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.
This book makes me want to write a novel. I never thought that I would shy away from non-fiction; I have one memoir under my belt and am perfectly happy with writing ten more (and a few essay collections in between) until I inevitably die an early death from choking on a cinnamon sugar pretzel from the Target café. I want to pay forward the feeling I got from reading this book. There’s a line in the book where the protagonist, Gilda, a twenty-something anxious lesbian obsessed with death (we stan), is at a bar and the band performing that night shrieks at the crowd, “How is everyone doing tonight?!” While the crowd cheers in response, Gilda says out loud, "I actually haven't been feeling well lately." Like, how is Austin that good???? Even though I finished this book months ago, I will still randomly remember that scene—or any of the countless others this book offers up—and chuckle to myself, wherever I am, whatever I'm doing. I want to give my readers that same gift. Every other sentence had me wishing I had written it—which is the hallmark of any great writing.
Like many, I’ve been a fan of Emezi’s since their groundbreaking debut with Freshwater in 2018. They’ve gone on to write two more critically lauded novels since, the most recent being the New York Times-bestselling The Death of Vivek Oji last year. (I don’t know anyone else who churns out work like this; they have probably written their next novel in the time it took to write my last email, and all it said was “Confirming receipt.”) At long last, Emezi makes their non-fiction debut with Dear Senthuran, a memoir-in-letters that offers an unfettered glimpse into the life of a creative spirit dwelling within human flesh, and how its residence informs their gender and body, their rise to literary stardom, and their relationships with both humans and other non-humans. While there are many aspects of this memoir I can’t relate to—but respect tremendously—there are some whose arrows pierce beyond the target for me. From their relationship to their work ("All that mattered was that I took care of the book, that I became a stronger writer so I could keep telling these stories. Anything that got in the way of that had to be burned down, so I burned it down.") and with things like chronic pain ("The pain is demanding, and it takes up a lot of space. I am a ragged thing, and yet I have a community of people around me who care for me when I am suffering, which is no small miracle. Maybe that's something the pain has taught me—that I'm not alone."), they had me crying tears long overdue. It exorcised so many emotions that I didn’t even know I was harboring. Fuck, what a book.
To say this book is a trip would be an understatement. I’m going to say it: Zakiya Dalila Harris is punk rock. The underlay of a thriller while examining the dynamics of race in the workplace—specifically publishing in this instance—and bringing it all to a boil in the last quarter of the book offers a masterclass in how to write tension. Already we have a character we’re immediately attached to—twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers—who is currently the only Black employee at Wagner books until they hire Hazel, a Harlem-born young Black woman who moves into the cubicle beside Nella’s. The two bond over natural hair-care regimens but no sooner does Hazel arrive that Nella begins receiving hostile notes on her desk like, “LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.” Hazel’s increasingly shady behavior leads us to believe that she is the culprit, BUT IS SHE???? What unfolds goes beyond Nella’s initial suspicions, and renders the reader with the urge to immediately lie down. And I mean that in the very best way possible.
As someone who proudly and openly judges books by their covers, I will say that’s how this book got me. Is there anything more deliciously moody than staring at an apartment building and crafting a narrative for the people you can see up and about in their respective homes, going on about their lives while you wonder what they’re making for dinner...before you realize you look like a fucking freak for staring into these people's homes while all they probably want to do is heat up their savory sesame chicken Lean Cuisines and watch old episodes of SVU? And is there anything lonelier than realizing you live in a city of eight and a half million people—and you’re still lonely—and that you’re really just a bunch of cartons of Marlboro Lights, standing on top of each other under a trench coat, listening to “Where Is My Mind” by The Pixies on repeat???????????? Of course, I had to get this book. It’s a deep-dive into the psychology underneath loneliness, and the evolution of it throughout the decades. From the genesis of the audience laugh-track to the rise of Instagram, it is a history lesson as much as it is a meditation on the presentation of self, and how it informs the impetus of loneliness—all accompanied with Radtke’s tender yet powerful renderings that go hand-in-hand with her ability to not just connect with her readers, but to connect us with each other.
I will read anything Morgan Jerkins writes—she had me at This Will Be My Undoing, her bestselling debut in 2018. Last year she released Wandering in Strange Lands, which I also inhaled. This year we were blessed with her debut novel, Caul Baby. I took this book to read on a trip out of town and the only thing I wanted to do while I was away was continue reading it—and I finished it way before I was due back in New York. It is rife with secrets, betrayals, and even magic—all stemming from one notorious family in Harlem, the Melancons. But their reputation in Harlem is far from positive, starting with the life-saving caul they sell to affluent white folks instead of serving those in their own community. After a myriad of failed pregnancies, Laila is expecting once again and desperate, leading her to seek the protective properties of the caul that the Melancons are said to sell. When the deal falls through and her child arrives stillborn, Laila is overcome with grief and rage. All the while, her niece, Amara, a young and ambitious college student, is struggling in secret with her own pregnancy. Not ready to raise a child, Amara arranges to give birth away from home, and has her godfather, Landon, find a home for the baby—which ends up being in the same brownstone the Melancons live in after being born with a caul. What follows is the story of one daughter who grows up questioning her relationship with family. Another daughter (now a powerful assistant district attorney out for revenge on behalf of her Aunt Laila) reckons with the choices she made as a teenager. When paths cross, hearts are both broken and mended. Above all, it is a story of belonging and healing and regeneration, deeper than skin.