School started this week in Georgia, and like quite a few students this year, this 42-year old is learning outside of the classroom from her home. Okay, so my reading assignments aren’t quite Catcher in the Rye, the Great Gatsby and Madame Bovary like in Mrs. Tomblin’ 10th grade American Literature or Mrs. Epperson’s AP Literature class, but I still enjoy a well-written novel, and even the occasional non-fiction.
I have been reading quite a bit the last few years, almost as much as I read in college. Since I started a new job in April, I’ve devoted an hour a day to reading, maybe a half hour during lunch, and at least a half hour before I go to sleep. Some days, I log half a book. Unlike previous jobs, my new job requires me to be in front of a computer all day, and my side gig, which usually has me on my feet at Crate & Barrel, has me doing phone support at home, you guessed it, on my computer. The welcome break of a real page-turning book can be rather enticing on those 12 hour screen days.
This summer’s reading list was filled with historical fiction, a few Reese’s Book Club picks, a couple of non-fiction picks by well-known Americans, and my new favorite genre, Indian female authors. I had read Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows and The Unlikely Adventures of The Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal last year, so I have been wanting to read her earlier works, Inheritance and Sugarbread for some time now.
Inheritance follows a Punjabi family that lives in Singapore from the 1970s through the 1990s. As Singapore gains its independence from Britain, Amrit and her family discover secrets about each other and gain their own independence through rather painful journeys. Jaswal addresses some heady topics that most Indian families refuse to acknowledge even exist in their culture, much less their own families, and especially in the time period that this book is set.
Continuing the voyage of Indian authors, next up was Alka Joshi and her debut novel, the Henna Artist. This book combines two things I love: books by Indian female authors and historical fiction. Joshi chose a newly independent India in the 1950s, when my grandparents would have been raising their children. Her protagonist, Lakshmi, has a horrible secret past, but a bright future as a well-regarded henna artist to the wealthy Indian elite. We are led through magnificent estates of Jaipur, as well as its back alleys as we follow Lakshmi and wonder if her past will catch up with her.
The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey also depicts a strong-willed female lead, but we never know her true name, but we choose to go with the name she has chosen for herself, Kamala. Like Lakshmi, Kamala has a past she is hoping to avoid, and she is in constant fear that her rather comfortable lifestyle (compared to what she grew up with) will be taken away once her secret is discovered. Set during British colonial rule before and during World War II, The Sleeping Dictionary offers a glimpse of what life was like for Indians that were fighting a war on two fronts: women for their own freedom, and Indians’ freedom for their own country.
Leaving India and heading just off the British coast to Guernsey, but staying in the World War II time period is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The book is set after the war ends, but with flashbacks to when the Germans occupied Guernsey Island, and the hardships its residents endured. The format of the book, letters written between the main character, Juliet, her editor, friends, and the Guernsey Island residents, takes awhile to get used to, but it allows you to get a firsthand perspective of each character’s experiences.
Staying in the World War II era again, I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, based on the recommendations of a Facebook group I belong to. Based on a true story, the main character is tasked with tattooing the numbers of each camp prisoner. While performing this unimaginable job, he meets and falls in love with a fellow prisoner. The idea that even in the most desolate of places, love can find a way, provide hope, and maybe survive the torture the concentration camps inflicted? I didn’t think it was possible to put it into words, but this book accomplished that.
Like with many other books I read, Ribbons of Scarlet is historical fiction, centered around strong female characters. What is different about this book is that it was co-authored by six women, and each woman wrote a character’s story, and each story was interwoven with the others. Set during the French revolution, we meet women of various, including a writer, a revolutionary leader, a teacher, a princess, a politician’s wife who is the better politician, and a courtesan’s daugher. We all know how the revolution ended, but we never hear or read about the role women played in many of these histories, because history was written by men for far too long. If you like this angle, be sure to check out America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton, about Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter and Eliza Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s wife, respectively. Both books were co-authored by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, two of the six authors responsible for Ribbons of Scarlet.
Speaking of never hearing about the women who propped men up, ever heard of Mileva Einstein? I didn’t, other than a footnote in a Wikipedia entry, and maybe one line in a history or physics text in high school. The first Mrs. Einstein overcame crazy odds to achieve what she did even before she met Einstein, including the only female in the classroom, an ethnicity that wasn’t always welcoming where she studied and worked, as well as health and medical issues. Mileva was an integral part of Albert’s research, so much so that he granted her the Nobel Prize winnings as part of their divorce agreement. I always regarded Einstein as a genius, but I now question, who was The Real Genius?
Another recommendation from the Facebook book club, I could not put down The Vanishing Half. It usually takes me a week to read a book, and I think I finished this one in two days. The book follows biracial twin girls in 1950s rural Louisiana to the 1990s as they take very different paths, one choosing to “pass” as white, and the other choosing to return home with her obviously black daughter. The Vanishing Half examines the racial matters of being biracial, the choices you make, and society’s perspective on your choices. While the book is powerful on its own, I was reading it while Black Lives Matters protests took place right outside my window, so it struck an even deeper chord with me in 2020. HBO feels the same way, because they are making The Vanishing Half into a miniseries.
Speaking of miniseries, I probably would have never read Celeste Ng without Reese’s Book Club, and her production company creating the Hulu miniseries starring herself and Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere. While I thoroughly enjoyed her second novel, I loved Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told you even more. Both novels touch on social issues and racial tensions, but each story approaches them from different angles, and the characters and storylines couldn’t be more different. In Little Fires Everywhere, a seemingly perfect family in a seemingly perfectly-planned Shaker Heights, Ohio have their lives turned upside down when an artistic mother and daughter with their own secrets show up and form friendships with the Richardson family members and in turn, each reveal the others’ secrets. Everything I Never Told You incorporates flashbacks in the lives of the Lee family members, including the disappearance of the daughter Lydia, a mysterious disappearing act by the mother, Marilyn, years before, and how these major life events affected the Lee family. Ng inserts you as the reader into these families’ lives and tells twisted tales of what happen in seemingly perfect lives of American families.
If there is one author in this group who keeps churning out page turning drama that any American woman can identify with, it’s Emily Giffin. I had the pleasure of meeting her and seeing her speak at the Atlanta History Center a few years ago, and love following her Instagram, especially since she lives here in Atlanta. Her books have strong, female protagonists, like many of the books I mention today, but this character, much like Rachel in her inaugural work, Something Borrowed, is forced to choose between doing the right thing, and what feels better to her. The book is set during the time period before, during and after 9/11, with Cecily reeling from a breakup, and meeting a man who seems to good to be true. The only constant in Giffin’s books is the female protagonist who is at a crossroads in her life, but isn’t that what we all want to read about? It is refreshing to see an author who can write novels that cover serious topics, but still easy to read, and the plots are never predictable (I’m looking at you Stuart Woods, James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks and Mary Higgins Clark, may she rest in peace). Keep cranking them out, Emily!
My fall reading list includes these gems, all recommendations from several Facebook reading groups and Goodreads lists of friends. What are you reading these days that you would recommend to friends?