Julie Hale

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William Alexander delivers a tasty culinary chronicle with Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History. With authority, humor and an instinct for flavorful anecdotes, Alexander tracks the evolution of the tomato from its first cultivations in the Americas to its first encounter with Europe via the Spanish in the 1500s to its current widespread popularity. Along the way, he considers tomato-related innovations such as the creation of ketchup and the rise of hybrid tomato specimens. Alexander touches on themes of contemporary farming practices and food production that will provide great talking points for book clubs.

Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America is a surprisingly dramatic account of the rise of the beef industry and how the meat came to be an American favorite. Focusing on the 19th century, Specht explores the cattle ranches of the American West and the Chicago meatpacking industry and looks at how urban expansion affected production. His shrewd analysis of meatpacking practices, factory conditions for workers and labor developments underscores the impact of beef on American business. Specht’s nuanced account sheds new light on a mealtime mainstay.

In Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, Mark Kurlansky traces the science, history and mythology behind the life-giving liquid. Fans of the author (who has also dedicated books to salt and cod) will welcome this study of a beverage that, as Kurlansky demonstrates, transcends cultures and eras. From milk production and dairy farming to the role of milk in economics and its significance in countries across the globe, Kurlanksy presents a multifaceted look at the vital beverage. Ever attuned to the offbeat factoid, he writes with typical crispness in a book that’s sure to intrigue readers.

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast delves into the fascinating past of a controversial crop. Millions of people around the world rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods, and Pendergrast takes stock of how the little bean has shaped international commerce and politics over the centuries. He brews up plenty of tantalizing coffee lore, assesses the dominance of Starbucks and explores the worlds of coffee snobs and fair-trade advocates. Global economics and the centrality of coffee to our daily lives make for rich discussion topics.

Psst . . . pair them with thematic snacks and/or drinks!
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In Linda Holmes’ delightful Flying Solo, Laurie Sassalyn goes to her hometown of Calcasset, Maine, in the wake of her canceled wedding to sort out the affairs of her late great-aunt, Dot. There, she discovers romantic letters and a curious wooden duck among Dot’s possessions. After the duck vanishes, Laurie becomes embroiled in an adventure that reunites her with her first love, Nick. Along the way, she makes surprising discoveries about Dot and herself. The nature of independence and family connections are two of the novel’s many rich discussion topics. 

Angela Appiah, the spirited Ghanaian American protagonist of Shirlene Obuobi’s On Rotation, has everything going for her. Enrolled in a prestigious medical school, she’s on the road to success—until she flunks an important exam and gets jilted by her boyfriend. Angela’s life takes another unexpected turn when she meets smart, sensitive Ricky Gutierrez, who really seems to get her. But is he worth pursuing? During a time of transformation, Angela is faced with tough questions. Obuobi’s winning tale of modern romance makes for transportive summer reading. 

In Abbi Waxman’s Adult Assembly Required, Laura Costello relocates to Los Angeles in an effort to leave her past behind. All manner of adventures ensue as she connects with book-loving Nina and vivacious Polly, moves into a boarding house and contends with a still-hopeful ex-boyfriend. Easing into adulthood has its challenges, but Laura comes to understand that she can handle anything with help from her friends. Readers will lose themselves in this brisk, charming chronicle of millennials in LA.

Pestered about her lukewarm love life by relatives and friends, Yinka, a successful Nigerian woman living in London, sets out to find the right man in Yinka, Where Is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. In need of an escort for her cousin’s wedding, Yinka cooks up a strategic plan for landing a date. But she learns that there’s more to the quest for Mr. Right than she imagined as she’s forced to come to terms with herself. With poignant themes of identity and independence, Blackburn’s buoyant look at contemporary courtship is a sure conversation-starter for book clubs.

These breezy reads are also thought-provoking and intellectually satisfying.
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Lynn Melnick’s I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton is an extraordinary homage to one of country music’s leading ladies. Melnick’s early life was marked by abuse and trauma, and she fell in love with Parton’s music at age 14. Mixing her personal history with reflections on the singer’s significance as a cultural figure, Melnick creates a moving narrative of female endurance. Parton’s popular tunes, including “Jolene” and “Islands in the Stream,” serve as springboards for the chapters of this inspiring book.

In Unlikeable Female Characters: The Women Pop Culture Wants You to Hate, Anna Bogutskaya explores how our perception of what makes a “likable” woman has changed as more complex female characters have become prevalent in media. Bogutskaya uses tropes such as “the mean girl” and “the shrew” as reference points and celebrates how those misogynist terms have been, in some cases, reclaimed. Bogutskaya’s analysis of gender, sexuality and the power of the media will get book clubs talking as she explores famous figures such as Cardi B and Hillary Clinton.

Emily Nussbaum delivers a shrewd overview of the modern TV landscape with her dazzling collection of essays, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. Over the course of the collection, Nussbaum—an unabashed fan of the tube—provides engaging analyses of audience viewing habits and storytelling trends and traditions. She also interviews showrunners and considers the significance of watershed series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Nussbaum’s lively writing style and gifts as a critic are on full display in this eye-opening collection.

Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse, Maya Phillips’ smart, incisive essay collection, investigates the growth of nerd culture and its influence on modern media. Reading groups will appreciate Phillips’ personal yet wide-reaching critiques of cultural touchstones such as Harry Potter, Star Wars and Marvel comics and how they inspire feelings of belonging among fans. Phillips also delves into the complications of her own experiences as a Black woman engaging in fandoms without many Black characters. The evolution of pop culture, hero worship and the impact of fan bases are but a few of the rich themes in this intriguing book.

These great picks come with ready-made playlists and watchlists!
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Set in the 1800s, R.F. Kuang’s historical fantasy novel Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution follows the adventures of Robin Swift, a Chinese student at the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, where the act of translation is used to derive magical power. Though languages like Bengali, Haitian creole and Robin’s native Cantonese are the source of much of this power, Britain and its ruling class reaps almost all of the benefits. As Robin progresses at the institute, his loyalties are tested when Britain threatens war with China. The politicization of language and the allure of institutional power are among the book’s rich discussion topics. 

Jason Fitger, the protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s witty campus novel Dear Committee Members, teaches creative writing and literature at Payne University, where he contends with funding cuts and diminishing department resources. He also frequently writes letters of recommendation for students and colleagues, and it’s through these letters that the novel unfolds. Schumacher uses this unique spin on the epistolary novel to create a revealing portrait of a curmudgeonly academic struggling to navigate the complexities of campus life. Reading groups will savor this shrewdly trenchant take on the higher-ed experience, and if you find yourself wanting to sign up for another course with Professor Fitger, Schumacher’s two sequels (The Shakespeare Requirement and The English Experience) are also on the syllabus.

For a surrealist send-up of the liberal arts world, turn to Mona Awad’s clever, disturbing Bunny. Samantha Mackey made it into the MFA creative writing program of Warren University thanks to a scholarship. The other writers—a tightknit circle of wealthy young women known as the Bunnies—convene regularly for a horrifying ritual. When Samantha is invited to take part, she learns difficult lessons about female friendship and her own identity. This haunting, often funny novel probes the dark side of academia and the challenges of the artistic process.

In her uncompromising, upfront memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up, Eternity Martis writes about being a Black student at Western University, a mostly white college in Ontario. Martis was initially thrilled to attend the university, but the racism she experienced in the classroom and in social settings made her question her life choices. Her smart observations, unfailing sense of humor and invaluable reporting on contemporary education make this a must-read campus memoir.

Go back to school with tomes that spotlight the scandals and drama of life on campus.
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In Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, Rachel Aviv examines the challenges of living with mental disorders and how those disorders can define who we are. Aviv shares personal experiences and talks to a range of individuals who deal with—and find a sense of self in—mental illness. Featuring riveting firsthand reportage, moving interviews and important research, Aviv’s compassionate, revealing narrative offers a glimpse into the secrets of the human psyche while tackling tough questions about psychiatric treatment and diagnosis.

Judith Grisel mixes memoir and reportage in Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, a compelling investigation of drug use and the nature of dependency. Grisel, a former drug user who is now a neuroscientist, writes with honesty about her troubled past and grappling with substance abuse. She also looks at the unique psychology of the addict and provides possibilities for escaping the cycle of dependency. The role of genetics in addiction and the brain’s response to drugs are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

In Mind on Fire: A Memoir of Madness and Recovery, Arnold Thomas Fanning offers a powerful, intimate account of a life spent wrestling with depression and bipolar disorder. Fanning’s first encounters with mental illness took place during his teenage years and left him ill-equipped to navigate daily routines. After spending time in an institution and living on the streets of London, Fanning found help in medication and therapy and achieved success as a playwright. In this poignant chronicle of living with illness, he shows that healing is possible.

Max Fisher considers the ways in which Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms have impacted our daily lives in The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World. Bolstered by in-depth research and interviews, Fisher’s fascinating book traces the evolution of social media, the rise of sensational content and the strategies employed by popular platforms to attract users and make profits. Themes like communication, self-esteem and the human need for connection will get book groups talking. 

From neuroscience to psychology, these nonfiction titles explore the mysteries of the human mind.
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Jami Attenberg (All This Could Be Yours) looks back on her years as a roaming artist in I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home. Attenberg has lived an uncompromising life as a writer, and she muses about her choices in this forthright memoir. Frequently crossing the country to promote her books, Attenberg is most at home when she’s on the move. The nature of the creative process and the human need for connection are among the book’s many rich discussion topics.

In I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, Maggie O’Farrell (Hamnet) recalls the harrowing moments that have shaped her as a woman and mother. From an illness that almost claimed her life as a child to a dangerous dive off a cliff in Scotland, O’Farrell details her many near-death experiences. Over the course of 17 chapters, she considers life’s impermanence and the ways in which our bodies betray us. The result is an extraordinary narrative full of poetry and courage.

Akwaeke Emezi (The Death of Vivek Oji) delivers a compelling account of their artistic growth and search for identity in Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir. Comprised of letters the author writes to friends and colleagues, the narrative is a captivating chronicle of personal transformation. Emezi, who hails from Nigeria, put down roots in New Orleans and has experienced literary success, even as they continued to seek a more authentic existence. Uncertainty and longing animate their correspondence, and Emezi uses the epistolary form to great effect as they question long-held notions of identity, gender and family.

Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing) reflects on the costs of structural racism in Men We Reaped: A Memoir. The death of her brother and a number of male friends inspired Ward to explore mortality and how loss impacts the living. In this searing memoir, she remembers her Mississippi upbringing and the ways in which economic inequality, drugs and societal stressors create an environment in which Black men are needlessly sacrificed. Ward writes with sensitivity about mourning and moving forward, and themes of race, grief and gender will inspire meaningful dialogue among readers.

These revealing memoirs are perfect to read with your book club.
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Great Short Books

Anyone who’s eternally time-strapped will treasure Kenneth C. Davis’ Great Short Books. This nifty volume highlights 58 works of fiction chosen by Davis for their size (small) and impact (enormous). Each brisk read weighs in at around 200 pages but has the oomph of an epic.  

“Short novels,” Davis writes in the book’s introduction, “have been shortchanged. They occupy the place of the neglected middle child of the literary world.” With its eclectic roster of authors (Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, James Joyce, Nella Larsen—the list goes on), his volume challenges this perception.  

Davis’ picks include something for every reader. Classic selections such as James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway are spotlighted alongside contemporary offerings like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. The entry for each title consists of a plot summary, an author bio, suggestions on what to read next and—the perfect bait for hooking book lovers—the work’s first lines.  

Davis, the bestselling author of the Don’t Know Much About series, delivers readerly insights and plenty of literary trivia in this handy guide. Outside of extra time, it’s the perfect gift for busy bibliophiles. 

Reading the Stars

Readers in need of a little inspiration should try tapping into the power of the zodiac. That’s the premise behind Reading the Stars, the new release from the literary website Book Riot. 

This quirky title encourages readers to connect with their astrological signs as a way to deepen and enrich their relationships with books. Astrology, according to Book Riot, can “give you some hints about what kind of books you like to read, what books can help you grow as a person, and how you engage with the reading world.” 

The volume covers the basics of astrology and provides an intriguing profile of every sign in the chart, with details on the characteristics and reading styles of each. Aries readers, for instance, focus on meeting their reading goals, while Virgos read to destress and love getting lost in a good fantasy. Cancers savor extended story arcs and happily ever after endings. 

Filled with atmospheric illustrations, Reading the Stars offers sign-specific reading recommendations and reveals which signs are compatible with one another—from a literary standpoint. Sure to pique the interest of bibliophiles, this delightful title will give them a whole new way to think about books.

Marple

Here’s a merry surprise for mystery fans: Miss Jane Marple is back. Marple is a collection of new stories featuring Agatha Christie’s widely hailed detective written by some of today’s top thriller writers. Ruth Ware, Lucy Foley, Dreda Say Mitchell and Alyssa Cole are among the dozen authors who salute the sleuth in this spine-tingling anthology. 

Christie introduced Jane Marple in the 1927 story “The Tuesday Night Club.” An elderly spinster and first-rate cracker of crimes from the quiet village of St. Mary Mead, England, Miss Marple appeared in 12 Christie novels, becoming one of the most beloved figures in detective fiction.  

In the new volume, fresh mysteries take Miss Marple to far-flung locales. A cruise ship headed for Hong Kong is the setting for Jean Kwok’s “The Jade Empress,” which finds Miss Marple investigating the death of a fellow passenger. In Alyssa Cole’s “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” sinister events plague a Broadway rehearsal, where the lady detective is providentially in attendance.  

Miss Marple logs many a mile in these new adventures, and fans will be elated to find that she remains a redoubtable force when faced with a case. The new stories are suspenseful and—of course—deliciously cozy. What’s not to love about more Miss Marple?  

Revenge of the Librarians

Bibliophiles will find a kindred spirit in cartoonist Tom Gauld, whose clever new collection, Revenge of the Librarians, is all about books and the literary life. 

The setting of the volume’s opening strip is a world taken over by librarians—a what-if tale of terrific proportions compactly recounted in five panels. “With superior organizational skills, they quickly seized power,” Gauld writes. “Opponents were mercilessly shushed. Every building was converted into a library.” 

Gauld’s perfectly pithy cartoons feature soft background colors and emphatic silhouettes. Arch humor abounds as he drops amusing author allusions, spoofs the literary establishment and plays with writer stereotypes. Ardent memoirist and precious poet, tormented novelist and cutthroat critic—none are exempt from his pen. Gauld also lampoons hallowed literary traditions. The titles in the cartoon “Summer Reading for Conspiracy Theorists” include Slaughterhouse 5G and The Old Man and the CIA. In “Waiting for Godot to Join the Zoom Meeting,” Vladimir and Estragon sit expectantly before their computers, but alas: “Nobody comes. Nobody goes.” 

Gauld, whose work has appeared in The Believer and the New York Times, gets up to all manner of literary mischief in this quick-witted, must-have collection for book buffs.

If you’re shopping for someone who always has books on the brain, we’ve got your gift needs all wrapped up.
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In Lauren Groff’s Matrix, 17-year-old Marie de France becomes prioress of a run-down abbey in 12th-century England. Ill-suited to a life of privation, Marie struggles in her new role, but she forms strong bonds with the women in her charge, and the abbey begins to flourish. When tensions rise between the abbey and the outside world, Marie’s work and leadership are challenged. Fans of historical fiction will savor this gripping, atmospheric novel, which poses questions related to faith and female desire that will inspire great discussion among readers.

Anthony Doerr’s ambitious, sweeping Cloud Cuckoo Land follows a group of characters across the centuries, all of whom endure transformational events and share a love for an ancient tale called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” Doerr tells the stories of Anna and Omeir, two youngsters in Constantinople in the 1400s; Zeno, an octogenarian librarian in modern-day Idaho; and Konstance, a teenage girl traveling on a spacecraft in the 22nd century. Inventive and accomplished, Doerr’s novel is an unforgettable tribute to the power of stories and the endurance of the human spirit.

Set in the 1970s in Illinois, Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads chronicles the lives of the Hildebrandts, a suburban family going through a period of change. Russ Hildebrandt, an associate pastor and church leader, has decided to split from his wife, Marion. Their daughter, Becky, and son Perry are dabbling in drugs and a more radical lifestyle, and Clem, the oldest son, makes a drastic choice that shocks the family. Franzen’s wonderfully detailed, emotionally intimate novel is satisfying on every level, with marriage, morality and religion among the book’s many talking points.

Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young Black woman, delves into her disturbing family history in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Brought up in a family of formidable women in Georgia, Ailey takes inspiration from the great activist W.E.B. Du Bois while wrestling with her heritage and selfhood. As she learns the truth about her family tree and the impact of slavery on her forebears, Ailey draws closer to self-acceptance. Jeffers explores issues of race, history and female relationships through this luminous story of a woman coming into her own.

Tackle some of the most acclaimed blockbuster novels of recent years with your book club.

A good old-fashioned yarn that spans generations and eras, A Generous Pour: Tall Tales From the Backroom of Jimmy Kelly’s traces the remarkable origins of a beloved Nashville, Tennessee, establishment: Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse. Mike Kelly, the restaurant’s current owner, tells the intriguing story of how his Irish immigrant family established a thriving restaurant business after an adventuresome start in whiskey making and liquor running. Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of Kelly’s best.

Divided neatly into four parts, the narrative documents the rise of the Kelly family enterprise—an achievement made possible by the clan’s natural instinct for commerce and spirit of hardscrabble ingenuity. The author’s great-grandfather, James Michael Kelly, left Ireland in the 1840s, became a moonshiner in Tennessee at the age of 17 and lost an eye in the Civil War. His son John made clandestine liquor deliveries and, in 1934, opened a restaurant in Nashville called the 216 Club, “a respectable drinking alternative to the rowdy downtown speakeasies.” The 216 Club served a clientele that included notable politicians and musicians (Elvis Presley was a patron) with first-rate steaks and spirits.

John died in 1948. A year later, his son Jimmy opened Jimmy Kelly’s in Belle Meade, an upscale suburb within metro Nashville. Both restaurant locations flourished. Always a family enterprise, the business passed into the hands of Bill Kelly (Jimmy’s brother and the author’s father) after Jimmy retired.

Kelly handles the book’s complex chronology with wonderful assurance. He seasons the story with fascinating bits of Nashville trivia and demonstrates an undeniable gift for setting scenes. (The book’s sensational opening chapter chronicles the kidnapping of John Kelly by Al Capone’s henchmen.) Kelly himself was raised in the restaurant trade—as a boy, he bused tables with his brothers and slid down the banister of 216’s staircase—and his insider knowledge gives the book a special spark.

Mixed in with his colorful account of the ambitious Kelly clan is a fascinating survey of Music City history, from the upheaval of World War One to the payoffs and police raids of Prohibition, through economic booms and busts, to the landmark event of 1967: the legalization of liquor-by-the-drink in Davidson County, which Kelly identifies as the starting point for Nashville’s ascendance as a business center and major tourist destination. 

Today Kelly manages Jimmy Kelly’s at its current home on Louise Avenue in Midtown Nashville. His book is a charming, briskly written narrative, rich with adventure and detail, that provides a compelling look at Nashville’s past.

Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of whiskey.
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These six outstanding volumes of verse will remind readers of the magic of language and the marvels to be found in everyday moments.


A gift to celebrate growing older: Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Book jacket image for Woman Without Shame by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Without Shame is an inspiring celebration of the self. The book’s 50-plus pieces are alive with wit and wordplay, as Cisneros takes stock of the past, reflects on her Mexican American identity and ruminates on the experience of growing older. “I am Venetian, decaying splendidly. / Am magnificent beyond measure,” she writes in “At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor.”

Despite the passing years, Cisneros, now 67, displays an attitude of proud defiance. In “Canto for Women of a Certain Llanto,” she bemoans the humdrum undergarments designed for older women: “Rage, rage. Do not go into that good night / wearing sensible white or beige.” Ignited by flashes of humor, the poems in this buoyant collection find Cisneros accentuating the positive, living without regret and setting an example for us all.


A gift to provide comfort and encouragement: And Yet by Kate Baer

Book jacket image for And Yet by Kate Baer

Kate Baer shares dispatches from the domestic front in her accessible, inviting collection And Yet. In poems that explore gender dynamics and the day-to-day grind of family life, Baer’s voice is that of an intimate, confiding friend.

Across the collection, she takes her own measure as a parent and a wife, toggling between self-acceptance and self-loathing, triumphs and trials. “The weeks are long, and all my son / wants is a new skateboard and a different / mother,” she writes in “Late Summer in a Global Pandemic.” Baer rounds up snippets from horrifying headlines in “Daily Planet”: “Return to school deemed not safe for / Un-vaccinated protests rise as / Hospital beds at capacity in these seven.” To flustered mothers, the internet-weary and anyone bewildered by contemporary life, Baer’s collection will be a balm.


A gift to illuminate the poetry-writing process: Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light by Joy Harjo

Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light: Fifty Poems for Fifty Years is a splendid survey of the career of three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Harjo draws from a rich well of family stories and myths in poems that explore the Native American experience and emphasize the importance of place.

In many of her poems, the landscape emits a kind of language, such as in “Are You Still There?”: “hello / is a gentle motion of a western wind / cradling tiny purple flowers.” In “Somewhere,” she writes, “Our roads aren’t nice lines with numbers; they wind like bloodlines / through gossip and stories of the holy in the winds.” Notes on the genesis of each poem can be found at the end of the book.

For Harjo, “history is / everywhere,” and the past is always present. Her vision and versatility are on full display in this majestic retrospective.


A gift to spark new ways of looking at our pasts: Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

The poems in Rio Cortez’s bold new book, Golden Ax, center on a foundational concept—what the author calls “Afropioneerism” or “Afrofrontierism,” in reference to her ancestral connections to Utah and the ways in which Black people have shaped and were shaped by the region.

Throughout this ambitious collection, Cortez tangles with themes of genealogy and religion while evoking the otherworldly landscape of the American West. In “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” she wonders “whether it’s aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons . . . how do you come / to be where there are no others, except / science fiction?”

Through poems that probe the often painful connections between past and present, Cortez finds new ways of moving forward.


A gift to stoke a fire: The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On by Franny Choi

Book cover for The World Keeps Ending, the World Goes On

A marked attentiveness to craftsmanship and the niceties of language enlivens the poems in Franny Choi’s urgent, stirring The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On. A fearless shifter of form, Choi switches moods and modes to tackle such topics as social unrest, climate change and her Korean heritage. In “Toward Grace,” she laments the digital landscape: “Online, blondes chirp tips, spin fidgets, get follows. / Old story: unequal distribution of grace.” Formidable themes like the nature of tragedy and the human capacity for renewal lend a timelessness to her work.

Choi’s collection will awaken and inspire readers. “I want a storm I can dance in. / I want an excuse to change my life,” she writes, and her attitude is contagious.


A gift to transform darkness into light: Balladz by Sharon Olds

Book jacket image for Balladz by Sharon Olds

“Who says the forms of art require joy?” Sharon Olds asks in Balladz. While joy does feature prominently in these poems, Olds’ mood is one of unease and ire as she explores national upheaval, life during quarantine and the need for intimacy. As the collection’s title implies, the ballad is her favored form, a vessel for contemplating the past and celebrating everyday pleasures.

“Amherst Ballad 6” shows the precision of her poetic vision: “The Sill Imbued with Dust – Gave Up / A Maple Wing – of Brussels Lace.” In “Grandmother, with Parakeet,” elderly women have hair “fixed in / small breaking combers, battleship / curls like works of art.” Again and again, Olds surveys the world and, through the filter of her poems, renews it for the reader. Filled with sustaining moments of recognition, Balladz is revelatory.


For a fresh way to spread glad tidings this holiday season, we suggest a collection of poetry.
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Kliph Nesteroff’s We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy is an intriguing look at how Native Americans have influenced the world of comedy. Starting with the Wild West shows of the 1800s, Nesteroff chronicles the presence and impact of Native comedic performers through the decades. His lively narrative draws on in-depth research and interviews with today’s up-and-coming comedians. Entertainment stereotypes and representation in media are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

Set in Nashville in the 1920s, Margaret Verble’s novel When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky tells the story of a Cherokee woman named Two Feathers who performs as a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. After an accident occurs while Two is performing, strange events take place at the zoo, including sightings of ghosts. Two finds a friend in Clive the zookeeper, and together they try to make sense of the odd goings-on at Glendale Park. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Verble paints an extraordinary portrait of connection in defiance of racism in this moving novel.

In Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace builds a fascinating narrative around a historical incident: the killing of a Seneca hunter by white fur traders in 1722 Pennsylvania. The murder occurred right before a summit between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the English colonists, and it heightened tensions between the two sides at a fragile moment. Eustace brings the era and its seminal events to vivid life as she examines Native attitudes toward retribution and reparation. 

Cree Canadian author Michelle Good’s novel Five Little Indians follows a group of First Nation youngsters who must find their way in the world after growing up during the 1960s in a Canadian residential school, a boarding school for First Nation children designed to isolate them from their culture. As adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lucy, Howie, Clara, Maisie and Kenny struggle to make lives for themselves and escape painful memories of the past. Clara joins the American Indian Movement, while Lucy dreams of building a future with Kenny. Good explores the repercussions of Canada’s horrific residential school system through the divergent yet unified stories of her characters, crafting a multilayered novel filled with yearning and hope.

These Indigenous stories are perfect for your book club, from a history of Native comedians to the true story of a murder in colonial Pennsylvania.
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True crime writer Gage Chandler, the protagonist of John Darnielle’s Devil House, jumps at the opportunity to live at the “Devil House,” a building where two gruesome, possibly satanic murders took place in 1986. Blamed on some rebellious teenagers, the case remains unsolved. Once Gage moves in and starts researching the murders, he’s drawn into a deeper examination of the significance of his own work. At once a magnetic thriller and an intriguing look at the true crime genre, Darnielle’s novel is filled with rich themes for discussion, including the slippery nature of crime reporting and the demands of the artistic process.

In Gilly Macmillan’s I Know You Know, Cody Swift seeks closure regarding his two childhood friends’ murders, which occurred 20 years ago in Bristol, England. Undertaking his own investigation, Cody returns to Bristol in search of new information and launches a podcast to share his story. But then a body is discovered in the same place Cody’s friends were found, and soon a new homicide investigation is underway. Macmillan incorporates flashbacks to Cody’s childhood and episodes of his podcast in this sophisticated, multilayered mystery.

Denise Mina’s Conviction tells the story of Anna McDonald, who loses herself in true crime podcasts as she struggles to put her painful past behind her. After Anna’s husband leaves her for her best friend, Estelle, Anna connects with Estelle’s husband, singer Fin Cohen. Together they delve into the murder case that’s the subject of Anna’s favorite podcast and start a podcast of their own. When Anna realizes that she is linked to the case, a tragic chapter from her life is reopened. Mina’s skillful development of multiple plot lines and crack comic timing will give reading groups plenty to talk about.

In Megan Goldin’s The Night Swim, Rachel Krall, host of the popular true crime podcast “Guilty or Not Guilty,” travels to a small North Carolina town to report on the trial of swimming champion Scott Blair. Accused of raping the teenage granddaughter of the local police chief, Scott and his case have attracted national attention. While in North Carolina, Rachel is also drawn to a cold case involving the drowning of a 16-year-old that took place more than two decades before. As she works to unravel the two cases, she realizes that they share disturbing parallels. Goldin builds a mood of intense suspense in this searing look at how crime can impact a small community.

Go meta with one of these mysteries starring true crime podcasters and writers.
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Mary Roach investigates the uneasy relationship that exists between humans and wildlife in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. Traveling to India, Vatican City and other locales, she meets with a wide cast of characters that includes predator attack investigators, a bear manager and a human-elephant conflict specialist, all in an effort to understand how humankind is striving to coexist with the animal kingdom. Roach mixes expert reporting with moving insights into the natural world while unearthing pertinent questions about wildlife and habitat preservation.

In Liquid Rules: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives, Mark Miodownik examines the prominence of liquids (drinking water, bottled soap, the list goes on) and the critical roles they play in the modern world. The narrative is framed by a transatlantic flight during which Miodownik notes the ubiquity of liquid matter, from the fuel that powers the plane to the offerings on the airline’s refreshment cart. Illustrations and photos add an appealing visual dimension to the book, and topics like climate change and conservation will inspire lively dialogue among readers.

Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants is an engaging survey of the human physique. Bryson delves into the history of anatomy, examines the nature of disease and pain, and generally explores the ways in which our bodies function. He blends scientific fact and input from experts with humanizing anecdotes, and his trademark wit is on display throughout the proceedings. An illuminating look at the systems, organs and processes that define the human organism, The Body is filled with fascinating facts. From start to finish, it’s vintage Bryson.

Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski is a reader-friendly overview of the ways in which physics shapes our lives. Making connections between commonplace activities (popping popcorn, for instance) and larger phenomena, from weather patterns to medical technology, Czerski demonstrates that scientific processes large and small take place all around us. Over the course of nine chapters, she covers a range of fundamental physics concepts, writing in an accessible, offbeat style. With a gift for intriguing anecdotes, Czerski makes physics fun.

You don't need scientific training to enjoy these entertaining, offbeat books.

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