W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 By David Levering Lewis
Before I read this, I knew enough to tell you that W.E.B. Du Bois was an elitist, that he believed there was a "talented tenth" of African-Americans whose job it was to lead. I knew little beyond what high school textbooks—which all but ignored black history—bothered to tell. Because Du Bois was the founding editor of The Crisis (the NAACP's monthly magazine) for many years and wrote so much, Lewis had a treasure trove of information to draw from. The result is a fascinating, more human retelling of W.E.B. Du Bois's life than you would get from a history book. This warts-and-all biography showed me so much that I was ashamed I didn't already know.
John Adams By David McCullough
I'd lived in Boston and been exposed to Revolutionary War history here and there, but I didn't think I had a passionate interest in the details of our country's founding. McCullough's reading of those events is, well, revolutionary. He shows Thomas Jefferson's arrogance and reports that Ben Franklin was considered to be a dilettante—who knew? We thought they were the unalloyed heroes, only to find John Adams, this short, almost universally disliked guy, was the backbone of the country. As much as I liked the book, I do question whether McCullough's conclusions are right. He overlooked horrible things that John Adams did—including the Sedition Act. Still, no one has been able to make the case for Adams in quite the way McCullough does.
Soldier: A Poet's Childhood By June Jordan
My father was a minister, an immigrant who moved to this country from Panama. He was a civil-rights activist and marched in demonstrations. He was an overpowering presence in the family, and I take after him in a lot of emotional and physical ways. When I heard about this memoir of a black woman growing up in the shadow of a powerful black immigrant father, I thought, Okay, this is me. I was a little concerned when I learned that the author was a poet. I have never bonded with poetry—maybe I'm too practical, too nuts-and-bolts. But Jordan's book was so compelling to me, partly because of the subject matter but also because she's a very gentle writer, very evocative. She drew me in.
On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker By A'Lelia Bundles
The author is a friend, and for as long as I have known her she has been laboring under the burden of telling the story of Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who developed a hair care empire in the early 1900s. Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker. When I read this, I realized I'd once again found a book that showed me I didn't know as much as I'd thought. I associated Madam Walker with straightening hair. But she had an instinct that allowed her to build a business, to leave a town, to jettison allies who turned on her if that was necessary—all qualities which are now praised on Wall Street. This is a story never told about black life in America—the life of the black self-made bourgeoisie.
The Dearly Departed By Elinor Lipman
I love Elinor Lipman. I love her humor and her writing, and I especially love that at the center of her fiction, including this novel, there is a strong woman. I can devour one of her books in about an afternoon. I swallow the characters whole—the women in her stories are always a little offbeat. I love how they make interesting choices, not conventional ones. And I love Lipman's quirky worldview.
White Teeth By Zadie Smith
First of all, I was intrigued that the author is British. A black British writer, I thought, what does that mean? Books at their best give you a secret pass into worlds you don't get to go to otherwise. This book offers an invitation to all different communities in London. It's a love story of sorts, and it satisfies curiosities that you didn't even know you had-about other people, communities, and traditions, and what happens when they bump up against one another.