The Books That Got Away : Code Switch Listen, a lot has happened this year, and it's no shock that some things may have slipped under the radar. So our resident book expert, Karen Grigsby Bates, took a virtual trip around the country to talk to independent book store owners about their favorite underappreciated reads of 2020.
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The Books That Got Away

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The Books That Got Away


Code Switch

The Books That Got Away

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This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

MERAJI: More like Karen Grigsby Books.


MERAJI: (Laughter) Am I right?

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Bates, on a recent episode, I mentioned that you read at least - at least - one book a week. You are the queen - la reina - of the CODE SWITCH book nerds. I don't know how to say the rest of that in Spanish.

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) Well, OK, I'll take it. And because this has been such a weird year, Shereen, I'm now sometimes reading more than one book a week in more than one way, like print, e-book, audiobook. I am nondenominational about that. Whatever can manage to capture my extremely fragmented attention at this point, that'll work.

MERAJI: Wait, why has this been a weird year?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A federal judge in Wisconsin yesterday dismissed another Trump campaign lawsuit asking the election results in that state be overturned.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Meanwhile, the pandemic is still worsening in the U.S. More than 224,000 new coronavirus cases were reported yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Portland has seen some of the country's largest and most sustained protests following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by police in Minneapolis.

MERAJI: Oh. All right. And by weird, we mean terrible. This year has been horrible.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, just some minor distractions. Anyway, because this year has been so weird and gone by so fast, we figured that some things might have fallen through the cracks, like the beautiful, glossy new books that you might normally seen strewn in every store window during the holiday season.

MERAJI: Yes. A lot of books did not get the notice or the shine they otherwise might have because 2020. But, Bates, you are going to remedy that.

GRIGSBY BATES: I hope so. I traveled virtually around the country to speak to some independent people of color-focused bookstores about the books they think deserve a little extra shine this year.

MERAJI: Excellent. All right. So who do we have first? Where are we going?

GRIGSBY BATES: We're going to frosty Minnesota, where the virus has actually had a weird silver lining for some businesses.

NADINE TEISBERG: My name is Nadine Teisberg. I work at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, Minn. We have been insanely busy throughout this whole pandemic, luckily enough.

GRIGSBY BATES: Birchbark is owned by the author Louise Erdrich. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and she writes a lot about native life on the reservation, keeping native culture close, trying not to get too appropriated or assimilated.

MERAJI: Yeah. And her book, "The Round House," won the National Book Award for fiction in 2012. So I'm guessing Louise only hires people who have amazing taste in literature. So I'm really excited to hear Nadine's recommendation.

TEISBERG: I would love to recommend "The Barren Grounds" by David A. Robertson. He is a member of Norway House Cree Nation, and he lives in Winnipeg. This book was released, I think, in September. "The Barren Grounds" follows two Indigenous children, Morgan and Eli, that are in the Canadian foster care system. In their newest foster home, they discover a portal in the attic to another frozen, barren ground world. There they meet two walking, talking animals, a fisher and a squirrel, who enlist their help in saving their frozen land from a greedy white man.

MERAJI: Ugh, greedy white men ruining this world and the worlds beyond this world - sounds like an entertaining read.

GRIGSBY BATES: Apparently it was. And Nadine's description of finding a portal into a frozen world immediately reminded me of "The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe."

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

GRIGSBY BATES: Remember that?


GRIGSBY BATES: That was another book I discovered in the third grade. And I still go back every couple of years and read it. I love it.

MERAJI: Turkish Delight, Karen. That's when I first learned about Turkish Delight. Anyway, I'm a fantasy fan, so this book sounds great. It sounds like it has a little fantasy in it. But Karen, I have to ask, what is a fisher? I am not familiar with that animal.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, Shereen, I'm embarrassed to tell you that the only fisher I've ever seen was in the form of a fur coat. And don't @ (ph) me, PETA. It was years ago, and it wasn't my fur coat. To me, fishers look like a cross between a cat and an otter. And in the book, this fisher, like his squirrel companion, is a spirit and cultural guide.

TEISBERG: On their journey, the children learn the Cree language and about traditional Indigenous way of living. So they finally feel a sense of community and self-worth. I just think it is a perfect mix of a really fun and genuinely funny fantasy novel with a serious novel that looks into the foster care system and specifically how it impacts Indigenous children. And it highlights environmental issues we are experiencing today. And it shows an Indigenous perspective and a way of living and caring for the land that certainly differs from a more mainstream occupation of the land.


MERAJI: And the book we've been talking about is "The Barren Grounds" by David A. Robertson. I really want to read this now.

GRIGSBY BATES: Me too. And FYI, this is a YA, a young adult, book. But Nadine says it's a great read no matter what your age.

MERAJI: Perfect. So I can get a copy for myself and one for my niece if she'll text me back - Marabella (ph).

GRIGSBY BATES: (Laughter) Well, you know, they don't have time for us anymore (laughter).

MERAJI: I know. All right, Bates. Where are we headed next?

GRIGSBY BATES: Next, we're going to the south, or southwest, to Tulsa, Okla. That's where Fulton Street Books & Coffee is located.

MERAJI: And is there a story behind that name - Fulton Street Books & Coffee?

GRIGSBY BATES: There is. Fulton Street's owner, Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, named the store after another Fulton Street. Like the children in "The Barren Grounds," Onikah was raised in the foster system. She was taken from her mom as a baby. And that part of her family lost track of her until a cousin found her a few years ago on Facebook. So something...


GRIGSBY BATES: ...Good did come out of Facebook. They had a reunion at her grandmother's house on Fulton Street in New Jersey. And Onikah said it was the first time she felt truly at home, like she'd found a place. And she wanted to create that sense of home and community in her bookstore, which opened in July.

MERAJI: That is a lovely backstory.


MERAJI: I'm glad I asked you (laughter) what that name meant. All right. So you said the store opened in July, though.


MERAJI: This past July - that must have been really hard.

GRIGSBY BATES: This past July - yeah. It was. This is what Onikah told me.

ONIKAH ASAMOA-CAESAR: In the wake of the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, there was a lot of folks who wanted to read about race, racism, the history of this country. And so we did have a spike for a little while there. But now I think we're really feeling the impact of COVID on small business. And so we're, you know, trying to see where the light at the end of the tunnel is just in terms of how long we're going to be in this.

MERAJI: Oh, I wish that was lasting...


MERAJI: ...You know? So she was basically hit with that nationwide I-need-to-suddenly-read-every-book-about-anti-racism rush that hit so many bookstores.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's right. So her recommendation is a book that acknowledges that sentiment and that kind of urgency. But it isn't race 101 for white liberals.

ASAMOA-CAESAR: The book, I think, definitely flew a little bit under the radar was "Begin Again" by Eddie Glaude. And it's a book that, unlike most of what folks have been reading this year about race and really educating white folks and white liberals on the history of this country and racism, this is a book that I feel like was written for me as a Black person who is walking through this experience right now in 2020. I feel like the writing was more directed in a way where it didn't feel like this was for the, you know, education of white folks, but this is for the folks who are experiencing it and living it every day.

MERAJI: Oh, nice.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. Onikah says Glaude's comparison of what went before to what's happening now really helped put things in perspective for her.

ASAMOA-CAESAR: One of the themes of the book really is this notion of the after times, and so calling upon - you know, which in my culture, Black culture, like, the wisdom of our ancestors. So looking at the writings and the works of James Baldwin and what was his after times to understand the after times that we're in now is a little bit like therapy, a little bit of healing, of validation, of instruction. So if folks are looking for, you know, a book that maybe didn't catch within all the hype, I think this is a good one.

MERAJI: Wow. The after times - I love that. Gene always says, back in the before times, you know, before COVID. And so that makes total sense - the after times. And by the way, anything that is therapeutic, I'm here for. You can never have too much therapy.

GRIGSBY BATES: God, especially these days.


MERAJI: Next up, we're headed to a store that's walking distance from where we both live.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's right. Eso Won Books is a nationally known Black bookstore that's just down the hill from us. I stopped by to see store co-owner James Fugate. And he had not one but two immediate recommendations. And since he's our hometown hero, Shereen, I let him tell me about both.

MERAJI: Oh, I think that's nice. I took a portrait of James for our story our teammate Natalie Escobar wrote about how Black bookstores are coping with this moment. So I am very excited to hear James' recommendations because it was just, you know, me looking into the camera, and we didn't get to talk much.

GRIGSBY BATES: Well, the first recommendation is a newly published paperback version of something that was actually published very late last year. So we're skating on a tech (ph), but still. The book is...

JAMES FUGATE: "The Fire Is Upon Us" - James Baldwin, William F. Buckley - it's about their famous debate at Oxford.

GRIGSBY BATES: "The Fire Is Upon Us" is by Nicholas Buccola. And by the way - and James was right - it was a prestigious English university. But it was Cambridge, not Oxford.


GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. That bit of calling...

MERAJI: Whatever (laughter).

GRIGSBY BATES: ...Yale, Harvard or Berkeley...

MERAJI: It's all the same.

GRIGSBY BATES: ...Stanford or something - people get all worked up about that.

MERAJI: Well, if you all don't know about this, there was a famous debate at the Cambridge Union, Cambridge University's prestigious debating society. It went down in 1965.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. And the results surprised a lot of people because it pitted William F. Buckley - scion of a wealthy Connecticut family, Yale graduate, icon of a certain WASPy lifestyle, despite the fact that he's Catholic - you know, WASP stands for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. And it pitted Buckley against James Baldwin - Harlem born and raised, self-educated, Black and gay. But despite his perceived disadvantages, Baldwin flayed Buckley. He was declared the undisputed winner of this closely watched debate. And people around the world watched it.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tremendously moving moment now - the whole of the Union standing and applauding this magnificent speech of James Baldwin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Never seen this happen before in the Union in all the years that I have known it.

MERAJI: That brings tears to my eyes, listening to that.

GRIGSBY BATES: It was a very - I mean, you can find it on YouTube. It is really fascinating. And I think Buckley seemed kind of shocked at the end. Here's James Fugate.

FUGATE: Buckley comes up with the idea after losing this debate that the kind of ugly words that were commonly said about Black people at that time, the kind of ugly policies - they just had to look and do a philosophical shift.

MERAJI: What does he mean by that? Does he mean a shift to become less racist?

GRIGSBY BATES: No. It's a shift to become more polished, more subtle about their racism than, say, the Klan or, you know, local yahoos that they saw on the news were. But all those guys were white supremacists. Buckley's supremacist was sort of cloaked in a erudite kind of conservatism. And it was more backdoor than the kind he sneered at, more genteel. But it was still white supremacy.

MERAJI: Yeah. So maybe this book will give people reckoning with their own racism. Quite a bit to chew on and think about.

GRIGSBY BATES: One can hope.

MERAJI: So that's "The Fire Is Upon Us" by Nicholas Buccola. And you know, it makes sense that James Fugate would shout out something about James Baldwin. If my memory serves me well, there's a big portrait of Baldwin hanging right over where the registers are at Eso Won. Anyway, what's James' second recommendation?

FUGATE: Oh, "The Secret Lives Of Church Ladies," which should be getting more attention, especially when you consider that it was nominated for the National Book Award for best novel of the year. It is a series of short stories. It is by Denisia Philyaw (ph). I may be pronouncing her name or absolutely killing her name.

GRIGSBY BATES: I think it's Deesha Philyaw.


FUGATE: But these short stories - every time I've read one of them, I have just been really moved. The writing reminded me of Junto Diaz's (ph) first book, "Drown."


GRIGSBY BATES: James, James.

MERAJI: Oh, James. That would be Junot Diaz. Obviously names are not Mr. Fugate's forte. But back to Deesha Philyaw.

FUGATE: She is really a very, very good writer. And I just - I hope that that book continues to get more review attention and more people find out about it. It's really good.

GRIGSBY BATES: And as you know, Shereen, James Fugate is kind of the literary equivalent of Mikey (ph).

MERAJI: I don't think many of our listeners are going to get that antiquated reference, Bates. I barely get that reference.

GRIGSBY BATES: You youngsters. Seriously? That's a classic cereal commercial. Two brothers want to test the new cereal out on their little brother because he hates everything. Let's give it to Mikey.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He won't eat it. He hates everything.

MERAJI: Explanatory comma, it means he's quite picky. And James is quite picky. So yeah, this must be a very good book, Karen. Have you read it?

GRIGSBY BATES: I read the first story on my Kindle. You know, they give you a sample. And so I didn't know it was going to be a whole story. And it was, and I was blown away. It's a really slim book, and the writing is so, so good. I cannot wait to get back to it.

MERAJI: I love that - some writing inspiration for those of us who need it. And one more time for the people in the back, that's "The Secret Lives Of Church Ladies" by Deesha Philyaw.


MERAJI: And with that, we are on to our last stop on this pandemic books road trip. So where are we going, Bates? And who'd you talk to you for this one?

GRIGSBY BATES: I talked with Pati DeRobles, who's one of the founders and co-owners of Cafe con Libros in Pomona, about an hour outside Los Angeles. And like the other store owners I talked to, Cafe con Libros carries books by and about people of color. They even have a little lending library in the back of the store, Shereen. It's really cute.

MERAJI: Love it.

GRIGSBY BATES: They were closed way back in the winter, back during our first lockdown here in LA. But when they reopened in May, Pati says...

PATI DEROBLES: Right away - it was interesting. The community came right back, you know, started calling us. And in May, it's like people were hungry for books.

MERAJI: So what book did Pati Derobles suggest to help satisfy that hunger?

DEROBLES: I have very limited amounts of books that I'll recommend about poetry. But there is a book that was published this year, and it's called "An Incomplete List Of Names." And the author is Michael Torres, and he happens to be from Pomona - originally from Pomona.

GRIGSBY BATES: I should say here, Shereen, that Pati is not only a bookstore owner, but she was a teacher for many years. She's now an assistant principal somewhere in the area. And she and her co-owner, Adelaide Bautista (ph), founded Cafe con Libros some 20 years ago because they never saw people who looked and lived like them in literature.

MERAJI: Right.

GRIGSBY BATES: They wanted brown faces with recognizable lives on their shelves.

MERAJI: I want to go to this store. I can't believe I've never been there - Cafe con Libros in Pomona.


MERAJI: And I want to know these two.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah, you would. I have not met Adelaide. I have grown to love Pati just talking to her on the phone. And Pati says that Michael Torres' writing actually reminds her of someone else, a famous someone else.

DEROBLES: Some of his writing reminds me of - kind of the same feeling I got when I first read Sandra Cisneros' "House On Mango Street," though his are poems and it's - you know, it's about home and identity.

MERAJI: We need to get him on the show.

GRIGSBY BATES: Yeah. Oh, his work is amazing. And they're, for the most part, about young brown boys. Pati says this is really important because, in her experience, boys of color - especially if they don't conform to the system in school, they're just dismissed, overlooked.

MERAJI: Definitely.

DEROBLES: There's almost, like, a disdain for them. And what does that do to an identity? So he has a very tender way of - you know, his identity is through his homies.


MERAJI: His identity is through his homies. I love that. And you know, unlike other types of writing, poetry is meant to be read aloud. So KGB, I feel like we need to go out with one of Michael's poems. Is that a possibility?

GRIGSBY BATES: Absolutely. Here's Michael Torres reading "The Pachuco's Grandson Considers Skipping School" at the E.P. Foster Library in Ventura, Calif.


MICHAEL TORRES: (Reading) I didn't want to be bad, but I wanted to be bad. Yesterday, someone threw a book at the sub's head. All I saw was a bird with paged wings. And today, when I walked into class, baggy-jeaned, he took roll but didn't call my name. That's how I knew I didn't have to answer no more. I became absent in my seat, asleep, became block letters for the name my homie bestowed. I dreamt chain links and angel wings, how to escape. At some point, we were awake, yes, all the brown boys like me, and we carved our new names into the desks in the shape of hearts. What a beautiful beating. We cut the tongues from our old shoes to stuff into new ones later so they'd pop like a bullfrog puffs when it's in danger, no one to recognize us. We were more mustached than our mothers could manage. Before fifth period, some left. Through a window, my homies clicked chins, what's up, for me to come through. Don't let the wind between the branches fool you, their eyes said. Every looking out also implies enclosure. Out there, where I could be anything, I placed the silver chain around my neck, and it fit like a slipped halo.


GRIGSBY BATES: Isn't that gorgeous?

MERAJI: Ugh, so good.

GRIGSBY BATES: Again, that's from "An Incomplete List Of Names" by Michael Torres. It was published a couple months ago in October.


MERAJI: And that is our show, book lovers. As we said earlier, you can find the list of all of these books on our website,

GRIGSBY BATES: You can also check out NPR's online book concierge, which just came out for 2020. It includes recommendations from just about every member of this team. So don't miss it.

MERAJI: Follow us on IG and Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. I'm @RadioMirage. KGB is @KarenBates. And sign up for our newsletter at

GRIGSBY BATES: This show was produced by Kumari Devarajan and edited by Leah Donnella.

MERAJI: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung, Steve Drummond, Natalie Escobar, LA Johnson. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza. My co-host is Gene Demby. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GRIGSBY BATES: And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See ya.

MERAJI: Peace.


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