Need a last-minute holiday gift? Looking for something new and trusted to read? Can’t remember the author your mom likes but have a vague recollection of the cover? Never fear: booksellers have the answers. Much like the scene in You’ve Got Mail when Kathleen Kelly is sitting in Fox Books and automatically knows which children’s series a mother is asking after, it’s been our experience that booksellers are always there for you.
Did you know that 20% of independent bookstores won’t make it to the other side of the new year? During this pandemic, booksellers have really had to go to the mattresses, so we’re encouraging you to go to them. Shop local. Shop indie. It really does make a difference.
A huge thank you to the wise and kind booksellers at Greenlight Bookstore, Loyalty Bookstore, Politics and Prose, Community Bookstore, Books and Mortar, A Seat at the Table, and Magic City Books for generously sharing their book recommendations with us this month. Happy reading and happy holidays!
Rivers Solomon, The Deep
The Deep by Rivers Solomon was by far my favorite book I’ve read all year. This “artistic game of telephone “ creates a mythology around the forgotten pregnant people thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. The story imagines that those children didn’t die, but instead they learn how to survive underwater and create a society despite the horror of their creation. The story follows Yetu who carries the memories for her people, and finds that those memories are destroying her. She tries to escape her responsibilities by going to the surface and discovers the world her ancestors left behind. This story is masterful in telling how memory is held both collectively and individually. Trauma in the body is always displayed as grieving and unrelentingly painful. I think Solomon does a fabulous job of showing the trauma and then allowing us the path to healing. BRAVA!
–Asha Gibbs, Greenlight
Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
In Elizabeth Alexander’s 2003 collection of essays, The Black Interior, she asks of readers: what is unearthed when we explore the oft disregarded interior of Black Americans? Whether in direct response to Alexander’s challenge or not, Deesha Philyaw offers readers an awe-inducing answer. Revealing the private yearnings, joys, and tribulations of a group of Black women who may very well be our relatives, coworkers, friends, and even passerby, Philyaw repeatedly unfolds the complex interior of characters who are palpable, and feel as though they are whispering their chronicles into my ear.
–Malik, Loyalty Bookstore
Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up to her acclaimed Homegoing, follows Gifty, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford School of Medicine, where she researches the “neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior” by hooking mice on Ensure, then withholding it to observe the lengths they go to get the addictive drink back. These experiments are informed by Gifty’s difficult early years: when she was four, her immigrant father left Alabama to return to Ghana. Later, her fifteen-year-old brother overdosed on heroin, sending her mother—a determined woman given to working twelve hours a day, six days a week (saving Sunday for God)—into a deep depression. While Gifty becomes an American scientist and her mother plunges into Ghanaian evangelicalism, the two are bound by their losses, and from their different responses to pain, Gyasi has constructed a deeply intimate, philosophical novel, one that journeys through addiction, loss, and heartbreak and emerges unequivocally triumphant.
–Gibs Ramm, Politics and Prose
Joseph Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret
I can’t quite remember how I first came to know about this book. I certainly knew of it well before I read it. It was in my mental Rolodex, sitting always near the top of that perpetual to-be-read pile in my mind. What if a homeless Harvard-educated eccentric wrote the longest book ever, hid sections of it throughout New York City, and the book’s whereabouts remains a mystery. Did it ever exist to begin with? That’s the hook that got me excited. To call it a book is a bit of a misnomer. It’s really just two longform pieces, “Professor Sea Gull” (1942) and “Joe Gould’s Secret” (1964) that Joseph Mitchell wrote over two decades apart for The New Yorker. Beyond the immediate appeal of Mr. Gould, who’s endlessly fascinating, Mr. Mitchell never published another piece after 1964 even thought he technically served as a Staff Writer until his death in 1996. Legend has it (and I’ve heard and confirmed first hand) that he’d still come to the office every day (in his suit and fedora) and type away. To no avail. I could go on. This little book contains multitudes and was well ahead of, and certainly a huge influence on, the New Journalism that took hold in the 60s (Didion, Wolfe, Talese, etc). Writing this just makes me want to go read it again. I think I will. Nothing sells books quite like enthusiasm.
–Jeff Martin, Magic City Books
Raven Leilani, Luster
I suggest reading Luster if you want a book about New York, if you want a book that will keep you thoroughly engrossed. If you’re also interested in reading about things that are not big plot points or wanting to know about small details of mundane life, Luster is a great pick. It’s a really fast read—there’s like less than 10 chapters—and it’s really enjoyable. I don’t want to give too much away because so much happens, but so much doesn’t happen at the same time. So it’s filled with a lot of imagery and just a lot of different things to make you think about, and it’s a really great book. There’s so much more I can say, but that means you have to read the book to find out! It keeps you always on your toes, and it’s really, really a great read.
Julio Cortázar, All Fires the Fire
At once mind-bending and playful, All Fires the Fire carries us past the bizarre to where things look surprisingly familiar. I was turning these stories over in my head long after they ended.
–Kim Huebner, Community Bookstore
Richard Powers, The Overstory
If you are looking for something epic, something that you can dive into and emerge with a new perspective on the world and a relationship with characters whose backgrounds and stories are vast and complex, this is your book. Told from the perspective of the forest, or the overstory, Powers’s book sheds light on human relationship with the natural world, winding his characters so thoroughly up in the lives of trees and animals that readers have no choice but to recognize their inherent connection to and kinship with these creatures. Lie in a hammock and lose yourself in the beauty and tragedy of our current moment in history through this book, and I promise that while you will not find blind optimism, you will find a new perspective on the world around you. You will get closer to it. You will love it harder.
–Jenny, Books and Mortar
Hiroko Oyamada, tr. David Boyd, The Hole
This is Hiroko Oyamada’s second novel to be translated in English. It kind of ties in with her first, which came out last year, The Factory, which I really liked. This one has a similar mood and tone, as well as a similar length. It’s a very short, brief, but really unsettling novel about a woman who moves out to the countryside with her husband and starts noticing the appearance of holes everywhere, as well as this creature that she follows down to the river. And it just kind of goes off in a few directions from there. Not a lot happens, but it’s all for the best. It’s a really weird kind of metaphysically unsettling journey.
Kawai Strong Washburn, Sharks in the Time of Saviors
If you were to read one novel about Hawai’i, please let it be this one. Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a stunning debut novel by Kawai Strong Washburn, who was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Hawaiian gods and legends are woven into the story of a native Hawaiian and Filipino family who has been favored by the gods when the younger son Nainoa is rescued by sharks after falling overboard into the Pacific. But that favor isn’t always what it seems, and we see how it affects everyone in the family differently. With magical realism and some supernatural elements, Washburn expertly explores issues of race, class, and poverty that Native Hawaiians experience, in a home that has oftentimes been taken over by wealthy white people. The writing is lush and wonderful and made my hapa heart feel at home.
–Christine, Loyalty Bookstore
Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind
It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed up late to finish a book, but that’s what I did with Leave the World Behind. Rumaan Alam’s third novel is the story of a family on vacation, whose bliss is interrupted when another family arrives with news of a blackout that has brought New York City to its knees. As these people remain trapped in an expensive Long Island house, cut off from a world descending into chaos, their own worlds begin to spin faster and faster, exposing fissures in relationships and egos while also demonstrating the centripetal force between people in crisis. The prose is elegant, gripping, and holds our hand through every twist and turn this novel takes, cushioning us as the horror becomes more and more existential while also tantalizingly real. Buy this book for your friend who is maybe a little too plugged into the news cycle, your family member who loves literary horror, or anyone who feels like their summer was robbed from them by a world fleeing from comprehension.
–Aron Spellane, Politics and Prose
Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies
If autofiction is often critiqued for a dearth of plot and an excess of self-absorption, this thrilling novel is an intriguing entry to the genre. I couldn’t put it down, which is an incredible feat in 2020.
–Stephanie Valdez, Community Bookstore
Kristen Arnett, Mostly Dead Things
Full disclosure: I am obsessed with writers from Florida. I am not sure what it is about Florida, but writers like Arnett and VanderMeer (as well as Karen Russell and Lauren Groff—check them out!) are writing stories that are unique, exciting, and prophetic. Mostly Dead Things is about a woman who takes on her family taxidermy shop in the wake of her father’s suicide. As if her father’s death and the responsibility of a new business weren’t enough, our protagonist then watches her mom cope with grief by staging taxidermy in strange and uncomfortable positions. When an art gallerist, a woman who our protagonist immediately develops feelings for, spies the mother’s displays and commissions an exhibit of them, all heck breaks loose. From the most unique of vantage points, Arnett creates a spell-binding, can’t-put-down book about grief, loss, female embodiment, and, of course, Florida.
–Jenny, Books and Mortar
Zadie Smith, Intimations
So the first thing that I think is really beautiful about this book is that it’s small and not a huge commitment. I’ve had a lot of moments during the pandemic where it’s just been really hard to focus, so I found this really easy to jump into; it’s six pretty short essays, so it’s easy to get involved in it. She uses really clear, elegant language, and it’s beautifully written. The other thing that’s really great is that it’s incredible perspective. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to all of the books that were going to come out about the pandemic, but when I was reading this I felt an immense sense of relief—like, finally some perspective from a wise person who knows how to write. So it’s definitely worth the read, and an enjoyable one, even though it is about our current situation.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Everyone needs to read this book, which will open your eyes with stories, case studies, and research. Alexander proves that mass incarceration in the U.S. shores up a racial caste system akin to Jim Crow segregation that disproportionally and intentionally targets people of color. The U.S. is number one in the world for putting people of color in jail, prisons, and correctional control (probation and parole). The civil rights lawyer and author will draw you into the modern civil rights struggle to fight mass incarceration and the get tough in crime movement. You will not be able to put this book down!
–Ryan Autenrieth, A Seat at the Table Books
Alisson Wood, Being Lolita
Alisson Wood’s Being Lolita made me turn the pages so quickly I tore a few—but it also forced me to slow down and consider the way vulnerability is so often preyed upon by men of power—how they chew up their victims and spit them out without any real consequences or justice. Wood’s memoir recounts the predatory relationship the author was in with her high school English teacher, and traces her metamorphosis from student to survivor. Wood holds nothing back as she bares her painful experience to her readers, from the manipulation she suffered to later revelations that reveal the teacher for what he is: a predator, an abuser, and a fraud. Being Lolita is a seduction, a scream, a sharp knife, and an exhalation; it is piercing and uncomfortable, but also utterly necessary. Fans of Lisa Taddeo and T Kira Madden will find an unsettling familiarity here, which leads readers to consider the true meanings of consent and power, and how society’s perceptions of victims too often keep their stories, and the perpetrators, hidden in the shadows.
–Brittany Kerfoot, Politics and Prose
Ruby Hamad, White Tears/Brown Scars
White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, by Ruby Hamad, is all about how white supremacy has a history of being upheld by white women, and their roles throughout the centuries and the different ways that has evolved. It talks about Hunger Games, it talks about things that are a little more modern, it also talks about white slave-owners. Read this if you are interested in being a better person and learning your history, and if you’re trying to figure out how to do less harm in the world. This book has a lot of good historical context that is also applicable to current times.
Gary Indiana, Depraved Indifference
Gary Indiana is the writer most ready for a renaissance, and Depraved Indifference—the Semiotext(e) reprint of Indiana’s vicious new millennium true-crime novel—shows him as the best at his business.
–Hal Hlavinka, Community Bookstore
Andrea Stewart, Bone Shard Daughter
This upcoming novel’s fantasy world pulled me in so well that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it really exists somewhere in the galaxy. Stewart’s characters are so authentic and deeply human, and her floating islands, bone-shard-powered constructs, dark magic, and fantastical creatures feel just as real as the people interacting with them. This book will leave you devastated in the best way when it ends, as it’s both a powerful book in its own right and the first installment in a trilogy. And its all-Asian cast, which includes LGBTQ+ characters, make this as groundbreaking as it is engaging.
–Emily Autenrieth, A Seat at the Table Books
James McBride, Deacon King Kong
I loved this book! It is a captivating story that resonates both as an examination of the foibles of being human as well as pure, easy to get lost in the story, entertainment. McBride is a wizard when it comes to character development. Not only does he knock it out of the park when creating his main characters, but he has the uncanny ability to fill his stories with minor characters that, no matter how fleeting their appearances are, come across as fully formed people. This was easily my favorite novel of the year.
–Gene, Loyalty Bookstore
Samantha Shannon, Priory of the Orange Tree
You’ve read so many books about dragons, magic, and love that you know all the tropes, which is why you’ll love this sweeping, 800-page novel so much: it defies those tropes and surprises you at every turn. Shannon’s world-building is complex and layered, as her book spans an ocean and centers several different cultures and characters throughout the tale. The book’s inclusion of people of so many races and LGBTQ+ identities feels genuine and honest. You’ll know the characters so well that their pain will be your pain and their joy will make your heart soar. I felt so connected to the characters that when I went on a trip halfway through the book and left it at home, I told my spouse, “I forgot to say goodbye to my Priory friends!”
–Emily Autenrieth, A Seat at the Table Books
Simon Hanselmann, Seeds and Stems
All the ephemera you need from the best graphic novel series running right now while you hunker down this winter.
–Sam Jaffe-Goldstein, Community Bookstore
Danez Smith, Homie
Homie is Danez Smith’s most recent poetry collection. It’s absolutely incredible. It explores friendship, race, identity, gender, in a very cognizant, resonant way. It’s an amazing, amazing book. It’s funny, it’s political, it’s beautiful. Danez Smith uses form in such interesting ways, from super sparse work through amazing, lustrous prose poems that are so sonically rich and interesting, and imagistically profound and strange, but also so based in accessibility…. You do not have to be a poetry reader to appreciate this book; you truly can read this from any sort of position as a reader. It would make an amazing gift as a first collection of poetry.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Begin Again
Decades after James Baldwin’s death, his social vision and insights into the psychic and moral anguish of racism are as piercingly relevant to the America of today. In Begin Again, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. blends biography, memoir, and literary analysis of Baldwin’s works to present a passionate appeal for Americans to grapple with the enduring “lie” at the core of America’s soul-sickness. This lie—a blind devotion to maintaining America’s self-perception as mostly innocent—is exactly what Baldwin sought to undermine through his writing. Baldwin’s disillusionment and struggle for sense following the civil rights movement of the ‘60s provides parallels for the disorientation many might be feeling today in Trump’s America. Fans of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time will appreciate Glaude’s blunt-force lyrical style. A timely and charged read, Begin Again brings Baldwin’s witness to bear on the present in an evocative way that imagines a better world. In Baldwin’s own words: “Not everything is lost. Responsibility cannot be lost, it can only be abdicated. If one refuses abdication, one begins again.”
–Sly Samudre, Politics and Prose