Our Favorite Books by Black Womxn Writers
[February 2021 issue]
LUSTER by Raven Leilani
Luster is impossible to characterize by a single adjective. Beautiful, awkward, painful, shocking, grim -- it is all this in equal turn, sometimes even within the same sentence. I don't even know if I could categorize it by a single genre. The novel is a first-person narrative about a young Black woman named Edie and her relationship with an older man in an open marriage. There is dark humor aplenty addressing institutional racism, misogyny, capitalism, and the general malaise of being in your mid-twenties. Leilani also perfectly captures the open, empty feeling of post-college adulthood. While painting alone in her Bushwick bedroom, Edie remarks on the "gray, anonymous hours like this...when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void." - Habiba
PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler
Butler believed her writing belonged to the following genres: science fiction, speculative fiction, afro-futuristic literature and histo-futuristic literature. More recently, readers have also used the genre “climate fiction” to define Parable of the Sower. In an interview, Octavia stated she did not think of herself as a science fiction writer, rather just as a “writer” as she felt as being limited to science fiction would make people view her work less seriously. Octavia was frustrated with the idea of people thinking one had to be a teenager to appreciate or enjoy science fiction. She was aware of her Black and feminist readers and held a significant desire to reach these audiences. Her book, which was published in the early 1990s, follows teenager Laura Olmina who struggles to survive in an apocalyptic-like world in which a pandemic unfolds, climate change kills and corporate America has caused massive upheaval. - Palmer
Books we Found at our Favorite Bookstores
(January 2021 issue)
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernadine Evaristo
Spotty Dog Books & Ale - Hudson, NY
One of my favorite things about visiting a bookstore is the sheer amount of time I can spend in it; reading the back of every book in a stack of "New Releases" by the entrance, looking at photographs in cookbooks, flipping open poetry collections I've read countless times to see what page I land on. When I was growing up in Arizona, there was a chain of used bookstores called Bookmans (still open today, I'm happy to report). My favorite location was in Flagstaff, where they had installed a small cafe after some renovations. I would buy a coffee and spend hours and hours sitting in a large green armchair tucked into the back of the store, sometimes reading whole books during my visits--and, of course, always leaving with a stack too.
During a visit to Hudson, New York last September, I stopped at Spotty Dog Books & Ale to buy a book for the drive home. I was disappointed at first to realize that it was only functioning in a limited capacity -- there was a booth in front of the door where you can request and pay for books, but no in-store browsing due to covid restrictions. Before the pandemic, Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson, NY was both a bookstore and a bar, offering wine and local beers along with a large selection of books.
Because of Spotty Dog's limited capacity, I did not get the chance to browse their books collection, but instead asked an employee manning the booth for suggestions. I imagined the exchange was almost like what it would have been if I had asked for a beer recommendation when the store was also a bar -- she asked me to name several authors I liked, and gave me a few picks based on my answer.
My favorite selection was Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. I usually read during the day and then watch a movie or show in the evening, but I was so captivated by Evaristo's novel that I stayed up late several nights in a row until I finished it. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, predominantly British and Black womxn, whose lives are all interconnected in some way. Evaristo seamlessly inhabits the voices and energy of each individual with her vibrant prose.
After Spotty Dog fully reopens, I cannot wait to pull up a stool at the bar, order a cold beer, and dig into a good book. - Habiba
Credit to FX Schram Photography
HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron
Chamblin Bookmine - Jacksonville, FL
I found Nora Ephron's Heartburn in the fiction section of Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida. Heartburn is a fictionalized version of Nora Ephron's experience trying to get through her ex's affair he had while she was pregnant with their second child. Although the plot is woven with grief, it is very much fixated on humor and self-deprecation. Ephron uses cooking as a way to cope with this stressful relationship.
Chamblin's was established by Ron Chamblin in 1976. He began working on his own for the first few years. His business grew rapidly, and presently he owns two bookstores in Jacksonville. Whenever I step into the location on Roosevelt Boulevard, my jaw drops at the sight of the almost endless aisles of books. The store sells both used and new books, with genre sections such as Atheism, Astronomy, Hollywood, Manga, Railroad, and Shakespeare. Of course, the more standard genres are also there. I love this store so much. I could truly spend years in it and never get bored.
Credit to Florida Times Union
Books to read on a snowy day (December 2020 Issue)
STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang
When you’re curled up reading on a snowy day, there's no better time to read about different ways the world could be. In Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life And Others, Chiang does a great job of blending science fiction with reality in a way that will keep you thinking. All of his stories probe at the line between reality and fantasy. What would happen if you climbed to the top of the Tower of Babylon and broke through to heaven? What if a hormone therapy could make you superhuman—but only you and one other person know it exists? What would our perception of the world be like if we filtered out facial beauty, and how “lookism” is ingrained in our lives? Except you don’t have to imagine, because Chiang’s stories do the imagining for you. The collection also contains “Story of Your Life,” which was later adapted into the film Arrival. Not only does the story have the most innovative structure I’ve ever encountered in a story, it also kept me thinking about the nature of time and how it is impacted by language. Highly recommend the collection. - Lia
INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer
Based on a true story, this novel follows the journey of a young Emory University graduate from an upper-class Virginian family who does not enter "properly" into society post-graduation. Instead of finding a job as his family expects him to do, he decides he must make a bigger future for himself by discovering himself through nature. The young man, named Christopher McCandless, then walks "into the wild" by hiking his way to Alaska and meeting many different people along the way. Although this story has been criticized by many as being a "selfish" one, I'd argue it is an essential one. This book reminds me to think about the big picture and question the way our roles in society impact how we believe we should be living. - Palmer
our favorite Poetry Collections [November 2020 issue]
CRUSH by Richard Siken
I was first introduced to Richard Siken's poetry by a date who took me to the Strand Bookstore. We sat on a bench next to the stairs, reading poems from Crush and people watching. While the relationship did not last, my enduring love for Siken did: I bought the book a few months later during my next visit to the Strand.
The most effective artists are those who talk about their specific experiences in such a way that they seem universal. When I read "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out," the poem seemed to echo so many nights I'd had since moving to New York -- "I arrived in the city and you met me at the station/...Down the alley, around the arcade, up the stairs of the building.../I looked out the window and said/This doesn't look that much different from home, because it didn't/but then I noticed the black sky and all those lights."
In our current moment, Crush is a heady and, at times, startling reminder of the world we've left behind. - Habiba
THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND by Wallace Stevens
I didn't read Stevens until I was in college, but in many ways I am grateful to have not read his work in high school. I honestly do not think I would have appreciated it as much I do now. Stevens's appeal can be found in his clear language and evocative descriptions. Poems like "The Snowman," "Idea of Order at Key West" and "Of Mere Being" conjure up themes of nature, death, beauty and what exactly it means to be alone. His poems can be as simple or complex as you want them to be. His life story is an interesting one as he was a very successful lawyer by day and a poet by night. Stevens would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1955, the same year he sadly died of stomach cancer.
I sincerely hope you will read this collection! - Palmer
writing on the dark side
[october 2020 ISSUE]
THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James
This famous novel has been depicted for years as a ghost story; however, I'd argue it is more a tale of psychological terror. An unnamed governess arrives at the Bly estate in order to watch after two children whose parents have passed away. Eventually, the governess finds that these ghosts are Peter Quint, a former care-taker of the house and a driver for the family, and Ms. Jessel, the former governess. Both children are depicted from the beginning of the novel as being extremely innocent and beautiful. The governess, in fact, seems to be almost overtaken by their innocence and attractiveness. We do not yet know enough about the governess’s backstory to judge how credible her observations are. As the two figures of Ms. Jessel and Peter Quint start to appear, her objective as a caretaker becomes much more possessive and almost frightening. She wants to save the children from these dark figures, but at the same time, she seems to want them only to herself. This novel will make you re-define your definition of a "scary" story. - Palmer
HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux
Although Halloween stories traditionally revolve around the supernatural, it feels important this year to instead focus on the actual -- a global pandemic and an increasingly volatile election season are horrifying enough without adding werewolves to the mix. Something very real and terrifying that's been on my mind lately is the prospect of diminished womxn's rights. In Happening (L'evenement), Annie Ernaux lays bare the implications of what it really means to lose autonomy over your own body. The book is a harrowing account of Ernaux's abortion during the early 1960s in France, where it was then illegal, and the lasting emotional impact of the experience. Happening is a story for our moment, both essential and devastating. - Habiba
A CHILDREN'S BIBLE by Lydia Millet
While not marketed as a thriller or a spooky story, A Children’s Bible is a book that tells of the very real horrors that might arise if climate changes continue. The story takes place at a massive summer house where multiple families are vacationing. The children feel contempt for their parents, who spend their days in a drunken, sex-and-drug-filled stupor. When a hurricane and then a series of other disasters strike, it is the children who act responsibly in the wake of these events. The group decide to run away from their parents, navigating the apocalyptic chaos with dark humor. Bonus: the novel is a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award. - Lia
Books in translation
[September 2020 ISSUE]
IN OTHER WORDS by Jhumpa Lahiri
Although Jumpa Lahiri's In Other Words is primarily a collection of nonfiction essays about her relationship with language and learning Italian, the part that struck me most was actually one of the few fictional short stories included in the book. Without spoiling too many details, "The Exchange" is about a translator who thinks she accidentally takes someone else's sweater after trying on clothes at a sample sale. She discovers later that the sweater is indeed hers; it is instead her perception of it that has changed.
It is this idea of the familiar becoming foreign that is central to In Other Words. Lahiri, who grew up speaking both Bengali and English, became obsessed with learning Italian and decided to move to Rome with her family to immerse herself in the language. Every time she believes she has made progress with Italian, linguistic subtleties present themselves anew -- the recognizable transforms into the unrecognizable.
In Other Words is essential reading for anyone learning a new language or even wishing to gain a firmer grasp of their own. Lahiri's deft memoir is a personal linguistic journey that alludes to the significance of facing the unknown. - Habiba
THE MEMORY POLICE by Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a haunting novel about a society where things slowly go missing: perfume, birds, ribbon, boats... The list goes on and on. The Memory Police’s job is to enforce that everything gets removed from the island. Once an item is declared “disappeared,” everyone on the island forgets that it even existed—including the narrator. Only when the narrator gets to know someone who remembers everything that vanishes does the narrator begin to learn the power of memory. But by the time she comes to these realizations, she is already in danger of losing her sense of self. Ogawa has been compared to Kafka, Beckett, and Orwell—for good reason. The Memory Police left me thinking about individualism, memory, and identity for days after I put it down. - Lia
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas
The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in French in 1844. Alexandre Dumas wrote this compelling novel keeping revenge at the forefront of the storyline. At the beginning of the story, the main character, Edmond Dantès, is portrayed as an innocent and sympathetic young man. However, it is clear from the start that there are people who are jealous of him. Edmond is sentenced to one of the cruelest prisons in France, and he struggles to understand why until he realizes who has betrayed him. This novel is a must-read, particularly if you want to see the underdog come out on top with piles of gold around him (literally). - Palmer
our favorite Books UNDER 250 PAGES
[AUGUST 2020 ISSUE]
LITTLE LABORS by Rivka Galchen
I recently re-read Rebecca Solnit's essay on "Women's Work and the Myth of the Art Monster", in which she presents the radical idea that women don't have to choose between their family and their art -- they can be mothers, daughters, nurturers, creatives and thinkers all at once. Solnit's thesis is embodied by the beautiful and succinct Little Labors, a meditation on the intersections of art and motherhood. You don't have to be a mother or a writer to appreciate the way Galchen seamlessly weaves together reflections on babies and youthhood in literature with anecdotes of her own mothering. In one chapter, Galchen writes about the ways in which the supernatural can inform the actual, but her quietly brilliant book is a testament to how the feminine experience transcends both. - Habiba
SELF-HELP by Lorrie Moore
Self-Help was published in 1985 and established Moore as one of the greats in regards to short story writing. While each story is worth reading, my favorite is "The Kid's Guide to Divorce," in which a mother and daughter spend a night watching movies together. At the end of it, the mother inquires how the daughter's time with her father has been going on the weekends, but the daughter does not answer honestly. What stands out in this story is the key attention to detail. The themes in the collection range from familial issues, betrayal, the act of writing itself and loss. - Palmer
CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata
All over the world—particularly in Japan—many women are expected to get married when they reach a certain age. Women who don’t get married when they're young might choose instead to rise in prestigious careers. Sayaka Murata’s Convience Store Woman challenges that idea: thirty-six year old protagonist Keiko Furukura is content working at a convenience store in Japan. The more pleasure she takes from her job, the more she is pressured to try fitting in with what other women her age are doing. While the book was short enough to read in an afternoon, the questions it raised resonated with me long after I finished the last sentence. Murata wastes no time in the novel judging Keiko’s life choices. Instead, the book is just a small, admiring portrait of a woman who found an alternative path towards fulfillment. - Lia
WANT by Lynne Steger Stong
In Lynne Steger Stong’s Want, I often felt as if I were watching a realistic horror movie in slow motion. The story is told through a series of vignette’s about a mother named Elizabeth struggling to support her family while yearning for a connection to her past. “Don’t leave,” I think, as Elizabeth skips out on her job to drink coffee and read erudite novels. “Don’t spend all your savings on a dinner,” I think after Elizabeth and her husband go to a fancy restaurant with one of his old friends after filing for bankruptcy. As the same time, her character is easy to understand. Struggling to make ends meet with a Ph.D, two kids, a husband, and two jobs, Elizabeth longs for something more. Through Steger’s subtle craftsmanship, interesting questions are raised about the underhanded brutality that befalls a certain kind of woman who dares to want. Along the way, the reader witnesses all the brutalities that Elizabeth herself in as she struggles to survive. - Lia
Books That Make You Feel Like You're On Vacation (July 2020 Issue)
THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP by Nina George
This book will sweep you right off your feet and into the French countryside. Written by beloved international author, Nina George, the plot centers around an older man named Jean Perdu. Jean runs a bookstore (from his boat!) and has a unique gift of being able to tell any customer exactly what book he or she ought to read. Jean is searching for his old and lost love as he departs from his life in Paris, learning new lessons along the way. - Palmer
PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion
Although Didion's classic novel set in California is a scathing critique of superficial Hollywood culture, I found myself transported by the book to some glamorous poolside, albeit with a touch of malaise. The protagonist Maria faces multiple breakdowns and copes by driving long expanses of desert freeway—Play It As It Lays is a true Didion masterpiece not to be missed. I finished it in one sitting, sipping white wine and imagining a California breeze in my hair. - Habiba
BEACH READ by Emily Henry
As the title suggests, Beach Read is just the kind of book you want when you are out in the sun. January and Augustus were rivals in their college writing class. While Augustus went on to be an acclaimed writer of literary fiction, January writes bestselling romance novels. The only thing they have in common? When they both find themselves living next door, they are both struggling from writer’s block. It’s not until they challenge one another to switch genres that the two of them learn that they have more in common than they might think. January will teach Gus to write a swoon-worthy rom-com while Gus teaches January to write dark literary fiction. Easy, right? The plot deviates just enough from the classic rom-com tropes to create a complex love story of two people learning to heal from hardship. Was there ever a better time to read about overcoming difficulty and finding love?- Lia
THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
While the story centers around people who meet at Hotel Caiette (aka “the glass hotel”), don’t mistake this book for your typical vacation story. The hotel is owned by a man named Alkaitus, who implicates many characters in his Madoff-esque Ponzi scheme. But as much as The Glass Hotel is an escapist tale and crime thriller, it is also a ghost story and tale of survival. A book that started as Mandel's rendering of Bernie Madoff’s downfall turned into a captivating story of how people try to search for meaning. However you classify The Glass Hotel, it is a book that is hard to put down. - Lia