When it comes to books, I like what I like, and I very seldom step outside this comfort zone. I read the novels of Jane Austen on a continuous loop, as well as occasionally breaking out a few of my favorite Victorian classics. There’s a certain flavor of YA sci-fi romance that I devour like a junkie, I dabble in the more pulpy mysteries and thrillers, and I’ll even sample a humorous memoir, a la Tina Fey’s Bossypants or anything by Chelsea Handler, now and then. But there isn’t a lot outside of these genres that I’ll pick up with anticipation, or that tingly feeling you get when you pre-order a book from Amazon. (Best feeling in the world.)
I try! I really do. I have bought so many books outside of those parameters that truly spark my interest, but then end up gathering dust on my shelves. I don’t know why, exactly. It could just be that they’re not as comfortable as my usual fare, maybe even a little dangerous… So this summer I’m giving myself a few reading assignments. In trying to broaden my horizons, I’ve chosen books that are outside of my usually preferred genres, and in trying to save money, I’ve chosen books that I already own! I was also very mindful about choosing books from diverse authors and featuring diverse characters, as this is an issue that needs greater awareness from everyone. I may be posting about my experiences with these books as I read them, but for now here is my list with brief descriptions and my pre-reading thoughts. Feel free to join me in my summer of reading dangerously.
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
“Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period.”
This book is a staple of middle school reading lists, yet I somehow missed it. I remember reading portions of the play in eighth grade, and seeing some half-hearted acting from the other thirteen-year-olds in my English class, but I’ve never read the source material. I’m excited to read this one because I believe, even having never read it, that it is one of the most important books of the 20th century. It’s the words and stories of ordinary people that give us the truest sense of what the world was like during earlier times in history.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
“Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.”
I think it may be the science element that made me shy away from this book. I can’t tell from the description or from skimming the pages if it’s going to be heavy-handed on the science, or more focused on telling a human story. The ideas presented appeal to both my mind and my heart, what with the almost sci-fi story point of the “immortal” cells, the historical element, and the social justice issues that are implicit in this story, so I’m sure I’ll find something to love about it. I guess I’ll just have to dive in and see!
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“A powerful, tender story of race and identity by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun. Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.”
This novel initially intrigued me because of the culture clash aspect of it. I love reading about immigrant experiences in America, but I’ve never read a story from the perspective of an African coming to the modern US. I’m curious about, and think it’s important to understand, the differences in the transplant experience for newcomers from all parts of the world, as well as their common struggle to become a part of this nation while retaining their cultural and ethnic identities.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
“Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.”
Sherman Alexie spoke at my college once, and I didn’t go to the lecture, but a girl in my poetry class did. The next day in class she told us a story about this really rude guy who had cut in front of her in line at a coffee shop. She continued, “Then later I went to the Sherman Alexie thing, and that rude guy got up on stage and started talking.” This story may have clouded my judgement just a teensy bit, but I’m willing to put that aside and read this novel, which is great by all accounts I’ve heard.
- Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
“Jean Rhys’s reputation was made upon the publication of this passionate and heartbreaking novel, in which she brings into the light one of fiction’s most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Set in the Caribbean, its heroine is Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Rochester. In this best-selling novel, Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.”
I feel like I’m almost cheating by choosing this one, as it’s a companion to Jane Eyre, one of my beloved English Victorian novels. Through this book I’ll get to see Brontë’s world through a very different pair of eyes, though. Of course my experience will be shaped by my deep familiarity with the original novel, whose heroine I both admire and slightly fear, in a way; I don’t think I would want to be friends with Jane Eyre. I’m very interested to see if the first Mrs. Rochester will inspire a similar reaction.
Well, there they are. I have my entire summer planned! Now the question is which one I want to read first…