Books We Love: Great books about identity and culture : Pop Culture Happy Hour The latest edition of NPR's Books We Love project rounded up hundreds of book recommendations from critics, writers and NPR journalists to try to give you just the read you're looking for. Today, we're giving recommendations for our favorite books about identity and culture.

Books We Love: Great books about identity and culture

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Once again, NPR's Books We Love project rounded up hundreds of book recommendations from critics, writers and NPR journalists to try to give you just the read you're looking for. Today we're bringing you recommendations for books that touch on identity and culture. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about more books we love on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HOLMES: Joining me today is Code Switch senior correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates. Welcome back, Karen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Linda. I am so happy to be here.

HOLMES: Yeah. So NPR's Books We Love project used to be called The Book Concierge. But whatever you call it, it is a great way to find a book for any occasion, any reader and any set of tastes and interests. It's a labor of love and literacy put together by a wonderful team and dedicated to our dear friend and colleague, NPR Books editor Petra Mayer, who died in November.

And one of the tags that they use to help you find books is called identity and culture. I want to add, it's fair to say that lots and lots of books - maybe practically all books - are about identity and culture in some way or another. But we're talking about some today that are particularly sharp or specific in their consideration of those themes. I want to dive right in. Karen, you picked several books from this category for Books We Love. Tell me about the first one.

GRIGSBY BATES: My first book is "The Love Songs Of W.E.B. Dubois." It's by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. There's a couple of categories of books that I really love, and one of them is sprawling family epics. And this is a sprawling family epic. It's a doorstopper.


GRIGSBY BATES: But that time just flew by. You know, you sort of look at it and go, am I really going to have time to read this? And then you get into the first chapter, and all of a sudden, you find yourself looking up, going, oh, shoot, it's time to go to bed.

The heroine, Ailey Pearl Garfield, is the descendent of a long, proud line of people who have been in the United States since around the Revolutionary War. Because they've been here for so long and because they've been in the South for so long, one of the things Honoree talks about is the ethnic interconnectedness of this family. They are Black, and they are seen as Black, and they live as Black. But they also have Native Americans, white Americans. And so this book goes back and forth in time to sort of weave together how everybody came together. It also shows sort of the insularity of the Black middle class in a lot of cities at the time. You know, she's - we're talking about, you know, '50, '60s, '70s.

HOLMES: Right.

GRIGSBY BATES: The assumption sometimes is, oh, after integration, everybody wanted to be with everybody else. That's not necessarily the case. But what Ailey's family shows is that they are very interested in sort of keeping the community intact. There's a lot of family pride, a lot of hidden family history that Ailey eventually unearths, some trauma. And it just all comes together in this terrific read. This is one of those books where - if you're going to be snowed in for a week, find this book for sure.

HOLMES: For sure, for sure. So that is "The Love Songs Of W.E.B. Dubois" by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. All right, Karen, give me a second pick.

GRIGSBY BATES: My next book is "Seven Days In June" by Tia Williams. And this is, as I said to somebody, a grown-ass Black romance. This is about - Eva and Shane come together as teenagers at a high school in Washington, D.C., where they both live. They are both damaged kids by their life's circumstances. And they eventually gravitate towards each other and start to spend some time on the bleachers of their high school, sort of probing each other's brains and then falling in love. And just as they get to the point where, I can't live without you; never, ever leave me, Shane, the hero, leaves, and nobody knows why. And it's devastating to Eva because she has put her whole emotional self into this young man.

It turns out they meet again about 15, 20 years later, when they are adults. Eva has married and divorced and has a young daughter, Audre. Eva writes romances that are sort of like the "Twilight" series that have a huge following. People can't get enough of her. But Eva's had enough of it. And she wants to write something else. She wants to write kind of an epic about the women in her Louisiana family, how they came to be, who they are.

She meets, at a literary awards ceremony, Shane, again. And they reconnect in a spiky kind of way. They start to get deeper and deeper, and eventually they fall in love again. And so the big question in the book is, can you rip down those walls that hurt has created to allow you to perhaps experience this sublime thing that never came to fruition the last time? This book unfolds cinematically while you read it. It did for me, anyway. So it did not surprise me to learn that it has been optioned for television, and hopefully we'll see it on the small screen streaming sometime in the reasonable future.

HOLMES: All right. So that is "Seven Days In June" by Tia Williams. What is your third pick, Karen? Ooh, the title of this one's going to make people very happy.

GRIGSBY BATES: The last book is "The Personal Librarian," and it's co-written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. They have taken basically a real person, Belle da Costa Greene, who existed at the turn of the 20th century who became kind of a woman about town in New York. They've taken Belle's life and speculated as to how it's gone. She burned her personal papers before she died, so they are going back through other people's letters, through newspapers of the time, through history to find out who this woman was.

And she's intriguing for two reasons. She's a smart, humorous, very well-connected woman who also happens to be Black. Most of the world does not know this because Belle's mother, who is from a very prominent family of freed people in Washington, insisted, when they moved to New York for her father's job, that the family declare itself to be white. It was a practical decision on her mother's part, I think, because she felt like, we're not going to be able to live anywhere decent. We're not going to be able to send you to decent schools. We're not going to be able to get decent jobs because they do not hire colored people like that.

So in the 1905 New York State Census, she declared them a white family. It caused a family rupture because her father - he just said, look. I can't do this. You know, as a person - you know, I'm not a white person. And you aren't, either. But if you're not going to rethink this, then I have to go. So the family split up. Belle was the sole provider. So even though she didn't want to do this masquerade - which started when she was about 16, when her father left - she had to do it for the sake of her family.

The masquerade took her to Princeton, where she worked in the rare books library and became very good friends with the nephew of J.P. Morgan. The nephew told her, you know, there's a job that's opening up in my uncle's library. He needs somebody who can get his stuff straight, and you're the only person I can think of who really knows all this stuff backwards and forwards. You should go up and have an interview. And so she did. Morgan liked her and basically ended up entrusting her with his entire collection, but he still wanted more stuff. So this little Black girl ended up going throughout Europe under the authority of J.P. Morgan to make amazing purchases that are in the Morgan Library to this day. If you go to New York, you will see what Belle hath wrought.

HOLMES: Amazing. That sounds like quite a story. And I'm always interested in this idea of taking a real person and sort of imagining what their life perhaps was. All right. So that is "The Personal Librarian" by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. Karen, I appreciate this so much. If you want to discover even more books NPR loved this year, visit There's a nifty tag called identity and culture that will help you discover these books and even more great books. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you so much for being here, Karen. I appreciate it.

GRIGSBY BATES: Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow.

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