News & Media

What We’re Reading: Astra House 2021 Book Recommendations

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Alessandra Bastagli, Editorial Director
Devoured this book — each story is so instantly and intensely personal, intimate, sensual that it manages to contain an entire life, its many layers of hurt and desire, in just a few pages. Bonded over this book with Nana Darkoa Sekiyamah, whose book The Sex Lives of African Women was blurbed by Deesha Philyaw!

Freedom Dreams by Robin D.G. Kelley
Alessandra Bastagli, Editorial Director
When I first met Derecka Purnell about four years ago, she told me that everyone had to read, and study, this book. When she and I started to work together on Becoming Abolitionists I spent many nights marveling at Kelley’s depth of scholarship, but also how, by centering the nexus of race and capitalism, he allowed me to contextualize the discourse on reparations, the Black Power movement, colonialism, Black feminism and so much more.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Alessandra Bastagli, Editorial Director
During our first conversation, I asked Aaiun Nin who they loved to read and who they molt felt kinship with when they were writing Broken Halves of a Milky Sun — their response was immediate, Ocean Vuong. This collection, like Aaiun’s work, gathers very quiet, beautifully delicate and detailed poems, like whispers, as well as poems that burst forth like shouts from the page, each in its singular way capable of taking your breath away.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Alessandra Bastagli, Editorial Director
I was looking for a satire that dealt with race, something like The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which I loved, to use as a comp title for a novel we’re publishing called Identitti by Mithu Sanyal. This was perfect, irreverent, uncomfortable, and laugh-out-loud funny even as it adds nuance and layers to a piece of history and culture you think you understand.

What Makes You Think You’re Awake by Maegan Poland
Jordan Snowden, Marketing Assistant
Her Body and Other Parties meets The Twilight Zone in this collection of short stories that feel painstakingly relatable and wholly uncomfortable. They have something that doesn’t sit well, something that makes skrim and gets under your skin… but you can’t pull away. Each story is distinct, but there are overarching themes of longing, loneliness, and desire—it’s dreamy and dark, and every story left me wanting more. If you like this, try Dreaming of You.

100 Boyfriends by Brontez Purnell
Jordan Snowden, Marketing Assistant
100 Boyfriends is a trip in itself. I blushed. I cringed. I cried. I gasped. I lived vicariously through the people in this collection of short stories. Told from the perspective of multiple gay men, it’s horny and drug-fueled and outrageous and oh so wild. The writing is blunt and conversational and while sex is the driving force behind the stories, the characters do what they do out of loneliness and searching for human connection. It’s a mediation on primal desire, and if you like it, try Las Biuty Queens.

Bestiary by K-Ming Chang
Olivia Donstov, Managing Editorial Assistant
Described as a contemporary Woman Warrior, this book is a fascinating exploration of queer identity in the Asian-American diaspora and the way that trauma, shame, and history manifest in our bodies and in our understandings of self. Particularly in the male-oriented Asian-American canon, Bestiary is such a breath of fresh air.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Deborah Ghim, Editor
The novel begins with the patriarch of the Binewski family telling his offspring, essentially, the well-worn story of how I met your mother. “Welllll . . . it was a long time ago . . . “/ “Before we were born!”/ “Before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!” I mention this detail because it’s how I felt once I’d finished reading Geek Love: the sense that I’d loved this book before I’d met it, before I’d even known to want it. I’m gobsmacked by Dunn’s anatomy of the American nuclear family, at once recognizable and disfigured to the point of the alien, and how dedicated Oly the albino hunchback is to the weird call of motherhood. Read this book and learn again how to identify beauty in the world.

Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War by Grace M. Cho
Deborah Ghim, Editor
I was thrilled to see Cho’s Tastes Like War crowned a finalist for the NBA this year, but it’s her first book I’m recommending, which radicalized me and opened my eyes to the human cost of American imperialism and—to bastardize a concept of Saidiyah Hartman’s—the afterlives of politicized sexual violence on the Korean peninsula. Haunting the Korean Diaspora traces the vestiges of US imperialism in the psyches of second-generation Korean Americans, theorizing how the shame of systemized camptown prostitution during the (still ongoing) Korean War has naturalized itself in the American nuclear family via legal marriages between Korean sex workers and American GIs. If “Stop Asian Hate” meant anything to you this year, read this book to gain a necessary internationalist perspective on the issue.

World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Rachael Small, Publicity Director
Each essay in this collection is a breath of fresh air and a meditation, a lyrical love song to the natural world and a reminder of the communities we build and those from which we seek refuge. These days, when it can feel as if the world is closing in on us, this book is a gentle, sweet reminder of its vastness. Readers who like this may also enjoy Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Tiffany Gonzalez, Marketing & Publicity Coordinator
Wildly enough, this is the first non-fiction book that I’ve read that focuses on the Black struggle. Coates writes about the journey that he’s had with his body, gives us new frameworks to American history and speaks on his feelings and connections to police shootings; he does this all in the form of a letter to his son. In Becoming Abolitionists, Derecka Purnell also discusses her journey with her body and tackles history effortlessly with legal and academic research! Together these two books have just left me floored. There’s SO much work to do.

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
Tiffany Gonzalez, Marketing & Publicity Coordinator
A fiction story that focuses on Palestinian women and their struggles with what it means to be a woman in their culture. Today, many women still do not have the pleasure of enjoying things that we easily take for granted, such as reading. As I read I’ll Be Strong for You, I thought about this past read and the struggles women face.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Tiffany Gonzalez, Marketing & Publicity Coordinator
I am absolutely obsessed with Elizabeth Acevedo! I am forever grateful for how her book introduced me to a character that I so heavily saw myself reflected in. I will always recommend her! This was also the first time I read a novel in verse. Dreaming of You took novel in verse to a whole other level. Love how these two books are polar opposites but both great and written by amazing humans!

Luster by Raven Leilani
Tiffany Gonzalez, Marketing & Publicity Coordinator
Cringe worthy, bingeable, asked myself “what is happening” more than once. I can write an essay about how this book focuses on the struggle of Black women: generational pain and hurt, objectification by the white gaze, which leads to issues of self love and confidence, etc. It’s an “Ahhhh!” book that inadvertently leads to Black empowerment. The Sex Lives of African Women focuses on our sexual liberation as Black women. It’s non-fiction and a collection of stories but from stories of pain we yearn to seek freedom.

Black Bourgeoisie: The Book That Brought the Shock of Self-Revelation to Middle-Class Blacks in America by Franklin Frasier
Danny Vazquez, Editor
A few months ago, I heard Jared Ball on a podcast called Millenials are Killing Capitalism talking about his book titled The Myth and Propaganda of Black Buying Power, a history and a sort of refutation of the idea of “buying power” as a political tool. 

It brought me to another book, which I also haven’t yet finished reading, titled Black Bourgeoisie by E. Franklin Frasier. It’s a bit of a dense history, but it was helpful to me in navigating some of the pernicious professional spaces I traffic in as a part of this work of publishing books—spaces that have remained largely unchanged for the last several decades—and has helped clarify, in part, what kind of books I want to be publishing and to whom I am publishing.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yu
Recommended by Editor Danny Vazquez
I read and really enjoyed Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station. It was actually a bit of homework to start (we’re publishing a translation in spring 2022 of a book titled Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi which shares a lot of elements with Miri’s book), but it was a good break amid a year of intense nonfiction reading. The books share a lot of parallels—some thematic and setting stuff, but also a use of repetition and alliteration and a sort of staccato cadence that I really enjoyed. Something about the brevity and poetry of the sentences in this pair of Japanese novels was comforting to my battered psyche after a year of plague and uprisings.

Black Lives by Josh Myers
Recommended by Editor Danny Vazquez
A good friend bought me a copy of Josh Myers’ Black Lives, a biography of the great Cedric Robinson. I’ve truthfully only gotten through the introduction, but it’s the book I’ve been most recently excited to finish reading. It’s been a long year of unfinished books for me. But I’m hopeful what I have read of these books is working its way into the way I do my work. They’ve each certainly had an impact on the way I live my life. Now, if I could just make the time to finish reading them.