The Book Meme: Day 3

Day 03 - The best book you've read in the last 12 months

As you may know, since January of 2017, I've been making a concerted effort to read more works by writers who are not white guys, and I'd have to say that effort has paid off quite well. Trying to pick a single book from that period (and specifically the last twelve months of that period) puts me in kind of a bind. I know that the best book I've read was written by a woman of color, but WHICH book by WHICH woman of color?

The first candidate is a 2010 fantasy novel whose worldbuilding pretty much blew open the gates of the genre in ways I haven't seen since I picked up Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series. N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is simultaneously romantic, political, mythological, and personal. It has trappings that might seem familiar, but the book is a complete original. Nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, it won the Locus award for Best First Novel, and it absorbed me almost completely during last July's trip to Alabama, where I stayed up late into the night reading it. It's the first volume of a trilogy, and I have yet to pick up the second book, but I have every intention of doing so.

The other candidate is a rediscovered American classic. Though it languished in obscurity for decades, by the time I got to UNC I was hearing people discuss Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and their opinions seemed universally positive. The other book I first heard about at that time was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I finally picked up after graduation, and which justified every bit of praise I'd heard. So why didn't I try the Hurston? I wish I could tell you how I was misled, but I would have sworn someone in  English 99, my senior writing seminar, was discussing the book and mentioning a section where the narration came from the point of view of the birds in the town. Apparently they were discussing some other book entirely, but overhearing that conversation left me with the impression that Hurston had written a piece of experimental fiction in line with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or something. I really liked As I Lay Dying and have re-read it several times, but it's a book that demands your full attention, and I guess I wasn't in the mood to apply that kind of focus to Hurston for a long time.

Luckily, I eventually created a tool to provide that focus: my stated goal of reading more nonwhiteguy books. Back in late December, on vacation and able to focus on something other than school, I decided I'd read enough whiteguy books for the moment and needed an alternative. My eyes fell on the gently used copy of TEWWG which we'd owned for some years. Reasoning that I could probably handle something challenging and experimental at the moment, I pulled it from the shelf. I was immediately drawn into the text by the combination of Hurston's prose and the character of Janie, who seemed as though she might have wandered over from a Wharton novel. I kept reading, waiting for the weird experimental part, and rapidly realizing that any such part would not stop me from finishing. And when I reached the end, having encountered no narrating birds at any point, I was kicking myself for not reading the book earlier.

Having been turned on to Hurston, I went on to obtain an ARC of Barracoon, her newly-published account of her 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the African slave trade. It's stunning to realize that the lives of people seized from Africa overlapped with those of people I knew myself, and Lewis' tale is one that I think every American should read. Though Hurston's decision to render the story in dialect may turn some readers off, I think I understand it. If you were speaking to a man who remembered the Middle Passage first-hand, how would you dare try to alter his words to fit your own standards of language?

If nothing else, reading these books has more than justified my choice to employ affirmative action in my book selection. By reading more work from women and people of color, I have definitely enriched myself. You may wish to give it a try yourself.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 6, 2018 8:28 AM.

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