On February 14, 2020, the New York Public Library released a librarian curated list of Books We Love. Created to be part of the New York Public Library’s 125 birthday celebrations, the list is available online at nypl.org/125 and as a printed old-fashioned check-out card at all the branches. These titles were chosen because, according to the press release, “they generate excitement around books and a love of reading.”
I love an opportunity to promote favorite books, so I picked a few of my choices from some of the categories that NYPL features in their list.
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Levy portrays the heartbreaking experiences of Jamaican Immigrants after World War II, breaking the story into the narratives of four characters—Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph, the Jamaicans; and Queenie and Bernard Bligh, the Brits. Normally I’m not a huge fan of novels that split chapters between multiple characters, but every personality is vividly drawn with nuance. The characterization is genius. The plot is that Hortense and Gilbert marry so that they can escape their small island, but it doesn’t take long to discover that their “Mother” country, i.e. England, does not provide the rights and freedoms that they’d hoped for.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Set in late 19th century France, this fairy tale manages to be both adorable while discussing current, relevant gender identity issues. Prince Sebastian doesn’t want the life that the King and Queen expect of him; specifically, to marry a nice, royal girl for the purposes of an alliance. Instead, he wants to attend glamorous, late-night parties as Lady Crystallia. After meeting a struggling dressmaker named Frances, he hires her to secretly create beautiful, trendy gowns for the him. What follows is a delightful, moving story about love and identity— so cute that yes, it made my heart explode.
The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith
I could have put any of Smith’s short story collections in this slot; I chose this one because it contains the piece of writing that I most associate with her delightful oeuvre. “May” is a first-person story of someone telling their partner that they have fallen in love with a tree. And then the partner’s first person account of trying to deal with the knowledge that they are maybe going to be left for a tree. It. Is. So. Good. Overall, there is a playful love of language that dances through Smith’s writing, so each story is like a strange, witty ode to language and humanity.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published in 1993, I read this around the time that Sofia Coppola’s film came out in 1999. I was exactly the right age for this, 16 years old and full of whimsical, self-indulgent yearning. I felt seen in lines like, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.” This story, told in an utterly memorably shared perspective of multiple teenage boys, recounts the final days of the sheltered Lisbon sisters. To me, it’s gorgeous, haunting and endlessly quotable. This one turned up on the official list as well.
Voracious readers should participate in the connected #LoveReading campaign on social media, so tag @nypl and spill your guts about your beloved books. You lucky New Yorkers can also visit the library’s featured author talks, and head to the 42nd Street Library and you’ll be able to see Patience and Fortitude (the library lions) reading Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).