Recommending books to friends and family comes with so much pressure. I’m not exaggerating. Sometimes I’ve aided in reigniting one’s passion for reading (yay), sometimes I miss the mark—sending a novice reader into a literary woefulness (THE FISHERMEN did this to my dad) or inducing a book hangover so severe, it’s then on me to recommend something to remedy the headaches of confusion and betrayal and loss. But when I need a new book to read (or recommend), I find that Roxane Gay’s Goodreads page is a overflowing with honest, enlightening, and (mostly) glowing book reviews. Or when I’m browsing at a bookstore and glimpse a Roxane Gay blurb on the cover, I’m assured this will be a good read. Since devouring BAD FEMINIST, relating to her shortcomings as a feminist (and her love of the color pink and… Channing Tatum), I’ve come to really value Roxane Gay’s opinion on stories that are authentic, culturally significant, and down-right entertaining. And just when I think I’ve lost my touch as a book recommender, it’s also quite affirming to read and love a novel and find that Roxane Gay felt the same way. Here are some books from Roxane Gay’s shelf that I’ve enjoyed and some that I hope to read.
“[A] wonderful novel, with an ending so stark and sharp and haunting.”
A National Book Award should be enough to draw you into Louise Erdrich’s world if you’re one of the few of the uninitiated, but Roxane Gay’s recommendation makes this a little sweeter. THE ROUND HOUSE transports reader to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, where a young man is mixed up in a crime that transforms his family. A novel of mystery steeped in Native American culture, it’s no wonder this novel made it to Roxane Gay’s shelf.
“Oh my god...Heavy...is. Astonishing. Difficult. Intense. Layered...Wow. Just wow.”
If a book can render Dr. Gay nearly speechless, it’s a book worth reading and rereading. Once you dig into HEAVY, it’d be difficult not to see what all the fuss is about. HEAVY explores what the weight of a lifetime of secrets, lies, and deception does to a black body, a black family, and a nation teetering on the brink of moral collapse.
“There are stories that simply demand to be told and Michael Arceneaux’s is one such story...The critical thinking, from beginning to end, is outstanding. I Can’t Date Jesus is a must-read collection from a rising, unforgettable voice.”
In the vein of Luvvie Ajayi’s I’M JUDGING YOU, Michael Arceneaux’s hilarious, soul-searching essay collection explores what it means to be black and gay in America. Spoiler alert: it hasn’t been easy for Michael Arceneaux. With the characteristic wit and candor that have made him one of today’s boldest writers on social issues, Arceneaux writes about coming out to his mother, being approached for the priesthood, and the persistent challenges of young people who feel marginalized and denied the chance to pursue their dreams.
“It is a chilling, unforgettable cautionary tale, and one we should all read and heed.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel made an appearance on my Black Surrealism list earlier this year along with another Gay-endorsed book, FRIDAY BLACK by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Both books use satire and surrealism to explore blackness. In WE CAST A SHADOW black people are turning to an experimental demelanization procedure in the hopes of breaking free from the confines and oppression of being a different color. The biracial son of an unnamed narrator, Nigel, has a black birthmark that is getting bigger by the day. Desperate to save his son from the discrimination he will likely face as a man with dark skin, Nigel’s father goes to great lengths to protect his son.
“I enjoyed it both as a reader because everything fell into place—and then as a writer, I was irate because I was like, How dare you be this good? I am petty enough to say that.”
Though Dr. Gay hilariously (and, I concede, rightly) took issue with Colson Whitehead’s misuse of the word cement (he should’ve used concrete, and she did warn that she’d get petty), the first book of Roxane Gay’s Book Club incited riveting conversation between Mira Jacob, Debbie Millman, and Open Mike Eagle. (Watch the spoiler free chat below.) In the follow-up to Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, THE NICKEL BOYS is set in the early 1960s and centers on Elwood Curtis, who is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory, after an innocent mistake. Though the Nickel Academy promises to make honorable men of all sentenced there, it’s not all it appears to be and the evils of Jim Crow echo through its hallways.
“So far, excellent.”
In the middle of her read of Susan Orlean’s THE LIBRARY BOOK, Roxane Gay turned bookstagrammer and shared a snap with her followers. Her simple review: Excellent. On the morning of April 29, 1986, the stacks at the Los Angeles Public Library were consumed by flames. The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
“Quite a compelling collection of short stories—quiet, gothic horrors really that exemplify the complexities, the small and great tragedies of the human condition.”
For fans of short story collections, Mariana Enríquez’s THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE is filled with macabre tales of black magic, disturbing disappearances, and political tensions in contemporary Argentina. In a Goodreads review, Gay says of the collection “Quite a sharp edge in these stories and she has a lot to say about women, girls trying to be in the world, the confines of bad marriages, the ravages of poverty and addiction.”
“What a charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel. I couldn’t put The Wedding Date down. I love a good romance and this delivered from the first page to the last...One of the best books I’ve read in a while.”
Fact: Roxane Gay is a fan of Jasmine Guillory and her rom-com novels. With Gay praising Guillory’s THE WEDDING DATE—and her follow-up, THE PROPOSAL and her newly released (literally) glittering novel THE WEDDING PARTY—we non-romance readers might want to take note and binge-read all of Guillory’s backlist before the next novel comes out. (And at the pace she's going, that could be next year.) THE WEDDING DATE is a light and breezy romance perfect for fans of the Debra Messing film of the same name. On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew Nichols is stranded in an elevator with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend, Alexa Monroe. For Alexa, it’s a strange proposition, but there’s something about Drew that’s hard to resist.
“Through her words we see that Brown is not just the pretty one; she is the magnificently human one.”
Keah Brown, disability rights activist and creator of the #DisabledAndCute campaign, is black and disabled, which meant years and years of self-hatred and yearning for some sort of normalcy—but no longer. In this stigma-breaking essay collection, Brown talks about navigating her love life, her insatiable love of pop culture, and her relationship with her able-bodied twin sister. A bold declaration of self-love, Brown continues to build on the positivity and inspiration of her viral online campaign, all while looking cute.
“I am reading a book that sneaks up on you—Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. It took a minute to get into it but now I am hooked.”
QUEENIE was an unexpected reading experience for many, myself and Roxane Gay included. The novel starts out lighthearted enough—a young, newly single British Jamaican woman is navigating her post-relationship life, messily—but then quickly takes a turn into deeper issues such as mental health, mother-daughter relationships, and self-love. In her GoodReads review, Gay gave QUEENIE a 4 out of 5 star rating, saying, “This is the kind of novel whose excellence sneaks up on you...This is an amazing novel about what it means to be a black girl whose world is falling apart and needs to find the strength to put it back together.”