I read—a lot. Both for work and for pleasure. But because I cannot cover every single book within the outlets I write for, I am going to dedicate a post every so often to spotlight the books that I am otherwise unable to cover, books that flew under the radar, and books that aren’t new—because they deserve our love and attention, too. Now read on for some bomb-ass book recs.
I’ve been deeply in love with Michaela Coel ever since stumbling upon Chewing Gum on Netflix a few years ago. (It’s since been removed from Netflix, but you can now find it streaming on HBO Max.) Every element of the show blends seamlessly together—the tone, the pace, the delivery—it’s a cornucopia of comedy, from deliciously cringe-worthy sex scenes (the more uncomfortable, the better TBH!) to one-liners so brilliant you want to dissect every syllable like a limb from a toad in biology class. It only ran for two seasons, but every episode bubbles over with ingenuity; short as it was, it still hits the spot. Coel has gone on to act in a slew of other roles. Most recently, she created and starred in the smash HBO hit, I May Destroy You, which, at long last, earned Coel three Emmys. And rightfully so. When news broke that Coel would be publishing her first book, I pounced.
Misfits is an extension of her speech, which was delivered as the prestigious MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. A storyteller to her core, Coel takes her readers from her upbringing in London public housing, to finding theater, then embracing—and eventually mastering—her propensity for storytelling, all while confronting the roles race, class, and gender—and later, trauma—played along the way. Within these words, Coel beckons the misfit, the outlier, and anyone else who’s struggled to fit neatly into the spaces designed to repel those too this or too that. It is a call for radical honesty, directed outwards as much as it is inwards, that asks us to consider our own roles, creative or otherwise, and how we can wield our tools to shape a world which embraces our differences instead of one driven by the instinct to separate.
This book by literary-star-on-the-rise Jackie Ess (who is also my pressmate! Shout out to CLASH Books forever) has been capturing the attention of every corner of the printed world, from the indie circuit to literary titans like Garth Greenwell and Samantha Irby singing its praises. And for good reason. I’ve been dying to read this book, and was finally able to sit down with it to truly devour every delicious morsel it has to offer. I did not think I could ever relate to its eponymous protagonist—a white, middle-aged cisgender man living in western Oregon exploring the cuckhold lifestyle—but stranger things have happened. *Gestures broadly at the last two years.* Like any powerful work of literature, there I was, seeing parts of myself in this gloriously imperfect man who is peeling back layer after layer of himself, trying to gain a deeper understanding of the pieces that make him up, only to discover that identity is a carousel, always moving. He's realizing that, over time, pieces that once fit seamlessly will sometimes never again. It is an ode to the messiness of self, which I will always show up for, peppered with empathy and hilarity. Darryl Cook forever.
I was introduced to the work of this author after I read Burn It Down, an anthology she edited in 2019. Then chatter of her debut memoir, Negative Space, started to crescendo into a cacophony of praise once it was published back in May, so I eagerly awaited my pre-ordered copy to arrive in the mail. Once it came, it went straight to the pile of books on my desk, waiting to be read, until it was buried by other books I had to read for work until August, when I traveled to a literary conference in Pennsylvania where I was scheduled to appear on a debut non-fiction panel with Lilly Dancyger herself. After I read from my book, Born to Be Public, and made my way from the stage back to my seat, Dancyger beckoned me over and leaned into my ear to tell me we should talk later, that we probably went to a lot of the same parties in New York City and knew many of the same people. Then she read from Negative Space, which beguiled me and the rest of the 100+ plus folks that filled the large conference room of the swanky hotel we were staying in, and I immediately resolved to read her book the second my work schedule—and my, at the time, imminent move to a new apartment—allowed.
In Negative Space, Dancyger unfolds the tapestry of her memories growing up with parents struggling with addiction, all while providing her with a childhood she always considered rosy. Her father, Joe Schactmen, was an active participant in the iconic East Village art scene in the 1980s, creating sculptures out of materials like animal bones and human hair, and never shied from exposing this gritty world to his daughter. Then, one day, just as she was about to enter adolescence, Dancyger’s world fell apart upon receiving the news of her father’s sudden death. Grief has followed her like a shadow ever since, resulting in teenage rebellion: from dropping out of school to donning Doc Martens and leaving red lipstick prints on countless cigarette filters and even developing her own addiction, to cocaine. It wasn’t until adulthood that Dancyger decided to confront addiction and the memories—both her own and others' who'd known her father, namely her mother—surrounding her upbringing. Addiction, specifically her father’s to heroin, played a role in shaping the childhood Dancyger always thought of as happy. An investigation into her past reveals the malleability of memory, that multiple truths can sit side-by-side: she had a happy childhood and her parents were addicts. It does not have to be one or the other. It can be both. Even in death, Dancyger’s beloved father helped bring her to this realization, his art both her inheritance, and the beacon of light only a loving parent can emit.
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: if you aren’t peppering your to-be-read piles with at least one short story collection, you are doing yourself a disservice. No literary palette can fully develop without the short story. Don’t know where to start? Let me start by recommending this collection, which links the lives of a handful of employees of a Denver-based company who struggle to find purpose and connection amidst corporate life. This marks the fourth book by Wendy J. Fox, who is doing the lord’s work—truly—by spotlighting small press books in major outlets like BuzzFeed, exposing this treasure trove of titles to a mass market audience. (Other outlets…should take note, especially when considering what is notable.) Anyway, moving on! Fox is rude, because not only is she a staple in the literary community dedicated to promoting books whose marketing budgets—if any!—can’t afford bucket hats, she’s a fucking remarkable writer of fiction, especially nailing the short form. How dare she! She engages every sense, reminding me of writers like Brandon Taylor, who have an uncanny ability to render beauty from the mundane, and exercises both power and delicacy with such precision—SOMETIMES EVEN IN THE SAME SENTENCE—that I almost got vertigo.
I met this author (and her partner) back in June when they came to one of my readings. I was twitterpated with Wang from the get-go, especially when she told me about her upcoming book, which I made a mental note to pre-order because not only is memoir my favorite genre to read, but I was especially excited to spend time on the page with my new friend. Then I read from my embarrassing gay rag, which included an anecdote about the time I drunkenly torpedoed gravy into my mouth from a solo cup, in front of this future instant New York Times-bestselling author, and now I can never look her in the eyes ever again!!!!!!!!
I started reading Beautiful Country one night last week and was cockblocked by sleep before I had a chance to finish. As I lapped it up the next morning, I already knew it was going to become one of those books that would be taught in college classes to writing workshops and talked about everywhere in between. In her debut, Wang shares her story of growing up undocumented and poor after following her father with her mother from China to New York City in 1994. Its lyrical beauty, coupled with undeniable charm, strength, and humor, not only makes it an instant classic, but unwittingly opens itself up to invite others who’ve been historically underrepresented in literature not to just embrace their stories, but share them, too.