For us ASU students who are just starting to get used to the routine of this semester, here’s a list of six books that may have been on your school booklist in years past that it may be time to dust off again. Contrary to popular belief, most of the books we read in English class are chosen for a (very good) reason, so I thought it might be very good to revisit some of my favorites. But don’t worry, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (as valuable as it is for every sophomore in America to endure the agony of this reading assignment) didn’t make today’s list.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. First off on the list is Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, a favorite read from high school for many. As you likely remember, the narrator Scout’s refreshing tone provides a glimpse into the racially divisive setting of the 1930s American South as her father Atticus Finch defends a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. With Scout’s honest realizations about race, class, and individual responsibility, this book is especially timely for today’s climate. It’s time to pick To Kill a Mockingbird off your high school bookshelf and take a trip back to Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression for a reminder that our natural conceptions of innocence and responsibility are filtered through biases of class and race.
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank. Many of us haven’t opened a copy Anne Frank’s diary since junior high, but her painfully acute realizations about human nature through the harsh realities of years of hiding during World War II are well worth another look. Though undergoing intense danger, much of her account shows the day-to-day monotony of her situation, with a realistic portrayal of what it felt like to live in her environment. Her story is critically important as one of the few non-American narratives that has entered into popular culture in defining the experiences of Jews in the Holocaust, and provides an accessible lens for viewing genocide—including those that have occurred more recently.
The Giver – Lois Lowry. Lois Lowry’s The Giver is often taught as a children’s dystopian novel, read aloud in elementary school classrooms across the nation. But, Lowry’s work also contains themes vitally important to the modern adult, especially concerning memory, interpersonal relations, and the role of government in controlling people’s lives. When 12-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly utopian society, receives a unique career assignment, he begins to learn the real history of his world and ultimately makes a difficult choice to create his own destiny apart from the governmental system’s prescribed methods. His decisions, and their necessity in his world, provide great insight into our own challenges.
Things Fall Apart – China Achebe. It is wonderful that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught in high school classrooms, but sometimes this prevents us from seeing it holistically, instead treating his work as defining a particular, singular perspective on the world rather than illuminating possibilities for understanding colonialism. Achebe’s chronicle of how things fall apart when white colonizers arrive in a Nigerian village offers implicit commentary about the Nigerian culture and about the colonizing culture, as well as the complications of navigating the intersections of these conceptions.
The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Expuéry. After reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in high school English, I had a significantly different experience revisiting this work in college French. The somewhat biographical, somewhat fantastical, account of a pilot’s encounters and adventures with the Little Prince has a much less substantial plot compared to other books on this list, however, its themes are no less critical. The Little Prince teaches important lessons through the observations of a precocious child, suggesting paradigm shifts from traditional adult mindsets to a more dream-driven lifestyle. It’s a quick read, but a valuable one.
Summer is a time for rest, relaxation, fun, and (of course) copious amounts of reading. This summer, I set a goal to read one novel or short story collection a week. So far, I’ve read wonderful books from authors ranging from Ocean Vuong to Zora Neale Hurston. And while I’ve enjoyed every work, these are some of my favorites.
Bloodchild – Octavia E. Butler. Though it was up against some stiff competition, I think this collection is the standout of my summer reading. Each story is a world in itself where the characters and the stakes come alive. Be warned, each of these tales are bound to make your skin crawl (but in the best way possible). One of the highlights of this collection is “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” in which a woman is battling a genetic disorder that leads to self-harm and mutilation. Another highlight is “Amnesty,” which explores a plant-like alien race coming to Earth and becoming the dominant species.
Speak No Evil – Iweala Uzodinma. This story about Niru, the son of Nigerian immigrants, and his white best friend, Meredith, will leave you thinking long after you read the last page. After Niru comes out to Meredith, she urges him to embrace who he is. In turn, they both must suffer the consequences of Niru embracing his sexuality, and a great strain is placed upon their relationship. Speak No Evil takes an outside perspective of the American dream, weighs cultural notions of sexuality, and confronts the challenge of having brown skin in America.
Difficult Women – Roxane Gay. This is a dynamic collection of honest stories that explore the lives of women in modern America. Their stories range from sisters who suffered through the same trauma to a woman who is cursed with making the ceiling leak. These tales are imaginative, powerful, and at times frustrating. One of my favorite stories from the collection is the titular piece, “Difficult Women,” which explores the archetypes of loose women, frigid women, crazy women, and mothers. Another of my favorites is, “North Country,” in which a woman tries to escape the coldness of her relationship, but discovers a new type of cold in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley. I read this book in high school, and for reasons (that I can no longer relate to) I did not enjoy it. This summer, I decided to give it another try, and I am glad that I did. In this futuristic dystopian novel, freedom and knowledge are regulated. At the center of the novel is Bernard, who questions the highly regulated and “civilized” lifestyle of the times because he does not feel as if he fits in. This novel delves into the cost of both individuality and authenticity and puts them to test against the collective well-being of society.
Watchmen – Alan Moore and David Gibbons. I am new to graphic novels, with my introduction being Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home earlier this year. While researching the genre, Watchmen came up over and over again as a great read, and it proved itself to be just that. It follows a group of washed up superheros in an alternate world where Richard Nixon was never impeached and the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The story concludes with a great moral question that will leave the reader contemplating long after you have put the book down.
Whether the recent book-to-film movie release got you to pick up Where’d You Go, Bernadette for the first time or reminded you how much you love this book, we’ve got you covered with a list of book recommendations sure to please fans of the book…and movie!
Mr. Penumbra’s 24–Hour Bookstore – Robin Sloan. The Great Recession drives web-designer Clay Jannon to leave his San Francisco work and take up a new job amidst the book stacks at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The only problem: the book customers are rare and seem to only check out unusually obscure volumes from the dark corners of the store. Curious about this strange behavior, Clay sets out to investigate the clientele to uncover secrets about Mr. Penumbra’s book collection.
Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty. In this witty and hilarious novel, readers will follow the three Kettle sisters: Lyn, Cat, and Gemma. Each sister is a unique character, and—together—they bring laughter, drama and mayhem. Lyn has a (seemingly) organized life marked by checklists, work life, marriage, and expertise in motherhood. Meanwhile, Cat confronts shocking secrets in her marriage. And Gemma flees whenever her relationships hit that victorious six-month anniversary. They must work together to deal with the ups and downs of life; including their technologically savvy grandma, champagne hangovers, and parent drama.
The Rosie Project – Greame Simsion. Brilliant but socially awkward Don Tillman has decided it’s time to search for a wife. So, as a profound believer in evidence-based decision making, this professor of genetics creates an orderly, sixteen-page, scientifically-supported love survey to filter out bad marriage candidates. When he meets Rosie, Don decides she cannot possibly be a good match, but he agrees to help her track down her biological father instead. In the quest to find her father, Don realizes that, despite his rational analysis, love is surprising, making him wonder if he should change his mind about Rosie and his love survey.
On Turpentine Lane – Elinor Lipman. Meet Faith Frankel: at 32 years, she purchases a charming bungalow in her old suburban hometown and believes her life is finally on track. But, at the same time, she notices her fiancé is too busy to answer her texts as he posts photos of himself with other women on a crowdfunded cross-country walk. There’s also the issue with her dimwitted boss. And, oh yeah, returning to her hometown means she lives minutes away from her hovering mother and philandering father who is convinced he’s Chagall. As she settles into her new home, she questions her life choices as she grows closer and closer to officemate Nick Franconi.
Today Will Be Different – Maria Semple. Don’t worry; we couldn’t forget Maria Semple’s newest book, Today Will Be Different. A hilarious book about reinvention, sisterhood, and identity, this book follows Eleanor, a woman on a mission to become less of a mess. Today will be different. She will tackle problems, get a shower, do yoga, drop her son Timby off at school, and work on her marriage. But life throws her a few curveballs along the way, as life tends to do. Now, she must also deal with a son playing hooky, a husband who might be keeping one too many secrets, and a mystery lunch date with a former colleague.
And, of course, if you liked the book, Where’d you go, Bernadette, consider heading to your nearest theater and giving the movie a shot!
It’s time to head back to school, so this is the perfect time for a Storyline Slam about Adulting! Right after the first week of ASU classes, join Changing Hands Bookstore at their Phoenix location for another Storyline Slam focused on adulting life skills.
Ten storytellers (drawn at random) will have six minutes to tell their own stories based on the theme.
With crowd judges, prize money, and an hour of adulting stories, you won’t want to miss this latest installment of Storyline Slam!
Alright y’all, it’s that time of year again. Our last days of summer are fast approaching, and for many of us that means we are busy with back-to-school preparation. But amidst all the hustle and bustle of getting ready to hit the books (and the coffee) again, I’m a firm believer you can still find time to read. So, here are some great back-to-school reads that will help your summer go out with a bang. Or, you know, with a book.
A Time to Kill—John Grisham. An oldie, but, a goodie. If you’re a person who needs a little drama, a little thrill, added to your last days of summer, look no further than this classic courtroom thriller. Grisham tells an exceedingly powerful, yet exciting, story that takes place in Clanton, a small Mississippi town in the 90s. Lawyer Jake Brigance (said to be based off of ex-lawyer John Grisham himself) comes face to face with racism and hatred as he fights to save his client’s life. Coming in at a little over 500 pages, don’t let the page count intimidate you. Grisham’s brilliant story telling made each page read more quickly than the next.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine—Gail Honeyman. For those of you who may be dreading long nights of studying coming around again, don’t hesitate to pick up this book which will, without a doubt, restore your faith in humanity, goodness, friendship, and healing. Eleanor Oliphant is a quirky, blunt, and extremely socially awkward woman. Her life is ordered, exact, and (she thinks) completely fine. But as she spends more time with her coworker, the IT guy Raymond, she comes to discover maybe life isn’t supposed to just be fine—it’s meant to be a whole lot more. Let Honeyman take your hand as you dive into this book, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself rediscovering what it means to live again right along with Eleanor.
The Accidental Empress—Allison Pataki. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think there’s any better way to ease yourself back into academics than with some phenomenal historical fiction. The story of the Austrian empress—known by her nickname Sisi—is not a widely taught one. Before picking up this book, I had no idea what the Austrian empire was like, how Sisi could be an “accidental” empress, and what exactly that entailed for her life. Pataki paints a both fascinating and informative world, one that will leave readers wanting to read on and on about the beloved empress Sisi.
Can You Keep a Secret?—Sophie Kinsella. For our returning readers, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that I’ve included a Sophie Kinsella book on this list. What can I say? She’s hilarious, relatable, and I adore her books—this one being no exception. Emma Corrigan has got to be one of my favorite Kinsella heroins yet. On a particularly scary plane ride home, Emma ends up spilling her darkest (and most embarrassing) secrets with the handsome stranger sitting next to her. Who, come Monday, she discovers is the founder of the entire company she works at. The odds? Next to none. The result? Absolutely priceless. This book is perfect for getting some good laughs in before you start crying into your morning latte on your way to calc. #college
On the Rocks—Erin Duffy. Want a way to relive your best days of summer? Without further ado, I introduce you to Duffy’s adorable, light-hearted, and undoubtedly funny summer novel. After Abby Wilkes’ life takes a rather unexpected turn (dumped by her fiancé via Facebook relationship status), her girlfriends get her out to the beautiful beaches of Newport, Rhode Island for some rest, relaxation, and—they’re hoping—romance. But as the summer goes on, after many dates and many drinks, Abby begins to discover that maybe romance isn’t the key to her happiness—perhaps it could really be as simple as discovering herself. Bound to make you laugh and cringe right alongside Abby, there’s no better book to wrap up the season of crazy summer nights with.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019 Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 256 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 5/5 stars
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life.
From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it.
What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong.
Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety.
At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.
Are you hoping to meet more bookworms in your area? Changing Hands has answered your wishes with its latest book club: Long and Short of It. This new bimonthly club explores one book and one story collection that share a common theme in each interactive meeting.
The upcoming discussion features Chanelle Benz’s The Gone Dead and The Man Who Shot My Eye Out is Dead. Be sure to stop by Changing Hands before the meeting to pick up copies of the books. Then, meet fellow local book lovers at Changing Hands’ First Draft Book Bar to talk about your reads.
The Gone Dead – Chanelle Benz. Thirty years after her father dies unexpectedly in their Mississippi shack, Billie returns to her childhood home where she meets the McGees, a family who’s history has overlapped with her own family’s history in the days of slavery. As she reunites with this old home, she hears a disturbing rumor that motivates her to track down forgotten memories.
The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead – Chanelle Benz. The characters in this short story collection are each wildly different, but they all share a hunger for adventure that lands them in tricky situations, causing them to rethink morality, confront identity, and experience love. Some of the stories feature an outlaw, a 16th century monk, and a young Philadelphia boy’s incarcerated father.
Publisher: Dutton Books, 2014 Genre: Dystopian YA novel Pages: 320 Format: Hardback Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Feeling trapped as a hidden siren in the underwater world of Atlantia and forever recognized as the daughter of the beloved deceased leader Oceana, Rio Conwy is desperate to go Above. But her twin sister Bay unexpectedly chooses to go Above instead, without leaving an explanation. Heartbroken and alone, Rio is forced to find answers from the only family she has left—her mother’s sister Maire, the dangerous siren.
As Rio attempts to find out why her sister left and to get Above herself, she discovers secrets and truths about her family and herself, and the Divide system now separating her from Bay. Rio learns to recognize the strength in her own voice through unexpected ways as she unearths the past and determines her future.
Admittedly, Ally Condie is one of my favorite YA authors, so I was a little biased in favor of Atlantia when I chose it off the shelf. However, even for those unfamiliar with Condie’s other award-winning work, Matched, this stand-alone bestseller is sure to be a satisfying read. Though Rio’s story presents serious themes that are handled justly, the narrative retains a feeling of enjoyable entertainment throughout. In particular, the races in the deepmarket have a pleasantly exciting rhythm. The style of the narration flows and fits well with the subject matter, and the ending is appropriate without being unrealistic.
The romantic relationships in this book were paced well, although some of their dialogue and scenes came off somewhat stilted. The romance was the weakest narrative aspect for me personally. The dynamics between family members or friends felt more natural and engaging. In particular, I felt that the difficult decisions at the end for Rio and Bay were well structured, showing the progress and strength in their connection from the beginning when Rio’s world was ripped apart by Bay not explaining beforehand why she had to go Above.
I would recommend this book to any YA reader who enjoys page-turning dystopian fantasies with beautiful world-building and expert character development.
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018 Genre: Fiction Pages: 384 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Ratings: 5/5 stars
Outside a small town on the North Carolina coast, Kya Clark’s family abandons her in a shack on the marshland, where she must learn to survive on her own, living off of the land she admires and studies. For years, rumors and prejudice follow Kya, known as the uneducated, wild “Marsh Girl.”
When two men from town become entranced by her wild beauty, Kya decides to open her heart to the vulnerability of love—only to find herself hurt and in pain.
After the town’s beloved quarterback, Chase Andrews, is found dead, townspeople point fingers at “Marsh Girl,” the suspicious figure that looms behind the twists and turns of the marsh’s waterways. How did Chase Andrews die? Was it murder? And if so, did Kya have anything to do with his death?
This coming-of-age story is my favorite book of the summer so far. It’s hard for me to characterize this book—other than to say it is a work of coming-of-age fiction. In some ways it is a mystery, revolving around the suspicious death of Chase Andrews and borrowing tricks from the crime fiction genre. In other ways it’s a romance, but it only offers small glimpses into Kya’s relationships with the two townie boys. Owens chose to focus more on the development of Kya and pain the men caused her. Still, in other ways, it has some elements of a young adult book, where Kya learns about menstruation and womanhood from a wise woman named Mabel. However, it targets a more mature audience in its commentary on human behavior, especially that of sexuality and violence. I think the fact that Owens borrows elements and storytelling strategies from so many different genres makes her work more compelling. Her story isn’t confined by one specific genre expectation.
The novel is a nonlinear narrative, containing switchbacks between Kya’s story growing up in the marsh and the discovery of Chase Andrews’ body (and subsequent investigation and court trial). Although date-jumbling like this can be a risky writing choice, I think Owens executed her plan perfectly. It was easy to jump between the two story strands, and I felt that she switched between the two parts of the story at the right moments, keeping me interested and not letting me forget about one narrative strand or the other. She never lost me once in all of the switchbacks, but I can’t say the same for some of the other books I’ve read that use this technique!
The protagonist, Kya Clark lives mostly in isolation with only the landscape to keep her company throughout much of the narrative. It was interesting to see a character like this learn to open up to other people and try to apply her knowledge of other creatures to her understanding of humanity.
The one critique I had was about the poetry of Amanda Hamilton that is intertwined throughout the novel. To me, the poems seem a bit trite and on the nose, but I believe this is forgivable once you reach the story’s conclusion. I’m jumping around a spoiler here, but the unexpected ending ties the novel together and answered my remaining questions, leaving me feeling satisfied with the story.
Because the book borrows from so many different genres and explores such an interesting protagonist, I suspect many fiction lovers will adore this beautifully-crafted novel.