by G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press (2019)
Hard to pick what I loved most about The Bird King. Written by a Muslim woman with a strong, female protagonist, rich LGBTQ characters, brilliant historical context, chilling villains whose evil still affects us today, magical realism out the wazoo. Wilson has written an adventure tale for all ages that’s both a great read and a lesson in what was lost/found when the crushing dominance of Western culture came to full power in the 1400s.
by Ada Limón
Mikweed Editions (2018)
I’m in love with The Carrying. Limon is poignant and lovely and needed in the way of all the best poets, and it’s a volume of poetry that will only grow more beautiful with time. Her experience of barrenness is made emotionally lush here, and there is much wisdom and humor and grace for anyone finding themselves in a withering season. This and Bright Dead Things are two of the best works of contemporary poetry I’ve read to date.
by Marlon James
Riverhead Books (2019)
Marlon James is the twisted Tolkien of our time with Black Leopard, Red Wolf. He’s out here world building, demon chasing, and eye crushing while the rest of us are just trying to catch up and make sure we read him right. Still trying to screw my head on straight and forgive him for upending my previously conceived notions of what legend and myth can become. It’s a gruesome book, but boy it’s powerful too. Can’t wait for the next installment.
by Stephanie Land
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive reveals the underbelly of poverty in America and the emotional/physical consequences it has for the people trying hardest to escape from it. For people who’ve been lucky enough to avoid living on state welfare programs, it’s a must-read before the next election!
by Ben Brooks
Penguin Books (2012)
I was drawn to Grow Up when I saw the author, Ben Brooks, was born in 1992 and was nineteen when this book was published! The story follows a teenage boy and his friends who find ways to escape their lives with drugs and parties. The writing is fun to read, the imagery can be wildly vivid at times, and when the book is funny it is absolutely hilarious. The lifestyle presented seems exaggerated, but underneath the excessiveness lies a tinge of sadness which gives the characters gravity, relatability and extra depth the longer you let the book simmer.
by Ben Fountain
Hilarious and painstakingly researched, Beautiful Country Burn Again is a phenomenal read by Dallas native Ben Fountain. Alternating chapters between political essays and unbelievable recounts of current events, Fountain weaves a tapestry of historical context and cultural insight that helps explain the events of the 2016 election with the panache and outrage of Hunter S. Thompson and Christopher Hitchens without losing his readers in a mire of despair. Democrat or Republican, it’s a must-read before your next vote.
by Reza Aslan
Random House (2014)
Whether you’re a person of faith or just an amateur historian, Zealot by Reza Aslan is chock-full of insights about historical Jesus and how the modern church came to be. Focusing solely on the historical documentation and context of Jesus’ life brings both new perspective on the person and his ministry, as well as his disciples. Excellent food for thought for anyone curious about or impacted by the Christian faith.
by Richard Powers
W. W. Norton & Co. (2018)
The Overstory is the perfect book for a culture waking up to the environmental crisis. Richard Powers manages to make the narrative powerful but not preachy, intertwining characters with their environment in a way that radically changes each of their story lines. Saving the trees that literally form and allow their existence becomes not just a moral imperative, but a transformative one as characters discover who they really are by tuning into the natural, native story that surrounds and includes us all.
by Elliot Ackerman
Elliot Ackerman turns the traditional war story on its head in Waiting for Eden with his focus on post-war injury and recuperation rather than the glories of battle. A returning solider clings to the last vestiges of life while the ghost of a former brother in arms narrates the events that led to his wounds as well as the family dramas unfolding around his recuperating body. Unique and tender, this is a war story for the Iraq-Afghan era where there’s no end to war in sight, not even after death.
by Norman Mailer
Though it was written in the 60s, The Armies of the Night still shines with brilliant prose and wry humor. Mailer’s recounting of the March on the Pentagon is full of dark insight and cutting wit, and stands out as one of the first “I” novels to be published. Mailer uses himself as the central character in order to create a world in which fiction becomes history and history becomes fiction. This inverts our understanding of both current events and our role in them, pushing us to take a reckoning of what our country and our souls have become.
by Tommy Orange
Intertwining cultures and fates works well for Tommy Orange in There There. Rather than focusing solely on the historical context of Native American culture, Orange brings their story to present day Oakland, where characters relearn what it means to be Indian in a world that has outlawed and ignored their heritage by turns. Updated to demonstrate modern Indian struggles, characters overcome poverty, crime, and identity confusion to discover who they can (and can’t) be when they come together in unity and pride.
by Mary Beard
Mary Beard’s new overview of classical art and the role of the viewer, How Do We Look, has us reconsidering our understanding of ancient art and the uses of propaganda in the modern era. We love how she incorporates a myriad of cultures in her survey, and that she turns her critical lens on the artist’s audience to reinforce how important cultural and political context are for the interpretation of artistic works. Being an observer suddenly feels more powerful.
by Ben H. Winters
Mulholland Books (2019)
Golden State keeps the noir in sci-fi as Speculative Service detective Mr. Ratesic enforces the law of the land: no lying, not ever. In the age of “post-truth”, this book confronts the power of fact and what happens when the government takes honesty into its own hands.Characters and readers alike must decide what is real and who to trust as the story goes on; good practice for today’s political climate and the upcoming 2020 election.
by Guadalupe Nettel
Coffee House (2018)
After the Winter takes its characters’ isolation and shows us what they’re really made of when their storylines collide. True love to cemetery musings to better-late-than-never redemption, this one has it all.
by Tara Westover
Random House (2018)
Educated is a memoir unlike others; raised by fundamentalist, doomsday-prepping Mormons, Tara Westover escapes her abusive environment by teaching herself not just academics, but redemption as well. One of @nytimes Best Books of the Year!
by Audre Lorde
Crossing Press (2007)
Sister Outsider is a classic that deserves revisiting. Full of cutting wisdom, Lorde reminds activists and citizens alike that “Revolution is not a one time event.” Food for thought and for the soul in these politically charged times.
by Antonio Di Benedetto
NYRB Classics, 2016.
The novel was written in 1956 and while praised by people like Borges and Saer, it was not part of the Latin American literary boom in the 60s because its lack of ‘Magic Realism.’ In recent years, Zama has been acknowledged as a masterpiece in the Spanish language, after younger writers such as Ricardo Piglia and Roberto Bolaño have mentioned it as an important reference. Di Benedetto tells the story of Don Diego de Zama, a creole civil servant in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata in the late 18th Century, who hopes to be promoted from his post in a remote province to the capital in Buenos Aires. Written in first person, we witness the contradictions of his hypocritical, small-minded personality as he plays the game to earn his promotion from the Spanish crown, which is deaf, petty and even meaner. Di Benedetto’s archaic prose –yet precise and full of purpose– creates an elusive and claustrophobic narration infused with very enjoyable absurdity and dry humor, plenty of 20th century existential anguish.
by Michèle Audin
Deep Vellum, 2016.
There is a story locked up in One Hundred Twenty-One Days, but it’s not in its pages. In this novel, the story is the space to which all the heterogenous chapters point to, but merely touch, as a tangent line does to a point in a curve. This mathematical reference isn’t casual; Audin, a mathematician herself, plays with narrative using language in different codes as a function to describe the lives of French and German mathematicians during the time of the World Wars; words as “an exquisite formulation for the unspeakable.”
by Sarah Hepola
Grand Central Publishing, 2015
Who doesn’t like to feel empowered. Alcohol makes us feel like a better version of ourselves. And there is nothing wrong with that, at least as long as you don’t choose that funnier, wittier, brighter, more confident, more extroverted, more liberated version of you to face the world on a regular basis and deny your own insecurities. In her memoir Sarah Hepola shares with brutal honesty, dry wit, and warm heart how she opted for the latter. Her drunk stories are dark-humored, quite enjoyable and endearing (it’s impossible not to root for her), bittersweet sometimes, but it’s the second half of the book, in which she shares her experience after quitting and coming to terms with herself, that becomes an insightful and poignant manual to fight bare hands the “complete inability to tolerate the moment.” You’re probably far from alcoholism but this book may teach you a thing or two about yourself.
by Daniel Saldaña París
Coffee House Press, 2016
Every now and then you come across a book that treats you different from the rest, and is that difference that drags you to that special (and familiar) area you enter when reading words that remind you how wonderful, enjoyable and enlightening Literature can be. Among Strange Victims is one of those rare and yet familiar books. Saldaña París delivers a sardonic and incredibly funny polyphonic story in which characters -captive in tedious and meaningless urban lives- start suddenly facing rather bizarre situations. Hypnosis sessions inducted with tequila mixed in mystical teen’s urine, unintentional marriages and virtuous chickens take the existentialism crisis into a whole new and hilarious level. Bolaño’s punchy prose and Houllebecq’s acid criticism turn out to be the ideal travel companions during this trip.
by Matthew Desmond
Park trailer tenants blowing all their food stamp allowance in one lobster meal, urban guardians that preach the benefit of school to youngsters while rolling joints in their shared rooms, nurses addicted to painkillers with licenses revoked but still caring for others, and the people that make a nice living thanks to all that. These are the characters you’ll find in Evicted, a gruesome portrait of poverty in America which helps understand that homelessness, as most things related to our society, is more complex and related to us than we think. The poverty, the system that allows and perpetuates it and the market and opportunities around all this mess, is what Matthew Desmond masterfully depicts in one of the toughest and most pertinent journalism books I’ve read in years. Because more often than you think, there is only a back surgery procedure between you and that guy by the traffic light.
by Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions, 2012
Nobody like Elena Ferrante (pseudonym of an unidentified character) has been able to portray so intensively the complex and sincere friendship of two friends called Lina and Lenu. My Brilliant Friend is the first volume of 4 in which Ferrante introduces us to the two indisputable characters. The story focuses on the infancy of the girls spent in a decadent suburb of Naples in the early 50s. Beyond characters, stories and memories of childhood, the author awakens us with everyday drama that catches and chokes for its reality and closeness. Those who have already read the tetralogy say that all the feelings that are generated throughout life are explored without censorship. Once you start reading the first one, you will explore what many have already called the Ferrante drug.
by Rafael Chirbes
New Directions, 2016
Spain, a country that has gone under different and turbulent periods during the last century, always have suffered to take itself seriously and claim its position in the European scenario. The last part of this complicated puzzle was placed after the big 2008 economical crash, where Spain, one of the most inflated real estate market in the world, collapsed in a recession without precedents in recent history. Chirbes captures some of the subtle human reasons and consequences of this new episode of Spain´s struggle to conciliate past, present and future, with characters that are both victims and perpetrators of this sordid scenario. On the Shore is considered one of the best Spanish literary works of the last decade.
by Michel Houellebecq
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Submission, Houellebecq´s most controversial novel so far, satirical and incredibly funny, envisions the 2022 France presidential elections led by the Muslim party, a probably unlikely but possible scenario. His main character, Francois, an intellectual Sorbonne lecturer with a sophisticated food taste, lascivious sexual inclinations and high drinking needs, witnesses how our venerated western society adapts to the drastic cultural switch. During the inconceivable process, he´ll start wondering whether we all prefer to offer submission in the end -despite our values and intellectual decisions, or maybe western culture is simply doomed anyway.
by Anne Garréta
Deep Vellum, 2015
Sphinx is dark mercury, an elusive first-person narration of a genderless love story that unfolds in the decadent nights of 80’s Paris. Witten under Oulipian constraint (Oulipian literature uses constrained writing techniques as a way to trigger ideas and inspiration), Anne Garréta constantly makes us evaluate the nature of male/female roles in the relation by removing every mention to the protagonists’ gender. Oh, and don’t miss the translator’s notes at the end of the book, they’re fascinating.
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
One of my resolutions this year is to catch up with American Literature. I’ve started with what some call the Great (contemporary) American Novel. The book is up to the expectations; Freedom is a profound, rich and unsettling portrait of middle class America in which Franzen models with acute psychology a bleak, yet somehow heroic set of characters that struggle with the boundaries of their personal liberties.
by Loiusa Hall
Speak is, without a doubt, the best book I’ve read from (and in) 2015. Louisa Hall’s multiple voice narration about AI unfolds elegantly a deep reflection on what it means to be human. As a reader, I particularly loved how the author pushes the story forward and creates meaning just by the delicate intricacies between the different voices’ stories; there are no statements, it’s up to us the readers to build up the story and to come up with our conclusions. A book packed with Eureka moments.
by Antonio Muñoz Molina
Seix Barral, 2014
Antonio Muñoz Molina desarrolla en paralelo dos relatos: el de la huída a Lisboa de James Earl Ray después de asesinar a Martin Luther King y la propia autobiografía del autor alrededor de los días en que gestaba su segunda novela, El Invierno en Lisboa, a finales de los 80. La Historia como novela y al contrario que Mailer no viceversa; un escarceo brillante entre lo real y la ficción en el que el autor recompone con agudeza y empatía lo que debió pasar y no sabemos. Lo mejor: las reflexiones del autor sobre el proceso de contar una historia.
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