Lauren Groff isn’t a Florida native, but she has lived in the state for years, and in this collection of stories, she explores the boundaries of her own love-hate relationship with the Sunshine State. Her characters struggle with hurricanes, homelessness, and humidity in stories that explore how human beings are tested. As they discover, many of the problems that cause us the most emotional pain are those over which they have no real control. Groff writes with great empathy about the impact that geography has on character.
A Place for Us
Fatima Farheen Mirza
This book hit me right in the feelings as it traced the history of Hadia, her sister, Huda, and their brother, Amar. The three siblings are the children of immigrants, and like many first-generation Americans, they find that the expectations of their parents are at odds with what their new culture demands of them. The tension within each of the children reaches a breaking point when they’re adults and demands from their parents are in direct conflict with their own aspirations. For readers, the arguments among family members may feel familiar to their own coming-of-age stories.
Tommy Orange has written a beautifully woven novel in which 12 separate characters each tell their stories. The characters are each on their way to the Big Oakland Powwow, where Native Americans gather to strengthen the bonds of community while competing in tests of traditional skills. By focusing his attention on the “Urban Indian,” Orange provides a perspective not often portrayed in literature. Most Native Americans do not live on reservations; they inhabit cities. Part of this novel looks at how urban spaces occupy the land upon which they’ve been built.
Multiple layers of story are sewn together with nary a stitch out of place in this book that has topped many critics’ “best of 2018” lists. Washington Black is born into the system of slavery at work in the Caribbean in the early 19th century, but when he is a young boy, he becomes a scientific assistant to Titch, one of the master’s children. Together, they leave the plantation and journey to the Arctic, where Wash develops a scientific understanding of the world that fuels his life’s work. Along the way, however, Edugyan asks readers to consider what possible relationship can exist between the white plantation owner and the person he has enslaved.
The Music Shop
In the 1980s, if someone wanted to buy music, they headed to the record store, where they could wander among the racks and racks of vinyl LPs, finding old treasures or discovering an emerging artist who was about to break big. Frank owns such a music shop, and he possesses the near-magic ability to match customers with the new music they need to hear. That level of listening should make it easy for Frank to meet women, but here, his skills don’t seem to work. One day, Ilse walks into the shop and she asks Frank to teach her about music. Thus begins a relationship full of tender humor and quiet joy that’s complicated by Frank’s terror of getting close.
The Shape of the Ruins
Juan Gabriel Vasquez
This heady thriller begins with a bizarre crime. Carlos Carballo is arrested after attempting to steal the suit that a famous Colombian politician had been wearing when he was assassinated. The politician had been killed nearly seven decades earlier, and yet his mystique continues to obsess some Colombians, much the same way the Kennedy assassination has fascinated certain Americans. When one man begins his investigation into Carballo’s motivation, he finds a web of conspiracy theories that may be hiding a shocking truth. Readers who enjoy unraveling intellectual puzzles will enjoy following the twisted paths that eventually lead to a fascinating solution.
The Silence of the Girls
The Iliad begins with the anger of Achilles, whose wrath resulted in the horrific destruction of Troy. But the revelation of what caused Achilles to sulk in his tent was treated by Homer as a great fault. Barker’s monumental retelling gives readers a story crackling with the language of women and restores humanity to those treated like throwaway dolls, including Briseis, who’s among the women held hostage. By presenting the Trojan War through the eyes of captives, Barker complicates notions of what defines heroism.
Beneath a Ruthless Sun
Fans of the true-crime genre know that often, the factual stories seem more unlikely than anything mystery writers could dream up. In the case that Gilbert King follows, the combination of harrowing crime and a deep-seated bigotry that makes justice impossible create a narrative that’s both riveting and revolting for what it reveals. In 1957, a wealthy Florida woman was raped, and authorities arrested a young man with mental limitations and then confined him to a mental hospital without trial. As reporter Mabel Norris Reese chips away at the layers of conspiracy that led to the injustice, a community’s secrets are laid bare.
On the Other Side of Freedom
DeRay Mckesson makes a case for hope, despite the lessons he drew from being in places like Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed Black man, Michael Brown, was shot to death by a police officer. Brown’s murder sparked demonstrations, and Mckesson has written an activist memoir that readers may use as a handbook when confronting injustice in their own communities. His reflections on love and forgiveness are luminous in their portrayal of the abilities of the human heart to heal along the broken places.
The Female Persuasion
What does it mean to have a mentor? What kind of guidance should one expect from the older person who has offered to teach a protégé about the ways of the business? Here, the relationship is between Faith Frank, one of the icons of feminism who, at 63, is contemplating slowing down, and Greer Kadetsky, who’s barely conversant with feminism and has intended to spend her life with her high school boyfriend. Wolitzer writes a brilliant story about how freighted such relationships can become when the elder person isn’t sure that they’re ready to step down, and the up-and-coming younger person wants them to get out of the way.
Sweet and Low
Nick White’s stories are set in various parts of the South and revolve around characters who have secrets. The remarkable aspect of White’s stories is just how much readers will come to understand his characters by the type of secrets they hold. Each of the characters is doing the best they can in a society where others’ expectations, prejudices, and refusal to adapt with the times makes life harder for everyone. One of the effects of White’s powerful prose will be to make readers feel the burden of heat and humidity that is a part of Southerners’ quotidian lives.
Kevin Young possesses an empathy that allows him to assume the voices of people whose lives are nothing like his own. His poetry has always dazzled me, but this collection shines even more brilliantly. In one set of poems, he assembles a mix-tape of scenes to describe a college relationship. In another, he riffs on the genius of Prince. Many of the poems address the quality of “brown” in unexpected ways—looking at the men whose last name is Brown, or writing about boys with brown skin—and show how color works as metaphor, metonym, and myth. Young provides readers with a treasure chest of poems to take out and read again and again.
After declaring that she’s taking a break from men, Lucy is given a safe haven by her sister. All Lucy has to do is to stay in her sister’s beachside cottage and dog-sit Dominic. Broder’s novel is full of sharp humor supplied by Lucy’s reactions to what she sees when she takes a walk each evening on the beach. One night, she meets a handsome man who swims in the ocean for exercise, and they begin nightly conversations at her sister’s dock. Despite her resolution to stay away from men, Lucy finds herself falling for this guy, even though she thinks there might be something fishy about him.
Welcome to the Betsy Ross Diner, where Elsie Kuzavinas, the granddaughter of Albanian immigrants, works as a waitress while she waits to finish high school. She wants to leave her small town and head off to college, where she can become someone different. Readers also meet another young woman, Luljeta, who also longs to leave town and start a new life by attending New York University. The two women know each other, and their fractious relationship is made troubling by the readers’ knowledge that they should be allies: they both want the same thing. Aliu explores the ways in which women support one another, and what happens to women who, for various reasons, find themselves unable to make their dreams come true.
Confessions of the Fox
Who says that experimental novels have to be uber-serious? Certainly not Jordy Rosenberg, who’s written a rip-roaring and funny tale spun around Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess. The London pair were two of the early 18th-century’s notorious “thieves, jail breakers, and lovers” whose exploits have passed into legend. Here, a recovered document from 1726 is a full account of the lovers’ exploits, and it contains information that’s certain to upend the way that British history has been taught. Which is why readers begin to suspect that an unknown is trying to take the document away from Dr. Voth, the scholar who’s been put in charge of reading it.
Empire of Guns
Priya Satia offers a provocative analysis of the Industrial Revolution that shakes up what’s long been assumed about the time period. The Stanford University professor presents evidence that one of the biggest drivers of the Industrial Revolution was the manufacture of armaments, and that it wasn’t just gun-makers who made these weapons. This challenges the previous historical arguments that the making of textiles and other domestic goods generated the profits necessary for expansion. In her take, money made from armaments had a significant impact on the economy’s growth during that time.
The Salt Line
Holly Goddard Jones
In post-catastrophe America, climate change has created a deadly issue that few anticipated: it’s not the flooding or the drought that’s destroyed American civilization. It is, instead, a tick that spreads a disease so quick and so deadly that huge areas of the American continent are uninhabitable. The population lives inside the “Salt Line,” a buffer created by the government to prevent ticks from crossing into populated areas. But for a price, hikers seeking danger can pay guides to take them beyond the Salt Line in order to see wilderness. What one of these band of wealthy campers find beyond the line is nothing they could have imagined.
What the Eyes Don't See
Nearly half of the city of Flint, Michigan, lives in poverty. When officials made decisions that switched the source of Flint’s water, the effects were devastating. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the city’s public hospital, noticed that patients were coming in with symptoms that she traced to the water but was told by officials that she was mistaken. Her courage in fighting for the children of Flint is a display of tremendous bravery that should inspire all of us to take care of our neighbors.
During the darkest days of the French Revolution, the period referred to as the “Reign of Terror,” members of the nobility and political prisoners who had offended those in the current regime found themselves guests of the Bastille while they awaited execution. It was an age before photographs, and those who wanted to leave some visual record of their existence discovered that a talented young woman could come and take a wax mold of their severed heads. Knowing that a mold of their face would exist brought them great comfort, and the artist found herself in great demand. Later, she would achieve fame for her wax figures depicting famous people. In Little, Edward Carey presents a novel that feels too fantastical to have been real, but which is based on the actual life of the woman who became known as Madame Tussaud.
Can We All Be Feminists?
Each of the feminists in this remarkable anthology recognize that feminism, which has accomplished much in the fight for gender equality, has been slow to acknowledge how much of its philosophy takes for granted that women are white women. But as the writers here demonstrate, other forms of oppression—racism, xenophobia, homophobia, religious intolerance, and ableism—create forms of oppression that impact all women. These intersectional oppressions are the focus here.
See What Can Be Done
The range of essays in this astounding collection all regard some aspect of culture. Readers will enjoy the range of knowledge that Lorrie Moore brings to reviews of TV shows, books, and films. Moore has a remarkable ability to locate her subject in the universe each inhabits. The stories behind the stories presented on television or in a book are sometimes more fascinating than what the public knows. And even a favorite show can be made even more meaningful by Moore’s read of it. Don’t be surprised if your viewing queues and to-be-read pile get bigger as Moore piques your interest in works you didn’t previously know.
2018 was a banner year for books. Here at Read It Forward, we’ve highlighted some of our favorites among new releases. But even readers with hefty reading goals might have missed some fabulous titles. Before the year is over, we want to make sure that the following 21 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have one more opportunity to attract readers’ attention. In no particular order, we present a list of 2018 books you might have missed.
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