I finished 29 books in 2014. Considering what else we have going on in our lives, I think that’s a pretty good number, though I’m always interested in reading more. Since my reviews came out to over 2,000 words, I’ve decided to break things up a bit. Below is entry 1 of 2. Feel free to skip any genres that don’t interest you.
I share this list in hopes of encouraging more reading by us all. Perhaps by sharing what’s good (and what’s good about what’s good), we’ll be spurred to read more. I look forward to hearing your suggestions of great books read recently.
I’ve given asterisks to my 6 “must read” choices.
African American Literature
I made a conscious decision to read up on the cannon of black literature this summer. This was motivated in part by a student who recommended either Native Son or Invisible Man (I’ve forgotten which) and in part on a feeling that I needed to expand on my intricate knowledge of W.E.B. Du Bois’s writing by getting to know more of his contemporaries. As I read these, I was more interested in experiencing them than studying them. So I didn’t take notes beyond bending a few page corners. All are worth reading but I’m only going to highlight a few elements here, reserving the opportunity to write more at jasonlabau.com (as I have for a few already).
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (1912) – The least satisfying as a novel, but indispensable for getting a feel for what it meant to be ‘colored’ (or not) in the early 20th century. It’s also a wonderful reflection on the newly (re)discovered international context of race during the Harlem Renaissance.
* Native Son by Richard Wright (1940) – As Wright intended, I was shocked by Bigger Thomas even more than I’d expected. The novel reminded me a bit of Camus’ The Stranger, both in feeling and structure, though with more action and energy.
* Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952) – For the first half of this novel, I wasn’t that impressed. It was too episodic for my taste, much like Johnson’s Autobiography. But the last half, in which the Invisible Man takes on the role of spokesman for his race (or for the Communists to his race) is gripping. I was reading this at the same time that Michael Brown was shot and the parallels were challenging. The pairing of this and Native Son made me doubt how much progress we’ve really made since the 1950s. Yes, the Civil Rights Movement made a great deal a great deal better. But it didn’t erase the past and it didn’t fix issues of policing and police violence (as we’re seeing now).
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008) – My wife and I took a mental trip to Baltimore this fall. She was reading Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets by David Simon while I read Coates’ memoir and we both were listening to Serial. Coates’ father was a dedicated Black Panther with children by four women, making for a complicated family life. Among other things, it made me think about the intersection of race and violence differently.
Mother, Daughter, Me by Katie Hafner – I read this in January and honestly don’t remember how I ended up with it. Perhaps an interview with the author? In any case, it was an excellent story of complex family dynamics involving three generations of women trying to make a life in a single house after years of estrangement between the mother/grandmother and the daughter/mother/author.
eat pray love by Elizabeth Gilbert – I never read this when it came out, nor have I seen the movie. Neither seemed my thing. But my wife picked it up and recommended it as surprisingly good. She was right. For all the gimmicky-ness of the title and project, it turned out to be surprisingly heartfelt and moving.
* This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett – Patchett recommends authors of fiction should ignore the advice to “write what you know” and instead choose topics you’d like to research. But in her non-fiction writing, she suggests the opposite. So while this is technically a collection of her non-fiction essays – somewhat edited and expanded – the sum is a stirring look into her life and relationships, including her relationship with books and writing.
* Yes Please by Amy Poehler – Comparisons aren’t really polite, but Poehler’s book definitely trumps Tina Fey’s Bossypants for me. Similar to Gilbert’s book, Poehler’s is full of artifice that seems more honest and revealing than Fey’s more traditional organization. While I remember Fey’s as being interesting and comically satisfying, Poehler’s more often struck my heart and hit some serious comic highs. In that sense, the books reflect their respective shows: 30 Rock (especially the first season) made me laugh plenty. But Parks and Rec continues to make me laugh while also hitting a whole range of other emotions.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – Ok, this one really isn’t a memoir. But it’s close enough to Patchett’s book that I couldn’t resist putting it in this category. Lamott’s advice on writing is wonderful and personal and something I will certainly return to.