Summer Reading: Stories Of Resilience, Overcoming

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We speak with two book lovers about their favorite stories about resilience: Kamille Washington, who hosts the culture podcast "The Unfriendly Black Hotties," and former Brookline Booksmith Assistant Manager Nick Petrulakis.
On how they define resilience: 

Petrulakis: "[Being furloughed] has forced me to rethink everything because, you know, I did something for ... 20-plus years, and suddenly I'm not doing that. So [I'm] turning to books, which I think [are] a wonderful touchstone for so many people. They're not loud. You open them and they are activated when you read them. I find them ... amazingly effective to remind me that people have been through much, much worse than what I'm dealing with. I enjoy seeing those stories unfold between the pages."

Washington: "For me, as a black woman, as a queer person, this summer has been especially challenging. I've had to draw on a deep, deep well of resilience. That doesn't always come naturally or easily. It has really been wonderful during this time to turn to some of my favorite books and draw strength from them."

On book recommendations for the current moment: 

Washington: "The first book that comes to mind is 'When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America' by historian Paula Giddings. The story of Black women in America is fundamentally one of resilience, so it's a really obvious pick for me. This book was blurbed by both Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, so that's how you know it's good. It's a rich but eminently readable history of the contributions of Black women to public life in the United States from around 1840 to 1980. It's a really rich text, so if you do pick it up, I encourage you to give yourself plenty of space to read it over time. It tells a story of well-known Black women like Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm, but it also will inform you about some women that you might not have heard about, like Sadie T. M. Alexander, who was an accomplished scholar and lawyer who served under not one, not two, but three U.S. presidents."

Petrulakis: "'When They Call You a Terrorist' ... is a Black Lives Matter memoir that was written by one of the women who launched the Black Lives Matter movement after the acquittal of George Zimmerman [in] the murder of Trayvon Martin. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is a big part of the book, but the author, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, also talks about what it was like growing up poor and Black in America and how she was forced to feel that being poor was her fault ... because she was poor in a poor neighborhood, which, of course, is frightening on so many different levels.

"The other is ['They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement'] by Wesley Lowery, who is a terrific young journalist. This book stemmed after Michael Brown was killed — yet another young African-American man who was murdered ... by the police. So those are two books that are high on the list, but maybe weren't as popular as 'Between The World And Me' or 'How To Be An Antiracist,' which also, of course, are wonderful, wonderful books."

On fiction books that give us a way to escape from, but also make sense of, reality: 

Washington: "There are a couple. The first is an oldie but goodie: 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte. Now, if you haven't read this book since you were forced to in high school, I would encourage you to crack it open again. I began my relationship with this book as an eighth-grader, and it has become ... my favorite book of all time. I mean, Jane Eyre is a kind of proto-feminist novel. She describes herself as poor, obscure, plain and little, and she has to deal with all of that in addition to being a woman in a time when women had little to no autonomy, so she has quite a lot to overcome ... I think the resilience that I'm most moved by in the book is Jane's moral resilience. She would quite literally rather be starving and homeless than act outside her own values or sacrifice her independence, and I think it was amazing as a young person — and as a woman in my early 30s now — to have this example of someone who's committed to her own spirituality and morality in a way that honors her own passions and desires without robbing her of her integrity.

"The second book I want to recommend is 'Full Disclosure' by Camryn Garrett, which is a young adult novel that focuses on an HIV-positive teenager who's navigating high school and all the normal things that teenagers deal with, like making and keeping friends, falling in love and developing as a person. The protagonist is the Black adopted daughter of two gay men, both of whom are also people of color. It's primarily a story of the resilience of HIV-positive people, but it also touches on the resilience of queer folks and Black and brown people. If there is a young person in your life that you want to share some of those important stories with, 'Full Disclosure' is a great book for them."

Petrulakis: "In the middle of the pandemic, why not go back to a book that is about a pandemic and a flu that decimates the population? What I loved about ['Station Eleven'] was that it begins with Shakespeare, which is how I want, of course, all of my pandemic post apocalyptic books to begin. In this case, it's King Lear. One of the stars dies onstage. That's how the story begins. And then we flash forward 20 years after this pandemic has literally killed most of the population. We have a traveling troupe called the Traveling Symphony that is itinerant, and they wander around the Great Lakes region. They are artists doing the only thing that they know how to do. How prescient ... Emily St. John Mandel was in her book to describe some of the things that are happening today is uncanny. What I loved about it ... is that at the end, there is this moment where they realize that there's a community that has brought back electricity and just that idea that civilization is beginning to flower again is amazing. When that occurs on the page, ... it's like you're given you're coming up from air after having been held underwater for five minutes. I love 'Station Eleven.'"

This segment aired on July 29, 2020.


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