Read While Isolated

The cover depicts an open pocket watch against a black cloth background with small, glowing astrological symbols.

by Piyali C.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it difficult to focus on books. It seemed like Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven was playing out right in front of me. However, when physical distancing became a part of our daily routine, I took to reading so I could escape to other worlds created by authors. The books below are some of the ones that I truly enjoyed as I read them during isolation, borrowed from Howard County Library System.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): A fascinating story of nurse Julia Powers, who works in the maternity ward of a hospital in war- and flu-ravaged Dublin in 1918. She takes care of expectant mothers fallen ill with the raging Spanish flu. With the help of a rebel woman doctor and a young orphaned woman, Nurse Powers tends to the needs of the quarantined pregnant women in her care to the best of her ability under the circumstances.

The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate: (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook) Told in the alternating voices of Hannie, a recently freed slave in 1875, and Benedetta Silva, a young new teacher in a tiny town in Louisiana in 1987, this story takes us through the Reconstruction era in America with Hannie, as she travels to Texas with two unwilling companions, Miss Lavinia and Juneau June, in the hope of finding her family members who were sold as slaves in different cities and towns. Benny Silva, while trying to engage her unwilling students in their own history, comes across the story of Hannie’s journey in the library of a run-down plantation house. The discovery of this quest brings forth a fascinating story of freed slaves trying desperately to reconnect with family members lost to slavery in 1870’s America.

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai (available in print, eaudiobook): Drawn from the author’s own experiences of growing up in postwar Vietnam and from interviewing countless people who lived through the horrors of the Vietnam war, Ngyuen Phan Que Mai writes this amazing story of a family torn apart, not only by the war, but also by the subsequent division between north and south Vietnam. While the story talks about the unbelievable horror that wars inflict on human life, it also sings an ode to indomitable human resilience and a desperate mother’s inexplicable courage and determination to keep her children safe.

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (available in print, ebook, eaudiobook): Valerie is a 48-year-old Black woman, a single mom to Xavier, and an ecology professor who nurtures a deep love for plants and trees. Brad Whitman is an entrepreneur who has risen up in wealth and power from humble beginnings. Brad builds a gorgeous house next to Valerie’s and moves in with his wife Julia, step daughter Juniper and daughter Lily. As a relationship starts to build between Valerie and Julia, an incident regarding Valerie’s favorite tree causes a rift between the two families, resulting in a law suit. But Xavier, Valerie’s 18-year-old son, and Juniper, Julia’s 17-year-old daughter, are also building a beautiful relationship. How much acceptance will an interracial relationship receive, not only from society but also from Brad Whitman? Told from the perspective of the neighbors of both Valerie and Brad, this story explores complicated race relations between Black and White, loss of innocence, coming of age, struggles of women, and much more. 

What did you read during isolation? Tell us in the comments.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

The sepia-toned book cover depicts a young Black woman seated in a wooden chair, wearing a plain sleeveless white cotton dress.

Review by Piyali C.

This has to be one of the most difficult books that I have read in a very long time. Difficult, powerful and absolutely brilliant. I had to take frequent breaks because of the inexplicable cruelty that is described in the book. However, I realized I was thinking about the story and the characters even during those breaks.

Lilith is born as a slave in the Montpelier plantation in Kingston, Jamaica in the eighteenth century. She is born with skin as dark as midnight, yet her eyes are a startling green. She is also born with an indomitable spirit which refuses to be tamed even within bondage. There is a group of women on the plantation, the Night Women, who are plotting a revolution. The head house slave, Homer, who is also the leader of the slave uprising, recognizes something dark within Lilith’s spirit. She raises Lilith with the hope that she will use that darkness towards the cause of the slave rebellion. Their dream is to recreate the villages of Africa that they were forced to abandon after the uprising. Lilith’s life, however, takes a slightly different turn than the rest of the slaves in Montpelier, and her decision to join the revolution is highly influenced by that turn of events. Where does Lilith’s loyalty lie? Will she harness the dark power within her to help free her people?

Marlon James poses a challenge to his readers to live the lives of both his Black and White characters in 18th century Jamaica; he dares them to stomach the inexplicable cruelty that was meted out to the slaves by the White overseers, plantation owners and ‘johnny jumpers,’ and then he invites them to put this all into the current context and analyze how much has really┬áchanged in the world that we inhabit. The topic was harsh and this was not a pleasant read, but I am determined not to run away from hard topics that deal with race. This book, through a thoroughly captivating story, sheds a spotlight on the White mentality of objectifying and dehumanizing Black people so they could inflict the cruelest of torture on them, physically and mentally. This is a brutally honest look at the genesis of racism.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James is available from HCLS in print, audiobook on CD, and as an eaudiobook in Libby/Overdrive.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at HCLS Miller Branch, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

The author sits on a rustic bench against a green shingled wall holding a plate of food in one hand and resting the other on a small wooden bushel basket. He is dressed in a linen shirt, a beige vest, and grey pans. A cast iron skillet hangs over the upper left corner with the subtitle in it.

Review by Kristen B.

The James Beard Award-winning book, The Cooking Gene, defies categorization: part memoir, part highly researched historical account of Southern foodways, and part genealogical research into the author’s ancestry. It also includes recipes. By no means an easy book to read in its themes or storytelling, Twitty takes us on journeys throughout the American colonies with the contributions of enslaved Africans front and center. The book generally follows the history of the American South, but other bits work their way in, too. Personal experiences and family stories intersperse with long lists of ingredients found at plantation feasts. It’s like having an extremely learned docent talking about all his favorite subjects, which is a fair assessment of the situation.

Michael Twitty is a gay, black, Jewish man who interprets historical Southern cooking, particularly from the pre-Civil War era. His book recounts some of those experiences, intermingled with a wealth of knowledge about how “soul food,” that indelible American cultural touchstone, came to be. As human beings made the Middle Passage from Africa to America, food and culture naturally travelled with them. The Cooking Gene presents a fascinating dissection of slave-holding states and their regional variations, from the Chesapeake area along the Low Country of the Carolinas and Gullah-Geechee to the deep South of Louisiana and Alabama. Each area offered something new and different into the country’s cooking lexicon, and most of those old kitchens were run by slaves … some of whom were even trained in Paris to further increase the standings of the families they served.

Twitty focuses on food as a way to explain the people: yams, corn, rice, greens, tobacco, and more. As part of the food history, he also details the different eras of human commerce and wrote a sentence that stopped me cold in my tracks and that I’ve thought about ever since:

The black body was the single most valuable commodity in the American marketplace between the years 1790 and 1860 (p. 321).

The other major thread winding through this astounding book is what Twitty calls his Southern Discomfort Tour. He, with the help of genetic testing and professional genealogists, has traced more than eight generations of his family’s history in America. He located records of his ancestors’ lives along the North Carolina/Virginia border, as well as deeper into the South. He found receipts of their sales and how they were listed among assets of landowners. From his genetic testing results, he could identify which regions and tribes his family belonged to in West and Central Africa. His racial heritage also includes more than a quarter European descent, which led him to travel to London and Dublin to claim those parts of his heritage, too. I realized that Twitty’s family has been in America longer than just about anyone’s I know. Twitty pulls very few punches recounting the terrors and sordid realities of life for slaves. The genius of this book is that the author puts so much of himself into the telling that the reader must do him the respect of listening.

I learned so much, including the sheer diversity of the African population that made the Middle Passage and how – truly, in every way – African-Americans built our country. They were the field hands, builders and master craftsmen, knowledgable farmers and hunters, and yes … the cooks who fed everyone. I learned about the history of our country’s foods and about a diversity that we lack in our modern era of packaged foods and monocultures. In my family, as in so many others, food is love. The Cooking Gene is nothing short of Michael Twitty’s love letter to his culture, his family, and the foodways of the American South.

This title is available in the collection as a book, eBook, and eAudiobook, both via Overdrive and RB Digital, which has the “always available” audio as part of its Anti-Racism reading list.

If you are interested in learning more about the African-American experience and anti-racism, join us for an online conversation on Monday, July 20 with Ibram X. Kendi on “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Registration required.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.