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Ann Petry

Black lives matter. These are among my favorite reads — novels, plays, poetry, nonfiction — about Black lives in America and overseas. Each is illuminating, infuriating, heartbreaking. 

Native Son, by Richard Wrignt (1940)

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The Street, by Ann Petry (1946)  

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (2003) 

A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange (1976)

Harlem, by Langston Hughes (1951)

We Real Cool, by Gwendolyn Brooks (1959)

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih (1966), which ends, “Help! Help!”

During this pandemic and rightful unrest, I read books that made me think about oppression, migration, motherhood and creativity, and showing up for those we love. I am so much at home, still. I read in my city garden, on my sunny deck, and in a favorite spot beside some open windows. 

Here’s what I can recommend: 


A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a young Muslim woman on her way to a better life than her indigent parents. She is educated, speaks English, works retail. After hours she unwinds with a cigarette — such a luxury — in a Kolkata public square. There she witnesses a train bombing, which kills nearly 100. Police do nothing to help its victims, trapped by flames. Later that night, Jivan posts on Facebook the notion that government, in its inaction, is equal to the terrorists. 

Swiftly, Jivan is jailed, tried, convicted, sentenced to death. 

Hers is one of three stories in this quickly paced tale. PT Sir is a phys ed teacher at the school Jivan attended. He’s annoyed that she dropped out, after he’d been kind and encouraging. PT Sir, also upwardly mobile, does favors for a political party and rises in its ranks, eventually allowing him to leave teaching. In his new post, can he save Jivan?

There’s Lovely, a hijara, who dreams of a film career. Jivan had tutored Lovely in English, and Lovely — a man who presents as a woman — testifies on her behalf. As Lovely’s star rises, will she save Jivan?

This read took me deep into a world I barely knew. I loved the story, and admired its telling. 

The Ordinary Seaman, by Francisco Goldman

I admit to picking this up because a reviewer said it contained one of the best sex scenes ever written. Half way in — the story concerns sailors attached to a ship that’s not seaworthy, docked in a Brooklyn port — I thought, did I get this right? There’s a sex scene? And then our hero, Esteban, dreams of his dead novia, La Marta. Wowza. It’s only a page or two but rivals Joyce’s Molly soliloquy.

That said, this book is so much more than a great sex scene. Esteban and his mates, all from South America, are marooned. (The ship’s owners visit, bring food, assure them that once the ship is repaired, they’ll be on their way.) These seamen have no rights, they speak no English. When they venture off the boat, they are robbed and beaten. 

Interwoven stories of the ship’s owners — yes, you’ll want to strangle them — and a Ship’s Visitor liven the read. 

Eventually, Esteban dares to leave the boat alone, at night. In a neighborhood of immigrants, he finds kindness, love, friendship, hope. 

A great read, published in 1997. 

The Equivalents, by Maggie Doherty

Mid-career women artists, poets, writers, scholars were invited, in 1960, to apply for  paid fellowships at Radcliffe College at Harvard University. (A kind of “room of own’s own,” with others.) 

The Institute for Independent Study was the brainchild of Radcliffe president Mary Ingraham Bunting, who felt that the U.S. asked little of its women outside the home. It was “a climate of unexpectation,” at a time when women in the Soviet Union were 30 percent of its engineers and 75 percent of its doctors. The U.S., she declared, was wasting a precious resource: educated women.

With the Institute, Bunting sought to kick start the careers of scholars and artists who had been sidelined by motherhood. Most fellows had advanced degrees; if not, they were deigned “equivalent.” 

Among its first class was a group whose lives and work would thereafter be entwined: poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, writer Tillie Olsen, artist Barbara Swan, sculptor Marianna Pineda. 

Doherty captures the time and place, the personalities, the work, the place of women in society and education. She explores the competing desires of motherhood and creativity. This is nonfiction at its finest. Bravo, Maggie Doherty.

The Motion of the Body Through Space, by Lionel Shriver.

I’m a fan of her work because no matter the subject, Shriver provides a fluid read, typically about intelligent people doing questionable and sometimes awful things. This book is not as searing as, say, We Need to Talk about Kevin, but this is still a Shriver.

Serenata (ugh, that name) is the book’s unsympathetic narrator. (That’s a skill, to get and keep a reader invested in an unlikeable person.) Her recently retired husband Remington decides to train for a marathon. Wait: extreme exercise has always been her thing! Remington hires a sexy trainer and joins a group with the same goal. With her bad knees, Serenata is sidelined, reduced to spectator and provider of snacks. Also in the mix: the couple’s newly evangelical daughter and her many children. Also their drug dealer son. 

This is delicious satire. It’s fun to see this couple fall apart and find each other again. It’s set in beautiful Duchess County, New York, an area I know and love. 


If you’re like me and read everything good, then bad, about blood-testing entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes you might think you don’t need to read John Carreyou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up. You do. The story is soooo crazy and Carreyou tells it like a thriller. Founded in 2003 after she dropped out of Stanford, Holmes sold her finger-prick blood testing idea — it was never a reality — to investors, Walgreen’s, Safeway grocery stores. She loaded her board with statesmen such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Mattis. By 2014, she was on The Forbes 400 list of America’s richest people with an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion: her 50% stake in Theranos was valued by investors at $9 billion. It was all a fraud. Carreyou’s reporting, for The Wall Street Journal, unmasked her.

Speaking of fraud, here’s a link to avoid plagiarism.

My friend Suzanne pressed me to read Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I’m glad she did. It’s a work whose magnificence sneaks up on you. At first it seems like a well written story about a group of college friends, two of whom —  Bobbi and Frances – perform poetry together. Bobbi and Frances befriend a cool older couple, Melissa and Nick, who may be having marriage troubles. The story seems a bauble until Frances and Nick, a film star, fall into an affair. I know this sounds pedestrian but Rooney’s characters are witty, smart, dimensional. I didn’t see the end coming; it made sense and kind of broke my heart. 

Speaking of cheaters, check out this site.

The Library of America recently issued a collection of two Ann Petry novels, The Street and The Narrows. Do read her if, like me, you haven’t. The Street tells the story of Lutie Johnson, a pretty black woman who takes a small apartment in Harlem, on 116th Street, in the hopes of giving her young son a better life. The super tries to rape her, the madam at the window offers work, a band leader fools Lutie into believing her singing will lift her out of poverty. This is the story of a street and its people. No happy endings here.

I’m a loyal reader. If I loved a book, I’m likely to read the author’s others. (And vice versa: if I hate a book I’m stingy on second chances.) Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls, was a favorite of mine last year. It tells the story of an unhappy wife who falls in love with a sea creature who has escaped from a nearby institute. In Binstead’s Safari the action is (a little) more firmly grounded in reality, but also concerns a miserable marriage and a woman’s journey out of it. Millie follows her sourpuss husband, an academic, to London and then to Africa, where he will study lion myths. Millie blossoms in London, and takes a lover in Africa. Is Millie more than a woman? Is she a lion god? A deliciously smart, funny, tragic read. 

I’m enjoying Benjamin Dreyer’s guide to clarity and style Dreyer’s English and lapping up Eleanor Perényi’s More was Lost, a memoir of her youthful marriage, in 1937, to a Hungarian baron.