Rose's Bookshelf Number One
During the quarantine, I wanted to take the opportunity to read more, and I know many share that goal. But how many times have we spent hours scrolling on Amazon and Facebook pages, reading reviews, or even starting a new book and realizing that it wasn’t what you wanted at all? So I decided to recommend what I considered to be a really good book each week.
My target audience is Black women, though men and women of any color might enjoy my reads. Most books recommended to us are in the urban fiction genre, and as a sixty-nine-year-old retired English teacher, that is not my cup of tea. I don’t want to read about drug lords or prostitutes or who’s got the most money or finest man. I want to read about characters I admire who overcome life’s challenges with grace and humanity. I want to read words that are well put together, like poetry, but without the rhyme. I want a book that has a theme, or an observation about life and the power of the human spirit. I want a book that I think about between readings, that I savor the ending until the best time to enjoy it. I want a book that makes me laugh and makes me cry. I want a book that moves me, that changes me somehow and helps me to grow. I want a book that inspires me to write.
Each Saturday, I post a recommendation for the week. I include a summary and a link to either one of my blogs or another article about the book. This isn’t a class and you don’t have to stick to the schedule or go in order, but these suggestions might lead you to some unforgettable reads that you will treasure and pass on to others.
1. The Bluest Eye
I started my list with my favorite author, Toni Morrison, because she inspires me more than any other writer. I have a bookshelf dedicated to her works alone, books that I have collected over the years since I first discovered her, some from graduate classes, and some from personal choice. Morrison’s stories are filled with well-intentioned heroes and tender-hearted heroines who face life’s toughest challenges with courage and compassion. I feel empowered by her famous quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I’m working on that, but in the meantime, since her death last August, I’ve been revisiting her work with my book club, Houston Reads Toni Morrison.
Her first book was my first suggestion, The Bluest Eye, written in 1970. It’s the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove and her two friends. Plagued by poverty, rape and incest, she prays that God will make her whole by granting her an ideal feature of whiteness, blue eyes. This book changed the landscape of American literature by featuring three young Black girls as the main characters.
From Amazon: Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, kinky hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.
“You can’t go wrong by reading or re-reading the collected works of Toni Morrison. Beloved, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, Sula, everything else — they’re transcendent, all of them. You’ll be glad you read them.”–Barack Obama
2. Praise Song for the Butterflies
My next recommendation was Praise Song for the Butterflies, published in 2018. Bernice McFadden is one of my favorite authors. She brings something lyrical and special to the canon of literature by and about Black women. Praise Song for the Butterflies, the story of a child forced into modern-day slavery, is an exploration of cultural conflict between Africa and America, and between the past and the present. It is one of many books by McFadden that leaves you tearful, then joyful, then inspired. She makes us want to read more, love more, then read some more.
3. An American Marriage
My third selection was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. I thought we’d bring it back home and read something with a more contemporary setting. This is the story of a modern couple, Roy and Celestial, who are struggling to find common ground in their first year of marriage. It is abruptly interrupted when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit, and unfairly sentenced to twelve years in prison. We see their relationship fall apart after they are separated, and Celestial turns to the comfort of a childhood friend. In her fourth novel, Miss Jones explores the highs and lows of marriage, as well as the lack of justice for Black men in America. Her novel gained popularity as an Oprah’s Book Club selection and throngs of readers supported her national tour. Here is my review.
4. Well-read Black Girl
My fourth selection: Gloria Edim's Well-Read Black Girl! She started a movement in Brooklyn that inspired Well-Read Black Girl book clubs all over the country. In this anthology, a variety of authors introduce us to books they love and how they affect us. This book as well as the Well-Read Black Girl Twitter feeds and Facebook page will keep you abreast of the up and coming writers from Africa, America, and the Caribbean. Looking for good reads? This is a great start! This passage from Goodreads says it all!
"Remember that moment when you first encountered a character who seemed to be written just for you? That feeling of belonging can stick with readers the rest of their lives--but it doesn't come around as frequently for all of us. In this timely anthology, "well-read black girl" Glory Edim brings together original essays by some of our best black female writers and creative voices to shine a light on how we search for ourselves in literature, and how important it is that everyone--no matter their gender, race, religion, or abilities--can find themselves there. Whether it's learning about the complexities of femalehood from Their Eyes Were Watching God, seeing a new type of love in The Color Purple, or using mythology to craft an alternative black future, each essay reminds us why we turn to books in times of both struggle and relaxation. As she has done with her incredible book-club-turned-online-community Well-Read Black Girl, in this book, Edim has created a space where black women's writing and knowledge and life experiences are lifted up, to be shared with all readers who value the power of a story to help us understand the world, and ourselves.”
My fifth recommendation is Sula, by Toni Morrison, because I just can’t stay away, so I’ll be working my way through them as I am with my rereading. Her second novel, Sula was published in 1973. It’s about two girls, Sula and Nel, who are close friends that share a terrible secret. After years of separation, Sula returns and must fight to defend her unconventional lifestyle and beliefs. Nel is happily married and accommodating, but still drawn to the lifelong bond they had, even if it would destroy her. The women become two sides of a kindred spirit, “two halves of one person,” according to Morrison, who was impacted by the Women’s Liberation Movement as well as the focus on sisterhood in the Black Power Movement. This is an excellent read, especially for women who’ve encountered difficult friendships laced with love.
The next selection is none other than Michelle Obama’s Becoming. At this point in time, it has sold over 10 million copies, making her the best-selling nonfiction author ever. She followed it with an in-demand book tour and Netflix special about her journey. The engaging autobiography is divided into three sections: “Becoming Me,” about her childhood in Chicago, “Becoming Us,” about her courtship and marriage to the man who would be president, and “Becoming More,” about her taking the global stage as FLOTUS, our first lady. We get to know her personally and professionally, as she strove for excellence in everything she experienced. We see her frustration during the campaign and with her landmark projects to promote exercise, nutritious lunches in schools, and protection for veterans and their families. She was constantly under criticism from the press and conservative political groups as a new kind of first lady, active and visible as no other first lady had been. Shonda Rhimes wrote an excellent review of her book. In it, she says this about Becoming:
" It’s human and genuine and welcoming to see the layers of humanity she holds open. For any woman, it’s heartening and helpful to know that the accomplished and powerful Michelle Obama has the same feelings and issues we all recognize as our own."
Finally, we get words from the former First Lady herself, shared with a focus group chaired by Shonda Rhimes.
We have a responsibility to trust our story, to trust that it's going to be accepted and resonant. We hide our stories because we don't think we're good enough. So, we are culpable in the misunderstanding because we don't share, because we're afraid it's going to be rejected when it’s the sharing that will be accepted…,” Michelle told us as we sat around the table. “I want people to understand so that we stop being afraid of the good-enough part of us, and we put it all out there, and know that we will each get some of it… the story of family and place.”
Becoming can inspire any woman to be her best self, to do what makes her happy, and to find her place in the world without questioning whether she is “good enough”.
7. Their Eyes Were Watching God
I wanted to go back to the classics and make sure I was including our best literature from the past, so I chose Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937. Interest revived during the Black Culture movement of the 70's, and again with women's studies later on. It was important because it was one of the first novels published by a Black woman and the first to show a woman of any color finding her voice and place in the world. Hurston used Black dialect in her dialogues, but not the narration, and this caused some critics to question the quality of her work. But today, we see it as local color making the 1930's real to us. It has since been adopted by high school and college literature classes, making it required reading for many.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming-of-age story of Janie, who moves from a marriage arranged by her grandmother to romance and status and then to love. Themes of class, colorism, freedom, and the ever-present battle of the sexes pervade the novel. It's a fairly short read, one you can definitely do in a week. Here is a review from Goodreads.
"Written in lush prose that blossoms around lines of vernacular dialogue, Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie Crawford as she wades through three turbulent marriages toward a state of financial and emotional independence...The book's well-structured plot makes for a highly absorbing reading experience, even as its distinctive structure compels readers to remain acutely aware that they are reading a work of literary artifice."
8. A Day Late and a Dollar Short
Wanting to bring my recommendations back up to the present, I chose a Terry McMillan book, A Day Late and a Dollar Short. Since most of us have seen Waiting To Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back enough times to know all the lines, we don't feel that we need to read the books. But McMillan's fifth novel gets very little attention. It was made into a Lifetime movie starring Whoopie Goldberg and other big names, but that doesn't have the level of attention that would keep us from reading it.
A Day Late... is the hilarious story of Viola, the matriarch of a dysfunctional family. She battles the selfish concerns of four adult children and a wayward husband along with her own health issues, a plight too many of us find ourselves in. It's modern-day family life at its funniest. Check out the review by Donna Bennett on Goodreads:
"The book is funny in parts and Viola is a great character. The mother begins telling the story. She then describes her (family) husband, children, and grandchildren in a way that only a mother, wife, and grandmother can. It was downright hilarious. To my surprise, however, the husband and children tell their opinions on the family and themselves. When you see how the family sees a person as opposed to how the person sees themselves, you begin to think about some of the attitudes you have towards members of your own family. The beginning of the book will have you cracking up and by the end you will be in tears."
9. Coming of Age in Mississippi
My ninth recommendation during quarantine is Coming of Age in Mississippi by Alice Moody. I thought we should explore a nonfiction book every now and then, and the time is right to go back to the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This book was my choice the week George Floyd was murdered by a white police offer who kept his knee on his neck for nine minutes while Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” an all too familiar chant from another police victim, Eric Garner, in 2014. I'd like to say look at how far we've come. but...
Coming of Age in Mississippi is the unforgettable memoir of a woman at the front lines of the civil rights movement—a harrowing account of black life in the rural South and a powerful affirmation of one person’s ability to affect change.
The week before she began high school came the news of Emmett Till’s lynching. Before then, she had “known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was . . . the fear of being killed just because I was black.” In that moment was born the passion for freedom and justice that would change her life.
Through the NAACP and later through CORE and SNCC, she experienced firsthand the demonstrations and sit-ins that were the mainstay of the civil rights movement—and the arrests and jailings, the shotguns, fire hoses, police dogs, billy clubs, and deadly force that were used to destroy it.
A deeply personal story but also a portrait of a turning point in our nation’s destiny, this autobiography lets us see history in the making, through the eyes of one of the foot soldiers in the civil rights movement. Praise for Coming Of Age In Mississippi:
“A history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed . . . a timely reminder that we cannot now relax.”
—Senator Edward Kennedy, The New York Times Book Revie
10. Tales from the Family Tree
Of course I considered recommending my own books, but I didn’t want to be selfish or grandstand. So I decided to choose one of my own for every ten selections. This is my first. We haven’t done any short story collections, so this week I’m recommending Tales from the Family Tree. It is a collection of short stories that deal with family life, everything from family ties to family conflicts. The characters cross race, time, and geography as they struggle to survive and find their way into each other's hearts. These twelve stories will have you laughing one minute and crying the next as you journey through themes ranging from birth and adoption to aging and death. You will find many of these experiences relevant to your own family tree, and you may come away with a deeper respect for your own family relationships and traditions. This is truly a family affair, a downright real "family thang." Here’s a review from Amazon:
"This book is such a pleasure to read, and the limbs of the stories are far reaching! Everyone can find someone they now in this story. This book is a must-read, and a must-read AGAIN! You'll laugh at the moments of pleasure, and cry during the moments of pain; and you'll definitely stop to prune the leaves and nurture the roots and tales of the family tree." ---Dana Delancy-Hawkins
Since its first publication, I added two stories: “Mama,” my award-winning story about finding out I was adopted, and “Father’s Day,” a memoir about the day my husband died. Like these, many of the stories are based on my own life and family, but some are completely fictional. This was my third book, and I just wanted to tell a good story. Who doesn’t love that? Here's the book trailer, a glimpse into the plots and characters of the original ten stories.