A new quarter is starting tomorrow and I think most of you share the feeling that the first one of this year has been going on forever… But here we are now and persumably the next three months will be pretty taxing aswell. Of course, there are always books for some comfort, for learning, for getting engaged. As quite a few books’ release dates have been pushed to later this year (or even next year) due to the current crisis, I have double-checked all of the books I feature … but change fast.
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement (Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha und Ejeris Dixon)
Synopsis: “Afraid to call 911 but not sure what to do instead? Transformative justice and other community-based approaches to violence have existed for centuries, yet are often under the radar and marginalized. This is How We Survive focuses on concrete alternatives to policing and prisons. From practical tool-kits and personal essays, to supporting people in mental health crises, to community-based murder investigations, this text delves deeply into the “how to” of transformative justice. Along the way, this volume documents the history of this radical movement, creating space for long time organizers to reflect on victories, struggles, mistakes, and transformations.”
Why I am excited: First of all, I think this is a very important topic. It is always timely but right now to observe how many people can only imagine policing and surveillence as ways to handle a pandemic (and don’t every think about incarcareted people) makes me want to read it even more in this moment. Also I have absolutely loved what I have read by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha in the past.
Day/Break (Gwen Benaway)
Synopsis: “DAY/BREAK, poet Gwen Benaway’s fourth collection of work, explores the everyday poetics of the trans feminine body. Through intimate experiences and conceptualizations of trans life, DAY/BREAK asks what it means to be a trans woman, both within the text and out in the physical world. Shifting between theory and poetry, Benaway questions how gender, sexuality, and love intersect with the violence and transmisogyny of the nation state and established literary institutions. In beautiful lyric verse, DAY/BREAK reveals the often-unseen other worlds of trans life, where body, self, and sex are transformed, becoming more than fixed binary locations.”
Why I am excited: I really enjoyed Holy Wild, the 2018 poetry collection by Anishinaabe and Métis poet Gwen Benaway.
Heaven (Emerson Whitney)
Synopsis: “In the first few pages of Heaven, Emerson Whitney writes: “Really, I can’t explain myself without making a mess.” What follows is that mess—electrifying, gorgeous.
In arresting prose, Whitney writes of moving through homes around the country, of transness, and, at the book’s root, of their complex and often difficult relationship with their mother: their first window into understanding womanness and all that’s bound up in it. Whitney streaks this through with queer and gender theory, standing audaciously in the face of uncertainty, to ask: “if the ‘feminine’ thus far has only existed as a defective version of a masculine idea, then maybe there’s something living, like between the gap in the sidewalk, that is actual femininity, accessible to all.” Whitney stands in the gap, writes in the gap.
Heaven functions much like a hand-dipped candle, lowered patiently into theory and memory—a caught manta rays hanging aloft a dock, a mother checking her teeth in the mirror above the stove—that, taken together, thicken into an astounding, expansive examination of what makes us up. For fans of Eileen Myles or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Whitney’s Heaven introduces an important new public intellectual. ”
Why I am excited: After last year was such a phenomenal one for queer memoirs I’d love for 2020 to continue this trend. This book – somewhere between theory and memoir – sounds absolutely fascinating.
The Infinite (Patience Agbabi)
Synopsis: “Leaplings, children born on the 29th of February, are very rare. Rarer still are Leaplings with The Gift – the ability to leap through time. Elle Bibi-Imbele Ifie has The Gift, but she’s never used it. Until now. On her twelfth birthday, Elle and her best friend Big Ben travel to the Time Squad Centre in 2048. Elle has received a mysterious warning from the future. Other Leaplings are disappearing in time – and not everyone at the centre can be trusted. Soon Elle’s adventure becomes more than a race through time. It’s a race against time. She must fight to save the world as she knows it – before it ceases to exist…”
Why I am excited: A couple of years ago I saw Patience Agbabi read from her – fantastic! – poetry collection Telling Tales and have loved her poetry even before that. Her craft is really incredible. The Infinite is now her array into middlegrade and the blurb sounds like a very engaging, fun read.
Afterlife (Julia Alvarez)
Synopsis: “Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words.
Afterlife is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?”
Why I am excited: Confession: I have never read anything by Julia Alvarez before and I’d like to change that.
Also this month: Junebat (John Elizabeth Stintzi), How Much of These Hills Is Gold (C Pam Zhang), Spawn (Marie-André Gill), Vagabonds (Hao Jingfang), A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship: Poems (Ariel Francisco), Take Me Apart (Sara Sligar), What You Become in Flight: A Memoir (Ellen O’Connell Whittet), The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (Maggie Tokuda-Hall), Conditional Citizens (Laila Lalami), Kept Animals (Kate Milliken), Searching for Simphiwe (Sifiso Mzobe), Are We Home Yet? (Katy Massey)
Out of the Crazywoods (Cheryl Savageau)
Synopsis: “Out of the Crazywoods is the riveting and insightful story of Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau’s late-life diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Without sensationalizing, she takes the reader inside the experience of a rapid-cycling variant of the disorder, providing a lens through which to understand it and a road map for navigating the illness. The structure of her story—impressionistic, fragmented—is an embodiment of the bipolar experience and a way of perceiving the world.
Out of the Crazywoods takes the reader into the euphoria of mania as well as its ugly, agitated rage and into “the lying down of desire” that is depression. Savageau articulates the joy of being consort to a god and the terror of being chased by witchcraft, the sound of voices that are always chattering in your head, the smell of wet ashes that invades your home, the perception that people are moving in slow motion and death lurks at every turnpike, and the feeling of being loved by the universe and despised by everyone you’ve ever known.
Central to the journey out of the Crazywoods is the sensitive child who becomes a poet and writer who finds clarity in her art and a reason to heal in her grandchildren. Her journey reveals the stigma and the social, personal, and economic consequences of the illness but reminds us that the disease is not the person. Grounded in Abenaki culture, Savageau questions cultural definitions of madness and charts a path to recovery through a combination of medications, psychotherapy, and ceremony.”
Why I am excited: Last year I read Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying about her experience with Bipolar II and anxiety. And I am seeing forward to read more on the topic from another’s person experience and perspective.
Stray: A Memoir (Stephanie Danler)
Synopsis: “After selling her first novel–a dream she’d worked long and hard for–Stephanie Danler knew she should be happy. Instead, she found herself driven to face the difficult past she’d left behind a decade ago: a mother disabled by years of alcoholism, further handicapped by a tragic brain aneurysm; a father who abandoned the family when she was three, now a meth addict in and out of recovery. After years in New York City she’s pulled home to Southern California by forces she doesn’t totally understand, haunted by questions of legacy and trauma. Here, she works toward answers, uncovering hard truths about her parents and herself as she explores whether it’s possible to change the course of her history.
Lucid and honest, heart-breaking and full of hope, Stray, is an examination of what we inherit and what we don’t have to, of what we have to face in ourselves to move forward, and what it’s like to let go of one’s parents in order to find a peace–and family–of one’s own.”
Why I am excited: I love a good memoir, I think that is apparent. I have been following Stephanie Danler for a long time online and I am sure this will be a complex and honest exhaminiation of trauma, addiction, and family.
Book of the Little Axe (Lauren Francis-Sharma)
Synopsis: “In 1796 Trinidad, young Rosa Rendón quietly but purposefully rebels against the life others expect her to lead. Bright, competitive, and opinionated, Rosa sees no reason she should learn to cook and keep house, for it is obvious her talents lie in running the farm she, alone, views as her birthright. But when her homeland changes from Spanish to British rule, it becomes increasingly unclear whether its free black property owners–Rosa’s family among them–will be allowed to keep their assets, their land, and ultimately, their freedom.
By 1830, Rosa is living among the Crow Nation in Bighorn, Montana with her children and her husband, Edward Rose, a Crow chief. Her son Victor is of the age where he must seek his vision and become a man. But his path forward is blocked by secrets Rosa has kept from him. So Rosa must take him to where his story began and, in turn, retrace her own roots, acknowledging along the way, the painful events that forced her from the middle of an ocean to the rugged terrain of a far-away land.”
Why I am excited: This book made my list by the content of the description alone. This sounds like a historical novel with vantage points I have rarely read from.
All My Mother’s Lovers: A Novel (Ilana Masad)
Synopsis: “Intimacy has always eluded twenty-seven-year-old Maggie Krause—despite being brought up by married parents, models of domestic bliss—until, that is, Lucia came into her life. But when Maggie’s mom, Iris, dies in a car crash, Maggie returns home only to discover a withdrawn dad, an angry brother, and, along with Iris’s will, five sealed envelopes, each addressed to a mysterious man she’s never heard of.
In an effort to run from her own grief and discover the truth about Iris—who made no secret of her discomfort with her daughter’s sexuality—Maggie embarks on a road trip, determined to hand-deliver the letters and find out what these men meant to her mother. Maggie quickly discovers Iris’s second, hidden life, which shatters everything Maggie thought she knew about her parents’ perfect relationship. What is she supposed to tell her father and brother? And how can she deal with her own relationship when her whole world is in freefall?
Told over the course of a funeral and shiva, and written with enormous wit and warmth, All My Mother’s Lovers is the exciting debut novel from fiction writer and book critic Ilana Masad. A unique meditation on the universality and particularity of family ties and grief, and a tender and biting portrait of sex, gender, and identity, All My Mother’s Lovers challenges us to question the nature of fulfilling relationships.”
Why I am excited: Just that last paragraph alone ticks all my boxes.
Boys of Alabama (Genevieve Hudson)
Synopsis: “In this bewitching debut novel, a sensitive teen, newly arrived in Alabama, falls in love, questions his faith, and navigates a strange power. While his German parents don’t know what to make of a South pining for the past, shy Max thrives in the thick heat. Taken in by the football team, he learns how to catch a spiraling ball, how to point a gun, and how to hide his innermost secrets.
Max already expects some of the raucous behavior of his new, American friends—like their insatiable hunger for the fried and cheesy, and their locker room talk about girls. But he doesn’t expect the comradery—or how quickly he would be welcomed into their world of basement beer drinking. In his new canvas pants and thickening muscles, Max feels like he’s “playing dress-up.” That is until he meets Pan, the school “witch,” in Physics class: “Pan in his all black. Pan with his goth choker and the gel that made his hair go straight up.” Suddenly, Max feels seen, and the pair embarks on a consuming relationship: Max tells Pan about his supernatural powers, and Pan tells Max about the snake poison initiations of the local church. The boys, however, aren’t sure whose past is darker, and what is more frightening—their true selves, or staying true in Alabama.
Writing in verdant and visceral prose that builds to a shocking conclusion, Genevieve Hudson “brilliantly reinvents the Southern Gothic, mapping queer love in a land where God, guns, and football are king” (Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks). Boys of Alabama becomes a nuanced portrait of masculinity, religion, immigration, and the adolescent pressures that require total conformity. ”
Why I am excited: What I still think about, when I think of Hudson’s short story collection Pretend We Live Here, is the way she crafted dense atmosphere and the ever present underlying current of queerness. I am excited to see if/ how she mantains that in novel length.
Also this month: Miss Iceland (Audur Ava Olafsdottir), Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots (Morgan Jerkins)
The Vanashing Half (Brit Bennett)
Synopsis: “The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.”
Why I am excited: Britt Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers was such a memorable read with a strong voice (and chorus!), I would have put any kind of book she were to write next here.
A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire (Yuri Herrera)
Synopsis: “On March 10, 1920, in Pachuca, Mexico, the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company―the largest employer in the region, and known simply as the Company―may have been guilty of murder.
The alert was first raised at six in the morning: a fire was tearing through the El Bordo mine. After a short evacuation, the mouths of the shafts were sealed. Company representatives hastened to assert that “no more than ten” men remained in the shafts at the time of their closure, and Company doctors hastened to proclaim them dead. The El Bordo stayed shut for six days.
When the mine was opened there was a sea of charred bodies―men who had made it as far as the exit, only to find it shut. The final death toll was not ten, but eighty-seven. And there were seven survivors.
Now, a century later, acclaimed novelist Yuri Herrera has carefully reconstructed a worker’s tragedy at once globally resonant and deeply personal: Pachuca is his hometown. His sensitive and deeply humanizing work is an act of restitution for the victims and their families, bringing his full force of evocation to bear on the injustices that suffocated this horrific event into silence.”
Why I am excited: Mine workers still today – globally – are often treated as often disposable and their bodies are being put under extreme duress all in the name of profit. This book sounds like an important exploration and poignant project.
Ogadinma or Everything Will Be All Right (Ukamaka Olisakwe)
Synopsis: “Ogadinma Or, Everything Will be All Right tells the story of the naïve and trusting teenager Ogadinma as she battles against Nigeria’s societal expectations in the 1980s. After a rape and unwanted pregnancy leave her exiled from her family in Kano, thwarting her plans to go to university, she is sent to her aunt’s in Lagos and pressured into a marriage with an older man.
When their whirlwind romance descends into abuse and indignity, Ogadinma is forced to channel her independence and resourcefulness to escape a fate that appears all but inevitable. Ogadinma, the UK debut by Ukamaka Olisakwe, introduces a heroine for whom it is impossible not to root, and announces the author as a gifted chronicler of the patriarchal experience.”
Why I am excited: While this storyline sounds just like a bit much in the sense of one desaster after the other, in the hands of the right writer this could be a very good examination of a woman navigating patriarchy. I am interested to find out if this book is that.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected (Zen Cho)
Synopsis: “Zen Cho returns with a found family wuxia fantasy that combines the vibrancy of old school martial arts movies with characters drawn from the margins of history.
A bandit walks into a coffeehouse, and it all goes downhill from there. Guet Imm, a young votary of the Order of the Pure Moon, joins up with an eclectic group of thieves (whether they like it or not) in order to protect a sacred object, and finds herself in a far more complicated situation than she could have ever imagined.”
Why I am excited: Zen Cho is such a prolific but also terribly under-valued writer. Her books are always fun and thoughtful, so I can’t wait to read this one.
How Beautiful We Were (Imbolo Mbue )
Synopsis: ““We should have known the end was near.”
So begins Imbolo Mbue’s powerful second novel, How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company.
Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean-up and financial reparations to the villagers are made—and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. Their struggle would last for decades and come at a steep price.
Told through the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary, How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold onto its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.”
Why I am excited: Another confession: I did not care that much for Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel The Dreamers. But this description sounds so good and I really want to give her work a second chance.
Also this month: The Lightness: A Novel (Emily Temple), The Groom Will Keep His Name: And Other Vows I’ve Made About Race, Resistance, and Romance (Matt Ortile)