Code Switch’s 2018 Book Guide

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Seasons greetings! Or should we say ... seasons readings? This week, we're sharing our favorite recent reads. Karen Grigsby Bates, our resident book expert, estimates that she's read more than 100 books this year. Of those, she recommends Washington Black, a novel by Esi Edugyan about an enslaved boy who works on a plantation in Barbados.

"The writing is gorgeous," Karen says about the book. "There are a lot of passages in it that describe the sacrifices we often make for love — romantic love, filial love, friendship — even when we don't consciously know we're doing it. And even though this is set in the mid 1800s, there is a lot that resonates about race today."

To help round out our recommendations, we also tapped some folks who you've heard on Code Switch before (or may hear soon)— novelists, scholars, poets and podcasters.

We've edited their responses for length and clarity.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

"Set mostly in and around Brooklyn from the '90s onward, the stories follow black men as they grapple with issues of masculinity, romantic intimacy, friendship and family. One story, set on Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway during the West India day parade, is full of so many vivid descriptions of revelors, that I was positive that I've seen some of these people before — maybe on the subway. I'm always excited by writers who can make ordinary lives feel extraordinary, and Brinkley's stories accomplish that to beautiful effect." — Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

"[American Street] tells the story of Fabiola — she's a teenager who's just arrived in Detroit from Haiti to live with her aunt and cousins. Her mother was held back at the airport and put in immigrant detention. So Fabi is left to face this new American life, in a new school, a new everything. She's living with relatives who love her, but who aren't going to coddle her. So she's basically gotta jump into this new life and go." — Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy

A River Of Stars by Vanessa Hua

"It's a portrayal of two pregnant women who are on the run. She describes it as 'Pregnant Thelma and Louise,' which I love. It's a very fun, rollicking story, but it's also a very serious consideration and exploration of motherhood, immigration and belonging." — R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

"It's just this really strange and beautiful novel about this woman Ada who goes off to college and just sort of goes through the horrifically normal parts of a body with sexual violence and trying to come to this understanding about herself and who she is as her person. And while this is happening, there's this sort of malevolent spirit that occupies her body, and it sort of moves between her perspective and this creature's perspective. ... It's about trauma, dislocation and anger — that sort of tender and porous space between gender identities and realities and ontologies." — Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

"I tend to like books where maybe the exterior drama is not this huge thing that is happening, but it's a lot about interior transformations and sort of what someone's inner life is doing and how they are changing. So, Little Fires Everywhere is a great example of just a small human drama, but none of the turns were expected. I kind of didn't know what was going to happen. And as soon as I finished it, I went on Amazon and purchased a copy for my mom and sent it to her." —Tobin Low, co-host and co-managing editor of WNYC's podcast Nancy

lo terciario / the tertiary by Raquel Salas Rivera

"It explores the Puerto Rican debt crisis and the PROMESA bill. One of my favorite lines in the [poetry] collection is, 'It is still a suspicious act to be in love or to write poems'. This collection refuses to give up, and in a year that has exhausted so many of us, it invites us to do the same." — Denice Frohman, poet, performer and contributor to Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism, Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color and other books

New People by Danzy Senna

"The book itself is both funny and weird and harrowing in its description of people who are together because they feel they're supposed to be together ... in a way of external pressures, or the way they look together — as opposed to having any real connection. The protagonist, her name is Maria, is kind of edging into this relationship that's going to be permanent ... and is really not happy and hasn't admitted to herself how unhappy it makes her, and ends up making pretty wild choices to force herself out of it, to blow up her life in this way that feels totally believable and feels like an odd or very realistic horror movie. I love this book. I really would recommend it." — Daniel Alarcón, host of NPR's Radio Ambulante and author of At Night We Walk in Circles, The King Is Always Above The People and other books

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

"It's a book that came out in 2017, and it's won all sorts of awards in Canada, but I don't think has really reached the U.S. yet. It's a young adult book, but totally something adult audiences could enjoy. I'm very into Indigenous futurisms — the idea of what it means to be an indigenous person in the future, and kind of dystopian books too, and this book fits right in there. It's about a world post-Global Warming, where non-Native folks have lost the ability to dream and Native people hold the key to that in their bone marrow, so they're being kind of hunted for their bone marrow. And it's really good and really powerful." — Adrienne Keene, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the blog Native Appropriations

Where The Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

"It's an extraordinary book. [The author is] a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe [of Oklahoma], and it's about a young boy named Sequoia who's in the foster care system when his mother is put in jail. I was really struck by the intelligence of the book, as well as the significance of the story that he's telling, about what it's like to be a modern Indigenous person in this country, as a Native American, and to be in the foster care system. I was very struck by the plot of it — it's very well written, it's very propulsive, it's very readable for literary fiction, and I would recommend it heartily to book clubs.

I think book clubs would like it and I think it should be on the syllabi for high schools and classes." — Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko and Free Food for Millionaires


All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

"The book is an extraordinary, honest, nuanced and compassionate look at adoption, race in America and families in general. It's also such an engaging read. I stayed up way too late one night reading it because the story just pulled me in. I read it months ago, and I still think about it and quote some of the lines in this book at least weekly. And I've harassed many of my friends to read it so I can talk about it with them. Some of them may be getting it for holiday gifts. — Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date, The Proposal and the forthcoming book The Wedding Party

Barracoon: The Story Of The Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston

"It's the story of Cujo, the last surviving African of this particular American slaver. I think that it's very rare you get to have the voice and history of someone who remembers it, not only as being enslaved here in this country, but having lived a time not enslaved in Africa. So, he takes us back to his life in Africa, and we see the rich culture of what was stolen from him when he was sent to the United States. And then you also see again how devastating enslavement was for our people. It's so infinitely readable. It's in that Zora Neale [Hurston] voice that, once you crack the code of it, you can't stop hearing it in your head. I just thought it was phenomenal." — Jacqueline Woodson, author of Brown Girl Dreaming, Another Brooklyn and other books

Becoming by Michelle Obama

"You know, this book has been quite an event in publishing. I think, sometimes you hear it spoken about as your own souvenir of the Obama years.

"But it's so much more than that. It's a deeply-moving coming of age story of Michelle Obama in her early life, growing up the child of Great Migrationers on the South side of Chicago. There are such moving anecdotes about how this family just invested everything, both materially and emotionally, in the possibility of giving their children a better life. And she doesn't sugarcoat the realities of American life, the realities of racism, of sexism — the realities of how difficult it is to move from one socioeconomic class to another. It's not a sweet book, but at the same time, it's deeply hopeful about the possibility of what happens when you work hard, what happens when you love hard. I couldn't put it down. I thought it really spoke to her writing that she could keep me hooked in to a memoir even though I — and everyone else in the world — know exactly how it ends. But what you don't know is what happened in the middle." — Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, Silver Sparrow and other books

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

"I love this book, and it's a very sad book. It's about her as a child, surviving the killing fields during Pol Pot's reign in the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It was one of the first books I read where I truly felt devastated, and I felt like maybe human rights is a thing that I am going to pursue one day. It was one of the stepping stones that took me to law school." — Kathy Tu, co-host and co-managing editor of WNYC's podcast Nancy

Heavy by Kiese Laymon

"The narrative voice naturally roves through his life and relationships. I loved the interiority of this singular story, and the book expanded my ideas about weight, race, and trauma. He handles his relationship with his mother with such delicacy and love, and it kind of rendered me speechless, because we often don't see men paying homage to their mothers in a dynamic way, which presents a mother as faulty, powerful, and ultimately beautiful." — Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir and faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts

Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery by Glenda R. Carpio

"I think it is just really funny, so sharp. The book takes a look at black comedians and the ways they discuss, and perpetuate, and challenge thoughts about slavery and race in America. And I think it's just really smart in the way that it analyzes these comics in relation to one another, and in relation to their audiences, and how there are so many different modes of addressing race comedically, confrontationally, and also often as entertainment. It's definitely a must-read." — Morgan Parker, poet and author of There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé and the forthcoming novel Magical Negro

Litany For The Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold

"It's a book that stuck out to me immediately as the kind of heir to the experimental literature that we saw with Terese Hawking Chaw, who is one of [Mary-Kim Arnold's] main influences. In three essays, she sets out her experience as an adoptee from Korea coming to America and growing up here, searching for a way told to connect to herself through these identities that are presented to her. [She uses] a mix of her experiences, as well as documents around her case, to give us this portrait of her and these two cultures." — Alexander Chee, writer and author of How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, The Queen Of The Night and Edinburgh

Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger by Soraya Chemaly

"What really resonated with me about this book is this idea that women should be allowed to express their anger. Particularly in Latin American families and communities, we're so often encouraged to silence that anger and continually extend empathy and extend understanding to the men in our lives, and not to ourselves, and to the women in our families. I just think Soraya ... goes into this incredible detail citing scientific studies and different works of literature that really convey the necessity to female anger, not only for the health of women, but for the health of equality in society." — Jean Guerrero, reporter with KPBS and author of Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir

Shereen Marisol Meraji, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan and Leah Donnella contributed to this list.

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