The Bluest Eye
I read The Bluest Eye in the eleventh grade, and it had a sense of realness that books hadn’t yet held for me. It wasn’t rooted in an awful event, which can provide comprehensibility for younger audiences. Instead, it was based on the tragedy of human experience, of the black experience in the United States. I read it again this summer when I heard that Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, had died. The Bluest Eye presents uncomfortable thoughts on how we outcast people, how we judge them without knowing who they really are, and how our words can be internalized with disastrous effects.
Pecola Breedlove, a victim of incestuous rape and abuse, of her socio-economic status, of the consequences of racism, and of colorism within the black community, is the story’s protagonist. The chapters unfold without chronology, telling the story of Cholly, an abusive husband and father to Pecola and her brother. Through flashbacks, it is apparent he has been the victim of racist emasculation in a way that, while not excusing his behavior, provides further insight into how he became an abuser.
This book is a study in gray areas, where there are multiple sides to every story, and events aren’t caused by singular factors but rather a lifetime of experiences. Pecola wants blue eyes to be pretty like the blonde, white dolls she longs for, while Pecola’s fierce friend, Claudia, destroys her white doll because she hates whiteness without yet understanding why. This story shows racism not only between white and black Americans but also within the black community, as Claudia observes that Pecola was used as a scapegoat, deemed ugly so everyone else can feel prettier. Toni Morrison was an incredible author not only because of her literary skills but also for her analysis of potentially less obvious but no less important aspects of racism.
— Inès De Miranda
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams begins with the titular character strapped into stirrups at the gynecologist’s office. This sometimes uncomfortably intimate lens defines Carty-Williams’s debut novel. Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican-British woman who lives in London and works at a national newspaper, but feels like she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. At work, she’s surrounded by white, middle-class colleagues whose experiences seem distant from her own. And within her own family, she often doesn’t feel Jamaican enough.
Following a devastating breakup, Queenie spirals into a series of self-destructive decisions. She seeks out sex as a source of comfort and validation, engaging in unhealthy and often disastrous hookups. She deals with racism, exoticism, and fetishization from romantic partners, friends, coworkers, and strangers, as she navigates a very white London in a black, female body. Queenie is left questioning her identity, forced to determine who she is apart from those around her.
“Having Queenie as the title felt so right, especially a time when black women were using the term Queen to define, express, and self-empower ourselves in a way that we haven’t typically been allowed to,” Carty-Williams said.
For most of the book, Queenie teeters on the precipice of a full-on breakdown, and when disaster after disaster finally becomes too much to handle, the repercussions are crushing. Queenie’s road to therapy is wrought with personal anxiety and familial disapproval. Queenie claws herself up from rock bottom slowly, messily, and painfully.
Carty-Williams’s prose possesses a small, descriptive beauty that confronts trauma with skill and an appropriate degree of hesitancy. Her portrayal is not unflinching; in fact, it flinches deliberately because the subject matter warrants it. The novel is both laugh-out-loud funny and cry-out-loud heart-wrenching. It’s honest, political, innovative, and important, especially within an overwhelmingly white publishing landscape. Carty-Williams forces readers to confront Queenie’s trauma along with her and ask ourselves, if we were in her situation, would we really do any different?
— Sienna Brancato
Say Nothing: A True Story Of Murder And Memory In Northern Ireland
Patrick Radden Keefe
Say Nothing, by New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe, starts with the murder of a single mother of 10, and it remains equally dark and thrilling, with periodic flecks of idealism, adventure, optimism, and romance throughout. The book chronicles a 50-year period of unrest and violence in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the present, but despite being a hefty historical undertaking, it’s not written for Irish history experts. It was my first intellectual encounter with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), The Troubles, and the Good Friday Agreement, and I devoured it.
The first two sections of Say Nothing are fast-paced and gripping—they read like a murder mystery novel with a complex web of complicit characters. But the last section, titled “A Reckoning,” forces the reader to face the sober aftermath of revolution uncommonly addressed in fiction. The victims of The Troubles and their families evoke sorrow and sympathy, but perhaps even more tragic is the futility of their involuntary sacrifice. The Good Friday Agreement brought peace, but it didn’t grant Northern Ireland independence from the British government, leaving once idealistic former IRA members burdened with the guilt of the means they employed for ends never to be attained.
As a journalist, Keefe doesn’t take a side, and neither should the reader, if only for how confusing it could get. The conflict’s complexity, combined with the author’s meticulous reporting, makes many of the book’s characters difficult to pigeonhole into categories of good or evil. It’s hard not to admire IRA member Dolours Price’s aspirations for justice, just as it’s impossible not to recoil in horror at the measures she takes to achieve them. There are no sweeping judgments to be made in Say Nothing because every chapter brings a new ethical dilemma. Does a double agent deserve mercy? Are a few deaths by hunger strike worth the political gains that result? Should 10 children be orphaned because their mother is an informant? This is what makes the book so captivating—the historical account serves as a vehicle for the moral questions that plague us all.
— Lizz Pankova
Red, White, & Royal Blue
Published in May of this year, Red, White & Royal Blue quickly became a summertime sensation. This romantic comedy follows Alex Claremont-Diaz, the son of the United States president, and Henry, Prince of Wales. Following a disastrous encounter at a royal wedding, the two are forced into a fake friendship in order to salvage relations between their respective countries. With time, they begin to realize they have more in common than they ever could have imagined, and their tabloid friendship evolves into a secret romance.
With his mom running for her second term and his senior year at Georgetown University coming to a close, the last thing Alex expects is for a stuffy prince to make him question not only his own sexuality but also his life goals. Living under the pressure of the Crown, Henry is constantly pretending to be the perfect prince.
Red, White & Royal Blue is a heartwarming, and gripping story about the power of love and friendship. The political backdrop makes the story stand out, as issues of race and sexuality are explored on a larger, more complicated scale. Furthermore, every character is developed and unique enough to deserve their own novel.
Henry and Alex complement each other perfectly with their love for their countries and their passion for knowledge. Henry soothes Alex’s nervous energy while Alex supports Henry during his darker moods. Their love for each other is powerful enough to change not only their own lives but the minds of people across the world. Alex says it best, “History, huh? Bet we could make some.” Impossible to put down and filled to the brim with romance and laughter, Red, White & Royal Blue is the perfect summer read. It is binge-able, re-readable and, most of all, loveable.
— Samantha Tritt
Where The Crawdads Sing
A glowing addition to Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club list, Where the Crawdads Sing was recommended to me for its riveting motifs: nature, feminism, and murder. Owens’s descriptions of the Carolina coastline and wildlife make for a beautiful backdrop to an otherwise haunting tale. The story follows Kya Clark, the Marsh Girl, through her upbringing and abandonment in a swamp near a small town in North Carolina. She lives off of the land and mostly keeps to herself, but that doesn’t stop the locals from pointing fingers at her when the town’s sweetheart, Chase Andrew, is found dead in the marsh.
Despite its focus on ecology and biology, this book is about love: the care Kya didn’t receive from her family, her deep reverence for nature, and her love affairs with two boys from town. One love breaks her heart and the other leads to an inexplicable death that puts Kya on the stand in a biased and speculative trial. Because Kya is a social outcast, she’s already disliked by many of the townsfolk and the perfect person to blame for the loss of Andrews. She’s an enigma to them—and to the readers.
This is the kind of book that readers can’t put down until they’ve finished it. It’s the perfect quick and easy read, but when the mystery is finally solved, it will leave the audience wishing for just one more page. Kya keeps her secrets buried deep within the marsh, but they slowly unravel, bubbling out of the mud, sand, and water and onto the pages of Owens’s book.
— Brynn Furey
Daisy Jones & The Six
Taylor Jenkins Reid
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s latest release, Daisy Jones & the Six, follows the rise and fall of the fictional rock band of the same name during the late ’60s and mid-’70s. The story weaves together interviews with band members and other important figures into a complex oral history. The details differ slightly as the interviews flip between accounts, and long stretches of recollection are interspersed with short snippets from other band members, sometimes supporting the account, and other times directly contradicting it. This writing style creates a multifaceted narrative that conveys much more than a simple record of events. This book lends itself beautifully to audiobook format with a full cast recording that will enchant even the most stubbornly traditional readers.
Throughout this wild ride, Reid delves into addiction, femininity, heartbreak, love, and music. Reid includes song lyrics throughout the narrative, which help to further explain the emotions of the characters during certain scenes without breaking the momentum of the story. The main plot follows the dynamic between lead singer Billy Dunn and promising new artist Daisy Jones. Though all the characters are well developed, Daisy’s bold, brilliant, and unapologetically authentic self could have carried the entire book. She is far from perfect, but her flaws and struggles make the story impactful. Addiction, something with which both Billy and Daisy struggle, is a huge part of the book. The various perspectives and self-reflective attitude of the writing allow Reid to explore the negative effects of drug use and the glamorization of addiction prevalent within the music industry during the time period.
The rich atmosphere and complex story-telling format make it hard to remember that the band isn’t real. Though there was no Daisy Jones or The Six, the powerful impact of their story is no less palpable.
— Samantha Tritt
The Nickel Boys
Fresh on the heels of his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead has returned with The Nickel Boys, a beautifully written yet sobering novel set during the height of the 1960s civil rights movement. The racial brutality described throughout the novel, however, is reminiscent of the antebellum years, a reminder of the legacy of slavery that has managed to linger and permeate to the present day.
The Nickel Boys tells the story of Elwood Curtis, a forward-thinking black teenager from segregated Tallahassee, Florida, who becomes enamored by the heroism of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Elwood finds himself sentenced to attend the Nickel Academy, a corrupt, state-funded institution meant to reform young boys and men. Here, Elwood meets fellow “classmate” Turner, a boy familiar with the dark secrets of Nickel, and finds his ideal vision for peaceful revolution clashing with survival in the predatory and discriminatory criminal justice system. The novel follows the journey of Elwood and his friends, and the violence and trauma it spawns soaks each page with revelatory weight.
Yet, the most disturbing aspect of the novel is the reality it reflects. The setting is based on the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in the Florida Panhandle that shut its doors a mere eight years ago after torrents of abuse allegations, both historic and recent. Whitehead’s fictional depiction of the school makes the discovery of the graves of over 100 boys, which shocked forensic anthropologists from the University of South Florida in 2011, disgusting yet not unexpected. The Nickel Boys delves deep into predation and abuse in a place where white supremacy reigns free. In doing so, it forces the audience to question the institutions that surround us, and puts in conflict our generation’s own idealism and the reality of the racialized society that we have inherited and continue to perpetuate.
— Ryan Mazalatis