RIF’s Favorite Reads of April 2018

Helping you sort out the best from the rest published this month.

RIF's Favorite Reads of April 2018

It’s April, and who can keep up with the news anymore? We try, we all do, but some things slip through the cracks. Some of us have stopped reading the news altogether for fear of our blood pressure never coming down, and some of us have been and keep fighting for justice and equality while we still can. Even in our own individual lives, the small-scale things can get so overwhelming that they take up all our brain-space. But one thing that helps us here at Read It Forward is keeping up with the incredible range of good books out there. Literature promotes empathy, and reading is one of the best forms of self-care we can imagine. To make it easier on you and make sure you can get some of this month’s finest reads, we present our monthly roundup of our favorite new releases. Breathe, take care of yourselves, and read away.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

In the gorgeous and newest novel from powerhouse Meg Wolitzer, a young woman named Greer Kadetsky learns what it means to be a feminist. In her first year of college, listening to the Gloria Steinem-like Faith Frank, Greer begins to realize that she cares about and wants to fight for women’s empowerment. As the years pass, though, Greer discovers that far more than mere ideology and do-gooder tendencies are needed to survive the corporate feminist world she finds herself in. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Cory’s life is turned upside down by a family tragedy, and her best friend Zee finds herself adrift after college and working a job she hates. A bildungsroman that’s also a grand, modern social novel, The Female Persuasion is compelling and beautiful. (Riverhead)

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The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

The Recovering

Leslie Jamison is well-know for her book The Empathy Exams, a widely lauded essay collection. In this new book, a blend of memoir, reportage, and cultural history, with literary criticism mixed in as well, Jamison examines the idea of the recovery narrative. What does it mean to recover? Who gets to recover, and who gets put behind bars? Using cultural figures whose own addictions remain with their memories—like Billie Holiday, Jean Rhys, and David Foster Wallace—Jamison questions what stories we tell about addiction. Why do we depend on substances, and what else do we depend on? Humans, after all, are needy creatures, but Jamison examines what our needs lead to, and how class and race are deeply tied to how we’re viewed when we succumb to need. A fascinating, brilliant book, it deserves all the praise it’s already been given and then some. (Little, Brown and Company)

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

America is Not the Heart

Hero de Vera isn’t looking for transformation; all she wants is to live a life in relative peace. But she’s needed to transform herself before for that purpose, and now, beginning the third reinvention of herself, she’s arrived in California where she begins working as a caretaker-slash-nanny at her uncle Pol’s house. Pol, her employer and sponsor, is the father of Roni, the first American-born child in Hero’s family, and it’s Roni who’s brave enough to ask Hero about her past in the Philippines. As we find out more about what brought Hero to the U.S., we learn not only about human endurance but also about a woman’s fight against a variety of patriarchal cultures, including the newest one she finds in the states. Hero is no ordinary heroine, and Castillo’s novel is no simple story of self-discovery; instead, it’s meditative, gorgeous, and surprising. (Viking)

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief

Kirk Wallace Johnson was peacefully fly-fishing when he learned about a crime—mentioned in his guidebook—that he simply had to know more about: in 2009, a young concert flautist named Edward Rist broke into an offshoot of the British Museum of Natural History and stole almost 300 rare bird skins and feathers. Obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, Rist is Johnson’s entry-point into a world of underground game-hunters and smugglers, a world he paints as vividly as nature painted the beautiful feathers Rist stole. Johnson tells us the history of the museum that housed the feathers, discovers the reasons rare and colorful birds were sought after in the Victorian era and what people like Rist still want with them today, and finds out what happened to Rist, all while keeping the reader engaged and curious. The sheer scope and strangeness of this book is a total delight. (Viking)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

You Think It, I'll Say it

In this collection of short stories, contemporary life is examined and pulled apart through the viewpoints of a variety of characters, all of whom fill the pages with pathos and humor. With our current president opening and closing the collection’s stories—in the first, he’s the ridiculous candidate; in the last, he’s the winner of an election, to the shock of many—it’s a timely book for sure. Curtis Sittenfeld’s characters struggle with gossip, with conventional attitudes they both wish to and cannot escape, and with an attempt to understand themselves. Whether it’s a married woman stumbling upon the girl who made her life hell back in high school, a man unable to sustain relationships deep into adulthood, or the Ivy League student discovering that all is not what it appears in the seemingly perfect life of a classmate, these stories upend assumptions and open new regions of consideration for readers. An excellent collection, and one you’ll want to get to ASAP. (Random House)

Cove by Cynan Jones

Cove

The unnamed protagonist of Welsh author Cynan Jones’s new book has a simple mission: to survive. His original mission when he set out in his fishing vessel was to scatter his dead father’s ashes, but a storm and an untimely lightning bolt cast him away to an unknown shore. When he wakes, his memories are fuzzy and few, but he knows there’s a woman waiting for him, back at a home he knows exists but can’t entirely recall. And so he must fight the elements and get back to sea to return to where he came from. Meanwhile, he meditates on life, nature, and the disparate memories he can still recall. The metaphors are loud and clear in this beautiful novelette, a tight work that captures the intensity of one man’s struggle with himself. (Catapult)

Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

Unbury Carol

In this take on the Sleeping Beauty tale, the fiercely original Josh Malerman manages to use a well-known story and trope to great effect. Carol’s sleeping-beauty tendencies are that she appears to die once in a while, falling into a coma that’s so death-like, it’s indistinguishable from the real thing—except that she wakes up after several days. Married to a man who’s always desired her money more than her, Carol’s latest not-death lands her in a coffin as her husband decides he’s sick of this playing dead business and puts her in the ground once and for all. When she wakes up and finds herself buried alive, Carol needs to fight to escape. And if no one comes to save her, she knows, she’ll end up dying for real. Luckily for her, an old lover and famous outlaw, James Moxie, finds out about her burial and is suspicious—so he begins to fight his way toward his lost, and now buried, love. (Del Rey)

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

Clemantine Wamariya was only six when she and her older sister managed to flee the Rwandan genocide, leaving behind loved ones, unsure whether they were alive. For another six years, the sisters traveled across the continent, where they were housed in refugee camps from which they needed to escape after enduring abuse after abuse. Intimately familiar with violence and abandonment, Wamariya and her sister received asylum in the U.S. Wamariya’s new family treated her well and sent her to private school, where she was a cheerleader; she later graduated from Yale. A fairy-tale ending, right? Wamariya says yes and no—because no ending can erase the beginning, and trauma doesn’t go away with the lack of present violence. In a smart and beautiful meditation on how trauma shapes us, this memoir is harrowing yet hopeful. (Crown)

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe

Circe is the apparently unimpressive daughter born to the sun god Helios and his wife Perse. Her power isn’t apparent to her parents, the other gods, or herself‚ until she spends time in the company of mortals and beings to discover her abilities. Zeus, threatened by her witchcraft, banishes her to an island, giving her truly the greatest gift of all: the time and space to hone her magical skills and fan the flames of her strength. Circe is a distinctly modern figure in certain ways: a gods’ child obsessed with mortals and men, yet scornful of their pettiness as well. She’s able to both birth monsters—she helps deliver the famous Minotaur—and to defeat them when needed. She faces her fair share of challenges on her beautiful island, and her narration remains fascinating and beautiful throughout, delivering readers to a magnificent and unexpected ending. (Little, Brown and Company)

The Oracle Year by Charles Soule

The Oracle Year

Charles Soule has been writing for various comic book giants for years, so you know before you even start this book that he’s an expert at the art of plot. In this fantastic debut novel, Soule brings us a new kind of superhero—or will he be a supervillain by accident? The Oracle’s a bass-guitar player named Will, who woke up one morning with 108 predictions about the future, predictions he knew with a certainty to be true, though they ranged in their apparent importance. Since discovering his power, he’s been meting out the knowledge slowly, first convincing millions of internet followers of his truths, and then beginning to sell the bigger predictions to corporations. A superhero story wouldn’t be complete without a plucky journalist, so of course there is one, and enemies as well, as powerful as the President of the United States and an influential televangelist. An excellent and compelling read that you won’t want to put down. (Harper Perennial)

Black Swans by Eve Babitz

Black Swans

Originally published in the 1990s, this reissue of one of Eve Babitz’s best collections is a doozy. If Grace Paley was the voice of the ’60s and ’70s, Babitz manages to be that voice for the ’80s. Roaming Hollywood and New York City, her narrators learn to tango, drink like fishes, sleep around, and ruminate on the political landscape. In the background is President Reagan’s era, meaning the war on drugs and poverty are front and center in the stories themselves, as is the then-newly named AIDS. With a keen eye and a rambunctious voice, Babitz tells the story of a generation’s version of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the recovery from it all. A fantastic and stirring collection, apt for our time’s obsessions. (Counterpoint)

Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley

Look Alive Out There

On the tenth anniversary of her hilarious I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Sloane Crosley arrives with a collection of essays that deal with new themes—or a theme new to Crosley at least: getting older, to her chagrin. Each of the essays appears to be one thing, until it becomes something else entirely. In meditating on living in Manhattan, she ends up writing about the youthful boy next door who makes a lot of noise with his friends, and this becomes a meditation on what it means to be older and get annoyed with young folks. In another essay, she begins with a simple musing on the writing process, well-trodden ground—except that it isn’t, because she soon finds herself with a bunch of pot-growing swingers. Surprising, meticulously observational, self-effacing at times, and always resting inside a deep honesty, this collection proves that Crosley hasn’t lost her edge; in fact, she’s only gotten edgier. (FSG)

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

Macbeth

Originally, the author well-known for his intense thrillers had no interest in writing this book; the fun of writing, after all, was inventing the material. But when the publisher—which is releasing a series of Shakespeare retellings—agreed to give Nesbø Macbeth, he agreed. In Nesbø’s version of the tale, Macbeth is an inspector and head of a SWAT team during the 1970s. His wife, Lady, is eager for Macbeth to not only become the head of the Organized Crime squad, but to become Chief Police Commissioner, a title currently held by Duncan. When Macbeth kills Duncan, all hell breaks loose, and the novel continues to show the corruption of a police force and the way it spreads like a disease and lights up the worst in everyone involved. Adapting Shakespeare with originality, Nesbø’s fascinating take unfolds the psychology of Lady and Macbeth, and how and why they become what they are. (Hogarth)

Women in Sunlight by Frances Mayes

Women in Sunlight

From the author who brought us Under the Tuscan Sun comes this delicious novel that also takes place in Tuscany, in a lush fictional town named San Rocco. Camille, Julia, and Susan, three women who were set to move to a retirement community in North Carolina, instead decided to take the risk of a lifetime and rent a villa in Tuscany. There they meet writer Kit Raine, whose life is taken up by the friend whose biography she’s writing, and who she feels is still overshadowing her somehow. But Kit finds new life in these brave women’s company, as they discover the pleasures of Italian wine and cuisine. With gorgeous descriptions of the incredible landscape and amazing meals, Mayes has managed to recreate Italy in book format, giving us not only a fun read, but an epic bout of armchair tourism. (Crown)

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

Natural Causes

In the age of fad diets, obsessive exercising, plastic surgery, and anti-aging creams, Barbara Ehrenreich comes in with a philosophical and scientific polemic on the dire truth: no matter what we do, we have very little control over our bodies. The illusion of control is what fuels our various methods and attempts to stay young and live long lives, but the fact is, our very cells often work against our desires. Ehrenreich looks at the issues of morality that are tied to mortality, the way wealthier and often healthier people look upon the poorer—more likely to smoke, not to eat healthy, and to be sicker—with a disdain that’s entirely unfair. She also examines the medical establishment and what she sees as its superfluity of testing and preventative care. Ehrenreich wants us to accept that aging is natural, dying inevitable, and that living our best lives and being our best selves in the now is the best way to move forward. (Twelve)

The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp

The Magnificent Esme Wells

In late 1930s Los Angeles, Esme Silver grows up with parents whose lives glitter with all the shine of costume jewelry. Her mother is a showgirl, a small-time wannabe-starlet who shimmies her way into auditions and bit parts for MGM. Her father is a gambler, often found at the racetrack, where Esme accompanies him and picks up tickets left on the ground in case they’re winners. When her father ups and moves them to Las Vegas to work with Benny on opening the Flamingo Hotel (yes, Benny is indeed Bugsy Siegel), Esme finds herself in a world that glitters just like her parents. As beautiful as her mother, she also finds herself the center of attention for a rich Jewish gangster, and in post-World War II Las Vegas, Esme needs to reckon with love, sexuality, and the power she’s discovering she has. An engrossing and beautifully realized read. (Harper)

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

In these splendid essays, master novelist and essayist Alexander Chee bares the painful truths of being a writer—specifically a gay writer fighting for LGBTQ equality and losing friends to the AIDS crisis—in addition to other identities. Not quite a memoir, the book’s arranged from Chee’s youth to essays nearer to his current state. He uses rich and original metaphors, as his essay “The Rosary” exemplifies, where he compares the craft of pruning and growing roses to that of writing and arranging a novel. Chee’s honesty shines in essays on his time trying to find an audience for a book that dealt with themes of same-sex desire and the perils of child-abuse, his catering to a homophobic yet enviably rich man, and more. Chee could probably write about a phone book and make it interesting and new, but he needn’t—his life’s experiences are rich material from which to mine wisdom on writing, persevering, and learning. (Mariner Books)

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

Lawn Boy

Modern life is difficult, but honestly, there’s nothing that modern about the frustrations endured by Mike Muñoz, a young Chicano living in Washington State. In other words, his frustrations are rather timeless: from a bad job that he dislikes (and soon loses) to a mother whose deadbeat boyfriend watches porn in the living room of the small house they all share. But what is modern is Mike’s language, his sharp observations about the way almost everyone is fighting for and against something—how everyone, as he puts it, is mowing someone else’s lawn in one way or another. Evison’s characters are fully realized, and his protagonist is lovable despite his flaws—a believable young man whose future we want to see go well, but for whom life and present-day culture may have other plans. Hilarious and sad all at once, Evison’s newest book is fantastic. (Algonquin Books)

The Only Story by Julian Barnes

The Only Story

One summer when Paul is 19, his mother urges him to join the tennis club during his summer home from university in 1960s suburban London. Years later, from his vantage point as an adult, he looks back on that fateful decision. At the tennis club, Paul meets Susan, some 30 years his senior and married—married and desperate to get out from under the thumb of her abusive husband. When Paul and Susan become lovers, Paul is delirious with happiness and the rebellion of moving in with this older and sophisticated woman. But as time passes and Susan’s alcoholism is revealed in all its intimacy, Paul’s infatuation grows in complexity, and as things begin to fall apart for the pair, the lessons of first love pile up. A magnificent look at early and complicated love, Julian Barnes’s new novel is a quiet tour de force. (Knopf)

Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution by Menno Schilthuizen

Darwin Comes to Town

Darwin thought evolution was too slow to be observable in a human lifetime. And yet, the increased urbanization of much of the planet and the fast-paced changes to our environments seem to prove otherwise. Research scientist Menno Schilthuizen explains the ways we can see the flora and fauna of cities changing and evolving right here and now. Animals and plants have been made to adapt to the increased heat within cities, the changing supply of food, which is often human-made, and the nature of new and different predators—and the way they’ve evolved is fascinating and, indeed, observable. One example he gives is of British mosquitoes, which mainly feed on birds and hibernate during the winter; but with the advent of the London subway system, many adapted to the underground climate, where they learned to feed on humans and stay active year-round. In this spellbinding and remarkable book on urban ecology and natural science, you’ll be awed by the nature around us, even within our cinderblock cities. (Picador)


Featured Images: Daniela Sanziani

About Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Printer’s Row, The Toast, The Butter, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is (way too) active on Twitter @ilanaslightly.