Season‘s Readings

Season‘s Readings

With the temperature hovering around freezing and many of us hunkered down at home, there’s one old-fashioned entertainment that endures without wi-fi, masks or six-foot measures: reading a book. What better time, then, to ask some of New Haven’s most astute readers for their recommendations?

At People Get Ready bookstore on Whalley Avenue, owners Lauren Anderson and Delores Williams share a pandemic bubble so they can move freely among the stacks and shelves, even though, for now, their customers can’t. Sitting together on a Zoom call with a small poster of the poet Francisco Alarcón over their shoulders, the two book lovers finished one another’s sentences and covered it all, from social justice to joyful sex.

Among their top picks is the new biography The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X (2020) by Les Payne and Tamara Payne, which won last year’s National Book Award for nonfiction. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding, I think, about who Malcolm X was and what he really stood for,” Anderson says, adding that this long but “readable” book is especially relevant today. “We were really robbed of his voice,” she says of the civil rights leader, who was gunned down in New York City in 1965 at the age of 39. The Dead Are Arising, she says, makes her wonder “how different the public discourse about race would be if many of the strongest voices of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t cut down by violence.”

On the “sexy” end of the scale, Williams recommends the latest—and last—novel from author Eric Jerome Dickey, The Business of Lovers (2020)—or, for that matter, anything Dickey has written. His books, Williams says, all tell “real stories about how people interact with each other around relationships and sex,” often with plot twists and erotic passages. Dickey was interested in “how people of color interact in the world when they’re not necessarily thinking about themselves as second-class or thinking about the structure of racism,” Williams says. “I think that that’s what really makes people love his writing because they forget about worries when they read him.”

New Haven Free Public Library’s Meghan Curry and Bill Armstrong offer a breadth of recommendations as well on What to Read Next?, their weekly Facebook livestream. Streamed every Tuesday at noon, What to Read Next? is a conversation among NHFPL librarians, often including patron Juliann Castelbuono, and welcoming reader comments. Titles discussed one recent week ranged from the young adult novel The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea (2020) by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, which Curry describes as “a female queer pirating book” with fantasy elements, to Armstrong’s nonfiction recommendation Sapiens: The Birth of Humankind (2020) by Yuval Noah Harari, a graphic history described by Kirkus Reviews as “an informative, breathless sprint through the evolution and consequences of human development.”

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“I definitely like to explore more humor in the winter,” Curry told the Facebook audience. “I like to be as lighthearted as I can.” In that vein, she recommends comic artist Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems (2020) and Dash and Louie’s Book of Dares (2010) by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, “a fun love story romp around New York City about two teens who don’t know each other and write to each other,” now adapted into a new series on Netflix. For escapism, Armstrong recommends The Best American Sports Writing 2020, edited by Jackie MacMullen. “Because of COVID, sports have been really curtailed,” he says. “I suddenly realized how wonderful sports writing is.”

Whatever your tastes, says Brandon Hutchinson, an English professor at Southern Connecticut State University, “Don’t worry about reading what’s impressive. Read what you care about.” For her, that includes almost anything by Jacqueline Woodson—especially the author’s newest, Red at the Bone (2019)—and Jennifer Weiner. Hutchinson also recommends Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward, another National Book Award winner. “It’s a story about family and the ways in which… expectation gets in the way of people sharing their full selves,” Hutchinson says, adding that the novel is full of tenderness and Black masculinity that’s allowed to “step outside of that small box” Black men are often put in. Mississippi—“the geography, the heat”—plays a key role in the novel as well.

The phrase “winter reading” brought to mind longer books for several readers. Brian Slattery, a member of the editorial board of the literary magazine New Haven Review and an author himself, suggests one weighty tome that’s also a page-turner: Petals of Blood (1977) by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, which he describes as part murder mystery, part soap opera, part window into the decade following Kenya’s independence. “It’s kind of about how much has been gained and how much has been lost,” Slattery says. The novel begins with the murders of three people in a labor dispute, then jumps back in time and follows numerous characters through “this very, very long circle to the point where halfway through it, you almost kind of forget how this all started,” Slattery says, adding that the book ultimately comes to a satisfying ending.

Despite its length (432 pages in paperback), Petals of Blood is a book Slattery says he normally could have read in a few days. Instead, it took him several months to read in 2020. “I think it’s partially I felt like I had to keep up with the news a lot,” he says. But the novel turned out to be readable in small chunks, and in the end, the slower pace was pleasurable. “There’s a lot to chew on,” Slattery says, “and it’s been kind of fun visiting another place.”

Needing to pace oneself is something Anderson can relate to. “I do feel like a lot of us are struggling with attention this winter, just given all of the screen time, how much is on our minds, and we might want to read things that come to us in more digestible chunks.” As a result, she offers up several short works. The Office of Historical Corrections (2020) by Danielle Evans is a collection of short stories and one novella—“stuff that helps you feel connected to contemporary issues but also has an element of escapism.” In World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (2020), the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil delivers essays that combine “memoir and commentary about the natural world, about all the things she’s learned from nature,” Anderson says. And in Cast Away: Poems for Our Time (2020), Naomi Shihab Nye “connects poetry, both the reading of it and the writing of it, to contemporary issues that we’re all really wrestling with.”

Everyone being readers, one book recommendation begets another. Williams also gives a shout-out to bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson (“it’s powerful… it really gets in your spirit”) and Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts (1989) (“a love story about two people who are sort of… shrinking themselves in order to be together, and how they recognize that and come back together stronger”). Curry notes the arrival of Concrete Rose (2021), a followup to the wildly popular The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas. And for those exploring personal creativity during the pandemic, Armstrong recommends Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (2003) and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992).

Once you figure out what you want to read, you can take advantage of curbside pickup at all New Haven Free Public Library locations. At People Get Ready, which hopes to offer appointments for in-person browsing soon, readers can order on the website for curbside pickup, shipping or local delivery within city limits.

Whether your chosen reading this winter runs toward escapism, current events or just a great big book that will take all season to digest, Armstrong has one more suggestion: find someone to read with you. “It’s the reading season, and we’re in a reading bubble because of COVID,” he says. “Having a conversation about this with other people is supportive and illuminating.”

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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