January, February, and March 2019 flew by in a flash. Luckily it provided us with a pile of great books. There are ones I still haven’t gotten to personally, but here are a dozen I read and loved.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Part biography, part cultural criticism. Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet-turned-music critic-turned-poet again. His writing swims on the page and if you’re looking how to make your writing better, this book will teach you that. It will also teach you about A Tribe Called Quest, rap and culture in the 1990s, and what it means to grow up.
The Good Immigrant: A Collection of essays about immigration, race, ethnicity, and America. The writers they got for this is a who’s who of today’s more important and up-and-coming writers. My favorite essay – which is biased because it’s from one of my top five living writers – is Alexander Chee’s “Your Father’s Country.”
Magical Negro: Confession: I don’t read a lot of poetry. I am trying to read four collections this year. Morgan Parker’s was the one I picked to start the year off. I’m not eloquent enough to explain why it’s so good. Which I guess sounds like poetry requires some sort of hoity toity education. It doesn’t. My relationship with Magical Negro was one that made me think and feel. I’m still thinking about it weeks later.
An Orchestra of Minorities: This is the type of novel that seems ordinary, but then by page 50 you realize it’s extraordinary and unlike anything you’ve ever read. It seems like a straight forward immigration and love story. But it dives deep into Igbo folklore and the supernatural. The only thing I can say is to expect the unexpected.
A Woman is No Man: Rarely do we see such an honest portrayal of Arab-Amerian women in literature. That’s because, according to Etaf Rum, they’re taught to keep their culture’s secrets private. By writing this, the author says her community feels she betrayed them. She wrote about the dark side of marriage and abuse. It’s a haunting story, but an important one to read and spread.
American Spy: The short version is that this book is about a black female spy in Africa during the Cold War. The slightly longer version is that it is a meditation on what it means to be a black woman in America. It is a spiritual ancestor to Invisible Man and explores double consciousness. Lauren Wilkinson broke spy tropes, but also added to a very important canon in African-American literature.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A memoir about broken families, alcoholism and addiction, and sexual discovery. T Kira Madden’s essays are breathtaking. She subtly brings the reader into her world. Not all of us were queer outcasts in a posh private school, but it was so easy to connect with her thoughts and emotions through her approachable writing.
Lot: Bryan Washington’s story collection is about race, masculinity, sexuality, and Houston. Each story takes place in a neighborhood in his native city, and Houston becomes its own character throughout the collection. He offers readers an insight into his characters and their world with such ease. If you’re not a fan of story collections, fret not: he weaves together characters and places throughout the collection to offer a holistic feel to everything.
Parkland: Dave Cullen was one of the first journalists on the scene at Columbine in 1999. He wrote the definitive book on the massacre and became the “mass shooting guy” for news stations. Parkland isn’t about the shooting or the shooter. It’s about the response the teens had after and the movement they created. America is broken; this book is a step to healing us.
Sugar Run: A slow, sultry noir about a woman getting out of jail after nearly two decades and trying to find her place in the world. My favorite part about this was how Mesha Maren created the atmosphere of Appalachia on the page. The story is enthralling, but her ability to capture place and setting really made this novel stick with me.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain: Filled with loosely connected threads, this novel is an ode of Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s hometown. The vignettes and sections that fill this book offer a wide lens to view the city through. From an American doctor an entry ago trying to adjust to the city to local shop owners in present-day, we are offered an inside look into a city that is an enigma to the world, but also itself.
Survival Math: Subtitled “Notes on an All-American Family,” Mitchell S. Jackson’s memoir reveals how his life and family were shaped by “gangs and guns, near-death experiences, sex work, the concept of hustle, and the destructive power of addiction.” So often we think the All-American family is that white, nuclear quartet of a dad, mom, daughter, and son. Jackson’s memoir proves America is much more complex than that. If you haven’t realized how diverse our country is yet, then this book is the book you need to read right now.
Honorable mentions: Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi and Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken. They are breathtaking.