Julie Hale

In Love in Color: Mythical Tales From Around the World, Retold, British Nigerian author Bolu Babalola re-envisions traditional love stories from West Africa, the Middle East and Greece with a focus on empowered female characters. In “Nefertiti,” Babalola casts the famed Egyptian ruler as a defender of women, while in “Osun,” she draws upon a Yoruba folktale to tell the story of a love triangle. Babalola displays wonderful range throughout this inventive collection, and reading groups will enjoy discussing topics like the nature of desire and traditional notions of love and romance.

Yoon Choi explores the Korean American experience and the complexities of human connection in her beautifully crafted story collection, Skinship. “First Language” is the story of Sae-ri, who struggles to make her arranged marriage a success while dealing with a difficult son. In “The Art of Losing,” Mo-sae grapples with old age and the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. In every piece, Choi investigates what it means to be an immigrant, writing with compassion and wisdom throughout this uniquely assured debut.

In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders digs into seven classic stories—all included in the book—by Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and other greats, integrating insights from his graduate course on Russian literature along the way. As he unpacks the meaning of each story, Saunders examines the mechanics of narrative and considers what makes a work of fiction succeed. His discerning study of the short story form will appeal to readers and writers alike.

The stories in The Office of Historical Corrections, Danielle Evans’ powerful second collection, explore racial dynamics, isolation and the difficulty of connection in contemporary culture through deeply human character moments. “Alcatraz” is a poignant depiction of a family devastated by the wrongful conviction of a relative. In “Boys Go to Jupiter,” Claire, a white college student, faces fallout when she’s photographed in a Confederate flag bikini and the picture is shared online. Again and again in these stories, Evans lays bare the loneliness and displacement that so often define modern existence, setting up book clubs for meaningful conversations surrounding identity and loss.

Ready for some deep conversations? These collections offer fresh perspectives on relationships, race and the human condition.

With Tom Stoppard: A Life, British biographer and literary critic Hermione Lee delivers a captivating portrait of one of the world’s most beloved playwrights. Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia) was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. He and his mother fled the Nazis during World War II and eventually put down roots in England. He worked as a journalist before going on to write the plays, radio shows and screenplays for which he has won numerous awards and worldwide acclaim. Lee explores Stoppard’s works while tracking his remarkable life, diving deep into subjects like artistic reinvention and the creative process.

Actor Leslie Jordan takes stock of his TV career (“Will and Grace,” “American Horror Story”), acclaimed stage work and unexpected Instagram success in How Y’all Doing: Misadventures and Mischief From a Life Well Lived. A Tennessee native, the 66-year-old Jordan writes with Southern flair and plenty of humor, sharing family stories and fabulous anecdotes involving Dolly Parton and other stars. He also writes about serious matters, like the AIDS crisis and his struggles to make sense of his homosexuality. Questions related to the nature of celebrity and social media will inspire spirited reading group dialogue.

Actress and singer Rachel Bloom, who created the musical comedy TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” reflects on what it’s like to be an outsider in I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are: Essays and Other Stuff. Recalling awkward middle-school years when she was bullied, sharing journal entries and opening up about her mental health, Bloom explores her enduring quest to feel “normal.” She’s modest and forthright in this funny, deeply personal collection. Book clubs can dig into a wide range of discussion topics, including individuality, conformity and the challenges of self-acceptance.

In My Broken Language: A Memoir, Quiara Alegría Hudes, an award-winning playwright and co-writer of the musical In the Heights, shares memories of her upbringing in a West Philadelphia barrio during the 1980s and ’90s. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother whose marriage fell apart, Hudes looks back on life with her family, her Ivy League education and her entry into the world of writing and theater. The art of storytelling and the importance of communication are among the many rich themes in this moving memoir.

Take your book club to Broadway with these show-stopping nonfiction books, all of which explore life in the limelight.
Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes

★ Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes

To read Nicky Beer’s third collection, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes, is to experience poetry as pageantry. In Beer’s hands, the poetic form is a staging place for spectacle, replete with provocative imagery and a brash cast of characters, including celebrities, magicians and eccentrics. “Drag Day at Dollywood” features “two dozen Dollys in matching bowling jackets, / Gutter Queens sprawled across their backs in lilac script.” Beneath their similar facades, the Dollys have distinct identities, which Beer hints at with expert economy. 

Across the collection, Beer teases out concepts of truth and self-perception. In “Dear Bruce Wayne,” the Joker—“a one-man parade / in a loud costume”—displays his genuine nature, while Batman keeps his virtuous essence under wraps: “don’t you crave, / sometimes, to be a little / tacky?” the narrator asks him. “Doesn’t the all-black / bore after a while?” Beer displays an impressive range, from full-bodied narrative poems to an innovative sequence called “The Stereoscopic Man.” Her formal shape-shifting and penchant for performance make this a magnetic collection.

Content Warning Everything

Content Warning: Everything

Content Warning: Everything, the first poetry collection from award-winning, bestselling novelist and memoirist Akwaeke Emezi, doesn’t feel like a debut. Emezi (The Death of Vivek Oji) shifts effortlessly into the mode of poet, exploring spirituality and loss in ways that feel fertile and new. 

Emezi favors flowing lines unfettered by punctuation, an approach that underscores the urgent, impassioned spirit of a poem like “Disclosure”: “when i first came out i called myself bi a queer tangle of free-form dreads my mother said i was sick and in a dark place.” A desire for release from the constraints of tradition and familial expectations animates many of the poems. As Emezi writes in “Sanctuary,” “the safest place in the world is a book / is a shifting land on top of a tree / so high up that a belt can’t reach.”

From searing inquisitions of the nature of guilt and sin to radical reimaginings of biblical figures, Emezi operates with the ease of a seasoned poet throughout this visionary book.

Time Is a Mother

Time Is a Mother

“I’m on the cliff of myself & these aren’t wings, they’re futures,” Ocean Vuong writes in his second poetry collection, Time Is a Mother. The line is one of the book’s several references to reaching an edge and then jumping or launching, with all the courage required by such an act and the possibilities that await. Born in Vietnam and brought up in the U.S., Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) writes with keen precision about laying claim to his own authentic life. Identity is a prominent theme in poems like “Not Even”: “I used to be a fag now I’m a checkbox. / The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.”

In extended prose pieces and short works of free verse, Vuong remembers his late mother, chronicles the search for connection and reveals a gradual emergence into true selfhood—a sort of rebirth: “Then it came to me, my life. & I remembered my life / the way an ax handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree. / & I was free.”

Earthborn

★ Earthborn

Earthborn, the 14th book of poetry from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carl Dennis, is a rich exploration of our relationship to nature in a time of environmental instability. Dennis addresses global warming in “Winter Gift”: “Now it seems right to ask / If winter, though barely begun, is spent, / So hesitant it appears, so frail.” In “One Thing Is Needful,” he enjoins us to act: “it’s time to invest / In the myth of a long-lost Eden.”

Religion and mortality are recurring themes, as in “Questions for Lazarus”: “I know you may not be at liberty / To offer specifics,” Dennis writes, “but can you say something / In general about how dying has altered / Your view of life?” Dennis’ poems unfold at a relaxed pace, through long lines, considered and meditative, that accommodate a fullness of thought. As he examines both our lesser drives and finer desires as custodians of the planet, he holds out hope that we can be better humans, and the sentiment makes Earthborn a uniquely comforting volume. 

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head

Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head

In Somali British author Warsan Shire’s first full-length collection, Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head, she brings personal history to bear in poems that focus on the plight of refugees and the realities of being a woman in an oppressive, patriarchal society. “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women,” she writes in “Bless This House.” “Sometimes, the men—they come with keys, / and sometimes, the men—they come with hammers.” 

Shire writes about female genital mutilation—a common practice in Somalia—in “The Abubakr Girls Are Different,” a poem that balances beauty and brutality: “After the procedure, the girls learn how to walk again, mermaids / with new legs.” The poem “Bless Grace Jones” casts the singer—“Monarch of the last word, / darling of the dark, arched brow”—as a symbol of strength, a figure to be emulated: “from you, we are learning / to put ourselves first.” Indelible imagery and notes of defiance make Shire’s book a triumphant reclamation of female identity.

National Poetry Month is a time for highlighting poetry as a platform for honoring everyday experiences and giving voice to our deepest, most vulnerable selves. For all readers who celebrate, we recommend the wide-ranging collections below, which offer poetic explorations of nature, identity and our need for connection.

In an introductory note to her mischievous new work of fiction, Helping Howard, Sally Schloss writes, “This is a novel in which the main character, Howard, helps The Author write a book, and The Author in turn helps Howard understand his marriage.”

That’s the distilled storyline of Schloss’ multilayered work, a book that’s at once a funny, fizzy rom-com; a tense, discomfiting family drama; and an act of full-on narrative experimentation. Helping Howard is a novel about novel-writing that explores the strange partnership that can arise between author and character over the course of composition.

Throughout the book, Schloss’ avatar, the Author, banters with her lead creation, Howard, about plot options, the introduction of new characters and other decisions that go into the building of a book, and their often comic, surprisingly poignant exchanges (italicized in the narrative) lay bare the creative process. A 53-year-old drummer from Brooklyn, Howard is, for the most part, handsome and appealing: “Women liked him. For awhile.” (“Why for awhile? What’s wrong with me?” Howard asks The Author. “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she replies.) Howard’s younger wife, T.J.—a lesbian who, in the midst of their marriage, seeks out other lovers—works as a professional photographer. Caught in the middle of this uncomfortable arrangement is the couple’s distant teenage daughter, Sinclair.

As she chronicles the stages of Howard’s marriage, Schloss skillfully shifts points of view, writing from the perspectives of T.J. and Sinclair. She supplies well-developed backstories for the main protagonists and in richly realized domestic episodes captures the intimacies and estrangements, ruptures and reconciliations that can make or break a marriage.

The dialogue between Howard and the Author complements the book’s larger storyline without feeling heavy-handed or precious. The result is a deeply human exploration of how decisions and desires can impact a life. With Helping Howard, Schloss has crafted a novel of narrative daring and creative risk. Thanks to her many gifts as a writer, the risk pays off.

Helping Howard is at once a funny, fizzy rom-com; a tense, discomfiting family drama; and an act of full-on narrative experimentation.

Set in England during World War II, Jennifer Ryan’s The Kitchen Front follows four very different women as they compete in a cooking contest sponsored by “The Kitchen Front,” a BBC radio program. The winner will earn a slot as the first ever female co-host of the show. The contestants include war widow Audrey; her sister, Gwendoline, the wife of a wealthy older man; kitchen maid Nell; and Zelda, a skilled chef. Ryan’s excellent use of historical detail and gifts for character and plot development will draw readers in, and after they finish this heartwarming novel, they’ll be able to discuss engaging topics such as female agency and women’s roles during wartime.

Focusing on life at the fictional Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant is a sly, compassionate portrayal of the culinary world. Owner Jimmy Han, whose father made the Duck House a success, is making plans to move on to a flashier restaurant. The novel’s intricate plot involves members of Jimmy’s extended family, as well as a wide range of Duck House staff. Love affairs, back-of-house drama and a restaurant fire all figure into the entertaining proceedings, and questions concerning community, identity and class will inspire great reading group dialogue.

Donia Bijan’s The Last Days of Café Leila tells the story of Noor, who goes home to Iran after spending many years in America. In Tehran, her father, Zod, runs the family business, Café Leila. The return compels Noor to come to terms with her troubled marriage and reassess her life. At the heart of the novel lies Café Leila and the comfort it provides through food and camaraderie. Bijan’s nuanced depiction of modern-day Iran offers abundant subjects for book club discussion, including family ties, immigration and Iranian history.

In The Secret French Recipes of Sophie Valroux by Samantha Vérant, talented chef Sophie Valroux works hard in hopes of one day heading up a world-class restaurant. But when her culinary career falls apart and her beloved grandmother in France has a stroke, Sophie is forced to reevaluate her life, her values and her love for cooking. Brimming with delicious recipes, Vérant’s novel is a compelling tribute to food and family. Themes of female independence, foodie culture and the nature of the restaurant business make this a sensational selection for book groups.

Reading groups will savor these delectable food-themed novels.

In The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine, Janice P. Nimura tracks the history-making careers of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell. As women in the male-dominated medical field during the 1800s, the sisters faced enormous obstacles, yet Elizabeth became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States and Emily developed into an exceptional physician. Nimura’s well-researched narrative offers a wide range of subjects for conversation, including the history of American medicine and the complications and pitfalls of first-wave feminism.

In her moving memoir, Lab Girl, paleobiologist Hope Jahren shares the story of her remarkable career in science while musing on the wonders of the natural world. From the challenges she faced as a female researcher to the labs she established and her experiences with bipolar disorder, Jahren provides a beautifully written account of her life and work. Her book is a terrific pick for reading groups in search of a substantial yet entertaining memoir, offering ample opportunities to discuss gender, family and mental illness.

Thriller and true crime fans alike will savor Sue Black’s All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes. Black, a celebrated forensic anthropologist, delivers a fascinating chronicle of her unusual profession, mixing memoir with firsthand accounts of crime scene procedures and life in the laboratory. A native of Scotland, she approaches sensitive topics such as death and the human body with compassion, good sense and a sly sprinkling of humor.

Liza Mundy’s Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II illuminates a little-known facet of American history. As Mundy recounts in the book, women from across the country were trained to be code breakers for the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II. Working in secret, they made an invaluable contribution to the war effort. Mundy blends in-depth research with interviews with former “code girls” to create an enthralling narrative that disrupts historical stereotypes surrounding women’s contributions in wartime.

These books on extraordinary women who have made strides in the STEM fields are equal parts informative and inspiring.

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