Updated: Oct 1, 2021
October is National Book Month, a month which serves not only as a great motivator to focus on our reading habits, but also a time to reflect on what we read and why. My own reading habits have always been shaped by surprising encounters with books that have managed to change my worldview for good. My growth as a person has been directly tied with my growth as a reader, and those books are the ones I see as important to share. With this in mind, for National Book Month I wanted to share examples of books I read this year that were fresh to my own point-of-view. These are books both contemporary and from the recent past that shook me hard with the subject matter they portray.
While a lot of these works are already considered great literature or have received critical attention and national prizes, to me they are more important for the ways they impacted my perception, stirred my heart, and called me to look outside myself and more carefully at the world happening around me. I hope some of them may do the same for you. Without further delay, here are a few of books from my recommendations that have accomplished activism by mode of literature in our current climate.
There There - Tommy Orange
This debut from a new and striking voice in Indigenous fiction covers a lot of ground with it’s mosaic-like structure. It follows a handful of characters that make up a community of Native Americans living in Oakland, which allows the book to hit upon a multitude of issues facing indigenous people in urban settings and draw upon conflicts facing native peoples of different ages, occupations, and beliefs. The characters begin on seemingly separate tracks, but many connections and relationships bind all of them together, as do their crises with identity, social status, and other challenges of the human condition.
The book is a simultaneous reflection of the too often ignored violence that’s been committed against America’s native population, and a parallel line to the violence that occurs in America today. This book is both beautifully introspective and deeply tragic, and the author wrote it with the intent to amplify the voices of Urban Indians who he was and saw were largely underrepresented.
The Crystal Frontier - Carlos Fuentes
Also translated as The Glass Border, Carlos Fuentes presents a variety of wildly different stories, some realistic and some almost magical that literally and metaphorically “bridge the gap” that separates different people at the Mexican-American border. Many characters within the stories travel from one side to the other for work, school, or even love. Love of people and love of country are strong themes that Fuentes uses to humanize everyone connected to the border from migrant workers to businessmen to patrolmen to the “coyotes.”
While at times darkly cynical and avant-garde in style, Carlos Fuentes never ceases to give everyone their reasons for what they seek to accomplish, and in doing so he shows us all that we are more connected than we realize through our shared history and our reliance on one another. All nine of these stories reveal a different angle of that truth, remind us of our humanity, and all manage to be wildly entertaining and poetic.
Black Buck - Mateo Askaripour
While this novel might trick you at first into thinking that it is a hands-on guide to success in business, you quickly discover that in actuality it is one of the most engaging and freshest works in modern fiction. The book follows a twenty-two year old Starbucks worker named Darren, who becomes nicknamed “Buck” when he’s taken from his day job to interview at New York’s hottest tech startup. What follows is a sharp satire on sales culture, a coming of age story, and a call to action for people of color not to give up on the American dream through hope the system can be changed from the inside.
Taking tonal influences from music videos and popular films, Mateo Askaripour’s style reflects the fast-paced, ever-changing conditions that have invigorated the current generation to become more involved and challenge the systems they’ve been suspicious of for so long. In a culture that has been teaching people to hustle inexhaustibly in order to keep up no matter the personal risk, Askaripour doesn’t shy away from the reality of the toll taken when those in power add roadblocks to maintain an exclusive club. This recent bestseller caught attention because not only is it one of the year’s most engaging reads, but it has a lot of wit, heart, and substance.
Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri
Another work of short stories on this list, because these sorts of works tend to amplify a broad number of voices that have for too long been kept silent. Lahiri’s stories serve to show us the true face of America through the experiences of Indian-American immigrants. While the work of Carlos Fuentes tended to highlight a specific issue, the point of Interpreter of Maladies is to humanize in a wholly different way.
This is a collection of tales about people who are adjusting to a new culture struggle that must collectively adapt and live together. From the mistreatment of an elderly doorwoman to a couple struggling to connect during a power outage, Lahiri injects crucial cultural details and language into ultimately universal messages about what it’s like to navigate the world with other people. The book found critical success through her ability to tell a unique set of stories built out of real experiences, and the messages of the stories have only grown more potent since their publication twenty years ago.
The Night Watchman - Louise Erdrich
This year’s recipient of the Pulitzer-prize for fiction, Louise Erdrich prefaced this book by imparting that it was based on her grandfather’s real experience as a Chippewa council member who fought to save his tribe from termination in the 1950s. While she disguises her grandfather by retelling him as the character Thomas Wazhashk and adds other characters as well as many fictional devices, this book proves how powerfully telling stories through fiction can cement history and emotions that would otherwise have been forgotten or told falsely.
Although we know the facts, The Night Watchman presents us with the human truth, working class stories from the reservation that remain relevant, and a deeply troubling look at how our governing bodies have and continue to treat the Indigenous population of America. This book matters in the cultural conversation because it invites many to witness a fight they’ve never had to consider, and reevaluate who we’ve allowed to tell this history up till now.
Brock Ferlaak is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker who originally hails from the lakeshore of West Michigan. He has earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Filmmaking. He is passionate about independent cinema for the creative process and collaboration necessary for the revolutionary and unconventional medium to survive. Though he attended an arts conservatory with a focus on hands-on learning, nothing could stop his voracious reading of the largest books he could find from Tolstoy to Sartre. Since graduating, he has brought his stylistic sense, production skills, and collaborative attitude to the world of publishing by becoming a Consultant at Enhanced DNA Publishing. He continues to write his own work and values what he learns from others both in life and helping to tell their stories. For more information about Brock, visit the website: www.BrockFerlaak.com.