As 2018 comes to a close, we’re feeling thankful for everyone that has been involved in our Book Club. In that spirit, we’re recommending books for you to add to your reading lists - because who doesn’t need more books to read, especially as temperatures drop and snow falls?
Both of these books are haunting, and singular in their treatment of female pain and madness. As was the case with a few of our book club picks this year, when I finished Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, I had the exciting feeling of having read something so different, so inventive - like nothing I had ever read before. I had a similar feeling after finishing The Seas, Samantha Hunt’s first novel, re-released this year by Tin House Books with an incredible introduction by Maggie Nelson. The unnamed narrator, a 19-year old woman who lives in an unnamed sea town, is in love with an Iraq war veteran named Jude, grieves the death of her alcoholic father, and navigates a complicated relationship with her mother, who has never acknowledged her father’s death. She also believes herself to be a mermaid - doomed to kill the man she loves by dragging him into the sea. Much like Machado’s work, Hunt is concerned with the beauty and the burden of the female body. Heartbreaking, eerie, and weird in all the best ways.
If you enjoyed One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul, check out You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson.
If you’re looking for funny, yet still poignant, look no further than You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson, co-host of the podcasts 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys. While Scaachi Koul spends much of her collection navigating life as a first-generation Canadian citizen with immigrant parents, Robinson explores the ways her race has shaped every experience in her life - from getting her hair cut, to auditioning for the part of the loud friend instead of the leading lady. Her writing is both relatable and eye-opening. It had me laughing and crying, all at the same time.
At the core of both of these books is forgiveness. Are there things that can never be forgiven, even among those we love? Kirstin Chen’s Bury What We Cannot Take is set in Communist China in 1957. The narrative follows a wealthy, capitalist family trying to flee China to the safety of Hong Kong. In the process, 9-year old San San is left behind. Her mother promises that she will send for her as soon as possible, but San San is forced to survive in the city, homeless and alone. Much like Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Bury What We Cannot Take is characterized by its silences. Very rarely do characters say all of the things that they mean to say. What are the consequences of all of these little half-truths?
Disoriental does not cover the same ground - eight generations - as Homegoing does, but it is an equally riveting family saga. Translated from French, and nominated in this year’s brand new category, National Book Award for Translated Literature, Négar Djavadi’s debut novel is stunning. The narrative voice is so fresh; by turns funny and heartbreaking. Kimiâ Sadr tells the story of her family’s exodus from Iran to France during the Iranian Revolution. One of my favorites this year!
At first glance, this is admittedly an odd pairing. Scribe is much more dystopian and shadowy than Exit West. Both books, however, exist in societies that have begun to operate under different rules; previous systems have collapsed. Additionally, both narratives are anchored by love stories. Alyson Hagy, in Scribe, follows an unnamed female narrator who has survived some sort of national calamity, leaving her community at the hands of a ruthless general store owner. She has retained the ability to write letters, her one skill, and uses it to barter for basic needs. A man comes to her to write a letter, or rather a confession of his many sins. Like Exit West, Hagy is concerned with migration and borders, as well as humanity’s capacity for love, trust, and forgiveness.
Even if you didn’t enjoy Love Medicine, you should check out There There by Tommy Orange. This is a fierce debut. Similarly narrated, There There includes of cast of characters preparing for a regional Pow Wow in Oakland, California. The worlds of these characters converge violently at the event. This violence smartly conveys the danger in asking one artist, one politician, one spiritual leader, one person to speak for an entire culture full of diverse perspectives and life experiences. Unsettling and vital reading.
If you were at our Book Club meeting, or have stopped into the shop to chat about books, you know that I loved They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. It was definitely one of my favorite books this year. When I started thinking about this guide, I was really stuck on this pairing. Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection felt so fresh and fantastic. I had no idea what to pair it with. Then I read Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut story collection Friday Black. Wow. Included in the National Book Foundation’s Five under Thirty-Five Award, this collection is incredible. With a hint of George Saunders, these stories are weird and hard-hitting. Each has something different to say about being black in America. And “The Finkelstein 5” may be a perfect short story. Much like They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, I did not want this collection to end.
These memoirs feature women working to understand their cultural heritages. While Mai Neng Moua was raised by her biological family and struggles to come to terms with the patriarchal traditions of her Hmong culture, Nicole Chung, a Korean-American, was adopted by a white family in the Pacific Northwest. All You Can Ever Know is the story of her journey to find her birth family while becoming a mother herself. This is an incredible book; it provided me with a perspective on adoption that I hadn’t heard before. Beyond that, it is a beautiful demonstration of what it means to be a mother, biological or otherwise. I couldn’t put this book down.
If you enjoyed The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, check out The Wooden King by Thomas McConnell.
These are two very different books. The Accusation is set in North Korea; The Wooden King is historical fiction set in Ukraine during World War II. One is short stories, the other is a novel. Both are mainly concerned with speaking truth to power. When Ukraine is occupied by Nazi forces, a teacher is forced to live under Nazi rule and abide by rules he vehemently disagrees with. He does so out of fear of what may happen to his family if he disobeys or speaks out. We all draw lines and claim we will not cross them, but if the safety of those we love was in jeopardy, would we stay quiet in the face of violent discrimination? The Wooden King is dangerously relevant to today’s political climate, just like The Accusation.
You really can’t read too much James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room is an incredible novel about masculinity and homosexuality. Some of the more interesting conversations happening today, in light of the #metoo Movement, Christine Blasey Ford, and all of the other sexual harassment and assault survivors who have bravely come forward, center around ideas of masculinity. Baldwin’s novel belongs in that conversation. If we change expectations of masculinity, can we move toward a society in which all people feel safe to be who they are and love who they love?