I’ve had a complicated relationship with reading for the past year. Complicated is a word I’ve never used to describe reading before; I’ve loved to read since I first learned how, and there have only been a handful of days in my life when I haven’t read for at least a few minutes for pleasure. But in this year, my second year as a published author, first year as a full-time writer, when my third and fourth books came out, when I wrote my fourth and (most of my) fifth books, when I have either worked on a book or traveled for work almost every single calendar day of the year, it became hard to determine what reading was “for pleasure” and what reading was work. Fiction has always been my true love, but the more galleys I get sent, the more I get asked for blurbs, the more I get asked to recommend books in a professional context, the harder it is to read fiction for relaxation. I’m not complaining about any of this—every time I get home to one of those padded envelopes, I still rejoice like the book loving kid I’ve always been. I’m honored to blurb other authors and support them in the way so many have supported me. But I’ve had to figure out techniques for myself so I can read and write and keep joy in my heart for both.
For years now, my standard reading time has been at night, after I’ve finished all of my own work for the day, in the bathtub. That’s when I relax and unwind from the day, and signal to my brain that work time is over. But now that writing fiction is my job, it felt like work time was continuing, just in another space, so I’ve had to switch the kinds of books I read in the bathtub (almost) every night. I realized early this year that mystery novels were just what I needed. They’re different enough from what I write that reading them doesn’t interfere with my own writing, but they still fully immerse me in another life, which is what I ask for in my fiction. Also, in a year when the national news is full of people being evil and cruel on a daily basis and never enduring any consequences, it’s wonderful to read books where people do something bad and then are caught and punished for it. I read almost all 30 of the Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver books, which feel like wrapping yourself in a blanket knitted by someone who loves you. I also read plenty of Agatha Christie, and reread a bunch of Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, all of which are cozy and relaxing and satisfying all in this way.
I also read more nonfiction this year than I have in years. I’ve realized that there’s a point in the life of each book manuscript where I stop being able to read any fiction, and nonfiction has sustained me. During one of those periods as I was working on my fourth book, Royal Holiday, I read Esmé Weijun-Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, which was extraordinary—thoughtful, fascinating, heartbreaking, and also wryly funny. Partly for research, and partly for fun, I read Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which anyone who enjoys The Crown should read immediately—you come out of it disliking Margaret (and indeed, the whole royal family), but it’s still very entertaining. I had a ton of fun with Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman—I was a history major in college and still love big, fat, deeply researched historical biographies, and this is a well written and juicy one; it kept me captivated on one of my many long plane flights this year. And I reread Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Story Genius and Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, the latter of which I read for the first time last year, and have a feeling I’ll likely reread every year and get something more out of every time.
The most profound reading experience I had this year was with Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House. I started The Yellow House, Broom’s memoir about her family and about New Orleans, a few days after my grandmother, who was born in New Orleans, went into the hospital. I watched an interview with Broom on PBS with my grandmother in her hospital room. And I finished The Yellow House a few days after my grandmother died. Reading that book was like reading a history of my family, all of the people felt so familiar; this, even though my own family has had a very different history. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great idea to read the Hurricane Katrina section of this book the day after my grandmother died, because, oh wow, did I cry a whole lot—but it was also cathartic in many ways. This book is a triumph, and I’m so grateful it’s gotten the accolades it deserves.
The times this year I have been able to dive into my beloved fiction have not coincidentally been when I’ve gone on vacation. In April, after I turned in Royal Holiday, I went to Hawaii for a week, and brought a whole pile of galleys and published books with me and loved so many of them. The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren, Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev, Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn, Beach Read by Emily Henry, Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jallaludin, Playing House by Ruby Lang—it was my best reading week all year. (Note to self: go to Hawaii more often).
Six months later, I stole a weekend away for my birthday and went to Mexico; there I read The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika and Maritza Moulite, and Faker by Sarah Smith. In other stolen weekends, or on some long plane flights where I gave myself a break from either trying to write or trying to do any other work, I read and loved The Key to Happily Ever After by Tif Marcelo, There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon, Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, The Bewildered Bride by Vanessa Riley, Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, Return to Me by Farrah Rochon, All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg, and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. Work and pleasure were all mixed up for almost all of these books—I blurbed quite a few of them, some I wrote about or talked about on TV later on, others I read to prepare for events with their authors. But it was good to learn that there are ways that I can still fall head over heels with a work of fiction, even though reading it is now (part of) my job.
I hope in 2020 I
manage to take more weekends off, get to read a whole lot more, and take more
trips to Hawaii with big stacks of books in my suitcase.
For me, this year
of reading is forever captured by the words of our literary genius Toni
Morrison. Upon hearing of her death, I clung to her now famous quote: “We
die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the
measure of our lives.”
And then I did what I’m sure millions of other readers did: pulled a Morrison classic from the bookshelf—for me it was Sula—and devoured it anew, hungry for the language that only she could do. That slim perfect novel entered my life at a critical moment, when I was searching for a way to understand what I might uniquely say, as a young black woman writer. Sula, in its astonishing portrayal of a black woman like none we’d seen before, liberated my understanding of what was possible.
Weeks ago, at the Brooklyn Public Library, I participated in a continuous reading of Beloved for ‘Til Victory Is Won, a teach-in examining freedom movements from the Middle Passage to Black Lives Matter. Reciting Morrison’s work out loud reminded me of its power and urgency and beauty, because sometimes we must be reminded of what we already know to be true. After that experience, I felt compelled to listen to Beloved on audiobook, to remain awash in the language, this time gifted to me in Morrison’s own arresting voice.
During Morrison’s memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Oprah Winfrey chose as part of her tribute to read a favorite passage from Song of Solomon. (“If I got a home, you got one too…Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on – can you hear me? Pass it on!”). Given her masterful delivery, Oprah reminded us all of the singular and stunning gut-punch of Morrison’s writing. Again, it sent me back to the text, and I went home and re-read Song of Solomon, consuming its pages the way you do a favorite meal cooked by a favorite aunt, one you haven’t eaten in years, yet brings back with each mouthful a deep sense memory. It had been decades since I first read each of those iconic novels; I now understood I’d been bereft without knowing it, had missed the intimacy I once had with those characters and that narrator, the way you realize how much you’ve missed a dear friend only when you actually see her again.
Before the world shifted on August 5, I was busily reading newly released books while traveling on book tour for my own memoir that came out this year, The World According to Fannie Davis. I love reading while I travel, as there’s so many undisturbed snatches of time that I don’t manage to get at home: waiting at airport gates, flying on planes for hours, resting in hotel rooms before events… In those cherished moments, I read five original and compelling memoirs.
Sarah M. Broom’s National Book Award-winning The Yellow House has some of the most tactile and redolent writing I’ve ever read, is beautiful in so many ways. And it is, among other things, a breathtaking story of Broom’s own quest for both nest and adventure. Imani Perry’s Breathe was for me, as the mother of a 20-year-old black son, both an excruciating and exhilarating experience. That’s how apt and searing and moving is this love letter of a book that Perry writes to her own two African-American sons. Claudia E. Hernandez’s Knitting the Fog, winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize (full disclosure: I was a judge), is a lyrically fresh account of her life as a Guatemalan immigrant, and a story we simply haven’t seen before, not like this. Good Talk, Mira Jacob’s illustrated conversations with her son about race, manages to be both visually inviting and a captivating read, thanks to both her candor and craft. The book is so fantastic, it ups the ante for what graphic memoir can be. Serial memoirist Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance moved me for its naked honesty and deft rendering of a huge family secret, that her beloved Jewish father was not her biological father. As I’ve written my own story of a family secret, I appreciated how Shapiro shared her personal story all the while examining larger cultural implications of that revelation.
Speaking of cultural implications, I crave stories about black women’s lives that situate them within historical context, which is still so often a rarity. That’s why I was intrigued by Josh Levin’s book about the original “welfare queen” demonized by the media and politicians in the ’70s and ’80s. The Queen is a rich character-study of a complicated black woman that Levin rescues from simplistic stereotyping. It’s also an apt study of the ways black women have been demonized in society; the entire time I was reading its exhaustively researched pages, I kept saying to myself both “Of course!” and “Who knew?”
As palate cleansers, I also read two refreshing narratives that took me away from my usual choice of genres. The first is the fun thriller My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Set in Nigeria, it’s so sly and charming that I turned the pages greedily and couldn’t stop smiling. In stark contrast, DaMaris B. Hill’s A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing is a “narrative-in-verse” bearing witness to incarcerated black women across American history. That description does not do justice to the imaginative, sweeping account that Hill renders of black women she reclaims from history—some we’ve heard of, many we haven’t—who were bound in myriad ways, having lost their freedom at the hands of America’s cruelty. That she does so vis-à-vis tribute poems to each woman is a marvel. It’s a heart-wrenching read, but also a soul-stirring one.
Speaking again of Oprah, I recently re-watched her riveting performance in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as I begin to think about a film adaptation of my own mother’s story. This led me back to the source, Rebecca Skloot’s book of the same name, which remains an astonishing story of two women—Lacks herself, who’d been all but lost to history despite her own cells’ seismic contribution to science, and her daughter Deborah whose mission in life was to right that wrong. It’s a powerful corrective.
I see clearly the theme that has emerged from my reading list this year: women’s lives revealed, reclaimed, reimagined. Feels right. As does ending with our beloved Toni Morrison’s adage:
Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
No matter how busy I get with teaching or writing, I squeeze in some time for leisure reading. It’s imperative. And I don’t guilt myself for doing so! Here are just a few books I’ve read this year and why I enjoyed them:
Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House: A Memoir is my favorite nonfiction book of 2019. Even if Broom hadn’t included photos of her relatives, I could’ve see them. She describes her family members’ personalities so well, I wanted to go to New Orleans and meet as many of them as possible. Broom doesn’t hold anything back. And her family members were equally transparent when she asked them personal questions. The book feels full of raw honesty.
I loved Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe by Evan James because it had me cracking up on every page. James sets the tone up so well early on in the novel that each of the interactions between the characters are hilarious to me. Very wealthy characters being foolish is good entertainment. The cover art for Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side caught my eye while I browsed a bookstore one afternoon. I read 10 pages of the book in the corner of the store and bought it. With a balance of humor and gravity, Quindlen points out how far people will go to secure social status within a small community. She points it out, and she shows how dangerous it can be.
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In his opening remarks for the 70th annual ceremony, host Levar Burton spoke about the power of books personally and politically.
During his speech, Burton—television’s most beloved bibliophile—credited his mother with instilling him with a lifelong love of literature, and went on to wax poetic about the power of literacy: “Literature is the birthright of every one of us—if you can read in at least one language, you are in my definition, free. No one can pull the wool over your eyes.”
As for the awards, they went as follows:
The award in the Young People’s Literature category went to 1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler.
The poetry award went to Arthur Sze for Sight Lines.
The nonfiction award went to The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom.
In her debut memoir, The Yellow House (which was recently nominated for a National Book Award), Sarah M. Broom writes vividly of her childhood in New Orleans East and charts the city’s drastic changes over the decades. She discusses her connection to her childhood home with Greg Mania in Paper Magazine. “I’m deeply connected to place,” Broom says. “This is an inheritance, I think, an intuitive way for me to be. But also, the yellow house was the place my mother owned, where my mother, Ivory Mae, raised her family. It was a place she made. I knew it was my story to tell the moment I left it. This book, as I see it, is only the beginning of that story.”
The National Book Foundation announced the National Book Award finalists today. Each category—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people’s literature, and translated literature—has been narrowed down from the longlist 10 to the shortlist five. While many of the finalists have made the NBA shortlist before, none of them have won of a National Book Award in these categories.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all five categories, with bonus links where available:
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi (Read our 2019 interview with Choi)
Sabrina & Corinas by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (Read a profile of James)
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Read Lalami’s 2018 Year in Reading entry)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom (Featured in our Great First-Half 2019 Book Preview)
What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
Solitary by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (Read an excerpt from Brown’s collection)
“I”: New and Selected Poems by Toi Derricotte (Read our 2019 interview with Derricotte)
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky (Featured in March’s Must-Read Poetry roundup)
Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith (Read an excerpt from Smith’s collection)
Sight Lines by Arthur Sze
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price
Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet (Read our review)
The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Crossing by Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview)
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby
1919: The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler