by Amy Salo
I’m not much of a writer. But I like writers and I enjoy their writing, and that makes me a reader. My fierce love affair with books began early. Growing up without siblings, I had to spend many hours entertaining myself. For some children, this would probably mean make-believe games and imaginary friends and puppet shows. For me, I had an imagination the size of a pea, paired with immediate boredom at the mention of cartoons or video games or “playing pretend”. (Do I sound fun to be around, yet?) And thus, books.
I’m the person always insisting, “The book was better…” when conversation turns to those “now a major motion picture” film adaptations. I still find myself mostly disinterested in TV, unless it’s a college basketball game, of course. (I am a North Carolinian, after all.) Because my husband’s love for books rivals my own, our house is a tangible picture of Cicero’s quote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Books energize me while also giving me a reason to sit on the couch and rest a while. They teach me about places I’ll never go and people I’ll never meet. They make me better.
While 2016 crawled along in it’s dreary, destructive, and violent way, I read (or reread) books in the midst of the pain I couldn’t fully comprehend, felt by me and by people I love. The ones listed below were my favorites; the ones that put words to the pain and provided glimmers of hope for what’s to come. They were my Food for Thought, so to speak, and I hope they can be yours, too.
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: This one is at #1 for a reason. 26-year-old Gyasi writes a novel inspired by her own Ghanaian-American roots, following one family’s genealogy from 18th-century Ghana to contemporary America, detailing raw accounts of African conflict, trans-atlantic slave trade, the Civil War, coal mines of Alabama, jazz clubs of Harlem, to present day. The accounts are fictional but the storyline certainly is not, and it answered more questions about institutional racism than I thought a novel possibly could.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The main character in this book, Ifemelu, leaves Nigeria for an education in America, and comes face to face with race, something she never had to think about back home. The author pulls from many of her own experiences to guide us tenderly through Ifemelu’s harrowing experiences and shows us bravely the realities of our times. I couldn’t put it down.
- Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: It’s a well-kept secret that young adult novels are the most profound of them all. This is a funny and delicate story of two misfit teenagers who fall in love the way that teenagers do. It depicts adolescence, poverty, and love with wisdom and bravery.
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander: This was a re-read for me. In the wake of police brutality documented throughout all of 2016, my husband and I started visiting inmates in the Durham County jail and I revisited this book in an attempt to understand yet another thing that is almost incomprehensible: mass incarceration of black men in America. Alexander leaves no rock unturned in an academic analysis of how this came to be and how it’s affecting us all today.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: This book, written in the form of a powerful letter to Coates’ 14-year-old son about the fear associated with being black in America, left me feeling like a sad outsider reading about something I’ll never understand, as it should have.
On the list for 2017?
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
- Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith
- Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Thank you to those of you who either recommended these books or let me borrow your copies. To the rest of you, if you would like a copy of any of the above to read for yourself, what’s mine is yours.