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Gift Guide 2020: Great Storytelling

I recently read a book in which the narrator, looking back on her selfish decision making, admitted that she hadn’t been fully equipped to consider the interior life of those around her. It’s a challenging thing to do; especially as today's differences seem more glaring and dangerous than the things that unite us. Great storytelling, though, has the power to paint another person fully - inside and outside. People are rarely just one thing. These books are full of characters so alive they jump off the page and right into your heart. For the readers who need to get lost, for the readers who strive toward empathy, for the readers who love great storytelling, these books are a life raft in a sea of uncertainty. 


If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

This novel tells the story of Tish, a wife- and mother-to-be, and her fiancé, Fonny. Tish and Fonny get engaged and find out they will have a baby at the same time that Fonny is accused of a crime that he didn’t commit and is imprisoned. Tish narrates the story, moving back and forth through time. As her pregnancy progresses, she and her family work tirelessly to prove Fonny’s innocence. It’s a devastating book filled with the most beautiful love stories; not just a romantic love story, but a powerful love story of family. 

Yes, this is a tragic love story, but tragedy does not have the last word. Love does. And that is powerful.


Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Patsy came out a few years ago, but I didn’t read it until this year. It was one of my absolute favorite reading experiences in 2020. Born and raised in Jamaica, Patsy has always dreamed of coming to America. When her daughter, Tru, is five, she is finally granted a temporary visa. She leaves with no intention of returning. What follows is the years-long story of Patsy and Tru, each navigating the trauma of leaving and being left. There are no neat definitions of freedom or forgiveness or love, but both women are constantly striving toward all three.  


Homegoing AND Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi is a storyteller writing at the highest level. You cannot go wrong with either of her books, and I would recommend reading both. Right now.

Homegoing, Gyasi’s debut novel, follows eight generations; descendants of two women in Africa - one sold into slavery and taken to the United States, the other married to a white man who sells enslaved people. Each woman is nuanced and fully drawn, illustrating the burden and trauma carried from generation to generation.

Transcendent Kingdom is completely different and, personally, I loved it even more. The book is told from the perspective of Gifty, a Ghanaian American woman pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience. After her brother overdoses and her mother falls into a deep depression, Gifty becomes obsessed with understanding the illnesses that have led to the disintegration of her family. Her need for logic and order is often at odds with her evangelical upbringing. This book is a vital exploration of mental health, science, faith, and race in this country. And Gifty’s narrative voice still sticks with me.


Writers & Lovers by Lily King

I loved Writers & Lovers. I loved everything about it. Casey, Lily King’s protagonist, is one of the most authentic characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of spending time with - and she is far from the only authentically drawn character in this vibrant cast of writers, children, and servers. Despite her financial troubles, Casey is incapable of being anything other than herself - a writer. This is a book about love and grief and I thought it was perfect. 


Deacon King King by James McBride

This is the book. 

Deacon King Kong is so good. James McBride is a master storyteller. From the first page to the last, he never lets up. Every single character - and there are a lot - no matter the size of their role in the larger narrative, is fully realized. This book, like life, has everything. It’s funny, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and unflinchingly honest in its dissection of a Brooklyn neighborhood in 1969. 

If you like The Wire, you’ll love this book. 

If you’re not sure what to get for one of the readers on your list, chances are, they’ll love this one. 


On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is one of my favorite writers and On Beauty is one of my favorite books. Written in 2005, this novel could just as easily have been written yesterday. Her themes are relevant to current conversations about free speech on campus, liberal and conservative ideology, and race and class in the United States and Britain. Her characters are full and strong and defy neat categorization. This book exposed hypocrisy in my own liberal beliefs, challenged perceptions I had about the intersection of race and class, and made me laugh a lot. It is satire at its finest, and though I read it a few years ago, I still think about the ending often. 


The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe

The Knockout Queen deals with the heavier things: socioeconomic disparity, the effects of mass incarceration on a micro level, sexuality, bullying, and corruption. Through it all, Rufi Thorpe shines a spotlight on the unlikely friendship of Michael, our narrator, and Bunny Lampert, a six foot tall, blond teenager with dreams of the Olympics. Michael lives next door to Bunny's mansion in a small, run-down home owned by his aunt. Bunny's father is a corrupt real estate agent who has been bribing, lying, and cheating his way to the top. Their already scant adolescent idealism is tested as Bunny makes a decision, in defense of Michael, that alters the course of their lives. Micheal's narration is sharp, witty, honest, and unflinching. His love for Bunny is palpable. Ultimately, The Knockout Queen is a beautiful story of friendship and fighting for the things, and people, you believe in.