Currently Reading: January 2017--African American/Black British works

I have made it my goal to read 75 books in 2017, from January 1st to December 31st. I am an avid reader and while this goal means I'd need to read an average of 1.5 books a week, I am confident I will be able to succeed.

I have discovered the great joy of reading books in series. Not necessarily books OF a series, but books that have common threads, themes, and thematic elements that draw correlations between them. This could mean reading books by just one author, from one time period, or regarding one theme. 

I got my hands on a few of the "Best Books of 2016" over the Christmas season: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Swing Time by Zadie Smith, and Homegoing by Yaas Gyasi and this drew my attention to a group of authors I had studied much of in university but had since not delved back into: African American/Black British authors.

I began to scour our four bookshelves, approximately 500 books worth, for works written by African American/Black British/African writers and I was pleased to come up with a reading list of over 15 books. Works by such authors including Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Ann Petry, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Johnson, and of course Whitehead, Smith, and Gyasi, sit, amassed, on my desk, waiting to be explored.

This group of works have brought to my attention many interesting ideas; discussions on identity, belonging, heritage, self-worth, what makes us human, culture, what makes us laugh, how we express ourselves, and the nature of language, to name only a few. Many of these works are canonized and a few I have already read. But there is never any harm in familiarizing yourself with a great book again, living out once more a story that has touched you. 

Here is what I read in January, 2017:

1. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. A very good read, and one I immediately passed on to another friend. A great way to start the new year, too. This book was a lesson directed to the reader by a very unusual and poignant teacher. Ishmael touched on ideas of responsibility, culture, and how humans view the world around them. I will say, about halfway through the book I had to take a break, even though the novel is not very long. I felt I needed to sort through what had already been said before I could go on; I needed time to compartmentalize the various lessons being taught. 

2. Homegoing by Yaas Gyasi. One of my favorites I had read in a long time. This book takes place over literally hundreds of generations, with multitudes of characters that weave in and out of the book. It was thrilling and tragic and engaging and masterfully paced such that each time a chapter ended, the reader was eager to go on to the next, envisioning what next could lie ahead. This author's voice was distinct and powerful. I cannot wait to read more of her works. 

3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I am rereading this one after reading it first in university, four years ago. Still amazing, four years later. Hurston's dialect is unmatched in its elegance and execution. The reader is drawn entirely into Janie's story of love, heartbreak, resilience, and self-awareness. Once you get into the rhythm and flow of Hurston's dialect, the story envelopes you and never lets you go, even after you've finished it. 

4. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. This was my first encounter with Zadie Smith and everything I have heard about her rings true: she has a voice deep with wisdom and soul, even for how young she is yet. This is a story of two young friends who meet in a dance class in urban London with the same dream--to dance. But only one of them has the feet for it, and their paths diverge as cause of it. The girls' differing paths take them far from what they know, out from London to the far coasts of West Ghana, but throughout the book their interconnecting destinies remain a taut line linking them to each other and their heritage, even as they both struggle to let go. 

5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Another rereading, as well it should be. Alice Walker says Their Eyes Were Watching God was the book that most influenced her own writing, and that is very apparent in Walker's use of dialect as well as her strong, tradition-defying women characters who break away from the drudgery of lives chosen for them and seek to become self-actualized, independent creatures of their own making. This book is composed entirely of letters written by the main character to God, and later to her sister Nellie. The letter format is engaging and compelling, giving the reader a keen glimpse into the development of the character through her most private, intimate thoughts and experiences. 

6. Smoke Screen by Sandra Brown. A complete deviation from the theme series and from what I normally read--I borrowed this book from a friend I was visiting because drunk Paige thought it looked interesting. It was okay. It is what it sounds like: a semi-trashy airport novel without much depth and a little casual sex, murder, mystery, and sexy firemen. 

7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This book won the National Book Award and it is very apparent why. This work takes a staple of American History, the urban myth of "the Underground Railroad" network that runaway slaves used to escape the bonds of Southern slavery, and turns it into a reality. The way in which Whitehead takes one of the most important, notable metaphors of American culture and flips it the other way is praiseworthy. Whitehead invents an actual railroad with actual stations and trains and conductors that help escaped slaves travel North. It was enthralling and provocative and masterfully executed. Whitehead actualizes the metaphor just enough and does not reveal even half the mystery of how the railroad operates. He tantalizes the reader with magic but never reveals his secrets. 

8. Goldenhand by Garth Nix. I have been waiting to read this book for a long time and I finally got my hands on it. Garth Nix is my favorite author. He writes works of fantasy, many of which are geared to Young Adult audiences. I discovered Sabriel, the first book in the Old Kingdom series, at the local library when I was in middle school. The overly dramatic ink drawing cover was what drew me in, and I was immediately hooked. The series takes place in a magical world that consists of the Old Kingdom, a place of magics unlike anything else--Charter Magic and Free Magic---, and the non-magic kingdom, Ancelstierre, that borders it. 

The Old Kingdom series begins with Sabriel, a Necromancer (someone who can control the Dead and bring things back to life.) But Sabriel is no ordinary Necromancer--she is the Abhorsen, the person whose sworn duty it is to put the Dead down again and protect Life from that which should stay dead. She must protect the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre from an evil unlike anything anyone has seen for hundreds of years; a Free Magic Creature of great power has risen and is hell-bent on taking over the world. Nothing a 16-year-old can't handle with a magic sword, a bandolier of bells to control the Dead, and a magic cat-like creature with an attitude. 

Goldenhand is the fifth in the Old Kingdom series and it is just as enthralling as the first. I recommend Garth Nix to anyone, young or old, who needs a spark of magic in their life. And who isn't too squeamish. 

I did not quite make it through all 15 of the books I pulled off my shelves, but I am not yet done with this exploration into culture(s) so different from my own. I will take a slight divergence in February to study essays and personal memoirs, but I will delve into Maya Angelou's All God's Children Need Walking Shoes as a way to bridge the gap back into African American/Black British exploration. I still have Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, more Zadie Smith, and Ann Petry to enjoy.  

I am currently about halfway through the writing of my own personal memoirs and I am seeking inspiration from some of the greats such as Joan Didion, David Sedaris, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, and even notes by some of my favorite writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King. First up for February is Jonathan Franzen's work, The Discomfort Zone. This one in particular called to me as much of what I am currently writing is very personal, deep, and something I hope no one in my family ever reads. I think Franzen and I will get along very well.