Monday, July 6, 2009

Books for our times

Newsweek printed a list of 50 books they suggest you read now as a way to understand the current state of affairs in our world. It's a good list, and includes Walking With the Wind, Cotton Comes to Harlem and Things Fall Apart. But seriously a list of books that shed light on our times and no Invisible Man or The Fire Next Time? So I asked my friends on Twitter and Facebook to help me develop a list of books by black authors that "White Readers Meet Black Authors" suggest you read now. All of these books can be purchased through your local, independent bookstore or ordered through the following African American bookstores, which really need your support:

Marcus Books, Oakland, CA
Eso Won Books, Los Angeles, CA

And you can find other stores here. In no particular order, here are our suggestions:

Your Blues Ain't Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell (I'd also add her books 72-Hour Hold and Brothers and Sisters). She tells a fair and balanced story about oppression of minorities, women & the poor in this country.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. From Parable of the Sower is a hopeful tale set in a dystopian future United States of walled cities, disease, fires, and madness. Lauren Olamina is an 18-year-old woman with hyperempathy syndrome--if she sees another in pain, she feels their pain as acutely as if it were real. When her relatively safe neighborhood enclave is inevitably destroyed, along with her family and dreams for the future, Lauren grabs a backpack full of supplies and begins a journey north. Along the way, she recruits fellow refugees to her embryonic faith, Earthseed, the prime tenet of which is that "God is change." This is a great book--simple and elegant, with enough message to make you think, but not so much that you feel preached to.

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama. Speaking of change, Obama's memoir has been on the NY Times list for a long while, so it doesn't need me to bring it to light but it really is must reading.

There is a River by Vincent Harding. An excellent exploration of slavery, and its spiritual and psychological effects on slaves and slaveholders and their descendants.

Invisible Life by E. Lynne Harris. One of the first books to deal with homosexuality in the black community in an accessible, readable way. Vibe said of this book, "What's got audiences hooked? Harris's unique spin on the ever-fascinating topics of identity, class, intimacy, sexuality, and friendship."

The works of Toni Morrison. Self-explanatory, I believe.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. In fast-moving times, how do we process information? Gladwell makes the surprising case for gathering less data and trusting first instincts.

Jump at the Sun by Kim McLarin. In these child-centric times, it's refreshing for a novel to take a real, hard look at the work of mothering.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith. A warm, humorous story about a mixed-race family of academics and America at the beginning of the 21st Century.

What Doesn't Kill You by Virginia Deberry and Donna Grant. A novel that puts a face on the economy, giving a real, and funny, account of what it's like to be laid off. From "Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant have done it again. Every time I thought Tee had hit her lowest point—and Tee probably did too—the authors ramped up the stakes, finding yet another way to tilt Tee's world a few more degrees."

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. A haunting take on what it feels like to be a black man in America. From the book jacket: A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. "The way Baldwin sees the world for what it truly is, is just inspiring," said a friend on Twitter.

Black Boy by Richard Wright. Another classic.

Colored People by Henry Louis Gates Jr. From Library Journal: Laying out the social and emotional topography of a world shifting from segregation to integration and from colored to Negro to black, Gates evokes a bygone time and place as he moves from his birth in 1949 to 1969, when he goes off to Yale University after a year at West Virginia's Potomac State College.

Reposition Yourself by T.D. Jakes. A Facebook friend recommended this for those looking for a little spiritual direction during tough times.

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage. Seems sometimes that a lot looks crazy lately, doesn't it? This story of an HIV-positive woman going back to her family home is enjoyable and relatable no matter your situation.

Caucasia by Danzy Senna. A great look at America during the 1970s and beyond. Glamour magazine called it, "Extraordinary....A cross between Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here and James McBride's The Color of Water, this story of a young girl's struggle — to find her family, her roots, her identity — transcends race even while examining it. A compelling look at being black and being white, Caucasia deserves to be read all over."

I Asked for Intimacy by Renita Weems. This book of essays of "blessings, betrayals and birthings" is a lovely collection of writings about relationships, love and family.

The poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. I was so happy when a Twitter friend suggested Komunyakaa and reminded me to include poetry on the list!

Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. Poetry about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Willow Weep for Me by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah. Anybody suffering from depression will relate to this beautiful memoir.

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen Carter. From The Christian Science Monitor's review: "It's a light thriller for the beach; a wicked satire of academic politics; a stinging exposé of the judicial confirmation process; a trenchant analysis of racial progress in America...."

Erasure by Percival Everett. It's been discussed here on this blog before. From's review: "This book offers perhaps the first great protagonist of the new century. Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, college professor, author of 'dense' experimental novels, and recipient of 17 rejection letters, is forced to leave L. A. and return to his childhood home in D. C. to care for his ailing mother. He parlays his frustrations into 'My Pafology,' an exploitive novel that represents everything he hates about the publishing industry. The novel, written under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, catapults him to the forefront of the literary scene, causing Monk's wildest dreams and worst nightmares to unfold simultaneously."

Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon. A story in letters between young lovers while he's in prison. “Heart-wrenching and true. . .I’d read it again just for the power of the language.” - Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller

Aya by Marguerite Abouet. From School Library Journal: "This realistic story immerses readers in the life of an Ivorian teen of the period. Yet for those familiar with the civil unrest occurring in this part of Africa during the ensuing years, the simplicity of life depicted can't help but be extra poignant; the subplot of one teen's unplanned pregnancy has universal elements."

The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson. Listen to the author discuss her work here. Part mystery and part romance, this is a tale about black and white families in the south. From, "Deborah Johnson does a fantastic job in this, her debut novel, of developing characters which leap off the page, casting a spell such that the reader has to know what happens to each and every one of them."

Anything We Love Can Be Saved by Alice Walker. The well-known writer discusses her activism. This is a great book for when you're discouraged about human rights or the environment. Even just saying the title makes me feel better.

The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate. "It’s hard to think of another novel that has put the varieties of black striving and white piety so relentlessly under the microscope. What we find squirming there is never exactly what we expect: Striving, it turns out, can be a kind of piety, and vice versa. The wonder is that, in Southgate’s hands, the characters who embody these ideas are never hollow constructions but painfully real people grinding toward (or away from) their fate. That they never waste our interest, or deserve less than our full attention, makes each of them—and makes Southgate too, for that matter—a figure to be reckoned with, a voice we had best get to know." —Jesse Green, author of The Velveteen Father

Money Hungry by Sharon Flake. A YA, middle-grade novel about a girl who lusts after money, and the consequences that come with that. (Sounds like a lot of adults need to check this one out!)

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers. Another YA, middle-grade book. Publishers Weekly said in a starred review, "Here it is at last — the novel that will allow American teens to grapple intelligently and thoughtfully with the war in Iraq." But how many adult novels are dealing with the Iraq War, which is certainly one of the biggest issues of our time?

What Obama Means...For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future by Jabari Asim. The 2008 election was something historians will be dissecting for ages. According to HarperCollins, this book "demonstrates how Obama turned the old civil-rights model of African American leadership on its head, and shows that Obama's election is evidence of the progress that has been made in healing wounds and broadening America's concept of leadership and inspiration."

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston's autobiography. According to the HarperCollins website, "Hurston's very personal literary self-portrait offers a revealing, often audacious glimpse into the life -- public and private -- of an extraordinary artist, anthropologist, chronicler, and champion of the black experience in America. Full of the wit and wisdom of a proud, spirited woman who started off low and climbed high, Dust Tracks on a Roadis a rare treasure from one of literature's most cherished voices."

The works of J. California Cooper. Cooper is a sort of modern day Hurston, telling "deceptively simple" stories about people so real you believe you know them. Halle Berry's been quoted as saying, "My fifth-grade day said, 'Instead of calling and asking me for advice, try reading J. California Cooper.'"

Race Matters by Cornel West. Publishers Weekly noted this important book is made up of "
eight cogent and profoundly moral essays on American race relations."

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Angelou's 1st volume of her autobiography. It regularly appears on banned books list, which, I'm sure, continues to keep it popular.

The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois. "The book endures today as a classic document of American social and political history: a manifesto that has influenced generations with its transcendent vision for change." Change. There's that word again.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Because he helped black people see ourselves more clearly. Because he embraced Islam and after he did is when he began to champion people of all races. Because there would be no President Obama without him. Because he said, "People don't realize how a man's whole life can be changed by one book."

Every Goodbye Ain't Gone by Itabari Njeri. I loved this memoir and was happy to see a Facebook friend recommend it. I also love the internet because here you can see an interview with Njeri.

Them by Nathan McCall. This novel addresses gentrification and race, asking us all to consider the "other."

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. The book jacket "On the island of Willow Springs, off the Georgia coast, the powers of healer Mama Day are tested by her great niece, Cocoa, a stubbornly emancipated woman endangered by the island's darker forces. A powerful generational saga at once tender and suspenseful, overflowing with magic and common sense." Because we could all use some magic and common sense right about now.

Assata: An Autobiography. Memoir of an activist.

What else would you suggest for a book that sheds light on current affairs or, perhaps, helps provide a good escape from troubled times?


Simply Said Reading Accessories said...

What a FABULOUS list of suggested reading.Just dip in these and you'll long for more. These books are rich with our culture and experiences.

Bernice L. McFadden said...

What a wonderful list!

LadyLee said...

Great List... A few titles here that I need to pick up for sure!

PatriciaW said...

Great list. Add to it Booker T. Mattison's Unsigned Hype. I think this is an important work for teenagers, particularly boys, many of whom often don't read as much as they should (or their parents/educators would like). Urban and witty with references to pop culture and an exploration into faith.

Carleen Brice said...

Patricia, I was just wishing I had thought to add this one! Thanks.

Claudia said...

I originally thought Newsweek's premise was a fantastic one: to identify "which books - new or old, fiction or nonfiction - open a window on the times we live in." I don't know how the issue of race could be represented so poorly. It was really disappointing.

But with this premise in mind, I would argue that there are a few books here that merit special attention.

*Octavia Butler's Parable series: its dystopian future emphasizes not only religious upheaval but environmental destruction which disproportionately affects minority communities.

*Jabari Asim's terrific analysis on Obama, and also Morrison's Song of Solomon which is not only the President's favorite (my heart leaps whenever I type that), but a profound story that brings together the role of black heritage and class in shaping manhood.

*Everett's Erasure is remarkably relevant to our time. It grapples with race as socially constructed (not some biological essence) and raises important questions about black creative representation in a society that likes to think of itself as post-racial.

*And oh my God, Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, because it's like he can see into the future...

Whoa, this is a long comment. A friend of mine also recommended a few more poets including Gwendolyn Brooks (Chicago! Race! Class! Community Organizing! C'mon Newsweek!). I would also add Kevin Young's Dear Darkness because his poem "No Offense" is something that every Republican with a Facebook page and Twitter account should read!

Sorry to go on so long, Carleen. You're awesome for putting this together.

Claudia said...

Oh, and I was not familiar with Blood Dazzler! I'm adding that to my list...

Donura said...

Love your recommendations and I would second the collection of J. California Cooper and many others. I love to that you included books that reach out to teens, my girls love everything Sharon Flake has written and my oldest is a fan of Caucasia. Walter Dean Myer is an author that I recommended many times at our school library.

Monique said...

I love this list. I totally agree with the Toni Morrison recommendation. I haven't read or heard about some of those books on this list and will have to look into them.

I would have add A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines. That is one of my books

Doret said...

The last few days customers have been coming in with that Newsweek list, purchasing 2 or 3 books at a times. I am pretty sure a lot of customers will be putting many of those titles on their TBR. Not including more auhtors of Color really hurts. Customers won't listen to any suggestions if its not on the list.

If Invisible Man is so good, why isn't it on the list.
If John Henry Days is so good why isn't it on the list.

It's hard to make everyone happy with these must read list, but there is hardly any divesity. I didn't see any Latino, Indian, Chinese, or much color at all. When list like this lack diversity its telling White readers its okay not to seek out authors of color.

I love mystery writer Lee Child-is main character Jack Reacher is the man - but 46 really.

I am very surprised Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz didn't make the list.

Carleen Brice said...

Doret, Your comment is worth a whole blog post or article of its own. The Catch 22-can't get on the list if you don't matter and you don't matter if you're not on the list. Oscar Wao should've been on my list too. And you're right about the broader issue of diversity or lack thereof.

Claudia said...

Oh Doret! It is really painful to read your comments. And again - given the criteria - Diaz should definitely be on the list.

Here was an opportunity for a mainstream magazine to demonstrate (dare I say, integrate?) authors that truly represent the diversity of our society in addressing issues that are relevant today. Don't just put MJ on the cover one week and not do your homework and acknowledge that maybe, just maybe....W.E.B. Dubois had a little something to do with our perceptions of the greatest black entertainer of all time. Arg! On my soapbox again! And I'm preachin' to the choir!

Lafreya said...

What a great list. Some of these I havent' read. Some I will need to reread.

wdjenkins1 said...

I would have to include Edward P. Jones' "The Known World" to see just how deeply the problems that we face are rooted.

Anonymous said...

Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones

Katrina L. Burchett said...

Glad I found out about your blog, Carleen. Jump at the Sun and What Doesn't Kill You, I'm thinking these are two novels I'd enjoy. But, you know, our teenagers are dealing with quite a bit these days. I noticed a couple YA reads on the list and I'd like to recommend more: Sharon Draper's Jericho Trilogy - The Battle of Jericho, November Blues and Just Another Hero (haven't read the third one yet, but I'm sure it will be just as good as the first two). The Perry Skky Jr series by Stephanie Perry Moore (very good reads for young men) The Skin I'm In and Who Am I Without Him by Sharon Flake. Kendra by Coe Booth (Okay, mature and I really mean, MATURE, readers only. This author is very honest when she writes about the choices some teenagers are making these days). Hot Girl by Dream Jordan. Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson and my debut novel, Choices, which tackles the issue of teen sex and touches on quite a few other issues today's teens face.