These books wrestle with the question “Who am I?”

Each month, the Columbia Public Library offers selections from its collection related to a current bestseller or hot topic. Library associate Ida Fogle has compiled this month’s selections.

When we are born, we are described by a name, a sex, a nationality, a race. We are someone’s child, brother, sister, cousin. But do any of these labels really identify an individual, or is the authentic self something we discover within? Many authors have grappled with the existential dilemma of what constitutes identity.

“She Who Became the Sun” (Tor Books, 2021) by Shelley Parker-Chan is an alternate history of the founding of the Ming Dynasty in China. In this novel with complex plots, two poor children, a sister and a brother, are told their fate. The boy will achieve greatness, while the girl’s fate is simply “nothing”. But when the brother dies, his little sister takes his name – Zhu Chongba – and enters a monastery as a boy, the first step in a rise to power.

Memoirs of Ron Stallworth, “Black Klansman” (Flatiron Books, 2018), immerses the reader in what the former Colorado Springs police detective calls “the investigation of a lifetime”. Stallworth, who is black, managed to infiltrate a local KKK chapter to investigate their plans and recruitment efforts. While speaking to executives by phone and coordinating behind the scenes, a colleague took his name when a personal appearance was required.

False identity is also at the center of another memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Lee Israel was a well-paid and powerful author until she was no longer. A failed book and a growing problem with alcoholism contributed to his unspoken exile from the publishing world. Desperate to earn an income, she turned to selling fake letters, allegedly from literary greats. It is a testament to her writing talent that she was so convincingly able to imitate the styles of many different authors.

"An elderly lady does no good"

Helene Tursten has created a delightfully wicked character who is not at all what she seems in the short story collection “An Elderly Lady Does No Good” (Soho Crime, 2018). Maud is an octogenarian from Sweden who has built a satisfying life for herself. To outward appearances, he is a sweet, gentle, and somewhat silly soul who is quietly living out his final years. Don’t think of meeting her. Extreme bad luck seems to come to those who do, a fact not lost on Detective Inspector Irene Huss, who suspects the real Maud bears little resemblance to the image she shows the world.

While the main character of Tursten cultivates an artificial facade to escape murder, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata in “Convenience Store Wife” (Grove Press, 2019) does it to get away with life. At 36, Keiko Furukura has spent her entire adult life employed at the Smile Mart convenience store. This is the only place where she understands the rules of behavior, which are listed in detail in the company manual. She repeatedly observes that “foreign objects are expelled” and understands that her neurodivergence makes her a foreign object. She studies the clothing styles, topics of conversation, and mannerisms of those around her so she can put on a mask of normalcy and survive. His efforts are equally likely to evoke laughter or tears.

"Gender Queer"

“Queer gender” (Oni Press, 2019), a memoir in graphic novel form, is a moving look at gender and society. Maia Kobabe takes readers on a personal journey to discover what it means to realize that you are not binary in a society where people are sorted by one or the other. The author skillfully synthesizes deeply personal memories with information meant to instruct. Throughout the story, the importance of love and acceptance shines through.

In young adult fantasy “Skin of the Sea” (Random House, 2021) from Natasha Bowen, we meet a character who has a different kind of identity struggle. Simidele is a Mama Wati, a mermaid responsible for providing peaceful passage for the souls of those who die at sea. The numbers are increasing as slaver ships travel from Africa to other continents. Although she’s supposed to forget, Simi remembers her previous life as a human a bit too well. One day, she makes the grave mistake of saving a boy’s life, a decision that brings her into conflict with her assigned role and with the gods themselves.

About Joey J. Hott

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