2016 Reading Review – Part I

In this segment: African American Literature and Memoir. (See the full list of my 2016 reading here.)

African American Literature continues to be one of my most-read genres. I find it intellectually challenging as well as emotionally moving. 2016’s reading was no exception.

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson | This was a reread, since I assigned it for a class on historical methods. I think it’s a good example of the difficulty of using a single story to tell a broad history about a topic as complicated as race.

Loving Day by Mat Johnson | I really wanted to like this one and found myself disappointed. It’s been about a year since I read it, though, so I don’t remember exactly what I didn’t like about it. Too much angst by the main character? I’m not a fan of angsty novels. Long Division by Kiese Laymon (a 2015 read) was much better.

Imperium in Imperio by Sutton E. Griggs | A colleague is finishing his dissertation on late 19th/early 20th century African American Literature and so has read some pretty obscure things. He recommended this as a sample of what he’s writing about and I quite enjoyed it. It reminded me of Johnson’s book above and some of Du Bois’s fiction. An interesting read, but not one I’d recommend to those new to the literature and history of that time and place.

*Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi | This book is fantastic, a multi-generational portrait – spanning more than 200 years – of an African family, part of which comes to the United States. I wasn’t sure I should include the book here, because it deals more with Africa than the United States. But the author is Ghanaian-American and grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. There are at least some autobiographical elements and I’ll be looking forward to more from Gyasi.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson | I enjoyed this book enough to finally go buy Brown Girl Dreaming, which is fantastic. Like that book and like Homegoing (and much of my favorite AA Lit), this novel is partially autobiograpical and deeply loving. A stirring account of gender and (young) womanhood in the 1970s.

As you can see above, I’m a sucker for good memoir. I read some great ones this year.

*When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi | Somehow I managed not to record this book on my spreadsheet. That’s quite the oversight, considering how moving I found this reflection by a dying young neurosurgeon. Part memoir past meditation on the meaning and purpose of life, it’s a quick read but one that will stick with you.

*Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett | I’d had this book in my sights for some time now, since Patchett ranks among my favorite authors and I enjoyed her non-fiction selection a few years ago. This book is really a memoir of a relationship, with her great friend Lucy Grealy. As usual, Patchett writing didn’t disappoint.

*Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel | Most famous as the source of the Bechdel test for fiction (does it have at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than male?), Bechdel is a talented illustrator and critic. Her illustrated memoir explores her relationship with her (closeted) gay father and how that secret shaped her own identity and sexuality. I found it remarkably open and nuanced, and perfectly paired with her graphic medium.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi | Another work that had been on my radar for a while, this one was a bit of a disappointment. The story (of a family living through the Iranian revolution) is moving, but I didn’t find the execution as satisfying. In this case, the graphic novel genre seemed to have flattened things.

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