Jennifer De Leon is not only the Associates of the Boston Public Library’s Writer in Residence, but she is also the author of the Boston Book Festival’s 2015 One City One Story selection “Home Movie.” In anticipation of the Book Festival (October 23-24 in Copley Square), we asked her for a list of her top ten favorite books.
- ZENZELE: A LETTER FOR MY DAUGHTER, by J. Nozipo Maraire: The whole book is a series of letters from a mother in Harare, Zimbabwe, to her daughter, Zenzele, Harvard-bound. When I was 16, I spent a summer in Zimbabwe with the program Global Routes. I lived in a village and helped build a medical clinic and paint a world map at a primary school. I picked up this book in the capital, Harare, and it has stayed with me ever since. The mother’s message(s) to her daughter are so poignant and beautiful.
- AMERICANAH, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: One of the best books I’ve ever read. A true masterpiece. I’ve been reading work by Adichie for years but this big book really made an impact on me as a writer and a reader. The way she takes the reader by the hand through so many settings—from Princeton, New Jersey, to Victoria Island in Lagos, Nigeria—it is something to admire, and study.
- GROWING UP POOR: A LITERARY ANTHOLOGY, edited by Robert Coles: I return to this anthology again and again, as a reader and as a creative writing teacher. I first came across this book when I was house-sitting for a successful author in the Boston area. He had it on his ceiling-high bookshelf, right between Tolstoy and How to Train Your Dog, or something like that or other. I picked up the anthology and immediately I knew I had to buy it for myself—Helena Maria Víramontes, Langston Hughes, Sherman Alexie. I love this book.
- EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, by Celeste Ng: A page-turner. A gorgeous novel. A sad and powerful story. A mystery. There are so many ways to describe this magnificent book. From the first line—“Lydia is dead”—I was under the spell. I can’t wait for Ng’s next novel!
- DROWN, by Junot Díaz: I never knew a book could be so well written, so sad, so funny, and so close to home. It took years for me to be able to relate to books on a cultural level. Until high school, I’d only read white authors. In fact, it wasn’t until college that professors and mentors started gifting me books by Julia Alvarez or Sandra Cisneros (which I loved). Yet, when I first read the stories in Drown by Junot Díaz, I was breathless. He can condense worlds—entire worlds—into well-chosen details, perfectly sliced lines of dialogue, a single description. To then have the chance to study with Junot at the VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation) for several summers from 2006–2009, was a blessing. I learned so much from him.
- THE BEAUTIFUL THINGS THAT HEAVEN BEARS, by Dinaw Mengestu: This is a book I have on my shelf in my office at home. This is a book with many pages folded over. This is a book I return to when I am stuck with a scene, when the writing is clunky, when I am feeling less than motivated to keep going. I read one paragraph of this exquisite novel set in Washington D.C., and Ethiopia, and I am back to the magical world that is literature. I owe Dinaw so much.
- THE CIRCUIT, by Francisco Jímenez: This book is a gem. I have lost count of how many times I have read it. The autobiographical novel—twelve mini stories, really—is narrated by Francisco as a boy soon after he and his parents and two brothers crawl through a wire fence in a Mexican border town at night. So begins their journey on the “circuit” as migrant farmworkers in California in the 1940s. I have taught this book in many of my classes—ranging from a third grade classroom in San Jose, California, where I taught in the Teach For America program, to college creative writing classes, to adult memoir classes, and, currently, in my 7th and 8th grade classes at the Boston Teachers Union School in Jamaica Plain (Boston Public Schools). I return to this book for many reasons—among them, figurative language, exceptional dialogue, imagery, characters in conflict, and others—but above all, this is a good book because it tells a good story. People want to know what happens next. And even though I know how the story ends, each time I return to this book, I find something new.
- AGAINST LOVE POETRY: POEMS, by Eavan Boland: I love Eavan Boland’s poetry. I first heard her read “Quarantine” when I was a waiter scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2007. I was in tears by the end of the poem. That had never happened. Ever. The poem tells the story of a young couple that died of cold and hunger in Ireland in the 1940s. The lines that kill me:
“In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone. The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.”
- THE TOUGHEST INDIAN IN THE WORLD, by Sherman Alexie: He is a master storyteller. “An Indian Education” is my favorite piece in this collection. I think I have it memorized.
- TRAIN TO TRIESTE, by Domnica Radulescu: “It is 1977 and seventeen-year-old Mona Manoliu has fallen in love with Mihai, a mysterious boy who lives in the romantic mountain city where she spends her summers. She can think of nothing and no one else. But life under Ceausecu’s Romania is difficult. Hunger, paranoia, and fear infect everyone. One day Mona sees Mihai wearing the black leather jacket favored by the secret police. Is it possible he is one of them?” Her journey later takes her to Chicago, and finally, back home to discover hard truths about her past. I could not put this book down when I first read it years ago. In fact, I’m going to find it now and read it again.