the World and Me. By turns fiery, elegant, and utterly convicting, Baldwin’s meditations on race and class in America are ones I will return to many times in the years to come.
15. Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
There are almost two dozen incredible books featured on this list, but if I could convince you to read just one, I’d tell you to start with this one. Dyson’s book floated on the edges of my awareness for about eight months before I committed to reading it. In timing I can only describe as divine, it arrived in my hands the same week I finished The Fire Next Time and began The Hate U Give. If you’re looking for a contemporary voice on race in America that follows in the footsteps of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., start with Michael Eric Dyson.
16. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Twenty-eighteen seems to be the year I confront my prejudices against poetry and YA novels. I resisted reading The Hate U Give for many months before finally giving in. That resistance turned out to be a good thing, though, because it landed me in Starr Carter’s world the same day I entered Michael Eric Dyson’s. It’s not for me to say what might have been, but I doubt my understanding of the #BlackLivesMatter movement would have been as informed without Dyson’s explanation, nor my eyes as opened to the evils of racism without Thomas’s visceral fiction.
17. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
I have only scratched the surface of this fierce woman’s work, and for that I am excited. Reading this collection of poems felt like a spiritual experience made all the richer by the suspicion that I’ll get even more out of it at a later point in my life.
18. Lumberjanes created by Noelle Stevenson & Co.
I recommend them to kids at the library all the time, but the Lumberjanes comics are a delight to readers of all ages. Funny, fun, and empowering, they offer a diverse cast of characters (more POC than not!!) and manage to mix dinosaurs, Greek mythology, and mermaids without losing sight of the Lumberjane creed: Friendship to the Max!
19. Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism by Deborah Jian Lee
I have a strange relationship to organized religion these days; if you asked me to describe my faith, I’d say I move at the margins of Christianity. That means different things on different days, but mostly it means I take things one day at a time and spend a lot of energy trying to understand the places I come from. I haven’t considered myself part of the evangelical tradition for several years now, but its influence still saturates my life. I tend to see that as a bad thing, but Deborah Jian Lee reminded me that there are some inherently beautiful parts of evangelical Christianity, and that strong and lovely humans are striving to make it a more welcoming tradition.
20. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
I don’t know how to describe this novel. It touched me in inexplicable ways. It was about family and prejudice and siblings and AIDS, parent-child relationships and the impossibility of a girl’s first love. It should have been depressing, but instead it was an incalculable gift. The kind of book you finish and know you won’t forget.
21. Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
I will never forgive myself for missing Shanthi Sekaran’s presentation at the Arkansas Literary Festival this year. (Okay, okay, I was working, but still. Unacceptable.) At almost 500 pages, Lucky Boy should have taken me four weeks to finish, but I devoured it in four days. “A novel about undocumented and privileged immigration, detention and parenthood,” it was timely when Sekaran published it in January 2017; in light of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, it’s an utterly essential read.
22. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
It took a colossally long waitlist at the library and the blessing of people like Ann Patchett and Reese Witherspoon to convince me to read Little Fires Everywhere, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. It was the book that snapped me out of my post-Lucky Boy reading slump (they make excellent companion reads), and chances are if you’ve talked to me in the past three weeks, I haven’t stopped singing its praises. It’s the kind of book you sink into and don’t want to surface from, a treasure of a novel.
My preoccupation with race in America began three years ago while researching the poetry of Lucille Clifton. Since then, it has led me to authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Toni Morrison; to novels such as Caucasia, Americanah, Behold the Dreamers, and Home; to movies like Selma, Get Out, and Moonlight; to the poetry of Natasha Trethewey and the essays of Audre Lorde. Through it all, I have struggled to articulate the roots of my obsession. What right does a white girl have to talk about racism, but shouldn’t I use my privilege to shed light on this four-hundred-year-old problem? Except how do I do that without eclipsing Black voices and thereby become part of the thing I’m attempting to expose? I haven’t found answers to any of these questions, but I’m starting to be able to talk about everything that I’m learning. It seems fitting, then, to have Dyson’s newest book close out this list. I finished it two days before turning 24 and spent my birthday discussing the thoughts pinging around my brain. It was a turning point for me, one that I hope signals growth and humility and deepened understanding.
📚 Here’s to twenty-four and the many books it will bring. 📚