Reading More Diversely: Carrie’s Picks

For this month’s Books & Bites podcast, Eden Grey and I talk about some of our favorite books by diverse authors. See below for my picks, or listen to the full podcast.

A House of My Own book coverA House of My Own: Stories from My Life by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros is one of my favorite writers. Her most famous work is The House on Mango Street, a short, lyrical novel about a young Mexican-American girl who longs for her own house.

A House of My Own is a memoir-in-essays compiled from various sources, including magazines, anthologies, and lectures. As the title suggests, the pieces chronicle a writer’s life and search for home: from the house on the Greek island of Hydra where Cisneros finished The House on Mango Street to her periwinkle house in San Antonio to her current home in central Mexico. Cisneros also tells stories of her travels, her family, and her own writer heroes, such as Marguerite Duras and Gwendolyn Brooks.

In her novel Caramelo, Cisneros writes reverently about mole, and the sauce also appears in the essay “El Pleito/The Quarrel.” Cisneros writes about her friends Rolando and Ito arguing over whether Rolando’s mother made her mole from scratch or from a jar. “Aw, come on,” Ito says. “You’re trying to say your mother dried the chiles, and ground them up, and took days and days to make mole from scratch? You’ve got to be kidding!” Later in the essay, Cisneros writes about inviting herself to Rolando’s house for a mole dinner because she’d bought homemade mole, “dark and moist like a heart…. And besides,” she adds, “everyone knows I don’t cook.” I’ve eaten from-scratch mole once, at a restaurant in San Antonio. It was delicious and rich and complex, and just as Cisneros described. You’ll crave it while reading this book, and I think Cisneros would agree that it doesn’t matter whether your mole is homemade by you, a friend, or comes from a jar.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

As I mentioned in our January Books & Bites meeting, The Sellout by Paul Beatty was one of the best books I read in 2016. The Sellout won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, the first book by an American to win the prestigious award.

What I love about The Sellout is the way that it deals with the very serious subject of race in America with humor—or, more accurately, with biting satire. Like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Sellout proves that sometimes comedy is the best way to reveal America’s dark side.

The book takes place in Dickens, California, a city just outside Los Angeles that is both agrarian and urban: “As odd as it might sound,” the narrator says, “I grew up on a farm in the inner city.” When Dickens is erased from the map—it’s part of what the narrator calls “a blatant conspiracy by the surrounding, increasingly affluent, two-car-garage communities to keep their property values up and blood pressures down”—the narrator sets out to revive it. With the help of the last living Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—who, in a side plot, insists on being the narrator’s slave—the narrator attempts to bring the people of Dickens back together by segregating the middle school. As you can imagine, this outrageous scheme lands him in front of the Supreme Court, to which he is summoned by a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style letter that reads: “Congratulations, you may already be a winner!”

The book is laugh-out-loud funny, and nothing is safe from Beatty’s lacerating humor. If you’re easily offended by provocative language or stereotypes, you may want to avoid this book. But if you want a book that will make you laugh and think, I highly recommend it.

Because the narrator is a farmer, he frequently discusses his produce. He especially obsesses over the health of his satsuma tree. As Little Rascals, Hominy and his co-star Buckwheat “found the fruit’s perfectly balanced bittersweet flavor to be the only thing that removed the nasty taste of comic-relief watermelon from their mouths.” Later on, the children of Dickens flock to the narrator’s satsuma tree because it’s the only thing that can relieve a stench that had “settled over the neighborhood like some celestial flatulence.” You may not be able to find satsumas now, as they are usually harvested in the fall. But they are the perfect accompaniment to a book with this much tang.