We’re halfway there!

Published 10:46 am Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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Jen Pace Dickenson

Shelf Life

2020 has been a crazy year, y’all. But we’ve made it halfway! One silver lining that came with the stay at home order and lack of social events is that I’ve had plenty of time to read. I’ve read 50 books already this year, a new record! Here are a few of my favorites.

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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

This book (and the film based on it) explores mass incarceration and institutionalized racism and illustrates the rampant bias and inequality present in our criminal justice system. Staggering statistics are intertwined with stories of the author’s heartbreaking cases, most prominently that of Walter. Walter’s case was horrifically mismanaged, and it was clear he was innocent. There were also many cases detailed where the incarcerated person was guilty, but their crime did not justify their punishment. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, also excelled at describing the plight of the mentally ill, intellectually disabled, and poor in prison. I shed quite a few tears over the devastating true stories, but the book ended on a hopeful note.


Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld is one of my favorite authors as her fictionalized account of Laura Bush’s life, American Wife, inspired me to become a librarian. This time around she explores Hillary Clinton’s, with a twist – what if she’d never married Bill? It starts in the early 70s when Bill and Hillary met and fell in love in law school, jumps forward to the early 90s when Bill runs for president, and then to 2015 and Hillary’s campaign for the presidency. It’s an alternate history novel that changes the course of American politics, and I found it fascinating.


The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Fiction was excellent but very heavy and violent. Elwood is a black teenager in 1960s Tallahassee who has a steady job, is greatly inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., and is excited to enroll in college classes while attending high school. Dumb luck unfortunately gets him sent off to a reform school where horrible abuse and even murder is the norm. The novel also tells of Elwood’s adult life as a successful business owner in New York City, but he is still haunted by the atrocities of his youth. The saddest part is that it is based on the true story of the Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where the remains of murdered students were discovered in 2014. I highly recommend this book, but it is a gut-wrenching read, so be aware before diving in.


Me by Elton John

I constantly quote Born a Crime by Trevor Noah as my favorite audiobook of all time, but this one comes in a close second. I loved how brutally honest Elton was about his past and it covered all 70+ years of his life, from his childhood and innocent teenage years to his current calm existence with his husband and two children. Of course, the in between filled with drugs, sex, celebrities, and rock ‘n roll is the juiciest. It made me laugh (stories of his ridiculous antics and diva tantrums) and cry (the deaths of John Lennon and Ryan White) and I was always excited to press play again. Taron Egerton, who played Elton in the Rocketman movie, also narrated the memoir and did an amazing job.


Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This debut novel tells the story of Emira, a young black woman who is wrongly accused of kidnapping the white child she is babysitting. Emira ends up dating Kelley, the white man who videotaped her altercation in the supermarket and who urges her to share the video publicly. Meanwhile, Emira loves being Briar’s sitter but is not a fan of Briar’s mom, Alix, who desperately tries to be friends with Emira. The author did an excellent job of creating tension as the story bounces between Alix and Emira’s perspectives and there are a few twists that keep readers on their toes and desperate to discover how the story ends. The book examines racism and the “white savior” complex, with Alix and Kelley both accusing the other of being racist in the way they treat Emira and other black people in their lives.

Jen Pace Dickenson is the youth services librarian for Polk County Public Libraries. For information about the library’s resources, programs, and other services