This month, we’re looking at incisive poetry for the soul, undersung trailblazing immigrant chefs, indigenous futurism, and quirky magical-realist microfiction set in Japan. Happy reading!
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In her third book, unflinchingly perceptive writer and poet Yrsa Daley-Ward puts a magnifying glass to the particular despair of living online: “In a world so filled with voice, how to ever be sure of your own?” The How is a timely read that takes a hands-on approach to lifelong questions about how to be happy, how to thrive, and how to face the overwhelming nature of existence. Speaking directly to the reader, she gently invites introspection with her candid reflections on self-help and resilience. At a moment when it feels like every meme jokes about how depressed and totally not okay we are, Daley-Ward’s meditation offers hope through the affirmations and tools that she shares (and uses herself), like repeating the word “no” as a mantra of survival.
Black Honduran author Saraciea Fennell and the 14 other writers featured in the new anthology Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed are profoundly vulnerable in their articulation of diasporic identity as a journey through food, music, geography, language, and more. Elizabeth Acevedo’s meditation on dichos (sayings) that she heard growing up includes the sexist one that she repudiates: “boca cerrada te ves más bonita” (you look prettier with your mouth shut). Janel Martinez describes the connections that she can taste through the Garifuna foods that her family maintained in the Bronx. Not simply an essay collection, Wild Tongues is an affirmation of the myriad identities under the overgeneralized and whitewashed umbrella of Latinidad. Taken together, the pieces underline the common experience of these writers’ ethnicities being misunderstood, challenged, and erased; after a year that saw In the Heights fumble Afro-Latinx representation, it’s a refreshing and much-needed correction.
Rom-com sweetheart Keanu Reeves gets the literary treatment in this light and funny road-trip novel. When artist Bethany Lu hears that her all-time celeb crush is about to get married, she and her close friend True—who happens to be in love with her—head out in a cross-country bid to stop Reeves’s wedding. Popular romance author K.M. Jackson delightfully unravels the friends’ secret feelings in chapters that alternate points of view, building a tense and often sensual narrative around Lu and True’s excellent adventure. It’s a cheerful read starring a plucky, eccentric fortysomething protagonist with a healthy dose of movie references (like Lu’s Matrix-named dog, Morphie) that any Reeves fan will love.
History repeats itself on a personal level in this time-travel novel from Natashia Deón, a criminal attorney and author. The Perishing centers on a Black reporter in 1930s Los Angeles who—after finding out that she’s immortal—begins trying to figure out her existential purpose. The book is a fascinating and thrilling mystery, but for Deón, it’s also a commentary on the frustrating cycles of injustice that have yet to crack. The author recently told the L.A. Times (the same newspaper at which her fictional protagonist becomes a historic first) that “[I]mmortality was the best vehicle for me to show that repetition. How, as a Black woman, I could exist in 1960 or 1990 or 2015 or 2021 and be in a Black Lives Matter protest (different name but for the same rights) in Los Angeles.”
This buzzy new novel from Pulitzer Prize–winning author Louise Erdrich is a mirror back into 2020 whose narrative haunts in more ways than one. The author brings us to a Minneapolis bookstore—in fact, the very same one Erdrich actually owns; she makes a cameo in the book as well—where a cast of morbidly funny characters confront the ghost of a former customer, a white woman named Flora who was prone to performatively declaring her alleged Native American heritage. Erdrich is snarky and precise in her writing on cultural appropriation, and she zeroes in on the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer that landed near the shop. The Sentence is one of the newer books that engages with the ostensibly nationwide racial reckoning that defined the summer of 2020 and questions what—if anything—has changed.
Mayukh Sen is an award-winning darling of the food journalism world, and Taste Makers, his first book, is both a necessary addition to the food-writing canon and a lovingly crafted work of women’s history. Sen focuses his profile skills on seven underrated culinary pioneers—many self-taught—whose names we should all remember: Najmieh Batmanglij, Chao Yang Buwei, Marcella Hazan, Madeleine Kamman, Julie Sahni, Norma Shirley, and Elena Zelayeta. Their cooking spans Iran, China, Italy, France, India, Jamaica, and Mexico; and Sen tenderly illuminates the foundational and trailblazing work of each chef—along with some key recipes, like Sahni’s mughal garam masala.
Africanfuturist author Nnedi Okorafor once again delivers her irresistible, award-winning command of science fiction in this cyberpunk novel. AO, the being at its center, is part human and part robot, with a fearsome strength and an undeniable sense of self: “I am proud to be part machine. I was born twisted and strange by their standards. And after so much recovery, I was somehow amazing.” After a bloody confrontation at her local market, AO becomes a fugitive in a hyper-surveilled digitized society—but she can’t truly escape the ruthless and omnipotent corporation that manufactured her limbs. Noor is a thrilling read with an anticapitalist throughline and incisive commentary on the grip in which technology holds us all.
Nina is an inquisitive girl who dedicates herself to translating her great-great-grandmother’s stories from the nearly lost Lipan Apache that her family can’t fully interpret. But there’s one translated detail that sticks out: animal people. In this coming-of-age fantasy from Lipan Apache writer and earth scientist Darcie Little Badger, we learn that they are everywhere. Spirits from the “Reflection World” take the form of toads, alligators, and coyotes who can transform into people in Nina’s real world, and her narrative intertwines with that of the cottonmouth snake Oli. Darcie Little Badger immerses the reader in wonder as she unspools a powerful indigenous-futurist tale that touches on climate justice, language preservation, and interconnectedness.
Hiromi Kawakami’s delightfully quirky writing shines in this slim collection of microfiction, translated by Ted Goossen. Set in a small town in Japan, the book’s 36 stories are written from varying points of view, from a dog-school principal to a motorcycle-riding cool girl who becomes an unlikely hometown hero. An author who has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Italo Calvino, Kawakami deftly interweaves the mundane with the magical and the mysterious with the playful; the neighbors include ghosts, too. When someone asks a taxi driver outright if the women he shows around are specters, he replies: “Ha ha ha. Yep, you could say that, but women are women. They’re still fun to have around, even if they look sort of blurry and don’t have legs.”