A book I read this year is Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? (2016). Whatever Happened? provocatively troubles the generic boundaries between script and short story. A Jersey City native, Collins “changed the face and content of the black womanist film” (Poemhunter.com), which is evidenced in her critically acclaimed feature length film Losing Ground (1982). The subjects of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are discontent and desirous; with vulnerability they grapple with the gap between what they want and what they are given.
A book I plan to read this summer is Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America (2022) by Psyche A. Williams-Forson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. Williams-Forson previously published Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power (2006). I am drawn to this book because of my own interests in discourses of healthism in our contemporary society and how they obscure structural inequalities and deeper environmental crises.
A book I recommend: In previous years, I have recommended John Williams’ slim novels Stoner (about an early 20th century academic) and Butcher’s Crossing (a western). This past year I read Williams’ stunning historical novel about ancient Rome, Augustus. The winner of the National Book Award in 1973, this novel explores the life of Augustus Caesar through a series of letters involving Caesar, his generals, his friends, his wives, and his daughter, Julia. The addition of this daughter’s voice – with its evocation of strange gods and mystic cults–turns this recreation of ancient Rome into a compelling exploration of power and ecstasy.
Two books I will read this summer: Whether you call it “Deep Time,” “the Temporal Turn,” or the “longue durée,” the era of epoch explanations is in. This summer I am taking on David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. This radical retelling of human life ranges from the Ice Age to the founding of the World Trade Organization. I am especially interested in the authors’ much publicized discussion of how the Enlightenment values of personal freedom and reasoned debate originated not in France but in the Iroquois nation. After it is released in July, I will eagerly pick up Elisa Albert’s new novel Human Blues about a singer-songwriter who desperately wants a child but refuses to use reproductive technology. Albert (who visited TCNJ in 2009) has been widely praised for her gutsy storytelling and blistering wit. Told over the course of nine menstrual cycles, Human Blues will surely sting, delight, and enlighten at the same time.
A Book That I Read This Year:
I really loved Lauren Groff’s novel The Matrix, a work of historical fiction about the life of the medieval writer Marie de France. Groff begins with the little evidence we have about the actual life of Marie and imagines her as a creative and fearless abbess and leader of a female utopia. It’s beautifully written and inspiring—and we could all use some beauty and inspiration right now.
A Book That I Plan to Read This Summer:
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is one of my favorite contemporary novels, so I am looking forward to her latest work, Sea of Tranquility. Described as a work about “art, time, love, and the plague” that begins in 1912 and fast forwards 500 years later to a colony on the moon, this novel has been hailed as “soul-affirming” and “sci-fi with soul.”
Series I recently finished: The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, 5 best-selling volumes on a British upper class family, from right before WWII to the 1960s. The books are: The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off, and All Change. Reading them this (I hope) final year of COVID was a guilty pleasure. I agree with The Guardian’s judgment that “In recent years Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was always known as Jane, has become famous for a quartet of novels known as the “Cazalet Chronicles”, which draw on her own family story and were adapted for radio and television. Tracing the fortunes of an upper-middle-class family, the quartet begins in 1937 and covers a decade; a fifth novel, All Change, skips ahead to 1956. The novels are panoramic, expansive, intriguing as social history and generous in their storytelling. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, and come from a writer who knew her aim and had the stamina and technical skill to achieve it. It would be rewarding if the readers who enjoyed the series were drawn to the author’s earlier work, when her talent seemed so effervescent, so unstoppable, that there was no predicting where it might take her. From the beginning she attracted superlatives, more for the gorgeousness of her prose than for the emotional extravagance of her characters. Their laughter was outrageous, their weeping contagious, their love affairs reckless. But there was nothing uncalculated about the author’s effects. From the first, she was a craftswoman.”
I couldn’t help notice what was left out–blacks, Irish, immigrants, and the only full-fledged Jew in the series was an American who commits suicide. However, they were such fun to read, and they are loosely based on Howard’s life.
A book I am reading: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, a Booker prize winner. I’m about 80 pages in. It’s about a boy in Glasgow, Scotland living in poverty with his mother and grandparents. It is described by the Booker judges as “an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage, and love. The book gives a vivid glimpse of a marginalized, impoverished community….”
A book I’m reading next: A Booker Prize and National Book Award finalist, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is described by the publisher as following “four college classmates….” This novel is “about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.”
One of the more interesting dystopias I read this past year was Clean Air (2022), by TCNJ alum Sarah Blake. If you’re not yet ready for a pandemic novel, you might want to postpone reading this, although it’s not a pandemic but tree pollen that’s killing people. A serial killer is also involved, and the combination of science fiction and mystery is always irresistible to me, even if not as beautifully-written as Sarah’s work always is.
This summer I plan to read The City We Became (2020), a love letter to New York City by N. K. Jemisin, one of my favorite science fiction authors.
As I predicted last year, I did read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (now out in paperback). On one level, it’s about the death of Shakespeare’s only son, which inspired his greatest tragedy (IMO). On another level, it’s about how a 16th-century woman (Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway–here Agnes) steps out of society’s boundaries for a woman. The writing is lovely, the story moving.
This summer’s Star Wars reading will be Claudia Gray’s Leia: Princess of Alderaan. Her story “Master & Apprentice” in From A Certain Point of View (A New Hope) is brilliant. But my major reading project in preparation for my fall graduate seminar is to reread all seven novels by Thornton Wilder (most known for his plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, both Pulitzer Prize winners): The Cabala (1926), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927, Pulitzer Prize), The Woman of Andros (1930), Heaven’s My Destination (1935), The Ides of March(1948), The Eighth Day (1967, National Book Award), and Theophilus North(1973).
A book that I read this year that I enjoyed was Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead. This is a sometimes funny, sometimes suspenseful, always entertaining story that centers on Ray Carney who runs a furniture store in Harlem and gets drawn into the criminal world while still trying to maintain a front of respectability for his family. It’s also a captivating glimpse of New York, specifically Harlem, in the fifties and sixties. As always, Whitehead’s sentences are wonderfully crafted: “Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”
Another book I read that I would also highly recommend is The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. She poignantly and powerfully tells her story along with the story of other undocumented Americans she knows and meets.
A book that I plan to read this summer:
I am going to return to an author I’ve enjoyed before and read Emily St. John Mandel’s new book Sea of Tranquility. I’ve also intended to read a book (any book) by the acclaimed sci-fi author Octavia Butler for a while now, and have not, so I will this summer.
A book that I read this year: Ain’t Burned All The Bright (text by Jason Reynolds, Artwork by Jason Griffin). I’ll read anything that Jason Reynolds publishes, but I was particularly interested in this text-art collaboration between Reynolds and his best friend since childhood, material artist Jason Griffin. The entire book is 3 sentences long. That said, they’re long sentences, and in them Reynolds manages to convey a moment with his family, as well as capture a moment in our collective history. The book is about family and fear and love and racial injustice and Covid and feeling trapped and breathing and hope. It’s about the stories we tell and the stories we hear over and over. It’s about making sense and moments that give meaning to our lives. It’s also a book in which you linger. The art is gorgeous and riveting, and the art and text work together in such a way that you feel each word deeply. Reading this book is fundamentally humanizing and about being human.
A book that I plan to read this summer: Two books I’ll mention out of the many, many titles on my to-read list: Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light and Alice Oseman’s loveless. I read Zentner’s YA novel The Serpent King several years ago and loved it. In the Wild Light is his most recent book and has now been recommended to me multiple times (see this review in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/08/books/review/jeff-zentner-in-the-wild-light.html). Oseman is best known for the Heartstopper webtoon and graphic novel series, the first two volumes of which were just adapted into a television series for Netflix. (Watch it now. It’s truly lovely.). loveless is Oseman’s most recent book about a girl (Georgia) who’s also figuring out her sexuality, in this case, that she’s aromantic/asexual. I’m curious to see if Oseman’s prose is as wonderful as her graphic storytelling.
A book I read this year:
Long-listed for the National Book Award, Honorèe Fannone Jeffers’ The Age of Phillis is a remarkable book of poems based equally in exhaustive archival work and deeply realized imagining. Jeffers animates a dazzling array of historic voices in an equally dazzling array of poetic forms in order to reexamine the life and times of Phillis Wheatley Peters, America’s first Black poet. Most literary scholars and students know Wheatley-Peters through what Jeffers calls a “pesky ‘House Negro’ narrative” written by a white woman nearly fifty years after Wheatley-Peters’ death. That white woman, Margaretta Matilda Odell, claimed her authority through her distant relation to the family that enslaved Wheatley-Peters when she was trafficked from western Africa as part of the Euro-American slave trade. Jeffers’ stunning poems grow out of a question she couldn’t shake: why would the academy allow a white woman’s account of our country’s first Black poet to stand unquestioned?
A book I plan to read this summer:
Honorèe Fannone Jeffers is a triple threat: she not only writes poems that upend literary and national history but also novels, and soon biography–Knopf will publish her biography of poet Lucille Clifton in 2026. I’ll have to wait awhile for that one, but in the meantime, I can’t wait to read Jeffers’ first novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. du Bois. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was on the short list of just about every other major book prize. Plus, it was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2021. And it drew breathless praise from no less than Oprah Winfrey, who picked it for her book club: “Epic…. I was just enraptured by the lineage and the story of this modern African-American family…. A combination of historical and modern story—I’ve never read anything quite like it. It just consumed me.” —Oprah Winfrey, Oprah Book Club Pick
A Book I Read this Last Year:
If you love books and the idea of books, then you will probably love Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land as much as I did. If you think of the ancient play Cloud Cuckoo Land as a vertical axis, the three stories that form the novel–one set in medieval Constantinople, one in contemporary New England, and one in the future–all rotate on that axis. It is smart, beautiful, and all about the love of literature across time.
The best nonfiction book I read this year was Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and it’s Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Begin Again meditates on James Baldwin’s literature and essays and their importance in recognizing the original sins of the Republic.
A Book I’ll be Reading this Summer
I started The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers earlier this year but wasn’t able to finish it, so I will be returning to the novel before other fiction.
I’ve got a big pile of books to read this summer, but I’m excited for books about reading and writing, including How We Read Now by Naomi S. Baron and Index, A History of: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan.
I’m planning to read the rest of Brenda Peynado’s short story collection The Rock Eaters. Very scary and good. And the rest of Nicky Beer’s poetry collection Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes.
I still haven’t read Toni Morrison’s Sula, so that is on this summer’s list as well. I’ve also picked up both of Dan Brady’s poetry collections: Strange Children and Subtexts.
I’m thinking that I might want to teach 19th C British novels one day, so I had best read Wuthering Heights, which I’ve always avoided like the plague (Byronic heroes are soooo century before last).
A book I read this year: I’m really behind the curve, but I finally finished Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror & the Light). I had started it before but hadn’t finished it. It’s good fare for those who share our culture’s irrational obsession with the Tudors.
A book I plan to read this summer: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It’s a 14th-century Chinese epic/novel by Luo Guanzhong, which has fundamentally shaped Chinese storytelling and culture — and I hear that it’s a rollicking read.
I also plan to finally read The 1619 Project, which I didn’t get to when it first came out.
I also hope to read Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, which has been called the 20th-century War and Peace. I just don’t know if I can manage this summer to read two such long books as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Grossman’s Stalingrad. They’re each 1,000 pages. But I guess that a journey of a thousand miles (or pages) begins with a single step.