Spring Booknotes 2019
Lush and heartbreaking, G. Willow Wilson’s fantastical story takes place during the Iberian Peninsula’s last sultanate. Fatima, the sultan’s concubine, escapes with the royal mapmaker, Hassan, when his secret talent is deemed sinister sorcery. Aided by a jinn and chased by the Spanish Inquisition, they journey to a mythical island created out of a story they spun together. The Bird King is rich in historical detail and as beautifully rendered as a fairy tale. Even though centuries separate us from this saga on the price of freedom and love, it’s ripe with wisdom for our present. -Elaine
Written as a series of stories told by a prisoner to his captor, this is, at the most basic level, an excellent collection of Afrocentric fairy tales—but it’s also so much more. Each tale brings us closer to the enigmatic narrator as he is forced to lay bare his life, and his developing relationship with his interrogator lends an added tension to each story. James’s devotion to maintaining the voice of the narrator throughout is masterful At times a challenging read, but entirely worth the effort, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an intensely personal and provocative experience.. -Chester
Sharma Shields's novel reads like one of her character's visions, a dream you only later realize was a nightmare all along. The Cassandra is a tragedy—a lamentation for voices silenced by patriarchy and complicity, for horrors that could have been prevented—but one that evokes fury more than sorrow. Shields never flinches from showing the violence Mildred experiences, nor that which she witnesses in her increasingly grotesque visions, and she is always quick to remind us how many mundane or spectacular forms violence can take. Often beautiful, sometimes uncomfortable, and always unsettling. -Callie
Xiosphant is a city in the permanent strip of dusk on an inhospitable planet with a rigid currency system, language, and set of rules. When Sophie takes the fall for breaking one of them, she sets off a chain of events that could forever alter the human race. Anders subtly weaves in issues such as climate change, politics, and the ways in which miscommunication can destroy us. But beneath the radical, ingenious plot is a beautiful, beating heart that speaks to what it means to be human and how we might be capable of more. It’s Nausicaä meets China Miéville; it’s incredibly imaginative, warm, and thrilling. -Elaine
The Dreamers is a hypnotic study in character that strikes the perfect balance between intimacy and detachment. It reads like watching a film, zooming in and out between characters, observing as the consequences of one action and then another send ripples through town. Walker is a lyrical storyteller, feeding readers thought-provoking turns of phrase without being too flowery. She raises questions about memory, fear, courage, and sacrifice, leaving us to contemplate the answers for ourselves. This is a science fiction book for those who don't usually read science fiction. -Liz T.
Gingerbread is an inventive mix of magical realism, fairy tale, and what we might call the real world. Amidst a fantastic story of a possible changeling child and a London gingerbread factory staffed by farm girls from a distant land, Oyeyemi weaves in deep themes of classism, violence, and familial hardship. That much of the story unfolds during a nighttime conversation between a mother and daughter recalls oral tradition and the passing on of tales. Like gingerbread itself, I found this story to be substantive, satisfying, a little sweet, and a little dark. -Alex
California is gone and has been replaced by the Golden State, a society established to define, enforce, and maintain the "objectively so"—the truth. The US has fractured and the Golden State has closed itself to the outside world. Laszlo Ratesic is a member of the Speculative Service, charged with ferreting out liars. This novel turns the idea of truth on its head. Is anything "objectively so?" Laszlo finds himself confronted with a case that defies the facts and is drawn irrevocably into a labyrinth of mind-bending and deadly deception. -Greg
Hark might be the antidote you’ve been looking for in the overwhelming barrage of bad news and sad stories. Literary veteran Sam Lipsyte will have you laughing with this social satire, a vicious yet lighthearted reflection of familiar trends and their followers, whom we love to hate. With distastefully relatable characters living in a society just far enough removed from our own, I found myself either smiling or cringing with every page. Prepare yourself for some snarky slapstick humor that helps you disassociate from reality while keeping your feet planted firmly on the ground. -Riley
Ayesha Harruna Attah masterfully weaves together a juxtaposition of a loved and lovely African land that was thoroughly torn apart by the precolonial slave trade. Aminah and Wurche lead extremely different lives, one of royalty and the other of slavery, but they are thrust into each other’s worlds at the height of tensions in a region coming to a boiling point. The struggles they endure and overcome together are a testament to the courage of these two women, as well as that of an entire land, in their effort to see their country as beautiful again. -Allen
With over a century of life behind her, Fiona Skinner rests comfortably on her laurels as a poet of great renown. But when a young fan asks her a dangerously loaded question, she must peer far into the past for the answer. What follows is a slippery trail through a lifetime, and it seems even many years cannot dull the keen reach of memory. What choices do we make and why? What keeps us connected? What drives us apart? Here is a meditation on womanhood, loss, and the nature of family. If your sibling has ever warmed your heart—or broken it—this is for you. -Liz K.
A vexing and pressing question animates Valeria Luiselli's ambitious, wondrous new novel: what, in our current moment in history—with children subject to social, and often actual, death in the name of this massive settler empire's border—can the novel do? The answer is never simple, but there is a radical potential in the archives for Luiselli. The simple fact of telling the stories of those erased is, for her, a deeply political act in itself, imbued with the power to enact new and better worlds. This dexterous, astonishing experiment of a novel is Luiselli’s attempt to do just that. -Sam W.
Bryan Washington's debut collection of short stories, Lot, is thick—not in terms of actual length, but in terms of a certain energy that emanates from the pages as you make your way through kaleidoscopic stories rife with imagery thicker than a jar of molasses in wintertime. Washington knows his way around description, diving deep into the granular aspects of his coming of age in the famed "Space City" (a.k.a. Houston, TX). Stories of family betrayal, fleeting teen romance, illicit love, compassionate drug dealers, and the struggles of the working class make up this rousing debut. -Blair
Okay, listen: Sally Rooney is a literary darling and I was determined to think this book was just okay because I hate literary darling-ship. I admit it. I'm also eating crow, because Normal People is stellar. It's the story of two friends graduating from adolescence to young adulthood and their ever-shifting relationship. It sounds pretty simple. It is not. Rooney is insidiously clever, with a matter-of-fact radicalism that examines the dynamics of sexual submission and waves a middle finger at the horrors of late capitalism while staying grounded and intimate. I'm won over. Entirely. -Shawn
When her mother dies, Nurunisa moves to Paris and meets a writer named M. Filled with lists and loneliness, Walking on the Ceiling documents the friendship between Nurunisa (Nunu) and M, and Nunu’s childhood in Istanbul with her depressed, neglectful mother. Nunu’s distorted truths isolate her from everyone in her life. The inventories Nunu composes are her desperate attempt to remember and preserve her various versions of the truth and the details that bring them to life. Savaş has written a devastating and beautiful novel and has made Nunu herself unforgettable. -Ellis
Imagine a snowy landscape with nothing but this dreamy morsel to light the way. Han Kang's new novel is semi autobiographical and fully engrossing. In a foreign city haunted by a dark history, the narrator sinks into isolation by shining a light on the darkness that has haunted her since before her birth. Weaving whiteness through memories of the past and details of the book’s present, Kang creates a dreamscape for the reader to sift through chaotic ties that bind one to time and place. This was my first foray into the author’s oeuvre and I was instantly gripped by her way with language. -Riley
Gathered in a hayloft for two days, the Mennonite women of Molotschna must decide how to respond to the realization that, for two years, they have been drugged and raped by a few trusted men of their community. How can they protect themselves and their children, while staying true to their faith? What results is a profound, surprisingly philosophical discussion of forgiveness, faith, and obligation. While the situation is disturbing, the conversation is far from hopeless or depressing; these women are resilient and intelligent, and they will remind you of the simple power of women talking. -Emma
Alexander von Humboldt was the environmentalist, anti-capitalist, abolitionist, definitely-probably gay explorer of my dreams and I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of him. The collage aesthetic of this work of graphic nonfiction combines Humboldt’s actual drawings, photographs, botanical samples, and narrative illustration. Narrated by a fictional representation of Humboldt himself, this book both captures his energetic, information-packed style as well as the stories of his explorations in South, Central, and North America. What an adventure! -Ellis
Ross Gay’s essays, like the author himself, often stop to smell the roses, turning down footpaths of free association that bring a spontaneous, conversational feel to the twisting lines. Rather than the neatly ordered avenues of success or productivity, these joy-seeking meditations evoke the whole-hearted messiness of delight. Grab a cup of tea and take a stroll through Gay’s garden, grown from sorrowful soils of racism and loss, but filled with blooming bursts of pop music, every variety of tree, and so many of his friends that the air buzzes with affectionate nicknames. -Lara
Leigh Calvez, the author who brought us The Hidden Lives of Owls, has crafted another must-read book about the fascinating beings with whom we share this planet. The Breath of a Whale is an intimate journey of more than a decade spent up close and personal following some of nature's most majestic and intelligent creatures, from the orcas off our own Washington coast to the giant blue whales of the deep. With the future of our planet's health at such a turning point, this beautiful, hopeful, and deeply personal book could not come at a more important time. -Amy
I love the way Maria Popova’s mind works, the way she writes. The journey she takes us on in Figuring interweaves the lives, interior and exterior, of a skein of extraordinary individuals, from early astronomer Johannes Kepler to environmentalist Rachel Carson, lingering along the way with Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, and, for me, the most strange and splendid genius of them all: Emily Dickinson. Popova searches for answers to such questions as: are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Figuring delights, enlightens, and intrigues as few other books I've read in many a year have. -Peter
There are not enough superlatives for Mary Norris’s clever, canny, entrancing, and enchanting new book. Writing on her most beloved topic, language (especially Greek), Norris gives readers a fascinating etymological education as she relates her own personal journey. Her topics range from the influence of Greek on many alphabets and its constant appearance in spelling bees, to its importance in theatre. One of the book’s strengths is Norris’s delightful sense of humor as she peppers the book with puns and other forms of wordplay. Throughout, Norris lovingly guides the reader through a heady Greek-centric lesson on linguistics, culture, and history. -Holly
Treuer provides a long and diverse history of the varieties of inter-tribal and international encounters between Native Americans, Europeans, and the US government. Reading about the contours of Native cultures and politics over the years is both devastating and uplifting, with no simple answers provided in Treuer's often agnostic account. Most fascinating is his use of personal experiences, his own and those of his contemporaries, to weave the story back and forth in time and space with tonal variations that echo the breadth of the subject. A necessary and vivifying read. -Wes
Essayist Akiko Busch explores the value of the unseen through the lenses of nature (an arctic fox's snow-white fur), the arts (Mary Ruefle's erasure poetry), and social development (childhood imaginary friends). Though she examines the consequences of social-media overexposure, Busch avoids the cautionary tale trap; she's also conscious of the roles race and gender play in regards to systemic invisibility and its impact. Busch's tempered, multidisciplinary approach elevates How to Disappear beyond a facile discussion of online privacy and the benefits of unplugging. -Shawn
Dani Shapiro might have thought she had exhausted her material for memoir in her four previous books, but a DNA test undertaken almost as whim set in motion a series of mysteries about who she really is, and inspired her fifth memoir. Along the way is a loving recollection of her parents and their marriage, an imagined narrative of the way they might have overcome challenges to fertility, and the effect of what she learns on herself and others. A personal family story that is deeply riveting and moving. -Rick
For topics that are literally crucial to life, pregnancy and childbirth have not often been the subject of frank and open discussion. But beloved comics artist Lucy Knisley, with her signature clean lines and bright watercolors, gives us a candid memoir about the joys and horrors of bringing new humans into the world. Her personal story is enhanced by chapters of research on the (often infuriating) history of women's health as well as pregnancy myths and misconceptions. Funny and informative, Knisley's memoir is an honest account of what it's like to grow a human inside of another human. -Emma
"No one can serve two masters / like we can, be future / and what they threatened to forget, / be Richard Pryor Live on Sunset / and be the sunset. Kiss the ground, / burn it to the ground" (72) These heat-seeking missile poems seek vengeance, seek wholeness, seek comfort. They attempt to find some sense and humor in the overlapping worlds through which they rocket and they often find it just before smashing it to smithereens. These poems are rooted in rage and history, rich with a radio thrum, wine-damp with sorrow, and stacked tight and high with experimental poetic architecture. -Lara
Stephanie Land's memoir takes us into the world of a single mother struggling to provide for her daughter while facing homelessness and domestic violence. She's doing the dirty, difficult, and exhausting work that needs to be done—whether for her family or for those who employ her—and her perspective is both eye-opening and deeply affirming. Informative, moving, and disturbing, Maid brings to light some difficult truths about what it's like to live on the edge of financial disaster, despite careful planning and hard work. -Karen
This is some weird-yet-brilliant stuff! Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman can’t believe her luck when she lands an ensemble job with a famous American composer. That he gaslights audiences with dead mics is fascinating enough, but Jessica’s descriptions of her burgeoning anxiety and interrogations of American success, authenticity, and mediocrity ratchet the intrigue factor up further. And when you start to Google around (and you probably will), I’d recommend playing the violin music about which Hindman writes, and maybe even The Composer’s music, too. -Alex
As always, Toni Morrison's sentences are lucid and erudite, wonders to be lived in. It is a joy to witness Morrison’s brilliant mind at work, whether she is explicating the racial politics of the American canon, eulogizing James Baldwin, or exploring the complexities of language in her Nobel Laureate lecture. Whether read as a companion to her fiction or a standalone work for thinking through our moment of crisis and despair, this selection is essential. But what more can I say? It's Toni Morrison. -Sam W.
Seamlessly interweaving critical theory with contemporary sociopolitical and pop culture commentary, Tressie McMillan Cottom's debut collection of essays is an invaluable and incisive exploration of race, gender, and class that is firmly rooted in our current political moment. With essays that quote Foucault and Migos on the same page, Cottom's essays are both accessible and rigorous. I came away from this collection with a wonderful sense of anticipation; Cottom's work shows that she is an essential writer and thinker for our times—one who we should continue listening to and learning from. -Jacob
In nine essays, Will Hunt takes us on a world tour of the underground spaces humans have occupied since our earliest history. Visiting sacred Australian Aboriginal ocher mines, paleolithic art galleries in Pyrenean caves, the tunnels of the New York City Subway, and the catacombs beneath Paris, he presents a completely novel view of the world and of our history. But we are always reminded of the nearness of these alien spaces, and of our everyday dependence on them. With breezy prose and memorable characters, this wonderfully readable book will change how you look at the world beneath your feet. -Justin
Like it or not, humankind is facing a reckoning. By century's end, the earth could potentially warm by four to eight degrees. This will be catastrophic. Wallace-Wells explains in detail that climate change affects everything, causing unbreathable air, wildfires, dying oceans, disease, war, and more. No amount of denial, ignorance, or magical thinking can change what will prove to be a grim future at best. This is an astonishing, wide-eyed account of the real emergency we face. A book that is sobering and scary, yet absolutely essential. -Greg
Christian Robinson, illustrator of the award-winning Last Stop on Market Street, has brought to life a new story, this time told without words. Another is about the fun of encountering new places, people, and perspectives. As a girl explores new worlds with her cat by her side, she meets many kids who are different from her—but she finds that even in these wondrous and strange new places she is surrounded by love. With bright colors, a minimal style, and many little details to spot, this book engages all ages, and belongs on every family’s shelf. -Justin
Art meets science in this story of Georgia, the budding scientist trying to find her niche in a family of creative, gifted artists. Persico’s words are charming, and her pictures are lush and deep. The swirls of purples, blues, and other colors are a feast for the eyes, and each page invites one to sit and visit for a while so as not to miss anything. The end is sweet, and reinforces the lesson that it’s possible to follow your own dreams while supporting the endeavors of others. -Alex
If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. Such is the case in this chilling, visceral novel, which serves a no-holds-barred view of what could happen in Trump's America. Ahmed gives voice to our Muslim neighbors, venting the frustration that surely comes with being viewed by fellow Americans through lenses of prejudice, hatred, and fear. However, there is much more than righteous anger here; this novel is also a powerful reminder that young people can enact change. Human resilience, love, and hope will always endure. -Liz T.
A twelve-year-old girl’s pivotal summer is the setting for this excellent middle reader. When a great white shark washes up at the wharf, Lucy and her best friend Fred rush to see it. The idea for a project is born; Lucy’s mother had been a marine biologist before her death, and Fred’s love for science is infectious. But then another tragic event finds Lucy turning to an unexpected community of people for help. This heartfelt, nature-oriented story, with its smart, quirky characters, reinforces the healing power of friendship. -Erica
I have often used words like “sweet” and “adorable” to describe picture books. Those words don’t do justice to My Heart, Corinna Luyken’s latest dive into the beauty of imperfection and grace (please also read her debut, The Book of Mistakes). The narrator claims ownership over their emotions and vulnerabilities, making perhaps the boldest declaration of agency that I’ve seen in a picture book. The profound depth of My Heart is deserving of praise that goes far beyond the typical adjectives that I would use to describe cupcakes and small animals. -Sage
Thomas’s follow up to The Hate U Give will get you slappin’ your knee, suckin’ your teeth, and then hit you all up in your feels. When Bri first raps, people only see her as the Legend’s daughter. But as she lets her funk flow, they quickly realize that she’s holding down her own in the rap battles. She meets her adversity head on and uses the hate as fuel for the heat she spits while recording. The rivaling gangs, her mom fighting off addiction, harassment by school security—nothing will keep her from her dreams. Bri is on the come up! -Allen