Spring is coming. For so many reasons, that optimism you feel is no illusion. We have vaccine distribution; we have a new administration; your kids might go back to in-person school this year. But as we’re not out of the woods yet, mute those people on Instagram who insist on resort vacations and capitalize on your newly recovered attention span with a stack of books. This year’s Spring Break is a double-masked trip to your local indie bookstore. Blow your budget on a dozen or more books and, please, don’t forget the tote bag and sweatshirt because your bookseller will appreciate the support.
It’s a dense Spring of fabulous reading. Fan favorite founder of Fair Fight Action Stacey Abrams penned the legal thriller While Justice Sleeps. Rachel Kushner takes a departure from fiction with her essay collection The Hard Crowd. 2018 National Book Critics Circle fiction winner Joan Silber follows up Improvement with Secrets of Happiness. No sophomore blues for bestseller Cynthia d’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest) whose Good Company is a sheer delight. Vivian Gornick’s Taking a Long Look is a magisterial volume of essays which span fifty years of cultural and feminist interrogation. After a year of inescapable awareness of the body’s fallibility, Olivia Laing’s Everybody confronts its freedom and oppression employing her sublime prose. Maggie Shipstead’s novel Great Circle offers the around-the-world trip you aren’t at liberty to take this year. You’ll likely hear all about these books as their coverage is assured. Instead, I wanted to send you off on your reading holiday with some selections you may not have otherwise found and should not miss.
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (Avid Reader, March 2)
Publishing took a much deserved beating for the publication of American Dirt last spring so it’s little wonder that 2021 offers a wider range of novels devoted to immigration. Among other worthy titles, Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (Avid Reader, March 2) is highly anticipated. Hoping to escape a legacy of violence in their homeland of Colombia, Elena and Mauro leave Bogotá for the United States after becoming parents. As their family grows, their expired visas leave them in danger of deportation—which is what happens to Mauro. Left behind to raise three young children, Elena is faced with impossible choices. Considering the perspectives of undocumented immigrants, legal citizens, and deported family members, Infinite Country is the story of a mixed-status family whose painful fates are more common than one might imagine.
Come Fly the World by Julia Cooke (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2)
While we grumble about being grounded in lockdown, think about what life was like for women only 60 years ago. Second class citizens, women were expected to shuttle from parents to husband, ever-tethered to a home and family. At the dawn of the jet set era of boundless international commercial flight, women could travel the world as stewardesses provided they had a college degree, fluency in two or more languages, and the correct physical requirements, age, and marital status. In Come Fly the World, Julia Cooke (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2) draws upon the real-life stories of several women to illustrate the loophole that allowed them to engage in soft diplomacy and foreign affairs against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. This work culminated in Operation Babylift, the evacuation of two thousand children during the fall of Saigon. For those who miss Mad Men, this is a must read.
In the Quick by Kate Hope Day (Random House, March 2)
This past summer, the SpaceX flight to the International Space Shuttle offered a rare moment of wonder during an otherwise static year. For those more interested in life beyond Earth, In the Quick by Kate Hope Day (Random House, March 2) offers an escape. June is a brilliant young woman gifted with a knack for mechanical invention. A fascination with space exploration runs in the family. June’s uncle created the fuel cells for Inquiry, a spacecraft that went missing when she was twelve-years-old. Now an accomplished astronaut with a position as an engineer on a space station, June seeks out her late uncle’s protégée James who may help her unlock the reasons why the cells failed—and also find the missing ship and its crew. Romance ensues which tests the limits of human ingenuity and ambition. With echoes of Station Eleven, The Martian, and, yes, Jane Eyre, this is a gripping and unconventional novel with an unforgettable heroine.
The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson (Milkweed Editions, March 9)
If you haven’t noticed the outstanding work of Minneapolis-based independent press Milkweed Editions, please catch up. With poetry by Ada Limón and bestselling nonfiction such as Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, they champion invigorating literature that’s largely centered around the natural world. Joining this esteemed company with her novel The Seed Keeper (Milkweed Editions, March 9), Diane Wilson draws from her own Dakota heritage. Told through the voices of four remarkable women, this is a book about preservation. After years separate from her family, Rosalie Iron Wing returns to her childhood home as a mother and widow, piecing together the traditions she lost, recovering her identity and community, as well as her respect and devotion to the land. This beautiful generational saga challenges conventional American history, asking us to reckon with the traumas brought upon Native Americans.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury, March 30)
After childhood, but before womanhood, comes girlhood. Melissa Febos chronicles the cascading challenges inherent in being female in her new memoir, Girlhood (Bloomsbury, March 30). Already an accomplished memoirist (Abandon Me, Whip Smart), Febos pauses to take a wider look at the social and cultural forces that shifted her self-perception and possession as her body changed at age eleven. Febos writes, “True love is not the reward for a successful campaign to domesticate oneself. It is the thing I was practicing all of those years ago, in my own constructive play. It is entering the woods a stranger, shaking loose the stories assigned you, and naming the world as you meet it, together.” Combining scholarship and reporting with memoir, she frees herself from patriarchal tropes in the hopes of also freeing others.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin, March 30)
With its opening words (“I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”), it’s hard to put down Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Libertie (Algonquin, March 30). Magic, agency, and freedom are front and center in this spellbinding second novel by Greenidge. Also known for her outstanding writing on social issues ranging from motherhood to race in America in the New York Times as well as Elle and BuzzFeed, her debut novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman was named one of the New York Times’s top ten books of 2016. While working at a Black heritage center, Greenidge took interest in Weeksville, a free Black community founded in Brooklyn. Libertie draws from the life of Weeksville resident Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black woman to become a medical doctor in New York state. Examining the coming of age of Libertie Sampson during Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Greenidge confronts questions of autonomy for Black women of that time—but also for generations to come—through this sweeping historical novel.
A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House, March 30)
At its best, social media is a space to find wonderful people who are generous with their enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge of a given subject. I felt that spirit when I encountered Hanif Abdurraqib’s writing online. That immediate kinship with his deep love of music and culture lead to my awareness of his brilliant exuberance and analytical mind at play and work in his essay collections and poetry. In his third essay collection, A Little Devil in America (Random House, March 30), Abdurraqib applies his gaze to the nature of Black performance in in the United States. Reading his essay “On the Certain and Uncertain Movement of Limbs,” I cried reading about Whitney Houston, code switching, her inability to dance, the harsh reception she received at the 1988 and 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, and “if Blackness and the varied performance of it are to be embraced, then what also has to be embraced is the flawed fluidity of it.” Originally grounded as a history of minstrelsy and blackface in America, this important book evolved to become a critical study of American history, but also a joyful celebration of Black performance and survival.
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W.W. Norton, April 1)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for her debut story collection Night at the Fiestas and a recipient of a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, Kirstin Valdez Quade is now the author of the debut novel, The Five Wounds (Norton, April 1). Set in New Mexico, the novel opens during Holy Week in the small town of Las Penas. While anxiously preparing for the role of Jesus in the Good Friday procession, thirty-three-year-old, unemployed Amadeo Padilla opens the door to his pregnant fifteen-year-old daughter Angel. Their unexpected reunion sparks the beginning of this tender tale, weaving together five funny and vivacious generations across the span of Angel’s baby’s first year. Love and sacrifice mark this big-hearted family, revealing the capacity for change and desire for redemption.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (Knopf, April 20)
Indie rock fans of Japanese Breakfast weren’t the only readers moved by its mastermind Michelle Zauner’s 2018 essay in the New Yorker. Now the title of her vivid and moving memoir, Crying in H Mart (Knopf, April 20) resonates with the universal pain of grief, an emotion that can’t be easily contained or resolved. Chronicling a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship fraught with expectation, the memoir also tracks the thirty-one-year-old acclaimed Korean-American musician’s experience upon caring for then losing her mother in 2014. Zauner grew up in Eugene, Oregon, the daughter of a Korean immigrant mother and a white American father. Heading to the East Coast for college and staying to pursue a music career, Zauner grew distant from her mother’s homeland and heritage. Upon her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, Zauner could no longer avoid coming to terms with her identity and the complicated bonds that tied her to her family, her husband, language, history, and the food that continues to connect her with love to her mother. An aching and evocative memoir from a remarkably gifted artist.
On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed (Liveright, May 4)
It was only some years ago that the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Texas native, Annette Gordon-Reed realized that people outside Texas knew of and celebrated Juneteenth. The holiday which marks the date on which enslaved African-Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and roughly two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox—was not commonly known to most Americans. But for Texans, the day always held considerable importance. In this slim and profoundly relevant collection of essays, On Juneteenth: (Liveright, May 4), unpacks the date’s significance and legacy as well as Texas’s role as a bellwether for the United States. Drawing from her own family history as well as American history, Gordon-Reed makes the case that Texas reveals much about the economic cruelty and racial intolerance that lingers today. That said, Texas celebrates the diversity that makes our country so unique and strong. As a bracing call for all of us to look beyond our national pride to confront the stark truths of our nation’s ugliest legacy, Gordon-Reed writes, “Love does not require taking an uncritical stance toward the object of one’s affection. In truth, it requires the opposite.”
The Essential June Jordan by June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller (Copper Canyon, May 4)
For Amanda Gorman enthusiasts who are new to and hungry for more poetry, The Essential June Jordan (Copper Canyon, May 4) arrives right on time. An activist and professor as well as a contemporary of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich among others, June Jordan was born in Harlem in 1936 and succumbed too soon to breast cancer in 2002. Jordan’s enduring poems are tragically relevant during these continuing turbulent times. With radical warmth and humor as well as unflinching awareness of brutality, Jordan saw the need for solidarity among marginalized people. A blueprint for a better world, this collected work is but one element of her collected oeuvre—essays, plays, a libretto, a novel, a memoir and children’s books round out her life’s work. Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown offers an afterword to this timeless poet’s exquisite collection.
Let The Record Show by Sarah Schulman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 18)
During this time of epidemic and rampant misinformation, we should all look to the AIDS crisis as a historic warning. Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 18) by the formidable writer and oral historian Sarah Schulman is a masterful work twenty years in the making. This long overdue assessment involves over two-hundred interviews with ACT UP members and offers invaluable lessons for today’s activists. Schulman writes in her Preface, “The story of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) New York is much larger than its legendary Monday-night meetings. It is a political and emotional history of liaisons, associations, relationships, coalitions, and influences that cumulatively create a crucial reality of successfully transformative struggle under the most dire of circumstances.” Early on as a young reporter in the early 1980s, Schulman made the connection between the rising religious right political movement and its threat to public health and civil rights. The author of books including Conflict Is Not Abuse and The Gentrification of the Mind, Schulman holds a unique position to chronicle this critical history and connect it with our own chaotic moment.