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More than a fan letter to Judy Blume or a hit-by-hit summary of her career, The Genius of Judy: How Judy Blume Rewrote Childhood for All of Us defends a critically engaged thesis: Blume meant so much to so many because she took the ideas of second-wave feminism and recast them as compulsively readable narratives. Blume was, biographer Rachelle Bergstein writes, “the Second Wave’s secret weapon.”

By writing about everything from menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) to masturbation (Deenie) to teens who have sex without regret (Forever), Blume took growing up seriously, and took the girls’ pleasure seriously, too. She came of age as a writer and woman during the height of the Second Wave and the sexual revolution. Bergstein traces the interlocking of the women’s movement with Blume’s oeuvre, putting her books in conversation with seminal feminist texts like Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Feminine Mystique. Blume’s biography fits right in: Bored and frustrated by her duties as a housewife and mother, writing gave Blume “the zap of something familiar from her girlhood: something electric and joyful. A distant, yet sacred, creative force welled up inside her.”

As a result of Bergstein’s biography, any fan of Judy Blume will gain fresh context on how her body of work amplified and reflected feminist thinking at the time. For instance, thinking about Wifey as Blume’s version of Erica Jong’s feminist classic The Fear of Flying prompted me to reread Wifey—and to enjoy it more. Bergstein excels at this kind of analysis. Her chatty, entertaining summaries of Blume’s books provide important context without getting lost in the weeds.

Blume gathers her laurels today not only for writing honestly about women’s and girls’ experiences, but also for her resistance to book banning. (According to Bergstein, Blume was the most banned author in the 1980s; her books have been fingered in the most recent bans as well.) Those concerned by the current wave of book banning will find Blume’s advocacy for authors and libraries both heartening and instructive. While readers might wish that Blume had participated in The Genius of Judy directly by offering an interview or access to private archives, Bergstein’s groundbreaking book is analytical, smart and accessible, ultimately demonstrating how Blume’s work has contributed to ongoing cultural shifts across multiple generations of women.

 

More than just a fan letter to Judy Blume, The Genius of Judy shows how the groundbreaking author’s work has impacted multiple generations of women.

It is well known that much of Sylvia Plath’s work comes to us altered by her husband, Ted Hughes. Everything published after her death bears his heavy-handed revision and redaction, from her most famous book of poems, Ariel, to her journals. The extent of Hughes’ influence, however, stretches beyond his management of her literary estate to even the basic facts we’re willing to believe about his relationship with Plath.

In 2017, newly surfaced letters from Plath to her longtime psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, made headlines. Plath wrote that Hughes’ physical violence had caused her to miscarry, and that Hughes had told her he wished she was dead. The Guardian called the letters “shocking,” and added an addendum from Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes, that the “suggest[ion]” of abuse was “absurd . . . to anyone who knew Ted well.” Yet though the letters were new to the public, there were long-published existing accounts of Hughes’ abuse of Plath. 

Stockton University professor and Fulbright recipient Emily Van Duyne wrote as much in an op-ed for Literary Hub that went viral, “Why Are We So Unwilling to Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?Loving Sylvia Plath is Van Duyne’s longer answer to that question, a deeply researched analysis of how the popular myth of Plath’s life, one that depicts her as an unreliable narrator and subordinates her poetry to her depression and her suicide, was constructed by Hughes and maintained by critics from the time of her death in 1963 to the present. The book examines how evidence of Hughes’ emotional and physical abuse has been repeatedly minimized, erased and outright dismissed by critics and scholars alike. 

Van Duyne’s scope includes the cultural context in which Hughes’ narrative has thrived, bringing in philosophy of intimate partner violence, as well as reflecting on her own personal experiences with an abusive ex. A chapter is devoted to Assia Wevill, a translator of poet Yehuda Amichai and the woman Hughes left Plath for. Hughes didn’t just control Wevill’s story; he completely suppressed it after her death by suicide. Van Duyne also follows the writers who first endeavored to tell Plath’s story, particularly Harriet Rosenstein, who held onto Plath’s letters for almost half a century before trying to sell them in 2017. 

Loving Sylvia Plath concludes with a note of caution about distorting Plath’s memory in a different way through the temptation to “restore” her from Hughes’ interference. That warning’s well-taken—for all the scholarship about her, we can’t expect to know Plath. But we can know her work, which is extraordinary. And, where it remains unaltered, we can take her at her word.

Unearthed letters from Sylvia Plath may have shocked the world in 2017, but Loving Sylvia Plath shows we’ve long had all the evidence we needed to condemn her abuser, poet Ted Hughes.
Apples Never Fall jacket

Apples Never Fall

Challengers was all about competition and the drive to be the best. Competing with lovers and friends is one thing, but what if the conflict was within your own family? Apples Never Fall stars a tennis dynasty, made up of two retired stars—Stan and Joy—whose four adult children also played professionally. When Joy disappears, Stan is suspected, and Amy, Logan, Troy and Brooke must decide if they believe he’s innocent. No one does drama like Australian author Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret), and this apple is as juicy as it gets. Bonus: You can get this one on a screen too. The TV adaptation is currently streaming on Peacock, and stars Sam Neill and Annette Bening.


Carrie Soto Is Back

Carrie Soto would definitely understand Tashi Duncan, and by that we mean they would immediately try to destroy each other. (They’d probably become friends eventually, but only after almost reducing each other to rubble.) The ferociously determined tennis player at the center of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel decides to come out of retirement to one-up Nikki Chan, the new star player who just broke Carrie’s record amount of Slam titles. If you came away from Challengers wanting more Tashi, this is the book for you.


The Divine Miss Marble

If Challengers made you want to know even more about what it’s like to be a woman in tennis, Robert Weintraub’s biography of Alice Marble, one of the very first tennis greats, can scratch that itch. The Divine Miss Marble chronicles the ups and downs of her life in thrilling detail. Marble won 18 Grand Slam championships between 1936 and 1940 and rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, but her influence extended into the late 20th century as she coached greats like Billie Jean King.


Sudden Death

Did you leave the theater thinking, that was fun, but I wish the tennis matches were weirder? Have we got a book for you. Álvaro Enrigue’s bawdy, bizarre tennis novel kicks off with a match between Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo and Italian painter Caravaggio, and just gets weirder from there (at one point, they’re playing tennis with a ball made of Anne Boleyn’s hair). The author interjects metafictional asides that skewer the conquest of Mexico and other topics, and the book doesn’t shy away from violence, either. We can guarantee one thing: You’ll never read anything else like it.


Wicked Beauty jacket

Wicked Beauty

Let’s be real: The steaminess of the Challengers trailer, and the chemistry among its three stars, was a huge contributor to the film’s successful opening weekend. If you’re looking for a read with a similar spark, Katee Robert is the author for you. Start with the third installment in her Dark Olympus series, which reimagines Greek mythology. Wicked Beauty puts the Iliad’s Achilles and Patroclus into a polyamorous relationship with Helen of Troy. The sex scenes are scorching hot (a Robert trademark), but as in Challengers, the emotional connections are equally complex and valued.

Couldn't get enough of Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino's sophisticated and steamy story of a tennis pro love triangle? We've got some reading material for you.
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Ann Powers makes an unexpected revelation early in her new book, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell. In the second paragraph of the introduction, “Drawing the Maps,” Powers cuts to the chase, writing, “I’m not a biographer, in the usual definition of that term; something in me instinctively opposes the idea that one person can sort through all the facts of another’s life and come up with anything close to that stranger’s true story.”

While we may be unable to know Mitchell’s true story, Powers crafts a rich and textured portrait of the artist many consider to be America’s finest songwriter. Though she did not speak to Mitchell for the book, Powers did interview Mitchell’s friends and collaborators, including Wayne Shorter, Judy Collins, Taj Mahal and Brandi Carlile. She also draws from archival interviews and several other books about Mitchell, including David Yaffe’s 2017 biography, Reckless Daughter.

Traveling by Ann Powers

Powers says she knew she wanted to add something new to the canon of Joni studies, and she relied on her instincts as a critic to guide her to fresh territory. They’re well-honed instincts, as Powers is the lead music critic at NPR Music and has contributed to numerous outlets throughout her multidecade career, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

“With Joni, because there is so much writing about her, I wanted to seek the critical context around her as well,” Powers tells BookPage. “And I needed to confront her as a public figure, as that much-overused word ‘icon,’ or ‘legend.’ She’s a much-beloved figure. I wanted to think about how she became that way, what she and her music offered, at different points in history, to her audience as her audience grew and changed . . . I wanted to have that freedom to be more mobile, as my subject is mobile.”

Traveling follows Powers’ 2017 book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. Where that book snaked its way through scenes and subcultures to interrogate sexuality and race in American music, Traveling maps out Mitchell’s life through place, eschewing a neat timeline in favor of curious sightseeing, hitting all the must-sees while taking fascinating and enlightening diversions. (Powers literally drew a map of Mitchell’s travels, though that, unfortunately, did not make it into the book.)

“I found spots that others hadn’t spent a lot of time in. Like Florida, for example,” Powers says, referring to Mitchell’s late ’60s idyll in folk enclave Coconut Grove. “That was really helpful—understanding her journeys, whether they were geographical or musical or personal. She went places the casual Joni fan isn’t as aware of, and I got really interested in that. I got interested in her byroads.”

Read our starred review of ‘Traveling’ by Ann Powers.

Powers says that she didn’t write the book in chronological order, instead beginning her writing journey by digging into the era Mitchell spent in Laurel Canyon, a music and counterculture enclave in the Hollywood Hills, where she was closely associated with acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (“I just worked my butt off trying to be as good as she was,” David Crosby told Powers.) Powers attended Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration in 2018, where a bevy of artists performed Joni covers, and she spoke to James Taylor and Graham Nash about their work with Mitchell and her still-unfolding legacy. Nash shares that when he and Mitchell were romantically involved, he “tried to give her as much space as possible” to make room for her brilliance. Taylor muses on the development of Mitchell’s rich inner life, which he theorizes owes, in part, to the quiet of her rural childhood.

“Obviously, I knew Blue very well, as so many of us do,” Powers says. “That’s our entryway, for a lot of us, into Joni’s story. I knew I wanted to write about, for that chapter, her relationship to those collaborators and friends and lovers that she had, and I wanted to try to really understand that scene. There had been a lot written about it. So, that’s where I dove in.”

As that material developed, Powers “went backward and forward,” learning about Mitchell’s childhood while considering her spirituality as well as drawing connections to the American folk music revival of the mid-20th century. It was through this back-and-forth movement that Powers discovered the book’s structure.

“That’s really when the metaphor of traveling kind of took hold,” she explains. “And that helped me center the narrative, in a lot of ways, thinking about her literal life on the road and then, also, her spiritual life as a traveler, her artistic life as a traveler.”

Some pit stops include Mitchell’s childhood, of which Powers writes, “This girl was a real person, one who’d lain on prairie grass and gazed at the wide sky, an explorer in her own backyard who soon knew she’d have to flee far beyond it.” There’s Mitchell’s foray into jazz, on which Powers says she initially wrote 30,000 words and hopes one day to explore in greater depth. Then there was Mitchell’s 2015 aneurysm, which pulled her out of public life until her triumphant return to the stage in recent years.

 “I needed to confront her as a public figure, as that much-overused word ‘icon,’ or ‘legend.’” 

Writing about a monumental figure who is still living and working—Mitchell performed at this year’s Grammy Awards, to rapturous acclaim—had its intimidating moments, Powers says, and she found solace in Geoff Dyer’s 1997 Out of Sheer Rage, in which he records his struggle to write a book about the complicated life and legacy of D.H. Lawrence.

“I needed that, sort of like having a good friend tell you a story,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, you know, I relate to your problem. And let me tell you a funny and rich story about how I went through that.’ So, that would unlock some things for me. And one thing that unlocked was that it showed me that I could and should foreground my own struggles.”

Accordingly, many of the book’s more potent moments come when Powers shares her own personal experiences, finding connections or contrasts between herself and the artist. Mitchell placed her child, Kilauren Gibb, up for adoption in 1965, and Powers is an adoptive mother. Though Powers writes she “felt hesitant to make any conjectures about this most intimate connection” (and she doesn’t), she shares the story of a brief encounter with Mitchell in 2004 that connects the dots between them.

Nine months after adopting her daughter, Powers traveled to Montreal to watch Mitchell receive an honorary degree from McGill University. “Adrift in the dream state of sleep-deprived early parenthood,” Powers shared thoughts on Blue during a panel discussion, becoming emotional when remarking on “Little Green,” which Mitchell wrote for Kilauren.

As Mitchell and Gibb had only reunited seven years earlier, Mitchell was relatively new to parenthood, too, and Powers felt a complicated kinship with her, one that is still revealing itself today.

“Twenty years later, I can see that Joni and I were, in that moment, in one version of the same boat,” Powers writes. “We were both newly visible mothers negotiating uncommon definitions of that term.”

Those anecdotes bring Mitchell’s story back down to earth, an impressive feat given her penchant for self-mythologizing. They remind us that Mitchell may have written “Both Sides Now,” but she’s still a human being, still imperfect and messy and seeking resolution to the same existential questions all of us have but none of us can answer.

It’s a point Powers makes early in the book, a few paragraphs after she shares her reluctance to write a straightforward biography. “Every legend is also one of us,” she writes, and in the following 10 chapters, she bears that out, bringing us into her complicated relationship with a complicated artist making complicated art in a complicated world.

With Traveling, Joni Mitchell becomes a little more “of us” than she’s ever been.

Ann Powers author photo by Emily April Allen.

By mapping Mitchell's geographical, musical and personal journeys, Powers frees the woman from the icon.
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June 1, 2024

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Call your queer bookclub—we’ve rounded up the 24 best LGBTQ+ books of 2024 so far!
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The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—dubbed the “Nazi Olympics” for providing an international platform to the genocidal regime—produced lasting memories, including the triumphs of Black American track and field star Jesse Owens and the “Boys in the Boat” rowing team that beat Germany in a dramatic upset. Less remembered is the wide speculation at the games that Helen Stephens, a U.S. runner who won two golds, might actually be a man.

She wasn’t. But the phony controversy was symptomatic of a panic in the Olympics establishment. Not long before the 1936 games, two top track and field athletes who had competed in international competitions as women said publicly that they were men (we would say now that they had come out as trans). A handful of Olympic leaders, including Nazi sympathizers, immediately drew the wrong conclusions and called for mandatory medical exams to determine sex prior to sports competitions.

In The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports, author Michael Waters sensitively tells this forgotten history and reveals its modern resonances. The book connects the struggles of those two athletes, Zdenek Koubek of Czechoslovakia and Mark Weston of Britain, with the relatively open attitude toward queerness in pre-Nazi Central Europe, the resistance within the early Olympics movement to women’s sports, and the failed effort to boycott the Berlin games.

The Other Olympians is full of surprises for contemporary readers. For example, anyone who mistakenly thinks Christine Jorgensen was the first person to have gender affirming surgery will learn very much otherwise. But Waters’ detailed description of the outspoken Koubek’s life before and during his transition is the heart of the book. He emerges as an overlooked pioneer.

Koubek, Weston and other trans and queer people profiled here never wanted to compete against women after their transitions. Yet an entire regimen of sex testing was built on the unfounded belief that men were somehow masquerading as women to participate in sports contests. Decisions made in the late 1930s created sports competition rules that still exist today, as debate over trans athletes rages in school board meetings, courtrooms and legislative sessions. Waters doggedly chronicles where the debate originated and calls for what he believes is overdue change.

The Other Olympians doggedly chronicles the lives of pioneering trans athletes and the historically fraught 1936 Olympic Games.
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Mike De Socio loves the Boy Scouts. In Morally Straight: How the Fight for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Changed the Boy Scouts—and America, De Socio, an Eagle Scout, details how Boy Scouts gave him, a nerdy misfit, the space to thrive. He is also queer, coming out while in college in 2015, the same year that the Scouts lifted its ban on gay leaders and two years after it had lifted the ban on gay Scouts. De Socio learned he was not alone: Boy Scouts had provided a safe haven for many other queer Scouts, a haven that was repeatedly taken away because of a policy that they had no idea even existed.

Taking its title from the Boy Scout Oath, Morally Straight weaves detailed journalism and De Socio’s deeply personal memories in its recounting of the effort to lift bans on LGBTQ+ Boy Scouts and their leaders. It starts with the story behind Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, the 2000 Supreme Court case that allowed the Scouts to discriminate against queer boys and men.

At the heart of De Socio’s book is the work of Scouts for Equality (SFE), an activist group formed in 2012 after the Scouts expelled lesbian den leader Jennifer Tyrrell. Headed by Zach Wahls and Jonathan Hillis, two straight Eagle Scouts, SFE evolved into a broad-based alliance of LGBTQ+ and straight Scouts, parents and supporters that eventually persuaded the Scouts to rescind their policies.

Under Wahls and Hillis’ leadership, the SFE became a juggernaut. In their early 20s, both men  were uniquely qualified to take on the BSA. The son of two lesbian mothers, Wahls was already a LGBTQ+ activist and the author of My Two Moms. Hillis was a prominent youth leader at the BSA’s national level. Ironically, both credit the Boy Scouts with developing the moral courage and leadership skills that made SFE possible.

Morally Straight is both clear-eyed and optimistic. BSA is now a broader tent, accepting gay, trans and even female Scouts. But, as De Socio’s own experiences show, it still grapples with how to give its members the space and tools to remain true to who they are.

Morally Straight weaves detailed journalism and author Mike De Socio’s deeply personal memories in its recounting of the effort to lift bans on LGBTQ+ Boy Scouts and their leaders.

As the Texas legislature attempts to ban books; dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion; and threaten LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, poet and author KB Brookins’ debut memoir, Pretty, arrives when we need it most. Brookins is a Black, queer and trans writer and cultural worker whose previous work includes two poetry collections, Freedom House and How to Identify Yourself With a Wound. Pretty details their experience navigating gender and Black masculinity while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, exploring how they have moved through a world of cisgender Black and non-Black people, from their biological parents to their adopted family, from classmates to lovers, and from their gender transition through adulthood.

Brookins spent their youth challenging binary spaces and expectations. From early childhood to the present, they have desired to be seen as pretty, and this book is the search to find out what that means for them: “Though not gendered, we often associate prettiness with womanhood, femininity, and objects we see as dainty,” they write. “I’ve never been interested in womanhood, but I’ve always wanted to be treated softly, like a fat pleasantry to the eyes.” Through often striking prose and imagery, Brookins questions the restrictions involved in those associations: “When I was femme, my prettiness was canceled out by Blackness. When I was butch, my prettiness was seen as invalidating my masculinity. Who taught us that masculinity can’t be pretty? Who taught us that Blackness was devoid of prettiness and delicacy?”

While Brookins searches for answers to these questions, they continuously remind us of how hostile the U.S. is to Black and trans people: “As the perception of me changes before my eyes, I realize that it is a specific sadness—embodying patriarchal masculinity in a country that wants your blood more than it wants you to breathe.” We need words and stories like this. By describing their movement through the world, Brookins simultaneously critiques the conditions that oppress Black and racialized people who seek radical self-acceptance, and refuses the state’s malicious attempts to criminalize gender and sexuality.

Pretty offers far more than just pretty words—Brookins tells their side of the story as an act of resistance against those who would silence them. This book is as much a story of self-discovery and survival as it is a love letter to their younger and current self.

As Texas threatens LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, KB Brookins’ memoir, Pretty, is an act of resistance against those who would silence trans writers.
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A romance is all about the final payoff: After pages of will-they-won’t-they teasing, readers anticipate the moment when everything falls ecstatically into place and our lovers end up together. Kate Young’s Experienced takes this model and twists it, leading readers on a wholehearted, fun exploration of dating and love in the 21st century. After her girlfriend Mei suggests they take a break so the newly-out Bette can casually date and get the full single experience, Bette goes on an awkward odyssey of first dates. Her journey is silly and relatable, and stays away from romance cliches—although that isn’t to say that the book doesn’t end happily.

Bette tries to be chill about the break. After a bit of confusion and hurt, she decides the best course of action is to actually get some dating experience. With her roommate Ash and Ash’s token straight-guy boyfriend Tim, Bette begins crafting her dating app profiles. They choose the best pictures—though Ash and Tim have to convince Bette that she really does look hot in some of them—and write cool, ironic responses to the prompts. Soon after, Bette starts dating a lineup of strange, sexy characters running the gamut of British lesbian baddies. The most memorable is Bette’s first date, Ruth, a PhD student and experienced casual dater who gives Bette the recipe for success and, in a twist of fate, helps her realize what she really wants from a relationship.

Chapter titles that count down to the date when Bette and Mei are supposed to get back together lend Experienced a sense of anxiety and longing that will be all too familiar to 21st century daters. Young’s charming British English pairs with a young millennial’s quirky, anxious interiority for a fun, surprisingly profound read. Romantics, if you’re lonely or even if you’re happily in love, this novel will be a treat. 

Kate Young’s charming British English paired with her young millennial protagonist’s quirky, anxious interiority makes Experienced a fun, surprisingly profound read.
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Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s debut novel is a quiet but profoundly moving coming-of-age story about a young gay man in mid-2000s Nigeria. It’s an at first straightforward novel that deepens as it progresses, building toward an ending befitting its protagonist—a young man continually moving through different versions of himself.

Blessings opens in 2006 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. When Obiefuna’s father catches him in a moment of tenderness with another boy, he immediately sends him away to boarding school. Life at school is strictly regulated and often violent. Older boys abuse and terrorize the younger boys without consequence. Obiefuna, fearing that his sexuality may be discovered at any moment, does what he thinks he has to in order to survive.

Though the novel continues to follow Obiefuna through his early years at university, his time at the boarding school takes up the most space and carries a hefty emotional weight. At times it may feel as if the story drags, but the beautiful and complicated third act reveals that Ibeh knew exactly where he was going all along. He captures the uneven importance of memory and experience, the way certain events can haunt a life without our knowledge. Obiefuna’s relationships to himself, his family, his lovers and his country change dramatically over time, a shift that Ibeh weaves almost invisibly into the prose.

Interspersed between chapters from Obiefuna’s point of view are ones told from his mother Uzoamaka’s perspective. These feel less immediate and vivid, but do add a poignant narrative layer, giving readers a glimpse into what goes unspoken between mother and son.

Blessings is an excellent work of queer fiction, full of characters who are neither good nor bad, but simply human beings in constant flux. Ibeh writes cruelty onto the page alongside tenderness, crafting scenes of domestic gay love with the same attention and detail he gives to scenes of emotional and physical violence. He offers us a precious glimpse of the world as it truly is for so many queer people: not tragic, not perfect, not all suffering or all joy—but worth living in and telling stories about.

Blessings offers a precious glimpse of the world as it truly is for so many queer people: not tragic, not perfect, not all suffering or all joy, but worth living in.
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The Safekeep, Yael van der Wouden’s debut novel, is set in 1961 rural Holland. At 30, Isabel is living in the house where she was raised after the death of her father forced the family’s move from the city and into a furnished house their uncle Karel found for them. Isabel lives a circumscribed and watchful life, guarding her dead mother’s things, suspecting the maid of theft and fending off the attentions of a flirtatious neighbor. Of her brothers, Louis and Hendrik, she is closer to Hendrik, although she disapproves of his friend Sebastian, suspecting a deeper connection. Of Louis and the steady stream of girlfriends he introduces to her, she thinks even less. Until Eva.

The siblings meet Eva at a dinner out. With her clumsy manners and brassy dyed hair, she hardly impresses, and Isabel is shocked when Louis brings her to the house, telling Isabel that Eva must stay there while he goes away on business and showing Eva to their mother’s room. Even under Isabel’s watchful eye, things begin to disappear—a spoon, a bowl, a thimble. More alarming to Isabel is the overwhelming attraction she feels to Eva, an attraction that spills into an obsessive, intensely depicted sexual relationship.

Van der Wouden may be familiar as the author of the 2017 essay “On (Not) Reading Anne Frank,” which explored what it means to be a Dutch Jewish writer and her complicated relationship to Frank’s legacy. As Isabel and Eva’s connection unfolds, Van der Wouden’s true subject comes into view: how ordinary people were implicated in the ethnic cleansing that took place during World War II. Even in peacetime, Isabel and her peers are quick to notice people who appear different, with a fierce disgust that Isabel risks turning on herself as she comes to terms with her sexuality. A novel of redemption as much as revenge, The Safekeep has the pacing and twists of a thriller, while delving into the deeper issues laid bare by the Holocaust.

In Yael van der Wouden’s mesmerizing debut, The Safekeep, Isabel lives a circumscribed life in her dead mother’s house until her brother’s girlfriend comes to stay, alarming Isabel when an obsessive attraction develops between the two.

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Call your queer bookclub—we've rounded up the 24 best LGBTQ+ books of 2024 so far!

What comes to mind when you think of Joni Mitchell? Is it her landmark 1971 album, Blue, or her foray into jazz? Her paintings? Her 2015 aneurysm? Ask a handful of people that question and you’re bound to get a different answer each time. Mitchell long ago transcended the status of a mere musician and became an icon, someone larger than life whose body of work is a cultural touchstone.

Leave it to critic Ann Powers to untangle the intricate web that Mitchell, 80, is still weaving today. In Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell, Powers traces the artist’s life from childhood to the present day with curiosity, context and compassion, using Mitchell’s often nomadic existence as a template to try to understand her life and legacy.

She does this through interviews with those who know Mitchell best, like Graham Nash and Brandi Carlile, as well as through painstaking research into archival interviews and the myriad writings inspired by the “Both Sides Now” artist. Powers notably includes her own experiences with Mitchell throughout the book, too, as well as the difficulties and surprises she experienced while writing it. That real-time sense of grappling with Mitchell’s music and persona both grounds the book and offers food for thought, like when Powers tries to understand how Mitchell’s childhood bout with polio affected—or, crucially, didn’t affect—her artistry. Powers favors nuance over easy answers, and the book is better for it.

As always, Powers, a longtime critic most recently known for her work at NPR Music, writes with precision and a healthy dose of the poetic, a combination that makes for an immersive and enlightening read. This is no dry biography. Traveling is hardly the first book about Mitchell and won’t be the last, but it fills a necessary gap in the library of tomes dedicated to her work. Powers has crafted a travelogue of one of the greatest artistic journeys ever taken, and it’s a pleasure to go along for the ride.

 

Ann Powers’ biography of Joni Mitchell is a travelogue of one of the greatest artistic journeys ever taken, and it's a pleasure to go along for the ride.
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The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin—dubbed the “Nazi Olympics” for providing an international platform to the genocidal regime—produced lasting memories, including the triumphs of Black American track and field star Jesse Owens and the “Boys in the Boat” rowing team that beat Germany in a dramatic upset. Less remembered is the wide speculation at the games that Helen Stephens, a U.S. runner who won two golds, might actually be a man.

She wasn’t. But the phony controversy was symptomatic of a panic in the Olympics establishment. Not long before the 1936 games, two top track and field athletes who had competed in international competitions as women said publicly that they were men (we would say now that they had come out as trans). A handful of Olympic leaders, including Nazi sympathizers, immediately drew the wrong conclusions and called for mandatory medical exams to determine sex prior to sports competitions.

In The Other Olympians: Fascism, Queerness, and the Making of Modern Sports, author Michael Waters sensitively tells this forgotten history and reveals its modern resonances. The book connects the struggles of those two athletes, Zdenek Koubek of Czechoslovakia and Mark Weston of Britain, with the relatively open attitude toward queerness in pre-Nazi Central Europe, the resistance within the early Olympics movement to women’s sports, and the failed effort to boycott the Berlin games.

The Other Olympians is full of surprises for contemporary readers. For example, anyone who mistakenly thinks Christine Jorgensen was the first person to have gender affirming surgery will learn very much otherwise. But Waters’ detailed description of the outspoken Koubek’s life before and during his transition is the heart of the book. He emerges as an overlooked pioneer.

Koubek, Weston and other trans and queer people profiled here never wanted to compete against women after their transitions. Yet an entire regimen of sex testing was built on the unfounded belief that men were somehow masquerading as women to participate in sports contests. Decisions made in the late 1930s created sports competition rules that still exist today, as debate over trans athletes rages in school board meetings, courtrooms and legislative sessions. Waters doggedly chronicles where the debate originated and calls for what he believes is overdue change.

The Other Olympians doggedly chronicles the lives of pioneering trans athletes and the historically fraught 1936 Olympic Games.
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May 2024

Take a culinary tour of Asia with these 4 books

With both sweeping and granular detail, three cookbooks and one memoir offer a scrumptious sampling of Asian cuisine.

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Michelle T. King’s relationship with Fu Pei-mei began in childhood, with the constant presence of Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book in her parents’ kitchen. She did not realize the extent of Fu’s impact or fame as the host of a beloved, long-running cooking show in Taiwan until years later. In Chop Fry Watch Learn: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food, this personal connection with Fu allows King, a “Chinese American by way of Taiwan” (how King depicts the complexity of her cultural identity), to illuminate the often misunderstood nuances within the relationship between food and “a people like China’s—riven by decades of war, dislocation, upheaval, and migration.” As King states, food is not simply a comforting taste of home, but “a fickle mistress: a poor approximation of a beloved dish may simply remind you of everything you have lost.”

King weaves history lessons, personal anecdotes and firsthand interviews into the thoroughly researched Chop Fry Watch Learn in order to paint the extent of Fu’s legacy. It’s a tremendous undertaking, which King tackles head-on as she cycles through a vast number of subjects, ranging from historical Chinese attitudes towards food and the women cooking, to the complicated relationship between Taiwan and China throughout the 20th century, to the muddiness of diaspora identity, to broader ideas surrounding domestic labor, feminism and globalization. King argues that food binds it all together, and readers are sure to find her diligent biography compelling.

Michelle T. King’s Chop Fry Watch Learn is an engrossing biography of famed cookbook author Fu Pei-mei.
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“You are about to read the story of a culinary revolution,” Koreaworld: A Cookbook proclaims as it launches into a frenetic exploration of Korean and Korean-inspired food spanning from Jeju Island to North Virginia. After focusing on more traditional offerings in its first half, this animated celebration jumps to new interpretations of Korean food, such as banana milk cake and Shin Ramyun with pita chips. Authors Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard provide their own musings on different preparation styles—using 7UP to flavor pickles, for example—while peppering in cultural history and modern context. The authors spotlight chefs throughout Korea and the U.S. and all their various influences, which span a bevy of cuisines, from Jewish to Chinese.

The sheer volume of restaurants and people profiled causes the book to meander in a fashion that sometimes feels scattered, but the abundance of eclectic detail will appeal strongly to diehard Korean food enthusiasts. Hong and Rodbard’s familiar rapport with many of their subjects lends a personal feeling to Koreaworld that is accentuated by Alex Lau’s stylish, energetic photography. Anyone interested in exploring the wild, exciting new frontiers of Korean food will find this book a fresh delight.

 

Anyone interested in exploring the wild, exciting new frontiers of Korean food will find Koreaworld a fresh delight.
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How complicated can breakfast possibly get? In Zao Fan: Breakfast of China, Michael Zee writes that the enormity of Chinese cuisine is “both terrific and terrifying”—and what is usually the simplest, smallest meal of the day is no exception. Yet Zee demonstrates a knack seldom seen in English-language cookbooks for succinctly yet fully conveying the vastness and complexity of Chinese cuisine throughout the delightful recipes featured in Zao Fan. From fried Kazakh breads to savory tofu puddings, Zee provides in-depth yet accessible insight into a thorough swath of breakfast foods.

Rarely does a writer’s passion for their subject matter leap as vividly as it does from these pages, which are chock-full of recollections of personal visits to restaurants and observations of traditional techniques. Zee accompanies the recipes with his own photos of the dishes in all their gorgeous mouthwatering glory—meat pies sizzling on a griddle, a bowl of Wuhan three-treasure rice, neat rows of Xinjiang-style baked lamb buns—which provide an authentic sense of immersion, as do his portraits of daily life in China. The neat, color-coded organization of the recipes into logical categories such as noodles and breads provides a remarkable sense of cohesion, making Zao Fan an absolute must for cooks across all skill levels.

Zao Fan collects traditional Chinese breakfast recipes in all their mouthwatering glory.
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Often, cookbooks languish on our kitchen shelves, only to be referenced once in a blue moon—but the exuberant illustrations of Noodles, Rice, and Everything Spice: A Thai Comic Book Cookbook will have you turning to its recipes for years to come. In 2020, Thai Belgian cartoonist Christina de Witte sought to further connect with her Thai heritage by taking language lessons, which is how she met Mallika Kauppinen, who started teaching Thai via Zoom after moving to Finland from Thailand. The result is this unique cookbook, in which cartoon versions of de Witte and Kauppinen lead you through the fundamentals of Thai cooking and an array of common recipes whose steps are whimsically drawn out. Tools, ingredients, stirring guidelines, timers, heat levels and more are diagrammed in a manner that provides both joy and exceptional clarity unmatched by most cookbooks.

Short comics offer context—the origin of guay tiaw, or “boat noodles,” for example—or pull you into a slice of Kauppinen’s childhood. Our guides are present throughout, drawn onto photos of their meals—floating in a pool of curry, grabbing fistfuls of rice and engaging in other such hijinks. From the liveliness of its writing to the brightness of its color palette, the vibrancy of every aspect of Noodles, Rice, and Everything Spice captures Thai cuisine in such a way that you can almost taste its bold flavors just through reading.

With its vibrant illustrations, Noodles, Rice, and Everything Spice captures Thai cuisine in such a way that you can almost taste its bold flavors.

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With both sweeping and granular detail, three cookbooks and one memoir offer a scrumptious sampling of Asian cuisine.
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In 2014, Misty Copeland became the first Black dancer to ever take the stage as Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The next year, she was promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, making her the first Black dancer to ever secure the role. She has been heralded as a prodigy and celebrated as a trailblazer. Yet in the first decade of her career, she was made to paint her face to look less like herself, less Black. White choreographers had long tried to steer her toward modern dance, where her skin color was more acceptable, and where she would not “break the line” of pale flesh. 

Today, large dance organizations boast diversity, equity and inclusion programming, and all dancers can finally find ballet tights and shoes that match their skin tone. Thanks to Copeland, other Black girls may not feel so alone in their unquenchable desire to dance classical ballet. 

But decades before Copeland took to the stage, as she frequently acknowledges, Black girls and women were performing to accolades all over the globe and in U.S. cities generally hostile to anyone of color. The change began in Harlem, when the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a Black dancer, Arthur Mitchell, to found his own ballet company. The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History is journalist Karen Valby’s spirited account of Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, and of five principal dancers who, half a century after their time in the spotlight, formed the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council to tell their story. 

In 1968, Lydia Abarca was working as a bank secretary and about to enter Fordham University  on a partial scholarship. She had given up on ballet at 15, “tired of giving her whole self over to something that never seemed to love her back.” But a Black principal dancer teaching ballet in a neighborhood church basement lured her back in. Abarca’s mother, a part-time telephone operator, was skeptical, but her father, a janitor from Puerto Rico, did not object. So began Abarca’s rise to international fame. 

With respectful attention to their occasionally troubled lives, Valby introduces Abarca’s peers: Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells. Their “lighthouse,” Arthur Mitchell, is portrayed in his all-too-human complexity, fighting to keep his company funded and recognized, and his ballerinas under his thumb. Mitchell cast a long shadow over the dancers; he was their champion, teacher and employer—and their most unrelenting critic. 

Valby’s extensive interviews with the dancers lend an intimacy to the narrative, the details of their lives elevated and their perspectives clearly observed. The women of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council are determined to bring their story out of obscurity. In The Swans of Harlem, they become unforgettable.

Karen Valby’s spirited The Swans of Harlem brings the remarkable story of trailblazing Black ballerinas to center stage.

Barbara Walters may forever be remembered as Barbara Wawa, thanks to Gilda Radner’s 1976 performance on “Saturday Night Live.” Radner, Rachel Dratch and Cheri Oteri played the character for the next four decades, illustrating that Walters and her contributions to television journalism had become enduring features of popular culture. Indeed, her presence would dominate television from the late 1960s to the early years of the new millennium.

Drawing on over 150 interviews and on extensive archival research, biographer Susan Page paints a colorful portrait of Walters in her compulsively readable The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters. Tracing Walters’ life and career from her childhood through her three failed marriages, her estrangement from her daughter and her groundbreaking interviews with celebrities and political figures, Page reveals an ambitious woman who reached the pinnacle of her profession, even as she was dogged by insecurities and fear of failure. Page describes how both Walters’ ambition and her fear were fueled by her father, an entrepreneur and impresario who opened several high-profile nightclubs in Boston, New York City and Miami, but whose gambling and often extravagant spending resulted in his professional failures. Page traces Walters’ early career, cutting her teeth as a publicist, Redbook staffer and host of the “Today” show. Her big breakthrough came in 1976 when ABC offered her a $1 million salary to co-anchor its evening news program. But she didn’t stay for long. Three years later, she became co-host of “20/20.” The rest is history. 

Walters is best known for penetrating interviews of political and entertainment figures, never shying away from asking probing, and sometimes regrettable, questions. She asked Ricky Martin about his sexuality before he came out publicly; pushed Fidel Castro to admit the impoverished state of Cuba when the leader touted his role in the country’s prosperity; and asked Monica Lewinsky how she planned to explain the Clinton scandal to her children. Walters pioneered the tell-all interview and took it to new heights with “The View,” which premiered in 1997. 

The Rulebreaker explores the cultural history in which Walters and her career developed and flourished. Readers will be compelled by this story of an American icon who shaped the expectations that viewers have of television news programs, and whose flair and penetrating approach revealed the private lives of the powerful and famous.

Biographer Susan Page paints a colorful portrait of trailblazer Barbara Walters in her compulsively readable The Rulebreaker.
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Michelle T. King’s relationship with Fu Pei-mei began in childhood, with the constant presence of Pei Mei’s Chinese Cook Book in her parents’ kitchen. She did not realize the extent of Fu’s impact or fame as the host of a beloved, long-running cooking show in Taiwan until years later. In Chop Fry Watch Learn: Fu Pei-mei and the Making of Modern Chinese Food, this personal connection with Fu allows King, a “Chinese American by way of Taiwan” (how King depicts the complexity of her cultural identity), to illuminate the often misunderstood nuances within the relationship between food and “a people like China’s—riven by decades of war, dislocation, upheaval, and migration.” As King states, food is not simply a comforting taste of home, but “a fickle mistress: a poor approximation of a beloved dish may simply remind you of everything you have lost.”

King weaves history lessons, personal anecdotes and firsthand interviews into the thoroughly researched Chop Fry Watch Learn in order to paint the extent of Fu’s legacy. It’s a tremendous undertaking, which King tackles head-on as she cycles through a vast number of subjects, ranging from historical Chinese attitudes towards food and the women cooking, to the complicated relationship between Taiwan and China throughout the 20th century, to the muddiness of diaspora identity, to broader ideas surrounding domestic labor, feminism and globalization. King argues that food binds it all together, and readers are sure to find her diligent biography compelling.

Michelle T. King’s Chop Fry Watch Learn is an engrossing biography of famed cookbook author Fu Pei-mei.

The 1940 novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter established 23-year-old Carson McCullers as a talented new voice who conveyed through her characters the pain and loneliness of outsiders, misfits and oddballs seeking to be loved. Over the next 11 years, McCullers published two novels, a novella and collection of stories set in small Southern towns. When she died at 50, she left behind this small but powerful body of work and a record of what she once called her “sad, happy life.”

In her absorbing new biography, Carson McCullers: A Life, Mary V. Dearborn draws deeply on letters, the author’s unfinished autobiography and newly available archival materials, painting a colorful and finely detailed portrait of McCullers’ public and private lives. Born in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia, Lula Carson Smith grew up in a family she described as well-off, though not rich. As a child, McCullers and her mother recognized her many talents. “Marked out as special,” Dearborn writes, she “felt herself somehow outside the sphere of normal childhood,” a state McCullers would express in one of her earliest stories, “Wunderkind.”

McCullers was studying writing at New York University when she met Reeves McCullers in 1935. The two found an immediate attraction and soon married. Carson was bound and determined to become a writer, and Reeves believed she was destined for great things. But the marriage was always troubled, with the couple separating, remarrying and separating again, until Reeves died by suicide in 1953. Unlike Virginia Spencer Carr’s 1975 biography The Lonely Hunter—written without access to McCullers’ now-available letters and archives—Dearborn offers a candid and complex portrait of the author’s lifelong love and pursuit of women, especially older, more worldly women, documenting many of her relationships for the first time.

Dearborn, who has authored the biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, among other writers, captures the way that McCullers alienated many artists—Eudora Welty called her “that little wretch Carson”—as well as the ways that others such as W.H. Auden, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams championed her. In the end, Dearborn notes, “We read Carson’s work today because she taps into the universal sense that we are not understood, not loved for ourselves. Carson provides confirmation that our common search means we are less alone.”

Dearborn weaves careful critical readings of McCullers’ writings with detailed descriptions of the author’s life, producing an exemplary critical biography of one of our greatest writers.

The absorbing Carson McCullers is the first to paint a full portrait of the author, showing acclaimed biographer Mary V. Dearborn at the height of her powers.
STARRED REVIEW
February 9, 2024

Lift every voice

Black history month offers fresh looks at freedom fighters John Lewis, Harriet Tubman and Medgar and Myrlie Evers.
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