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  • Jeff Somers 7:30 pm on 2017/05/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , diaries, , , must-reads,   

    10 Hilarious, Remarkable, and Poignant Moments in David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding 

    The humor of David Sedaris is often so understated it feels perfectly naturalistic, as if he’s simply making up droll anecdotes off the top of his head. But Sedaris worked at his craft for decades, and often despaired of ever succeeding at the writing game.

    This struggle is at the center of Sedaris’ new book, Theft by Finding, a collection literally taken from the diaries he has kept for more than forty years. Unvarnished, these entries offer up plenty of interesting and funny moments, some of which also serve as launchpads for his famous essays. Here are just ten moments in Theft by Finding (which ends in 2002, with a second volume to follow) that are alternatively hilarious, touching, and thought-provoking.

    Rapid-Fire Wit
    In the introduction, Sedaris interrupts a thoughtful rumination on the process of keeping a diary: “The point is to find out who you are and to be true to that person. Because so often you can’t. Won’t people turn away if they know the real me? you wonder. That me that hates my own child, that put my perfectly healthy dog to sleep? The me who thinks, deep down, that maybe The Wire was overrated?”

    At the bottom of the page, a footnote addresses what Sedaris hilariously imagines is the gravest sin admitted to in that paragraph: “I do not think The Wire was overrated.”

    The Banality of Evil
    Sedaris encounters all manner of freaks, weirdos, and oddballs, especially during his penniless days working odd jobs and obsessing over money. He never fails to make these moments count by injecting them with sophisticated humor. “Jews in concentration camps had shaved heads and tattoos,” he writes at one point about a skinhead in Chicago, “you’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.”

    Mistakes, He’s Made a Few
    One of the most remarkable aspects of reading Sedaris’ diary entries is how much we already know about his low moments and bad habits. Early on, in one of the first glimpses of his drug-fueled youth, he writes “Todd and I each took three hits of sugar cube acid. Too much. It was a real bad trip, like torture, enough to turn someone into a Christian.”

    The Time Machine
    Another fascinating aspect of Theft by Finding is literally traveling back in time through Sedaris’ writing. This comes through as both throwaway lines that remind us of zeitgeists past (“No matter where you go, you cannot escape the Bee Gees”) and devastating moments that call to mind what we have survived (in July 1981, Sedaris writes, “There is a new cancer that strikes only homosexual men. I heard about it on the radio tonight.”)

    The Heartbreak Kid
    Part of Sedaris’ appeal is the sad-sack aspect of his persona; he encounters the sort of terrible people we’re all far too familiar with—and he manages to turn his anger and hurt into savage humor, as in this line about a duplicitous lover named Brant he meets as a young man: “During sex he kept telling me that he loved me and wanted to get married, presumably in the next five weeks before he returns to Norfolk for the Summer.”

    He drops the hammer in the next entry: “I called the number Brant gave me, and it was made up.”

    Self-Awareness for the Win
    While it’s possible these entries have been edited and massaged more than we know, they remain remarkably clear-eyed. After the subject of attempting sobriety after being “drunk every night for the past eighteen years” comes up, Sedaris adds in this two-sentence entry: “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.”

    Days of Future Past
    It’s thrilling when kernels of Sedaris’ formal work pop up in his diaries—you can almost see the wheels turning, as when he alludes to his time at SantaLand: “Yesterday a woman had her son pee into a cup, which of course tipped over. ‛That’s fine,’ I said, ‛but Santa’s also going to need a stool sample.’”

    Substance Humor
    The diary never treats Sedaris’ drinking and drug abuse in a melodramatic way, and it’s often the source of some of the book’s funniest bits, as when he describes the suffering of a hungover friend: “You’d think an adult would know better: beer on wine, you’re fine. Wine on beer, stand clear. But eleven Prosecco cocktails should not precede anything, not even a twelfth.”
    These are, it goes without saying, words to live by.

    Full Heart
    It’s not all jokes and skinheads; Sedaris also celebrates life’s incredible moments along the way, as when he first meets his future husband, Hugh: “I…got him to say that he hated me, which usually means the opposite….When I turned around to look at him, I saw that he’d turned around as well. It was romantic.”

    Simple Hilarity
    No matter how serious life gets, though, Sedaris can’t help but be funny, so let’s just include three random moments of hilarity we loved:

    “Talked to Rodrigo, who uses camebackir as a verb meaning ‛to come back.’ Nosotros comebackamos. ‛We come back.’”

    “Tiffany…is living in Queens and selling cocaine to make money. Before this she worked at Macy’s for a Belgian chocolate company. I think hers is what you call a checkered career.”

    “It turned out they were a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is better than being a pair of thieves, but still.”

    Theft by Finding is a surprising and unique work, the raw experiences of one of our most accomplished humorists and writers laid bare for our amusement and inspection. It’s also almost novelistic in the story of a life that it paints, slowly revealing themes, recurring characters, and a narrative drive that mirrors Sedaris’ development as a human being and an artist. In a word, it’s terrific.

    Shop all literary biography >

    The post 10 Hilarious, Remarkable, and Poignant Moments in David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Monique Alice 6:00 pm on 2016/04/22 Permalink
    Tags: biggest books, , may reads, must-reads   

    May Fiction: A Month of Must-Reads 

    Spring is here! Whether the sun is shining or it’s pouring buckets, there is something about the newness of the season that makes us hungry for fresh fiction. Whatever your pleasure, May has it—from light and airy beach reads to spy novels to books about enduring friendship. So, find a park bench, a porch swing, or a cozy window seat and dive into one of the below sure-to-please releases hitting the stands this month.

    Everybody’s Fool, by Richard Russo   
    If this book’s title looks a little familiar to you, it’s probably because it’s the sequel to the 1993 smash hit Nobody’s Fool. The residents of the blink-and-you-miss-it town of North Bath, New York are back at it again with their haphazard antics. Unlike the first novel, Everybody’s Fool features well-meaning malcontent Sully Sullivan as a side character instead of the main event. This time around, it’s earnest Chief of Police Doug Raymer who’s the star of the show. This is great news for readers, since Raymer does hilarious things like accidentally print, “We’re Not Happy Until You’re Not Happy” on his campaign buttons. Between multiple lightning strikes, a venomous snake on the loose, and a grave robbery, Raymer’s got his hands full. On top of all that, he’s struggling to solve the mystery of whatever his wife was up to before she met her maker after a tragic fall down the stairs. Complete with Russo’s trademark witty banter, familiar small town personas, and finely tuned mix of gallows humor and optimism, Everybody’s Fool is everything we could have hoped for in a great sequel.

    A Hero of France, by Alan Furst    
    It’s 1941 in Nazi-occupied France—the shutters are drawn, food is scarce, and the puppet government in Vichy does the Reich’s merciless bidding. In these stifling, oppressive conditions, heroes must rise to release France from the chains of occupation. Enter freedom fighter Mathieu who, along with his network of spies and allies, will risk everything to restore liberty to his country. Author Alan Furst is well known by espionage addicts everywhere and it’s easy to see why—his attention to detail and flair for suspense bring the peril of the past to vivid life. Some have even called Furst this generation’s le Carré, but you can decide for yourself.

    The Apartment: A Novel, by Danielle Steel    
    Claire, Abby, Morgan, and Sasha are as different as could be, but all share one thing in common—their deep, abiding friendship with one another. Okay, actually they share two things. The other is a gorgeous, light-filled, exposed brick-laden fourth-floor walk-up in the heart of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The women have lived there for nine years, and they have all the memories to prove it. They’ve fallen into a predictable routine—grocery shopping for one another,  and sharing bills, heartbreak, career achievements, and bottles of wine. Until, that is, circumstances conspire to shake their workaday lives to the core. Like all Danielle Steel novels, this one lulls you into a languorous repose before yanking the rug out from under you, and the resulting tumble is as enjoyable as ever.

    All Summer Long, by Dorothea Benton Frank    
    Olivia and Nicholas have been happily married for 14 years. As the pair get ready to embark on the next phase of their lives, born-and-bred New Yorker Olivia begins to question their plans to move South. Luckily, she has a whole summer to think it over—a summer that she and her husband happen to be spending island-hopping through the Atlantic with some ultra-wealthy cronies. Gorgeous villas, sand-swept beaches, and sparkling ocean vistas form the backdrop for this glamorous tale. As if that weren’t enough, Benton Frank’s alternately dry wit and warm humor conspire to make this book a must-have for your spring reading list.

    The Weekenders, by Mary Kay Andrews   
    Want to get a jump on your summer reading list? You’ll be happy to know the author of Beach Town is back at it with another sun-and-surf thriller. If you’d like your next poolside page-turner to have equal parts humor and danger, look no further than The Weekenders. The action starts when Riley Griggs, a longtime summer resident of Belle Isle, North Carolina, goes to meet her “weekender” husband as he comes off the ferry one Friday afternoon. Only, much to her surprise, Riley is met instead by a process server who thrusts divorce papers into her bewildered hands. Riley immediately knows that something has gone very wrong, and she will need to call in every favor she’s got coming to her in order to get to the bottom of it. The resulting goose chase will keep you riveted to the pages until well after sundown. By the end, you just might be seeing idyllic little beach towns in a totally new (and less than flattering) light.

    Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub    
    What happens to cool kids when they grow up? That is the question Emma Straub poses in this slice of post-hipster Brooklyn life. Elizabeth, Andrew, Lydia, and Zoe were the coolest of the cool back in college in the ‘90s—and they had the angsty alternative band to prove it. Now, though, Elizabeth and Andrew are married with a teen son, Harry, and Zoe is married with a teen daughter, Ruby. After buying out the other band members, Lydia rocketed to fame on one of the band’s tracks before her sudden rockstar’s death. When some Hollywood-types appear wanting the remaining band members to sign off on a movie made about Lydia’s rise and fall, old tensions resurface among the trio. As teenagers do, Harry and Ruby manage to get themselves into trouble while their parents are reliving and rehashing their own youthful dramas. Modern Lovers has its finger squarely on the pulse of Gen X’s coming of (middle) age, and Millennials attempts to make their own mark on the world.

    The Island House, by Nancy Thayer
    If you or someone you know is involved in a lifelong love affair with Nantucket, The Island House is practically required reading. Be prepared to fall for the island all over again when you experience its allure through the eyes of Courtney, a 29-year-old Midwesterner who returns to Nantucket every summer. Just as she does every year, Courtney comes to spend time with her college bestie, Robin. Robin’s large family hosts a passel of familiar summer visitors each year, dubbed the “Summer Children” by the family’s matriarch, Susanna. Only, this summer, things get a little complicated. The quaint-yet-iconic setting of Nantucket forms the backdrop for a story about love, loss, hometown values, and lifelong friendships. Thayer weaves her trademark light-hearted tone together with poignant material, and the result is a fun yet touching read.

    LaRose, by Louise Erdrich
    If you’re itching for a book you can sink your teeth into, you can always bet on Louise Erdrich to deliver. Erdrich is renowned for her ability to ensnare her audience with heartrending prose and tough questions. Her newest novel is no exception. LaRose is the story of tragedy on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, when a native man named Landreaux accidentally takes a life. Haunted by his mistake, Landreaux seeks to set things right in an unorthodox way that will change the course of two families forever. As is par for the course for Erdrich, she cleverly juxtaposes the serious with the frivolous and the profound with the quotidien, producing a rich tapestry of human experience that is pure magic. Like her other novels, LaRose is a story that is impossible to forget.

    Britt-Marie Was Here: A Novel, by Fredrik Backman   
    Britt-Marie is a fastidious woman of a certain age who has recently been saddled with the odious task of leaving her good-for-nothing husband of several decades. Escaping her loveless marriage in a somewhat unimpressive small town, Britt-Marie is forced to become a bit more flexible than she bargained for. This happens quite a bit, in fact—perhaps most notably when Britt-Marie, a woman who considers a disorganized silverware drawer to be a mortal sin, must suddenly contend with a rodent for a roomie. Even more unbearable to Britt-Marie is when she finds herself in the unenviable position of coaching a kids’ soccer team, despite the fact that she has no desire to do so. What follows is a story about how kindness has the power to turn strangers into friends—and can soften even the most hardened heart.

    Flight Patterns, by Karen White
    It’s easy to see why Karen White is often called the “Queen of Southern Fiction.” Her work is often tender, sometimes wry, and always unapologetically grand. Flight Patterns hits all of White’s trademarks and more when it introduces us to sisters, Georgia and Maisy, and their mother, Birdie. The three women each have their own perspective on the ties that bind the family together, as well as the rifts that threaten to divide them. Now, the three must set aside their differences if they are ever to solve their family’s most troubling mystery, as well as to heal the wounds that have plagued the family’s legacy for so long. This is truly a story in which laughter soothes heartache and warmth triumphs over sorrow—it’s enough to renew a reader’s faith in second chances.

    What are you looking forward to reading in May?

     
  • Whitney Collins 5:00 pm on 2016/03/03 Permalink
    Tags: , , , must-reads, , , wiseguys   

    Shelf Improvement: Books to Improve Your Life and Library: Quintessential Wiseguys Edition 

    Shelf Improvement is a column highlighting books guaranteed to improve your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey. The theme of this installment is “Quintessential Wiseguys.”

    Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain
    Love him or hate him, Anthony Bourdain is indeed a wise guy AND a wiseguy—the culinary world’s irreverent, sarcastic, and brilliant iconoclast. Once the executive chef at the renowned Les Halles, Bourdain is now a globe-trotting, f-bomb-dropping television personality best known for traveling to lesser-known locales and consuming their most obscure concoctions, such as seal eyeballs, living cobras, insects, and testicles, not to mention gallons of regional hooch. 

    A connoisseur of punk rock and hard drugs, Bourdain has his blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, is a champion of both Julia Child and America’s immigrant cooks, and absolutely despises ABBA, celebrity chefs, Chicken McNuggets, and vegans. All that said, this former two-pack-a-day smoker is perhaps as adept at writing as he is at cooking and offending. He’s written eight literary wonders, published countless articles, and now oversees his own publishing line at HarperCollins, which acquires a few eccentric titles each year. 

    However, the jewel in this bad boy’s cockeyed crown is arguably his riveting Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. First published in 2000, this literary knockout holds no punches as it lays bare the real, raw, and riotous story of the restaurant world. From rampant substance abuse and disgusting sanitation practices to bacchanalian times in Tokyo and unapologetic industry backstabbing, this insanely funny (and surprisingly self-effacing) masterpiece is equal parts foul and fetching. You can’t help but adore its macho ruthlessness and loosely veiled sentimentality.

    The book begins somewhat tenderly with Bourdain’s first introduction to “real food” (when he discovers vichyssoise on a family trip to France), but by the second chapter—titled “Food is Sex”—things quickly devolve into the raunchy, spellbinding side of a budding chef’s life. And good luck putting the book down after that. With chapter titles like “Inside the CIA,” “Bigfoot,” “I Make My Bones,” and “What I Know About Meat,” you can rest assured Bourdain is here to entertain you straight through to the afterword. 

    Kitchen Confidential is particularly unique in its reach; I can think of no other book so expressly written for those deep within an industry’s trenches that is simultaneously so accessible to the layman. If you possess an ounce of curiosity about the people who cook your food and what makes them tick, this book is a must-read-in-one-day. (Some advice from someone who learned the hard way: buy several copies; those close to you would rather read it themselves than have you quote the entire thing aloud.)

    Born Standing Upby Steve Martin
    Steve Martin is best known for his distinctive standup comedy style and stellar acting career, while also revered for his Bluegrass banjo playing, for which he has acquired two Grammys. But Martin is also a wry and elegant writer, whose body of work includes humor pieces for The New Yorker, several plays, and the funny, poignant novellas Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company

    However, Martin is at his most honest (achingly and charmingly so) in his autobiography, Born Standing Up. This touching and candid life story chronicles his standup years—how he got started, what made him a singular sensation, and why he ultimately walked away from all of it, even though, by 1978, he was considered the biggest concert draw in the history of stage comedy. 

    Born Standing Up begins with Martin’s first job, at the age of 10, at Disneyland, where he sold guidebooks and perfected a variety of classic magic tricks. Readers soon learn of his strained relationship with his father, his struggles with hypochondria and anxiety, and his desire to study and dissect philosophy in college—a passion that eventually underscored all of his comedy routines. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine Martin once described how he wondered in one of his psychology classes, “What if there were no punchlines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometimes. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punchline, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.”

    This philosophical approach to comedy ultimately made Martin’s routine not only completely authentic but utterly groundbreaking. It was both weird and genius, and because of that, his audiences could not get enough of it…or him. This unexpected pressure to consistently perform, interact with adoring fans, and somehow handle fame though truly a closet introvert—combined with his dedication to perfection—explain why Martin eventually bid it all farewell for quieter, and less public, pursuits. 

    If you’re interested in the private world of comedy’s original wild and crazy guy, Born Standing Up is a quietly epic memoir meant for your shelf. And there’s no better time to reconnect with this classic wiseguy; in March his first musical, Bright Star, debuts on Broadway, proving there’s still nothing he can’t do.

    Naked, by David Sedaris
    By now everyone everywhere knows who David Sedaris is, right? I mean, how could you be reading this and not be familiar with the unparalleled wit and weirdness of this charming, Greek Orthodox, gay humor writer from Raleigh, North Carolina, who dropped out of Kent State and rose to fame after he wrote of his experience working as a Macy’s Christmas Elf in New York City? Surely you haven’t missed out on all THAT.

    So, as predictable as it may seem to put Sedaris on a must-read list for quintessential wiseguys, there’s no way he doesn’t make the cut. And in my opinion, of all of his laugh-until-you-cry tour de forces, Naked holds up as his finest collection of genius to date—partly because it features the unbelievable essay “C.O.G.” and partly because it’s one of his longest books. Trust me: you never want them to end.

    Naked gives readers 17 whip-smart essays that are equally hysterical and poignant, ridiculous and dark. There’s the one about his childhood Tourette’s and OCD. The one about kicking his grandmother out of the house and into a nursing home. The one about the pornographic book that circulates though his family. And the one where his father blinds someone. Of course, there are also the ones about his sister’s menstruation, the Christmas whore, the handicapped dormitory, and the nudist colony. To say nothing of the one where his mother dies.

    And then there’s “C.O.G.” Oh, “C.O.G.” If you need to have your literary mind blown, if you need to have the heartiest laugh you will ever have, you must read “C.O.G.” In this essay (which has since been made into a movie by the same name), Sedaris describes a profanity-laden cross-country bus trip that results in hilarious and horrific work as an apple picker, a dodged sexual encounter in a trailer with a man named Curly, and an outrageous meet-up with a born-again Christian double amputee who makes jade clocks in the shape of Oregon. As you can imagine, these escapades culminate in one exceptionally original and outlandish tale—one that offers a darkly humorous and ultimately moving look at America’s most pitiful weirdos.

    If this overview of just one of the 17 essays doesn’t pique your interest, I’m afraid nothing will, but you should have Naked in your library anyway. All exaggeration aside, it is easily one of—if not the—greatest collections of comedy writing ever.

     
  • Jen Harper 4:00 pm on 2016/03/03 Permalink
    Tags: girl on the train, , must-reads, , , , ,   

    Loved The Girl on the Train? Here are 6 New Books to Read Next 

    Yes, yes, we know. You know. Everybody and their great aunt knows. If you liked Gillian Flynn’s dark and suspenseful Gone Girl, then you have to read Paula Hawkins’s page-turner The Girl on the Train—and vice versa. But you likely knocked out both of those books before the calendar flipped over to 2016. So what now?

    You can’t just go around and around reading these two admittedly awesome books for the rest of your days, pretending you don’t anticipate the plot twists, and you’ve likely read a readalike or two since you first devoured them. So to keep the twists coming, we’ve rounded up some recent and upcoming releases that are musts for any The Girl on the Train superfan.

    Maestra, by L.S. Hilton
    Maestra, out April 19, marks the first in a new trilogy from author L.S. Hilton—and as it’s already been optioned for film by Columbia Pictures, you know it’s going to be buzzworthy. This sexy psychological thriller stars cynical narrator Judith Rashleigh, an assistant at a London art auction house by day, a hostess at a seedy club by night, and a high-class escort on her nights off. After getting fired from the art house for discovering a dark secret, she agrees to accompany one of the club’s biggest clients to the French Riviera—where he ends up the victim of a fatal accident. Judith must flee, while faking it among the rich and famous in this unpredictable new page-turner.

    Try Not to Breathe, by Holly Seddon
    Alex Dale and Amy Stevenson are both stuck, but in very different ways, in Seddon’s debut thriller. Alex is an alcoholic, having lost her husband, a baby, and her journalism job to addiction. She’s working on a freelance writing assignment when she meets Amy, who spent 15 years in a coma—conscious but paralyzed—following an attack by an older man when she was just 15 years old. Perspectives alternate between Alex, as she tries to solve the mystery of what happened to Amy and resurrect her own reporting career; Amy, as she relives the past and remains physically trapped in her present; and Jacob, Amy’s boyfriend at the time of the attack, who carries guilt about what happened to her. This well-paced tale takes some dark twists and turns, keeping readers guessing until the very end.

    The Widow, by Fiona Barton
    Barton’s debut asks a harrowing question: What would you do if your spouse was suspected of a horrific crime against a child? That’s precisely what Jean Taylor was faced with four years ago, when she was forced into the role of wife to a wrongly accused man. Though he was ultimately acquitted, the mystery of the little girl’s disappearance once pinned on him was never solved. Now Jean’s husband is dead, fatally struck by a bus, and reporters are trying to get the exclusive rights to her story. But what story will Jean choose to share? Suspenseful and intriguing, The Widow examines the dark secrets that can exist in a marriage.

    Second Life, by S.J. Watson
    Second Life is Watson’s second thriller, behind her bestselling Before I Go To Sleep, to offer up a thrilling mix of sex, murder, and mystery. Narrator Julia Wilding lives a comfortable, quiet life with her husband and their adopted 13-year-old son, Connor. But when Julia’s sister, Kate, is murdered in Paris, Julia becomes determined to find out what really happened—for her own sake and that of Connor, secretly Kate’s biological child. But soon Julia becomes entangled in Kate’s erotic online life, which stokes her own dark desires. Will she find out what happened to her sister, or will she lose herself in the hunt?

    All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda
    Miranda one-ups all the readers who flip to the end of a book first by starting her tale near the end of the story, and then backing up to tell the whole thing in reverse. Confused? You won’t be once you check out this gripping thriller, out June 28. It tells the story of two young women who go missing from the same rural town a decade apart. Nicolette Farrel left her hometown 10 years ago, after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared without a trace. The investigation at the time focused on suspects including Nic and the people closest to her. She’s the only one among them to have left leave their hometown, but now she’s back to care for her ill father. But when Annaleise, Nic’s neighbor and her crew’s alibi on the night of Corinne’s disappearance, goes missing herself, Nic suddenly finds herself thrown into a new mystery, as well as the ongoing mystery of what really happened to Corinne all those years ago.

    Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll
    Knoll’s bestselling debut paints a picture of a woman who has reinvented herself and left a painful, humiliating past behind. But how long can Ani FaNelli go on before her carefully resurrected facade of secrets and lies crumbles? And will it set her free or destroy her? Ani suffered as a teen at the hands of her fellow students at a prestigious private school, but now she’s re-created herself as a writer in New York with a wealthy and handsome fiancé. Then, a documentary about a violent incident at her former school brings Ani’s painful past crashing into her beautifully orchestrated present, forcing her to face some unfortunate truths in this twisty-turny thriller.

     
  • Jeff Somers 5:30 pm on 2016/02/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , luminaries, must-reads,   

    10 Must-Read Biographies of Black Americans 

    Black History Month is an ideal moment to read biographies of some of the most influential and important—yet often overlooked—black Americans, men and women who helped shape modern society but aren’t on the short list of people regularly name-checked each February. Here are 10 excellent biographies of important black Americans that will help expand your understanding of American history.

    Richard Wright
    Wright’s 1946 memoir Black Boy remains one of the most visceral reading experiences in modern literature. Recounting his childhood in the south, dominated by strict, religious women and unreliable, violent men, as well as his adult years in Chicago, Black Boy is an urgent reminder that while race relations and racism are part of the black experience in this country, they are only one component of that experience. Many of the more shocking passages in Wright’s writing were excised when originally published, and only now is the full extent of his passion and genius becoming clear, making his memoir an incredible opportunity for anyone seeking to know what it was really like to be black in America in the era before the civil rights movement.

    Thurgood Marshall
    The first black Justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall established himself as one of the best legal minds in American history long before ascending to the highest court in the country in 1967. Though he’s a deservedly famous black American, few know the larger story of the man who was born the grandson of a slave and had a hand in much of the legal battle against segregation, and whose refreshingly blunt legal philosophy was summed up in this quote: “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”

    Satchel Paige
    Satchel Paige was one of the greatest pitchers the game of baseball ever saw, but spent the first 24 years of his brilliant career in the Negro Leagues before the integration of major league baseball. When that day finally came, Paige became the oldest rookie in MLB history at the age of 41 and pitched five years in the majors, not counting a stunt game he pitched in 1965 at the age of 58. Paige was a master, an athlete who literally had every known pitch in his repertoire and who invented the famous “Hesitation” windup that made him almost unhittable. Paige’s one professional regret was that he didn’t get to pitch to Babe Ruth—a matchup any baseball fan wishes had happened, but which was impossible because of the racial divide of the times.

    Frederick Douglass
    Frederick Douglass may be remembered as a figure in your school history books, but he was a fascinating and courageous man, an escaped slave who worked publicly to see the institution abolished and served as a stark corrective to his era’s belief that African Americans were not the intellectual equals of their oppressors. Few in American history have achieved as much as Douglass, despite the deeply ingrained racism and legal barriers he faced in his lifetime.

    Harriet Tubman
    Harriet Tubman was born into slavery, escaped, personally worked to rescue dozens of families via the Underground Railroad, and during the Civil War was a spy for the Union. There are few people in general whose life stories deserved to be explored more than Tubman’s—a woman who, upon escaping slavery, immediately returned in order to rescue her family. Anyone that brave deserves to be remembered, and a life like hers offers valuable lessons to us all.

    Ida B. Wells
    Wells doesn’t get name-checked often in mainstream channels, but she was one of the most important activists in American history, a journalist who documented the practice of lynching, proving in a series of articles that it was used as a way of punishing black people for competing against whites or attempting to assert their rights, and not as a mode of punishing criminals as many whites claimed. Wells also worked tireless for woman’s rights and suffrage, and her impact on American society cannot be overstated—her life deserves everyone’s attention.

    Adam Clayton Powell
    The first black American elected from New York to the U.S. House of Representatives (representing Harlem), and just the fourth in the country’s history, Powell served for more than three decades during a time when black Americans were kept out of politics in many areas of the country. One of the key figures who helped usher in civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Powell remains one of the most influential politicians in American history.

    Paul Robeson
    Robeson is remembered today as an outstanding artist, singer, athlete, and actor who broke through barriers during his lifetime. But he was also a thoughtful man who developed a complicated philosophy on a wide range of matters, from politics to economics, all infused with a strong sense of morality that transcended the issues of the moment. Robeson deserves to be remembered for more than just his brilliant performances.

    Fannie Lou Hamer
    Hamer was born the youngest of 20 children to a poor family in Mississippi, and was given an involuntary hysterectomy by a white doctor following a mandate by the state to reduce the black population. It’s no coincidence her activism bloomed shortly thereafter, and Hamer became one of the most prominent voices organizing for equal rights—activism for which she was nearly beaten to death by police in 1963. Her fierce life can be summed up with her quote engraved on her tombstone: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

    Carter G. Woodson
    One of the first academics to formally study Black History, Woodson isn’t often mentioned in general discussions—but considering he launched what is widely considered the inspiration for and precursor of Black History Month in 1926, he should be. Without Woodson’s work much of black history might have been lost or overlooked, and his life of commitment and achievement still serves as an inspiration.

     
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