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When Korean American author Julia Lee was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 2000s, her instructor cracked a joke about a dog who was taken to the back of a Korean restaurant and eaten. As her classmates laughed, she turned “hot with anger and shame.” Instead of confronting her teacher, the next day Lee wore a bright red “Angry Little Asian Girl” T-shirt to class. “In retrospect,” Lee writes, “putting on the T-shirt was a dumb way to protest, but it was the only way I could tell my teacher ‘fuck you.’”

Lee is now an associate professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, focusing on African American and Caribbean literature—and she is no longer silent. Her memoir, Biting the Hand: Growing Up Asian in Black and White America, seamlessly blends her own experiences with piercing discussions of identity and racial stratification, serving up conclusions likely to challenge readers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, recognizing the need for constant reexamination in our white-centered society, Lee even challenges her own views. At a 2018 academic conference, for instance, she realized, “My brain had calcified. I was resistant to change. Gender pronouns puzzled me. Land acknowledgments confused me. My immediate response was to react like lots of people do—blame it on woke culture run amok or mock how cringingly earnest my colleagues were. It was always other people’s fault that I felt uncomfortable—not mine.”

In sections titled “Rage,” “Shame” and “Grace,” Lee traces her intellectual evolution through the events of her own life. She demonstrates a knack for meaningful storytelling as she recounts her father’s harrowing escape from North Korea as a child, and her enrollment at a private all-girls school in a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood while her parents struggled to make ends meet. In L.A., Lee was “a little Asian girl, thrown against what Zora Neale Hurston calls a ‘sharp white background.’” In 1992, at age 15, she witnessed firsthand the riots that occurred after a jury acquitted four police officers for physically battering Rodney King during a traffic stop. Lee writes that it was a “primal scene of racial awakening—for myself and for the Korean American community. We were not white. We were not Black. We were caught somewhere in the middle.”

Later, as a Princeton undergraduate, Lee felt herself “drowning” amid a whole system “built upon whiteness and in service of whiteness.” Along the way, she contended with depression, culturally clueless therapists, an angry mother and feelings of isolation when she became a parent. At Harvard, she got what she calls “life-saving” advice from novelist Jamaica Kincaid: “You must bite the hand that feeds you,” meaning that she must dare to critique the culture of white supremacy even when that culture expects her to be grateful just for being allowed into elite spaces.

Biting the Hand is an exceptional account of an evolving understanding of power and privilege, offering readers insightful new ways to examine their world.

Julia Lee’s piercing discussions of Asian American identity are likely to challenge readers across the ideological spectrum. In fact, she even challenges her own views.
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In Happy Place, New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry returns with a tender contemporary romance full of vulnerability, growth and love.

Every year for the last decade, college sweethearts-turned-engaged couple Harriet and Wyn have joined their friends at a cottage in Maine for a weeklong getaway. It’s something they’ve always looked forward to—but not this year. Because Harriet and Wyn broke up six months ago, and they haven’t told their friends yet. Uncertain of how the group will take the news, they don’t want a cloud hanging over their very last trip to the cottage, which is going up for sale.

For a whole week, Harriet and Wyn must play the part of a couple in love to preserve their ruse, including sharing the cozy master bedroom. As the vacation plays out, Harriet and Wyn get over their initial nervousness and fall back into sweet little routines and playful banter as their passion for each other resurfaces. The trip might be just what Harriet and Wyn need to find each other again.

Happy Place feels very much like the Henry that fans have come to adore through rom-coms such as People We Meet on Vacation and Book Lovers, but this time with the added complexity of a larger cast. Harriet and Wyn’s coupledom is one of the foundations of their close-knit friend group, and Henry illustrates the benefits and challenges of being in a relationship that’s also a vital part of a community. Happy Place also makes room to explore one of Henry’s perennial concerns: how women internalize misogyny and societal pressures. Harriet is an overworked surgical resident, and her aversion to causing waves and speaking up about her own wants, needs and limits has pushed her to a breaking point. Her placative nature leads her to stew in her own stress, constantly pushing things down and never relieving her simmering anxiety. In addition to regaining her connection with Wyn, the week at the cottage teaches Harriet that her problems—whether romantic, professional or emotional—don’t have to be shouldered alone.

Harriet and Wyn’s chemistry is effervescent, bubbling up each time they remember how and why they fell in love in the first place. They’re the perfect combination of sweet, sexy and silly, and it’s obvious why everyone (including, eventually and undoubtedly, the reader) is rooting for their happily ever after. Happy Place proves that Henry is a writer with “no skips,” her oeuvre as expertly crafted as a perfect summer playlist.

Emily Henry’s effervescent and tender Happy Place is as expertly crafted as a perfect summer playlist.
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What is Latino? Or, for that matter, what is Latina, or Latine, or Latinx? In Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of “Latino,” journalist and author Héctor Tobar (The Last Great Road Bum) tries to explain. Though maybe explain isn’t the right word. Through this book, readers won’t get an explanation of this broad, ancient, vital culture—this “alliance among peoples,” as Tobar calls it—but rather an experience of it. Using both his own personal narrative and testimonies from a rainbow of people of color (not just Latinx folks), Tobar manages to capture the breadth of Latinidad (i.e., the diaspora of Latinx peoples) in the United States and beyond. With moving passages about triumph in the face of adversity, tragic stories of those lost to brutality and a scathing critique of U.S. immigration policy, this book is a call to action, the first step in a redefinition of that elusive word, Latino, and an important piece in a more complete picture of humanity.

Read our interview with Héctor Tobar, author of ‘Our Migrant Souls.’

Readers, no matter their identities, will see themselves in this panorama of life experiences. The book is split into two parts. First is “Our Country,” in which Tobar takes a long, hard look at the state of the Latinx community today. This includes a careful, illuminating examination of empire and its history, analysis of the continual pillaging of Latin America by the United States, and a parsing of the idea of identity itself. What is an identity? Why does identity feel so important in today’s divided social media-centric society? Tobar uses poignant examples, such as Latina icon Frida Kahlo, to show how we construct our identities with the materials of our lives. Tobar also creates a narrative from his own place in history: From his parents’ migration from Guatemala to Los Angeles, to his childhood living next-door to the white supremacist who killed Martin Luther King Jr., Tobar’s experiences have fortified his understanding of the vital role race has played in his life. In the book’s second part, “Our Journeys Home,” Tobar takes a road trip across the United States, retelling the stories of the people he meets and showing how, no matter where we come from or what we have been through, we are all united in our humanity.

Ultimately, Our Migrant Souls is one of the most important pieces of Latino nonfiction in several decades. Tobar’s blend of philosophy, narrative and history puts him on the same level as literary giants such as Eduardo Galeano and James Baldwin. Turning the last page of this book, you will feel the weight of history on your shoulders—yet it is an uplifting experience.

Our Migrant Souls is one of the most important pieces of Latino nonfiction in several decades. Turning the last page, you will feel the weight of history on your shoulders.
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The second novel from Abraham Verghese, author of the unforgettable Cutting for Stone (2009), is a masterpiece. Put it on your bookcase next to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster or anything by the brave and brilliant Salman Rushdie. Indeed, put it next to any great novel of your choice.

Sprawling, passionate, tragic and comedic at turns, The Covenant of Water follows a family from 1900 to 1977 in an Indian region that eventually becomes the beautiful state of Kerala. Among the interesting things about this family is that they’re Christians among Hindus and Muslims, and once a generation, a family member dies by drowning. This tragic recurrence isn’t all that weird when you consider that their home is surrounded by water, and every year the region is all but washed away by the monsoon. Yet for this family, the drownings have taken on a near-mystical significance. Big Ammachi, the family matriarch, calls it the “Condition.”

Speaking of Big Ammachi, her story begins a few hours before her wedding. Normally a character’s wedding day wouldn’t fill the reader with dread, but in this case the bride is 12 years old. At this age she is known as Mariamma, and she is to marry a 40-year-old widowed landowner whom she’s never met. Though Mariamma’s mother is closer to this gentleman in age, she’s not eligible to marry him because she’s a widow, and a widow in this society is considered less than useless. Such is the dread hand of patriarchy in action.

But Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations, not just this time but again and again. The marriage of Mariamma and the thamb’ran—the boss—turns out to be a happy one. He is a gentle, stoic giant who scrupulously avoids bodies of water, even though it may take him days to walk to a place he could have reached in a few hours by boat. Mariamma and the thamb’ran’s young son, JoJo, adore each other, and it is he who gives her the nickname of Big Ammachi, which translates to “Big Little Mama.” The name sticks throughout her life. 

Big Ammachi’s first child is born with a thyroid condition, but instead of tragedy, Baby Mol’s life is one of light, joy and innocence. The second child, Philipose, born many years later, becomes the father of Big Ammachi’s namesake. This second Mariamma becomes a doctor determined to get to the bottom of the family’s Condition.

Verghese surrounds the family with a world of unforgettable characters. There’s Shamuel, the thamb’ran’s factotum, faithful till his last day. There’s the tragic and brilliant Elsie, Philipose’s artist wife, and the Glasgow-born surgeon Digby Kilgour, who’s come to India to practice medicine and who’s taken in by the saintly Dr. Rune Orqvist after a ghastly accident. There are the residents of the lazaretto (leprosy hospital) tended to by Dr. Orqvist, and an abundance of saints, scoundrels and people who are a little bit of both. There’s even an elephant named Damodaran.

All are interconnected, like the braiding waterways of Kerala. The Covenant of Water, as they say, is a lot. You won’t want it to end.

Abraham Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations again and again in his long awaited follow-up to Cutting for Stone.
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Consider the stereotypical ending of a fantasy novel. The heroes have prevailed against a tide of darkness, the evil has been purged from the land and all rejoice as peace is restored. But what happens next? Who rules over the defeated kingdom? What will the mighty heroes do with no one left to fight? Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant suggests that, once the war is over, the heroes will fight one another. 

Years ago, Aelfric and his nine companions saved the world, banding together to defeat Lord Bone and conquer his dread city of Necrad. Now the heroes are the rulers of Necrad, even though, truth be told, none of them really volunteered for the job. It’s just what was needed to keep the peace. In addition to this, Aelfric was tasked with carrying Spellbreaker, Lord Bone’s enchanted, sentient broadsword. Though the sword bestows incredible magical power to the wielder, it thinks for itself and constantly yearns for bloodshed. When Aelfric and Spellbreaker discover that Lord Bone’s tomb has been opened, Aelfric suspects that one of his eight remaining companions broke in and stole the body. But who? And why?

Hanrahan does a great job constructing Aelfric’s backstory and developing nostalgia for his once-simple life. Aelfric and his companions’ shared history is sprinkled throughout, and the cracks within the group slowly become apparent. Aelfric is a soldier, a monster-slayer with no desire to rule, and he loves his companions even as he suspects some of them of heinous acts. It creates a wonderful sense of tension that is also tinged with sadness; Aelfric is painfully aware that the group is both getting older and growing distant from one another.

However poignant, this story could still come apart if the world building wasn’t up to snuff, but I’m happy to report that it’s fantastic. Hanrahan creates fully realized environments with rich histories, rendering the murky city of Necrad, towns and inns along the road and an elvish kingdom with precise detail. He also employs a second perspective, that of Aelfric’s sister, Olva, to show the reader other parts of the kingdom. Her mission—finding her wayward son, Derwyn—is engaging, but sometimes less so than Aelfric’s gripping quest.

A creative writing professor I once had said, “When you figure out how it ends, stay there,” urging us to push past what seemed like the expected conclusion and instead see what would happen if we let things continue to play out. I have a feeling Hanrahan would excel at such an exercise.

Gareth Hanrahan’s gritty and rousing fantasy novel The Sword Defiant explores what happens after the good guys win.

In September of 1740, a British man-of-war called the Wager sailed from Portsmouth, England, as one of six warships in a squadron bound for South America. Their mission: to harass Spanish naval forces while seeking out a treasure-laden galleon on its way from Mexico to the Philippines during the colorfully named War of Jenkins’ Ear. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is bestselling author David Grann’s vivid account of that ill-fated expedition, revealing humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.

Grann focuses his attention on three of the vessel’s crew members: Captain David Cheap, who sailed as the first lieutenant of another ship and inherited his first command of a man-of-war after the death of the Wager’s previous captain; John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner and a deeply religious man who kept a meticulous journal of the disastrous voyage; and John Byron, an ambitious 16-year-old midshipman whose grandson, Lord Byron, would one day incorporate elements of the Wager’s tragic story into his epic poem “Don Juan.”

David Grann reveals why a disastrous shipwreck from the 1740s struck him as a parable for our own turbulent times.

Informed by the extensive documentary record and enriched by the experience of his own three-week visit to the site where the Wager, a former merchant vessel and therefore the “bastard of the fleet,” ran aground in one of the violent storms endemic to the area near Patagonia, Grann tells this story with a keen eye for arresting (and at times terrifying) details. Thanks to his sure-handed ability to create scenes with novelistic immediacy, it’s easy to feel the mounting desperation of the seamen as their numbers shrank in the face of relentless winter weather, disease and starvation. And yet, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, which pummeled the sailors as regularly as the towering waves that pounded their ill-equipped ship, a small remnant of the original crew was able to endure.

After 33 survivors improbably arrived in South America in two makeshift vessels, and then later sailed home to England, the British Admiralty felt bound to convene a court martial to address allegations of mutiny and the claim that Captain Cheap had murdered a member of the crew in cold blood. Grann writes that he has “tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” However, the trial’s outcome is less important than the way it demonstrates how “empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell,” as Grann writes. “But just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” His thrilling book is an admirable example of how that veil of ignorance can be pierced

David Grann’s narrative nonfiction masterpiece about an 18th-century man-of-war that ran aground in South America reveals humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.
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The Roman Colosseum is full of wonders and history and secrets—and plants. Observing, cataloging and communicating with these plants is the heart of Katy Simpson Smith’s impressive novel, as the narrative connects two women across time who are both performing these archival acts. Set in 1854 and 2018, The Weeds  moves between the voices of these two women, interlocking their lives as they document the presence of (or absence of) plants. 

In 1854, a woman was caught stealing, and her misbehavior has led to her being indentured to English botanist Richard Deakin; he sends her into the Colosseum to catalog the flora and their uses. She also tells her own story and meditates on the ways that society impinges upon her selfhood. She speaks to her missing love, a woman who is off on a boat, now married to a man. In 2018, a woman has run from the entrapment of her life, but she finds herself newly hemmed in as she seeks the plants on Deakin’s list, makes notes, begrudges the presence of tourists and wonders what her next step might be. What will science, and her male adviser, allow? 

The novel moves in quick (and often blurry) shifts between these centuries and women. They mirror parts of each other; they both encounter violence at many turns and scales, and each reacts to the ways their voices and choices are constrained in their societies. The plants around them produce their own forms of tension and elements of violence; they are undoubtedly characters in their own right.

Just as the plants in the Colosseum ask of the women, The Weeds requests the reader to observe and look for connections, to question structures and patterns, and to discover new ways of seeing. Each detail is carefully attuned and revealed, and each seed opens at the moment it needs to bloom and stretch. Patience is necessary, but close attention reveals infinite rewards.

Read Katy Simpson Smith’s Behind the Book feature on The Weeds: “Women and unwanted plants have an uncomfortable amount in common.”

The Weeds requests the reader to observe and look for connections, to question structures and patterns, and to discover new ways of seeing.

Angeline Boulley burst onto the YA scene with her bestselling, Michael L. Printz Award-winning debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter. Now the author returns to Sugar Island, Michigan, with Warrior Girl Unearthed. In this riveting companion thriller, Boulley places the niece of the protagonist of Firekeeper’s Daughter at center stage.

Sixteen-year-old Perry Firekeeper-Birch has really been looking forward to spending her “Summer of Slack” fishing, reading and generally taking it easy. But then she accidentally crashes the Jeep she shares with her sister, Pauline (aka “the nice twin”), and Auntie Daunis insists that Perry join Pauline at her summer internship to earn the funds to pay for repairs.

When Perry meets her supervisor, Cooper Turtle, at the tribal museum, she’s unsure what to expect and still disappointed about having lost her leisurely summer. Her reluctance about the job transforms into purpose when Cooper brings Perry to a meeting at Mackinac State College, where she encounters two life-changing acronyms: MACPRA, the Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance, and NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law that requires museums and educational institutions to return human remains and cultural artifacts back to Indigenous groups.

Perry is appalled to learn that, due to legal loopholes, the college has not returned the sacred items in its collection to the tribes, treating them as objects to hoard rather than honor. Even worse, the college’s collection of ancestral remains are treated the same way, including a set of bones stashed in a metal box and shoved onto an office shelf: the titular Warrior Girl. 

With her own inner warrior girl awakened, Perry marshals support from a host of winning characters, including her sister, their fellow interns, the irrepressible Granny June and the handsome new kid in town, to help her uncover the truth about the origins of the items and remains. She wants to return them to their tribe and expose those who have surely committed thievery and desecration. 

Heightened tension, dynamic action scenes, a complicated heist and plenty of revelations ensue as Perry and her cohort contend with generational trauma, delicate political dynamics and even murder. Through it all, Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, urges readers to consider: Who owns the past? 

Warrior Girl Unearthed is an edifying and deeply moving read that reminds us, in the words of Cooper Turtle, “Everything is connected, Little Sister. The past. The future. The beginning and ending. Answers are there even before the question. You’re supposed to go back to where you started. And if you step off the path, you better keep your eyes wide open.” 

Firekeeper’s Daughter author Angeline Boulley returns to Sugar Island with a thriller that urges readers to consider: Who owns the past?

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