Is the world ending or does it only feel like it? For university librarian Lizzie Benson, the questions of the future are a little less pressing, what with the constant pressure of the present-tense. Empathic and trying to care for everyone around her, Lizzie acts as a major support system to her mother, her brother, and now her mentor, who’s hired her to answer the mail addressed to her explosively popular podcast, Hell and High Water—so Lizzie turns her lens to the worries of strangers fearing climate-change disasters. Are these her loads to bear?
Willis Wu is a Taiwanese actor, not that anyone cares much at work, where he’s only meant to read as “Generic Asian Man.” As a bit-part actor on a police procedural show, he’s replaceable, but can replace himself as well—if his character dies, he has to wait 45 days before he can film again. Author Charles Yu switches between the TV show’s script and Wu’s own internal life, contrasting the blatant black-and-white nature of the former and the complex realities of the latter. But in a world shaped by racist media, is embracing stereotypes a survival mechanism?
The Girl with the Louding Voice
Adunni’s mother always wanted her daughter to have a voice, to use it to make decisions about her present and future, and she encouraged her daughter’s education and dreams of being a teacher. But after her mother’s death, Adunni’s father marries her off to be a third wife, and when she runs away from that marriage and reaches Lagos, she finds herself entering a terrible contract with a wealthy family, indenturing herself as a means of survival. But Adunni is by no means willing to give up, no matter how many men and wealthy folks tell her that she’s worthless.
Jacinda Greenwood, who goes by Jake, is a tour guide in one of the last remaining forests on Earth in 2038, where eco-tourists with money to burn come to see all the green. But Jake, much like the forest, is not disconnected from the events surrounding her. The book takes us back in time to people who came before: Liam Greenwood, a carpenter in 2008; Willow Greenwood, a hippie trying to undo her father’s evil work in 1974; and Everett Greenwood, back in 1934, who thought he was also alone, when everything suddenly changed.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
Some things feel both fun and deadly serious when you’re a child, and deciding to take on the investigation of a missing classmate is one of them. Jai, a 9-year-old boy living at the end of the Purple Line train in Delhi, recruits friends Pari and Faiz when shy Bahadur disappears from the neighborhood. Using the skills he’s picked up from TV, Jai and his pals interview the neighbors and visit places that might yield clues. When other kids start to go missing and the police make it clear they don’t care about poor children, the half-game turns desperately earnest.
Apeirogon: A Novel
Two men, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, grieve their daughters’ deaths. Bassam is Palestinian, and his daughter, Abir, is killed by a rubber bullet shot by an Israeli soldier. Elhanan is Israeli, and his daughter, Smadar, dies when a Palestinian suicide bomber attacks Jerusalem. These men’s names are real, and their anger and grief over their daughters’ deaths are too—but so too was their urge, over time, to make peace rather than further war over their losses. McCann explores their story in this novel, the Israel-Palestine conflict at large, and broader human questions regarding justice and peace.
Cathy Park Hong
What happens when the dominant forces around you—the schools you attend, the media you consume, the government systems whose laws you are bound to—all share a narrative that is dissonant with your own experiences? Poet Cathy Park Hong blends memoir and cultural criticism in these essays, tracing how white supremacist capitalist American culture affected her own consciousness as well as those of other Asian American women artists, and how she learned from these other artists to take herself and her work seriously. Examining damaging frameworks like the “model minority” and calling out white innocence, Hong fiercely deconstructs dehumanizing structures.
The Splendid and the Vile
In Erik Larson’s newest foray into the human beings who occupied pivotal moments in history, he focuses on Winston Churchill, specifically during the year of May 1940 to May 1941. But rather than rely solely on the charismatic English Prime Minister whose rhetoric and political acumen helped hold his nation afloat, Larson looks under the surface, finding and deploying in his storytelling arc a treasure trove of documents, letters, and journals belonging to Churchill’s intimates: two government officials, his private secretary, his bodyguard, his wife, and his four children. Richly detailed, this feels like a fresh take.
Wallace is the sole Black biochemistry graduate student at his Midwestern university, a fact he’s learned to live with, facing condescension with a straight face. Hard work is the only way to stay in the program and delay the real world—whatever that might be—looming out there beyond. After his father dies, Wallace’s friends all expect him to grieve a certain way; all except one: Miller, a straight man who shares more with Wallace than he doesn’t. But when the two become intimate, exploding their previous perceptions of one another, all other certainties begin to waver, too.
Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes
In Liston Heights, Minnesota, two women are put under the spotlight for very different reasons, causing uproar in their community. Julia Abbott is a bit of a helicopter mom, eager to maker sure her children have the best of all the opportunities their high school can provide, and goes so far as to volunteer with the school’s theater department. When a video of her elbowing/punching a student (which is it?) goes viral, her every activity comes under scrutiny. Liberal teacher Isobel Johnson, meanwhile, is being accused of her anti-American agenda, and put on blast.
Brother & Sister
Film star Diane Keaton was once incredibly close with her younger brother, Randy, back when they were just normal kids growing up in the LA suburbs. As adults, their lives couldn’t have been more different—Keaton an actress on the rise and with a steady career, Randy a divorced alcoholic who couldn’t keep a job and who had isolated himself from the rest of his family. Using artifacts from their pasts to guide the way, Keaton explores the nuances of how their lives diverged and what it means to reach out to those we love even when it’s difficult or scary.
Grant is a former professor living in a future in which AutoAmerica is half underwater, where the Netted are those in power (described, unsurprisingly, as “angel-fair”), and the Surplus are, well, the rest of the citizenry, whose role is largely consumption, and who are relegated to living in swampland or on water. When AutoAmerica decides to rejoin the Olympic games and organize a baseball team for it, Grant and his wife, Eleanor—a lawyer fighting for the rights of the Surplus—become uneasy. Their daughter, Gwen, is a pitching prodigy, and she’s being recruited. But what will joining the Netted cost her?
In painful, gutsy, and sometimes deeply uncomfortable stories, Lydia Yuknavitch explores the power of rage, lust, and desire in all their many facets. In one story, “Cosmos,” a cleaner carefully creates structures out of left-behind trash, finding meaning in beauty in both the trash and his own creations, until a violent discovery shatters his safety. In another piece, “Cusp,” a teenager misses her incarcerated brother, and begins to smuggle drugs and share her body with the men inside as a way to feel closer to him. There is beauty in violence and violence in beauty—agency, perhaps, is the differentiating mark.
Here for It
R. Eric Thomas
When R. Eric Thomas’s captioning of a photo of Mexican President Peña Nieto, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, and U.S. President Obama went viral, things changed for him. (An excerpt: “We may be two minutes from doomsday but thank the Lordt we still live in a universe where three world leaders can strut into a room like they’re the new interracial male cast of Sex and the City.” #bless) What Thomas couldn’t anticipate was that he would end up a columnist for Elle, and here, he looks back at his upbringing, education, and learning to mesh and meld identities in a demanding world.
The Authenticity Project
Julian Jesson is an artist in his 70s, lonely and missing his wife, who died a decade and a half ago. He decides to try out a little social experiment—The Authenticity Project—and writes out his own thoughts, truths, and questions about how well people know one another in a little green notebook, which he leaves in a cafe, inviting whoever comes across it to add their own words and pass the notebook on to another stranger. As the pages go from one person to another, truths, loves, and painful confessions are revealed, and in vulnerability these characters find connection.
The Queen's Fortune
Desiree and Julie Clary watch the world as they know it change forever during the French Revolution, and do what they can to save their own family from the sharp tooth of the guillotine. When a promising young man in the new elite, Joseph di Buonaparte, takes an interest in Desiree, he’s edged out by his soon-to-be-more-famous brother Napoleon, and Joseph ends up marrying Julie. But though Desiree and Napoleon’s romance rises to a fever pitch, another new arrival catches the ambitious man’s eye, and Desiree finds herself on the outs again, watching everything change all over, and so soon.
The Illness Lesson
What is the right way to raise and educate girls? We still don’t have a good answer for this, but in the late 19th century, progressive thinkers had all the answers, even if they were mostly men. Samuel Hood, founder of a failed utopia, has started a new project: an all girls’ school, one that his daughter Caroline, who works for him and the school, is deeply apprehensive about. Soon, the girls at the school begin to get ill, one after another, their symptoms strange and unexplainable, so Samuel brings in a male physician to treat them. But for whose good?
Break the Fall
Audrey Lee can’t believe it—only a year ago, she injured her back and didn’t know if she’d ever get to compete again. But now, after a long and hard recovery, she and her gymnastics team are going to the Olympics. When her teammate Dani accuses their coach of sexual assault, however, the girls’ tight-knit world begins to shatter as some refuse to believe Dani, and others, like Audrey, stand firmly by her side. Meanwhile, they’re still set to compete, but all the training, stress, and travel can’t keep Audrey from thinking about the cute snowboarder, Leo…
The Genius of Women
When people are asked to name geniuses, the names mentioned are almost always men. Why? Well, partly, it’s the definition—historically, the people who have defined what genius means and looks like have been men. Additionally, as journalist Janice Kaplan identifies, genius requires acknowledgement and support. In other words, geniuses need to be told they’re talented, encouraged in their work, and given the space and time to develop it. Kaplan spotlights genius women who have been lost to time and ones working today, such as Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and AI-expert Fei-Fei Li.
Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies
Tara Schuster had all the outward signs of success. She was only in her late 20s, but she was already a TV Executive who’d worked on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and helped launch Key & Peele‘s success. But underneath all that success was a woman trembling with anxiety, quivering with impostor syndrome and writhing with shame, a woman who wanted and needed help. This book is what she wished she’d had—a guide to self-love and worth, but not the kind that would have made her (and so many of us overachieving messes) throw up in her mouth.
This February is many things: Black History Month, that rare leap year, and also, unfortunately, a traditionally tough time for those of us with SAD. Luckily for all of us, we’ve got an incredible selection of favorites to share, including literary novels by rising superstar authors, memoirs you won’t want to miss, and emotional glimpses into climate change and the future from wildly different perspectives like Jenny Offil, Michael Christie, and Gish Jen. We have grand sweeping sagas, sweet novels of hope, and oh, so much more. Enjoy!
Featured Image by Kevon Nicholas