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“Oh, Olive!” is something Olive hears a lot. Born to somber shape-painting artists, Olive stands out due to her colorful creations and exuberant personality. Olive has no qualms about painting on anything—or anyone—and doggedly paints how SHE wants to paint, refusing to create the stolid shapes requested by her parents and teachers. Will the rest of the world ever see the genius she knows she possesses? Perfect for classrooms, art rooms and bedtime, Oh, Olive! (Katherine Tegen, $19.99, 9780063237490) is a charming reminder to paint what is in your heart, because it takes all kinds of artists to make the world a more beautiful place.

Author and illustrator Lian Cho emulates her own protagonist by creating artwork that effortlessly conveys the story on its own. Oh, Olive! begins with an orderly little black-and-white town, rife with bustling details. It is perfectly amiable, perfectly pleasant . . . perfectly dull. Enter Olive and her flamboyant colors. One can sense Cho’s own glee in creating Olive’s work, which cannot be contained to Olive’s canvas. It speckles and spatters and erupts from the monotone backdrop in stunning fashion. Cho’s art throughout is clever and humorous, keeping the reader’s eye bouncing from scene to scene. Cho captures Olive’s resolute personality, from messy toddler finger painting to child artist curating shows for her stuffed animals. Keen-eyed readers will also notice the ever-present triangles, circles and squares reflected in the designs of the town and the characters themselves. The facial expressions of the townsfolk and especially Olive’s parents are hilarious.

Cho wisely keeps the narration straightforward, with a very subtle undercurrent of Olive’s subversion peeking through. There are many things to admire about this creative picture book: What particularly stands out is how Olive never wavers in her determination or enthusiasm. She keeps painting, knowing the world needs artists like her. For children who have ever felt like they don’t quite match up or fit in, Oh, Olive! will encourage them to paint on like Olive, because everyone has something special to give.

Perfect for classrooms, art rooms and bedtime, Oh, Olive! is a charming reminder to paint what is in your heart, because it takes all kinds of artists to make the world a more beautiful place.
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Tiya Miles’ beautiful new book, Wild Girls: How the Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Challenged a Nation, opens with a provocative suggestion: Being outdoors—experiencing unfettered, wide, risky and exciting natural environs—can open one up in unique ways that defy gendered expectations.

A professor of history at Harvard whose previous award-winning work has explored interconnections between African American and Native American histories, Miles first became interested in the way the outdoors could propel women and girls toward freedom and a fuller expression of self upon considering that Minty Ross, better known as Harriet Tubman, would have had “a pronounced ecological consciousness.” Her first chapter, “Star Gazers,” takes a close look at Tubman’s youth and the childhoods of two other slave girls, all of whom witnessed the same meteor shower. Miles considers the differing expectations for African American girls (strong field workers or docile house servants), Native American girls (“Indian princesses,” like Sakakawea, who were seen as mythically connected to idealized landscapes, or young adolescents sent to boarding schools for forced assimilation) and white girls, most notably Louisa May Alcott, whose wide-ranging outdoor experiences, Miles posits, made her able to create a gender-deviating character like Josephine March. Miles connects these historical women in what she calls “a newly conjoined cast of historical actors who navigated their social world differently because of their experiences in the outdoor world.”

Alongside miniature portraits of more well-known historical figures, Miles’ leaves space for lesser-known girls, such as the astonishingly accomplished Native girls’ basketball team at Fort Shaw. Through basketball, Miles argues, the girls may have been able to tap into cultural ways of knowing despite boarding-school spaces that were anything but welcoming. Miles also shares her own story of walking across the icy Ohio River and standing in a meadow when she was young, which felt “big, so big, all-encompassing, like my idea of an ocean.” If you, like Miles, were once a girl who found an expansive sense of wonder and possibility in wild spaces, this is a book to savor.

If you, like Tiya Miles, were once a girl who found an expansive sense of wonder in wild spaces, you will love her book about the history of women in the outdoors.
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What does it mean to become our best selves? The second novel from Nathan Hill, bestselling author of The Nix, compellingly asserts that this question may be more complex than it seems. Exceptionally introspective and deeply empathetic, Wellness examines the idiosyncrasies of 21st-century human nature through reflecting on the contemporary movement to strive for personal wellbeing.

Elizabeth and Jack meet as first-year college students in 1990s Chicago and fall in love practically at first sight. Twenty years later, middle-aged couple Jack and Elizabeth are living in suburban Park Shore with their 8-year-old son, Toby. Jack is an experimental photographer and adjunct art professor; Elizabeth works as a health care researcher. Through years of analyzing psychological studies, there’s one thing she knows for sure: Happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve and plummets lowest as one approaches midlife. Unfortunately, she’s also quite certain that, while she and Jack are trendsetters in many ways, they are in this sense stubbornly, frustratingly average.

So begins an epic tale of Jack and Elizabeth’s fervent efforts to recreate the marriage of their youth. They consider separate bedrooms and explore polyamory, but it’s only when they each begin to reexamine their own shoved-aside histories that the crux of their issues comes to the surface.

Wellness is easy to relate to; fitness trackers, toddler tantrums, suburban disputes and even Facebook’s algorithms are just some of the many modern-day experiences that Hill deftly and entertainingly tackles. From life’s most striking moments to its most mundane and overlooked, along with scientific insights dispersed throughout, Hill extracts meaningful lessons. Expansive in both scale and content matter, Wellness is nonetheless a quick and captivating read: a brilliant, touching account of undertaking self-exploration with someone else by your side.

Fitness trackers, toddler tantrums, suburban disputes and even Facebook’s algorithms are just some of the many modern-day experiences that Nathan Hill deftly and entertainingly tackles in Wellness.
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Biographies can intrigue and educate with subject matter alone, but some of the most interesting give both the story of a life and the reason behind the author’s fascination. Washington’s Gay General: The Legends and Loves of Baron von Steuben tells the story of the titular war general, who rose from Prussian obscurity in the 1700s to become a once legendary yet now forgotten leader, and why Eisner Award-winning author Josh Trujillo found his life so interesting.

Ambitious and idealistic, Baron von Steuben quickly rose through the ranks of the Prussian Army through a combination of genius, white lies and good old flirting. However, relationships with Prussian royalty and a reputation as a leader in the army weren’t enough to keep him safe from charges of impropriety, and von Steuben found himself fleeing his home country.

After arriving in America, Benjamin Franklin recruited him to help the Americans organize their untrained rebel army. With the help of young men, some of whom were his lovers, von Steuben shared Prussian army techniques with George Washington, eventually writing the Blue Book guide that laid the foundation for training American soldiers. Yet because of his romantic partners and his immigrant status, it was always a challenge for von Steuben to form a legacy that would be remembered.

Thoughts from Trujillo (and, occasionally, illustrator Levi Hastings) stitch together the gaps in the available information on von Steuben’s life by weaving in compelling modern conversations on queer identity and queer history. They don’t shy away from darkness: The book discusses the fact that von Steuben enslaved people and highlights how his relative wealth and status protected him from what poorer, less powerful queer folk faced.

Hastings ditches the more colorful artwork found in his children’s books in favor of a classy triad color scheme of black, white and blue–quietly patriotic, much like von Steuben himself. The most beautiful piece of art comes at the very end of the book: a single-page spread of von Steuben’s beloved hound, curled up asleep in a bed made of von Steuben’s coat and hat.

Washington’s Gay General examines the same questions of ideology and legacy that permeate the Broadway show Hamilton, and fans of the production will certainly find much to enjoy. For those who are less interested in early American history and simply want to connect with their queer roots, Washington’s Gay General offers an accessible introduction to the life of Baron von Steuben and, through him, the queer people throughout history who have been hiding in plain sight.

Washington’s Gay General examines the same questions of ideology and legacy that permeate Broadway’s Hamilton, and fans of the show will find much to enjoy in this historical graphic novel.

“Like most of the events in my life, the thought of assembling this book came to me accidentally,” Donna Leon notes in the preface to her memoir, Wandering Through Life. Leon, the author of the long-running Guido Brunetti detective series, has perfectly captured that serendipitous nature in the personal essays that make up Wandering Through Life.

The memoir runs mostly chronologically, beginning with her childhood in New Jersey, where she lived on her grandfather’s farm. Leon is conversational and self-deprecating: “My brother and I get our almost total lack of ambition from [our mother]: she just wanted to have fun, to go through life seeing new things, learning about what interested her, going to new places. Because of this, I went through life never having a real job, never having a pension plan, never settling down in one place or at one job, but having an enormous amount of fun.” And “never settling down” is one of the memoir’s themes. The essay “Drugs, Sex, and Rock ’n’ Roll” tells the astonishing story of the years she taught English to helicopter pilot trainees in the Iranian Air Force. She arrived in Iran in 1976 knowing little of the country, and began to live an expat life (lots of tennis) with her American and British coworkers, even as the Iranian Revolution arrived. This is just one episode in a peripatetic life that includes stints in late-Maoist China and Saudi Arabia and decades in Europe, particularly Venice, Italy (where her Guido Brunetti novels are set).

These essays feel like dispatches from a different era and world order, and they’re conversational, breezy and occasionally comic rather than contemplative. Leon’s tone is like that of an older friend who has a deep well of entertaining anecdotes from her storied life, and who has also developed an array of interests, among them opera, Handel and beekeeping. The layered essay “Bees” is a standout, describing her slow journey to gardening and her fascination with bees and their threatened existence. “They pulled me into the mystery of their being,” she writes of the bees. But Guido fans be warned: other than noting how her bee research worked its way into a novel, Wandering Through Life offers little detail about her writing life—Leon may be a prolific novelist, but in this memoir, she turns her focus elsewhere.

Donna Leon may be the author of the Guido Brunetti mysteries, but in this memoir, she turns her focus to her own storied life.
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The Buddha once said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” This nugget of wisdom, which came to mind while reading comedian Aparna Nancherla’s collection of memoir-type essays, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome, may help to provide a reflective frame for readers as they peruse its pages.

The American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, Nancherla has spent years toiling as a writer of comedy and a stand-up comic. But she has always felt fraudulent about being “a so-called comedian” and, at age 40, about having achieved a notable measure of success. Nancherla had tried to cope with her lifelong struggle with low self-worth through remedies such as medications, therapy, meditation and more, but she finally turned to writing to see if that would ease her impostor syndrome and the constant feeling that she is merely “a shadow” self (even though a therapist tells her “ ‘So what if you’re a fraud? Is that the worst thing? At least you’re getting away with it.’ ”).

Nancherla presents honest, intimate, strikingly astute and well-researched essays about her mental state and overall psychological health, but be prepared for intermittent jolts of sarcastic, dark humor that line the author’s trail of self-exploration through her impostor syndrome, or, as she says, “an identity I’ve embraced without question my entire life.” These humorous insertions sometimes have the effect of distracting the reader from the main thrust of Nancherla’s refreshingly insightful commentaries, which put her mental health in broader context through discussions of the internet and social media; the struggles of people of color and immigrants, especially, to assimilate into and be accepted within American culture and society; and the difficulties, hazards and hard-won successes of a life in stand-up comedy.

Overall, the subject of imposter syndrome, beyond a brief treatment in her first chapter (“Now That I’ve Got You Here”), ends up not being the main focus of Nancherla’s journey: It is her deep dive into her interior life that instead takes center stage. However, in her epilogue (“I Tried”), Nancherla reveals what she has learned, through the process of writing, about the nature of epiphanies and how they intersect with an acceptance of being human. Nancherla’s epilogue realization alone makes this first-time memoir a worthy read. It’s an encouragement to those of us (and our numbers are legion) who are beset or traumatized by mental health woes to never give up trying to be “a lamp unto yourself.”

After trying medications, therapy, meditation and more remedies, Nancherla finally turned to writing to see if that would ease her impostor syndrome.
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Wil Greene has spent months stalking Elwood Clarke’s family and obtaining photographic evidence about their Garden of Adam cult. On one stakeout, she even caught the Clarke patriarch sacrificing a rabbit in the woods. Police say Wil’s mom merely skipped town, but Wil suspects the Clarkes are actually behind her disappearance. It would be easier to find out where they’re keeping her mom if Wil was still talking to her former best friend, but Elwood told her that his family did nothing wrong, and Wil doesn’t have space in her life for liars.

But then, on Elwood’s 18th birthday, Wil finds him dying of hypothermia and with nowhere to go. The self-flagellating Clarke heir is on the run from his own parents, who intend to violently sacrifice him to the woods. Wil agrees to help him, but as they dig up secrets about the Clarke family, the town’s dark history and the fate of Wil’s too-inquisitive mother, Wil discovers that something demonic is growing inside of the boy she still loves.

Skyla Arndt’s debut novel takes second-chance romance in a gruesome, horrific direction as together, feisty outcast Wil and soft, sheltered Elwood fight for agency regarding their own fates. Beautifully written, Together We Rot (Viking, $18.99, 9780593526279) shines best in moments where Wil and Elwood stumble back into their old friendship. Their faith in each other, even in moments of visceral body horror, will set readers’ hearts fluttering—though mileage may vary on whether out of love or terror.

A well-balanced cast of teen friends and adult companions—including Wil’s grief-stricken father and tarot-loving eccentric Cherry—flesh out the small town of Pine Point with realism, while the terrifying Garden of Adam cult acts as a mythical stand-in for parents who dictate their children’s lives. Though the villainous group’s comeuppance happens too swiftly as the plot rushes to its end, it is nonetheless satisfying. Fans of twisted, monstrous romantic horror in the vein of Rory Power’s Wilder Girls and Sarah Hollowell’s A Dark and Starless Forest will love Together We Rot.

Skyla Arndt’s debut novel takes second-chance romance in a gruesome, horrific direction as together, feisty outcast Wil and soft, sheltered Elwood fight a terrifying cult for agency regarding their own fates.
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In 2016, New Yorker cartoonist Navied Mahdavian and his wife needed a change, so they packed up their lives and fled—with their dog—from San Francisco to a cabin in rural Idaho. Despite not knowing what wood best keeps houses warm in frigid winters or how to stop a car from freezing during snowstorms, Mahdavian couldn’t help but want his version of the millennial American dream: living off the land in a house you own while building a career as an artist.

Most of Mahdavian’s debut graphic memoir This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America takes place on the six acres around his family’s cabin. There, Mahdavian wanders with his dog, tends to the garden and learns the history of the land—both the stories maintained by his white neighbors and the deeper Indigenous history. Mahdavian’s minimalist illustrations convey how large and rural Idaho can be, and they make it hard not to fall in love with that sort of hopeful landscape. Swaths of blank pages are populated by only the horizon and the plants and animals Mahdavian loves. If Idaho were simply gooseberries and black-billed magpies, it would be impossible to leave.

As Mahdavian settles into his cabin and tries to revel in the slow day to day of his life, he begins to fall in love with the natural world around him, even as his gun-toting neighbors remind him that people like Mahdavian—who is Iranian American—are considered outsiders. Beneath the big blue sky, Mahdavian struggles with their small-minded thinking and wonders if this place he loves can become home–and what choosing to make this place home really means.

It’s the surrounding people that leave Mahdavian feeling disconnected from the land whose history he seeks to understand. Mahdavian’s candid anecdotes showcase neighbors who welcome him and help during crises—even while slinging racial slurs and perpetuating stereotypes. Despite the serious and occasionally threatening nature of these exchanges, Mahdavian’s humor and thoughtfulness honors the kindness contained in these strange relationships while refusing to gloss over the harm that such insular thinking can cause.

Both poetic and personal, This Country meditates beautifully on what it means to create a home in the pockets of America where not everybody is wanted, due to their race or other aspects of identity. This Country is a must for fans of graphic memoirs like Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, and it’s not one to miss for anybody interested in insightful explorations of America’s heartland.

Both poetic and personal, This Country meditates beautifully on what it means to create a home in the pockets of America where not everybody is wanted, due to their race or other aspects of identity.

Red face. Sweaty palms. Shaky voice. We’ve all likely experienced at least one of these symptoms when having to give a spur-of-the-moment answer or speech. Luckily, Matt Abrahams (Stanford lecturer, coach and host of the popular “Think Fast, Talk Smart The Podcast), has a six-step method to help us become “more comfortable and confident in the moment” regardless of “how affable, sociable, and facile with words we perceive ourselves to be.” In Think Faster, Talk Smarter: How to Speak Successfully When You’re Put on the Spot, he provides suggestions, exercises and techniques on how to become a better speaker.

The first part of the book covers the six initial steps and the second part explains how to talk smarter in specific situations. Throughout, there are prompts to Try It (attempt specific techniques), Drill It (practice key techniques in more depth) and Use It (integrate these techniques into our daily lives). Along the way, Abrahams gives many examples of spontaneous real-life scenarios, such as when a moderator asks to add 15 minutes of informal question and answer after a formal presentation. He also offers tangible advice and coping tools such as creating an Anxiety Management Plan (AMP) and suggestions on how and when to use it. Tips and tricks for a variety of situations such as “daring to be dull” by “giving ourselves permission to do what needs to be done” are also highlighted. And a user-friendly chart summarizing various techniques to help manage impromptu speaking anxiety makes these methods easy to incorporate into one’s life.

Commentary from authorities such as researchers, psychologists, professors and improvisation experts gives perspective and credence to Abrahams’ methodology. And he isn’t afraid to relay his own experiences and problem-solving techniques, highlighting the benefits of learning from mistakes or what he calls “missed takes,” which can serve to focus efforts and empower us. Think Faster, Talk Smarter provides affirmation that there is no right or wrong way to communicate, instead focusing on the importance of practice and preparation, stressing that “all of us can become strong speakers in the moment if we put in the time.”

Professor and “Think Fast, Talk Smart” podcast host Matt Abrahams provides suggestions, exercises and techniques on how to become a better speaker.
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Birds are a lot like life: glorious to behold but gone far too quickly. But unlike the act of bird watching, the glorious aspects of life are counterbalanced by complications—paramount among them, the challenges of relationships. That’s the dynamic Anne Enright explores in her achingly beautiful new novel.

The Wren, the Wren is set in Ireland, and its key relationships are between a mother, her daughter and the daughter’s absent grandfather. Under other circumstances, Phil McDaragh might be a grandfather worth bragging about. He’s justly celebrated for his love poems, which Enright includes throughout the novel. But Nell never knew him because he walked out on his family when his wife—Nell’s grandmother—developed breast cancer.

Enright toggles between the perspectives of Nell and her mother, Carmel. At 22, Nell is just out of college and is “poking my snout and whiskers into the fresh adult air.” She gets a job writing content for an agency and begins a relationship with Felim, whose “party trick is to pick people up by the head,” a habit less distressing than Nell’s suspicion he’s still seeing a previous girlfriend.

For Carmel, the specter of Phil’s departure lingers both in her nurturing side and in a cautiousness toward men. In one of the novel’s many marvelous character depictions, Carmel remembers Phil wearing tweed jackets with pockets “dragged out of shape by little books and cigarette packs” and how the “chewed plastic of his glasses stuck out over one ear.” He was the type of man who would break a chair in frustration when he couldn’t find his watch. When Nell was born, Carmel “did not give [her] to any man…. Because this was her baby, and hers alone.”

In lesser hands, The Wren, the Wren might have been unbearably downbeat. But Enright’s exquisite prose and sympathy toward her characters make it a rewarding experience. Late in the book, a character says, “You think you can walk away, but you really can’t walk away, because, guess what? There isn’t anywhere else to go.” That’s another distinction between humans and birds, as Enright elegantly points out: Both species have their challenges, but when times get tough, it’s easier for birds to rise above it all.

Anne Enright’s exquisite prose and sympathy toward her characters make The Wren, the Wren a rewarding exploration of how the glories of life are counterbalanced by complications.

Ayana Mathis’ outstanding sophomore novel, The Unsettled, separately follows a mother and daughter, Dutchess and Ava Carson, in the mid-1980s as they fight to build lives with a sense of stability, family and home.

Dutchess, a former nightclub performer who found a husband and a hearth in Bonaparte, Alabama, is struggling to save her adopted historically Black town. Racist violence has already claimed her husband, Caro, who was murdered by local whites decades earlier. Now, gentrification and a mysterious new visitor threaten to rob Dutchess of what she believes is her lone legacy: the land on which she has lived for 40 years.

Meanwhile, her daughter Ava embarks on a different quest: In the wake of Caro’s death and Dutchess’ near self-destruction, Ava wanders to Philadelphia, where, after a failed marriage and a stay in a squalid women’s shelter, she finds herself once again in the arms—and under the influence—of Cassius Wright, a charismatic former Black Panther and the father of her son, Toussaint. Along with a handful of other acolytes, Ava and Cass create Ark, a haven for Black people in search of economic and political freedom. But Ark soon becomes a house of horrors as Cass becomes increasingly tyrannical.

For both Dutchess and Ava, the stakes of making and keeping a home are high, and their willingness to go great lengths to achieve their dreams often causes unspeakable pain for the people who love them most. Their greatest hopes for redemption might lie in Toussaint, who is his mother’s secret and could ultimately be his grandmother’s salvation.

For readers who loved Mathis’ blockbuster debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, The Unsettled is another tale of a dynamic family and the aftereffects of intergenerational racist violence, but these new characters have voices and stories all their own. In short but perfectly paced chapters, Toussaint, Ava and Dutchess tell of not only their disappointment and despair but also their dreams, crafting a heartbreaking tale about Reagan’s America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.

Read our interview with Ayana Mathis on The Unsettled.

In The Unsettled’s short but perfectly paced chapters, Toussaint, Ava and Dutchess tell of not only their disappointment and despair but also their dreams, crafting a heartbreaking tale about Reagan’s America that deftly weaves the past and present into the possibility of a bright, if still-unfolding, future.

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