The current political climate has been a stark reminder for me how far our country has come and how fast it can all be turned back. And with February being Black History moth, we are given a time to celebrate the amazing resilience of a group of people that have gone through so much to be who they are today and celebrate all of the great things they have done and added to our country.
This post is going to focus on books by authors that I think deserve attention for their work and how they have formed me as a reader. However, I wanted to focus on books that I worry not enough people have heard of or read. I could easily tell you to read anything by Toni Morrison - she is hands down one of my favorite writers. Looking where to start? try The Bluest Eye or Home. However, her masterpiece is Song of Solomon - I have read it so many times and every time is a revelation. Anything by James Baldwin is also a pretty great - I recommend Go Tell It On the Mountain. I have already told you of may love of the graphic novel series March by John Lewis and company (I have linked my review in the title). And, if you have not picked up Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehishi Coates, one of the most powerful works of non-fiction I have every read, stop right now and go buy it. I recommend the audio book, which he reads himself. When he speaks his words directly to you - you feel each masterful stroke. Also, in my previous post I expounded on Roxane Gay - read her! An Untamed State is a thriller that will keep your heart pounding throughout. There are so many amazing books to talk about, recommend and read.
However, I am going to focus on a list of five books that changed me. I hope they change you:
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is one of those books that when I read it made me a better and more thoughtful reader. I first read it in high school, and I struggled with the intense dialect and worried that I was missing great parts of the book. However, the story and language is so amazing and I have since read it 4 times. The first line just blows your mind...
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time." I have since read the novel 3 times - and Janie and her inner strength have inspired me every time I think about her.
Here is a brief summary (Goodreads again) "When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds ..."
Kindred by Octavia Butler is one of those books that many consider a cult classic - but I worry that not enough people have heard of or read. Ms. Butler wrote science fiction at a time when black women were not known for writing in this genre. And let me just say it, she was a master of the genre and a straight up genius. When I first read this book, I finished the last page and then started it right over again. In January of this year they published a graphic novel version of this book - I have been searching every where for a copy! It is a must buy as soon as I find it.
Dana, our protagonist, is a modern 1970's woman that is living in a time when civil rights were just changing direction in America. Something happens and she travels back in time to the slavery south - saves a white child from drowning and her life is never the same. This book will tear your heart out over and over again.
"Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life. During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother."
Have you ever read a book that taught you about a part of history that you had no idea existed? For me The Known World by Edward P. Jones was such a book. I had never known that there were free blacks that owned slaves and had there own "plantations". This book is a powerful look at inner race racism, a story of a woman that tried to keep life together after the passing of her husband, and how history shapes us all - even when we are not paying attention. I have read Mr. Jones' short story collection as well and I have always been blown away by what he places on the page. I cannot wait until his next novel.
"The Known World tells the story of Henry Townsend, a black farmer and former slave who falls under the tutelage of William Robbins, the most powerful man in Manchester County, Virginia. Making certain he never circumvents the law, Townsend runs his affairs with unusual discipline. But when death takes him unexpectedly, his widow, Caldonia, can't uphold the estate's order, and chaos ensues. Jones has woven a footnote of history into an epic that takes an unflinching look at slavery in all its moral complexities."
I met Tayari Jones at a book event right after the publication of Silver Sparrow. She is absolutely charming, and so smart, and after the a few hours I was a total fanboy of her and her work. I have read her other novels as well - but I find this one to be here best one yet.
This book really gets you from the first sentence: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist," That may be all you need to know to get you started. The story is of Dana who finds out her father has had another family and the choices she makes in learning not only about them, but herself. The novel is beautifully written, and powerfully told. (Click here: to see Roxane Gay's review of this novel)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a novel that will not leave you alone for some time after you finish the last pages. It is one of the books that won the National Book Award for all the right reasons - for being an amazing novel. But I worry that not enough people have heard of it or read it. Set during the Katrina hurricane - Ms. Ward paints a powerful portrait of how prepping and dealing with a natural disaster can be so hear wrenching. It is also a story of how the strong children can be when they have not had strong parental figures in their lives. It is an amazing book.
"A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesnt show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. Meanwhile, brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting."
These five books may be very familiar to you, or you may have never heard of them. But for me, they have been powerful moments in my reading life. If you have read them, I would love to hear what you think. If you haven't read them please pick them up. As always -- each book is a link to an independent bookstore to order the book yourself. Also let me know if there are any books you would recommend to me or others to read. My TBR is never long enough.