Awhile back, I started scrounging around for new ways to put together my summer reading lists. I love the ones that are out there already, the beach reads and must-reads and exciting reads. But have you ever noticed how they all tend to recommend the same small pool of books? I wanted a list that would lead me to titles I might not have found otherwise.
This year, enter the New York Public Library.
The good librarians at the NYPL come up with a new reading challenge every year, primarily to keep school kids from lapsing into jellyfish while on summer break. It’s a good plan for adults, too, especially for writers.
(Writers must read, btw. Even if it’s 80 degrees and sunny and friends are beckoning and the lawn needs mowing and that hammock just looks so comfy there in the shade.)
This year, the NYPL suggests you read at least one book in three categories:
What fertile, fascinating subjects! When I saw it, I thought it would be a good idea to share my favorite books in each category with Gotham’s students and friends, while also looking for new titles for myself. I thought, this will be fun!
But putting this list together exposed a yawning, gaping, and, frankly, embarrassing gap in my reading history: I could not for the life of me remember ever reading a book about refugees. Not a novel or a nonfiction book or a picture book or a poetry collection. I combed my shelves at home, and then scoured my old notebooks, and scrolled through my “Read it” list at Goodreads. Nothing.
I am a writer who teaches writing—how did I never read a book about refugees? Short answer: Laziness, probably. Slightly longer answer: With reading, as with everything, it’s easy to fall into familiar, comfortable habits, which become deep ruts if someone doesn’t come along to give you a push.
This year, the NYPL librarians gave me that push, and for that, I’m grateful.
Below is my list of books in those three categories that I hope you’ll love as much as I did. And if you’ve got a good suggestion for a book about refugees, don’t be shy about sending it on!
Happy summer, writers!
The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter — A middle-aged dad meets a few stoned teens outside the 7-11 at 3 a.m. Hijinks ensue.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride — Henry, a pre-teen slave, accidentally escapes bondage in 1857 Kansas and finds himself riding with the militant abolitionist John Brown while also disguised as a girl. And that’s not even the most complicated part.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier — A novel about the real-life 19th Century fossil hunters Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who were 20 years apart in age and light years apart in socio-economic status, but who nevertheless forged a close friendship and together shook up the British scientific and religious establishments.
Immigration and Refugees
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — I’ve only recently started this one, but I’m already thoroughly engrossed in this story of two young lovers who leave Nigeria, one for the U.S. and one for the U.K. and then make their way back home again. I can’t wait to see whether they reconcile. (No spoilers!)
American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood by Marie Arana — A memoir about growing up in Peru and New Jersey and how your life can be both split and fused at the same time.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid — Recommended by Gotham instructor Zaina Arafat, who wrote of it in Vice, “a fantastic, painfully timely story about love in an era of forced migration.”
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say—Recommended by Gotham’s President Alex Steele, a picture book about coming to America and wanting to be in two places at once.
Nonfiction About an Issue Important to You
I couldn’t settle on just one issue important to me, so instead, I chose three nonfiction books that made me care about an issue I’d never have thought twice about otherwise.
The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt — If Emily weren’t a close friend, there’s no way I would have read Amazon’s “No. 1 New Release in Fish and Aquarium Care.” And I would have missed a hilarious, suspenseful story centered around a pet fish that can cost up to $150,000, and that people have killed for.
Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow — A history of how the U.S. “drifted” away from our Constitutional requirements for when and how to go to war. “It’s not a conspiracy, there aren’t rogue elements pushing us to subvert our national interests...It’s more entertaining and boneheaded than that.” She had me at “boneheaded.” (Full disclosure: My husband is a producer on Rachel’s MSNBC show.)
First Class by Alison Stewart — Another friend, another book, this one about America’s first black public high school, and how it changed the nation.
Dean of Faculty