Saturday, August 20, 2016

friends, here are some books i read

Friends and books: two of my favorite things. I like to read with friends, about friends, talk about reading with friends. Today, as I play catch up on blogging books I've read, I see a theme and I'm going with it. These books reminded me of how good writing will sound to you like a friend's voice, how friendship will inspire our reading choices, how good friends will give good books, and how one of the most enduring stories we will tell is how we found our friends.

This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff

Well-known memoir by a widely-loved writer. I read it on the way to the writing conference I went to back in April because I knew he'd be speaking, and because I found it for five dollars at a used bookstore a few weeks before. The book was good. Here is my favorite quote: All my life I had recognized almost at a glance those who were meant to be my friends, and they have recognized me. Yes.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

About a week after my birthday, I came home to a mystery Amazon package on my doorstep. It looked like books. I got excited. In it was this book and another - both books I'd been wanting to read. They were sent by my sister. The woman gets me, even if she doesn't often understand me (which is probably the case a lot of the time because I can be crazy and text her a string of emojis that I expect her to interpret). That might be my new definition for friendship.

The book sat on my coffee table for two months until I decided I'd pack it for my trip to the east coast and Kenya. I started reading it in a Starbucks with my nephew. He wanted us to close our books and play cards, but I kept telling him to read another chapter so I could keep reading, too. It was good. Then I read it on the plane flying over the Atlantic, and in the van weaving in Nairobi traffic and struggling over the rocky, dusty roads that led to Maasai Mara. I read it while America was arguing with each other about why police were still killing black men and in between long looks out the window traveling around Kenya, trying to understand the country by what I could see.

I don't have the book with me (it is already lent out to a friend). If I did, I might give you a quote. Instead I will say that I loved her writing about Nigeria, and wondered what I could learn about writing about Kenya. I also loved her insights about Africans in America and how they relate to African Americans and to America in general, about what they love and what they find strange, about the ways that language and accent and hair and clothing and weight and food and love and the way air feels on skin all make moving to a different country so disorienting, and coming home, even after so many years, like encountering an old friend.

The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward

One thing I love about books of compiled stories or essays is that, if they are well-edited, reading them can feel like sitting around a table with some really smart friends. That's how this book felt. The writers invite us readers around their table to learn from them, to start a dialogue, to acknowledge our shared humanity. Each essay highlights the specific voice and experience of the writer, which makes the books feel like a collective, a community - a gathered group that, together, is something more than just the sum of its parts. My favorite themes were writing to remember and the emphasis on the physical experience of being black in America (and, really, our world).

I can't choose just one quote to share with you. Not one thought or sentiment would sum up what the book made me feel or think about. But I am still thinking about it, which is good, and I hope I will be for a while to come. Mostly, I hope what I read will stay with me and help me be a better friend to some very dear people in my life, and to people I have yet to meet.

(photo: books! though not the ones i read)

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