Celebrating Black History Month with Books

Black History Month. African American History. Celebrated annual. In February in United States and Canada.

While I’m a strong believer in reading authors of multiple ethnic/religious/lifestyle backgrounds at any time, Black History Month is a great motivator to discover and read authors of African descent. Here are some recommendations from our Reference Librarians for great books

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  After witnessing her friend’s death at the hands of a police officer, Starr Carter’s life is complicated when the police and a local drug lord try to intimidate her in an effort to learn what happened the night Kahlil died.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  As Will, fifteen, sets out to avenge his brother Shawn’s fatal shooting, seven ghosts who knew Shawn board the elevator and reveal truths Will needs to know.

My Sister is a Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Satire meets slasher in this short, darkly funny hand grenade of a novel about a Nigerian woman whose younger sister has a very inconvenient habit of killing her boyfriends.

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. When Shane and Eva meet unexpectedly at a literary event, sparks fly, raising not only their past buried traumas, but the eyebrows of New York’s Black literati. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, unknown to each other, are born into different tribal villages in 18th century Ghana. Effia will be married off to an English colonial, and will live in comfort. Her sister will be imprisoned and sent to America where she will be sold into slavery. Their lives and the lives of their descendants create a snapshot of the complicated history of our nation.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. The founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama recounts his experiences as a lawyer working to assist those desperately in need, reflecting on his pursuit of the ideal of compassion in American justice.

Also, be sure to check out the displays at Main and Fairmount that highlight romances with African American characters and authors.

 

And, don’t forget to sign up for the Black History Month Reading Challenge on Beanstack! Running February 1 through March 4, you’ll learn more about Black history, celebrate Black authors and illustrators, and explore events in your community honoring the Black experience. Log your reading and activities throughout the month to earn badges and chances for prizes. Download the Beanstack app for free from your app store.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

“Everyone has secrets, Lou,” she says. “Everyone should be allowed their secrets. You can never know everything about a person. You’d go mad trying to.”
― Sarah Pinborough, Behind Her Eyes

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough had an ending that I did not see coming, one that I had never read before. That automatically makes this book at least one star better than I would have given a similar book.

Louise is stuck in a rut. A divorced mom of one working as a secretary for a local psychiatrist, Louise’s life trudges by the same every single day. Everything changes when she decides to go out for the night and meets a mysterious handsome man at the local pub. Sparks fly, the two kiss, he leaves, and Louise is finally happy.

The following Monday, Louise shows up to work to meet her new boss, David. Her heart drops when she realizes that he is the same man that she met at the bar. He’s very much married. David and Louise talk where he tells her that their kiss was a mistake. His eyes say a different tale though – he can’t stop watching her.

After this talk, Lousie happens to bump into Adele. She’s a lonely housewife who is new in town, desperate for friends. The two develop a quick friendship. Louise has always suffered from night terrors. Adele has a way to help her cope with those. They start working out together, helping Louise to shed her extra weight and get in shape.  One slight complication: Adele is David’s wife. Louise is living a double life: forming a friendship with Adele, while also continuing her affair with David. The longer she carries on with both, the more cracks begin to appear. Louise starts to wonder what exactly is happening in David and Adele’s marriage. Her curiosty is piqued. The more she digs, the more she realizes that she is unable to extricate herself from David and Adele. They are hiding something, but she’s not sure what. They will do anything to protect their marriage’s secrets.

This book is also available in the following formats:

No Romo – Books Featuring Aromantic Characters

So in the last year I finally read The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy (see my love letter to Mackenzi Lee here). Aside from being an exciting adventure and a story of feminism and determination, it’s also a remarkable book because of the main character’s complete lack of interest in romantic relationships. She’s focused instead on her ambitions, her family, and her desire for true friends.

What that captures (that most other books don’t) is something called ‘aromanticism’, which is the lack of romantic attraction to anyone. It’s not extremely common, but it does exist, and is often lumped in with asexuality, the lack of sexual attraction to anyone. For a nonfiction treatment of this broader topic, try the excellent book Ace by Angela Chen.

There are some really great books featuring asexuality, including Let’s Talk About Love, Tash Hearts Tolstoy, and Beyond the Black Door, but in all these cases the main character still experiences romantic attraction. For similar characters who don’t have romantic attractions and/or don’t pursue romance, you’ll want to try these titles:

Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

Tarnished Are The Stars by Rosiee Thor

Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee

Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Also check out our Libguide of similar books: No Romo: Great Books Without Romance.

Porcelain Travels by Matthew Felix

I love a good travel story – and I’ve made the LibGuide Armchair Traveler to prove it! Most recently I read Porcelain Travels by Matthew Felix, and I highly recommend it for an entertaining journey and an education on the bathroom traditions in different parts of the world. It’s kind of hard to describe, but here’s the publisher’s version:

Matthew Félix is not a luxury traveler. But traveling on a budget fails to explain why so many of his most unforgettable experiences take place on the toilet, in the tub, or under the shower. From Matthew’s nightmare while relieving himself in Morocco to his unorthodox bathing practices in Paris and Istanbul to the Dead Sea shower incident that led to an arrest, Porcelain Travels is sometimes hilarious, occasionally shocking, and always entertaining.

What I liked was that there were so many levels on which to enjoy it. The toilet and bathing experiences are, for the most part, relatable and humorous (and fascinatingly informative where they’re not relatable); the various locations are a great source of escapism and global knowledge, and the short vignette chapters are engaging and easily readable. Less enjoyable was the author’s somewhat pretentious attitude on some things, but his humility in relating these episodes was a good balance for any sanctimoniousness.

If you’re a devoted travel reader, love cultural comparisons (Europeans’ horror at the existence of the garbage disposal, e.g.), or cannot travel without knowing the bathroom situation, this is a good book for you. Similar vibes include Bill Bryson of A Walk in the Woods fame and David Sedaris, known for Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Love Your Library During a Reading Slump

If you just can’t read a book right now, don’t feel bad! You’re not a worse person because you can’t get yourself to read anything more than a cereal box or social media post. Whether you’re busy with schoolwork, family obligations, or just plain burnt out, you can still love and support your library and be part of our bookish lifestyle without picking up a single book.

Tip #1: Do something cool! Try the TechKnow library (featuring a digital camera, a mobile scanner, Snapchat spectacles, and MUCH more), our collection of board games (from Scrabble to Super Mario Checkers), or a community experience pass to a local museum like the Figge.

Tip #2: Go multimedia! Save some serious money by checking out a new movie (like Till or the new season of You), music CD (maybe Charlie Puth’s latest?), or video game (including PS5 games like Dying Light 2) so you can try before you buy.

Tip #3: Read without reading! Skim a heartwarming graphic novel like Moonstruck, or listen to a book on playaway or CD (pro tip: pick a short one like The Poet X, a 3.5 hour listen) for a quick lit fix. (Disclaimer: these are definitely real books and count as real reading, but since they may be easier than traditional print, I’m including them.)

Tip #4: Just show up! Come exist in our spaces – read magazines and enjoy the view at Eastern, warm up at Fairmount’s fireplace, or schedule a Makerspace tour at Main.

Tip #5: Be social with it! Engage on social media from home — repost our news and events, browse databases and digital resources, and check out challenges in the Beanstack website or app.

However you engage with the library, we appreciate you and we want to hear from you! What’s your favorite way to ride out a reading slump – or your favorite way to love the library?

Nonfiction for the Reluctant, Stressed, and Skeptical

I was recently reminded that there’s a lot of fascinating reading in non-fiction if you only know how to find it. Non-fiction offers a different reading experience than fiction does. Where fiction affects your emotions and takes you on a journey (often tense, angsty, or deeply emotionally wrenching), non-fiction engages your mind with more intellectual fascination. Here are some non-fiction books I’ve read that offer various entry points into the genre.

My top category is always science – I love Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and What If (1 & 2) by Randall Munroe. I’ve also started on the works of Mary Roach, renowned for her approachable and entertaining forays into topics like death, sex, space, and most recently animal offenders in Fuzz. I’d say my love for scientific non-fiction (and fiction; my favorite author is Andy Weir after all) is because of my natural curiosity, since these books explore different realms of knowledge and the limits of what’s possible.

My second-favorite nonfiction category is books by humorists like David Sedaris; I’ve read most of his work (for the title alone I particularly love Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls) as well as other hilarious and relatable personalities. I remember loving Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby.

Another very common entry point into nonfiction is true crime books – I’m still working my way into this area but I have read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (a classic and definitely fascinating) as well as The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and the convicted murderer who was an invaluable part of it.

Many people also love memoirs like Crying in H Mart (I’ll read it when I need to cry and not before, thank you) or poetry by breathtaking wordsmiths like Rupi Kaur (I tried Milk and Honey, and it made me feel raw, vulnerable and exposed so I decided to try again later), or powerful, expose-type social science reads. The power of the latter is in making you feel seen, or as if your eyes have been opened. For that reason I loved Ace by Angela Chen and highly recommend it.

The key in my experience is identifying what it is you value in a reading experience and seeking them out. For me, this includes infectious enthusiasm, a dry sense of humor, a sense of hope, and engrossing storytelling. Do you have something that immediately hooks you, or a favorite nonfiction read? Let us know below!

 

Wallace the Brave by Will Henry

If you love comics and graphic novels about friendship, discovery, and the joy of being weird, you won’t want to miss out on Wallace the Brave by Will Henry.

This comic series, now in its fourth collected volume, centers on the bold and imaginative Wallace in his picturesque hometown of Snug Harbor, where he lives with fisherman father, plant-loving mother, and feral little brother Sterling. Wallace is outdoorsy and adventurous, making his own fun with the help of best friend Spud, brainy Rose, and aggressive Amelia. This is a utopic read filled with hope, light, and appreciation for the small comforts of life — alongside quirky humor and pride in being different.

A wholesome heir to Calvin & Hobbes and as healing to read as the Tea Dragon Society, Wallace the Brave is recommended for all ages who need a gentle, humorous read.

Fuzz by Mary Roach

At long last I read a work by eminent non-fiction author Mary Roach! She’s been on my to-read list for a long time because of her reputation for entertaining and accessible explanations of various topics, and I finally took the plunge with her most recent, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.

In this wide-ranging volume Roach explores the field of “wildlife-human conflict” – the zone in which the natural world infringes on human activity and the various methods used to control, combat, or understand that invasion. This includes the predators you’d expect: bears, elephants, leopards, and the like, but also invasive non-native species, dangerous trees, destructive birds, and the cute creatures with unexpected impacts on the ecosystem. Also covered are a wide variety of anti-wildlife strategies including frightening devices (most notably a screaming tube dude), lasers, monkey birth control, poisoned beans, and many more. The book ultimately coalesces around a meditation on humanity and its various approaches to nature – those who coexist, those who condemn, and those who struggle to know determine the right decision.

I enjoyed Roach’s humor, and that the book challenges the idea of human supremacy while still sympathizing with those whose livelihoods (or just their lives) are endangered by wildlife behaviors. I also appreciated the global scope of Roach’s survey and how vividly she renders the people she works with along the way.

If you’re a non-fiction reader, science lover, animal lover, or looking for an entertaining learning experience, give this book a try.

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

Have you heard the hype yet about Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree? A gentle read for lovers of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, this warm-hearted slice-of-life story captures the magical adventure that is everyday life, while touching on identity, belonging, change, prejudice, and chosen family.

Viv is an orc who’s spent her life as a fighter. But after sampling the gnomish drink “coffee” she has a new dream: to settle down and open a coffeehouse. She gathers her savings, does her research, and then takes the terrifying leap… to civilian life. With the help of a hobgoblin craftsman and a business-savvy succubus she slowly starts to introduce a skeptical community to her new business. It’s not an easy road, and obstacles and frenemies abound, but with courage and the right support Viv has a chance at a new kind of life.

This book is delightful not only because you get to watch orcs, succubi, elves, dwarves, hobgoblins, and other assorted creatures get introduced to coffeeshop culture (including the magic of cinnamon rolls), but also because it’s so full of hope. Viv and her new friends defeat obstacles with determination, good sportsmanship, and clever thinking, without resorting to violence – though they’re also honest about the hardships they’ve faced.

A sensitively diverse book that explores what makes life fulfilling, this is recommended for the weary fantasy-lover looking for a story where people have good days and things generally work out.

 

What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman

While looking back over what I read in 2022, I realized that I only read one nonfiction title. This year, I decided that I’m going to read more nonfiction. The perfect way to ease myself into nonfiction? Graphic novels! My first nonfiction read of 2023, What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter by Suzy Hopkins and Hallie Bateman, is a beautifully writter, yet incredibly sad graphic memoir written and illustrated by a mother/daughter duo.

Hallie Bateman is an illustrator/writer, while her mother Suzy Hopkins is also a writer. When Hallie was in her early twenties, she was kept up late one night after realizing that one day her mom would die. Devastated and wanting a way to gather all the motherly advice that she would miss, Hallie came up with a plan. She asked her mom Suzy to write down step-by-step instructions for her to follow after her death. Her mother laughed, but then said yes and began writing.

Suzy started by saying that Hallie needed to walk away from her phone after her death, then ‘pour yourself a stiff glass of whiskey and make some fajitas’. Suzy’s advice walks Hallie through the days, weeks, months, and years after her loss. The advice, guidance, and support she supplies throughout is at times funny, but also heart-wrenching. She talks about issues of all sizes, from how to cook certain recipes to how to choose a life partner. As they worked together making this grpahic novel, they discussed a wide variety of everyday issues with open minds and open hearts.

While I enjoyed the juxtapoisiton of Suzy’s advice with Hallie’s colorful art style, the topics discussed had me tearing up. The format of this book was a unique take on processing grief. It’s essentially a years-long instruction manual for getting through life without your mom. It was a quick read, but one that had me laughing and crying at various points throughout. As soon as I finished, I started my own list of questions that I wanted to talk to my family and friends about while they’re still living.