Crying In H-Mart by Michelle Zauner. I picked this up because I had heard so much about it, but also because Ella King and I kept talking about the sudden rise of complex portraits of immigrant Asian mothers in British and American culture—which also happens to be one of the themes of her debut novel, Bad Fruit. I read Zauner slowly because my own mother, who lives across the ocean from me, is getting older, so the events of her memoir felt frighteningly close. Ultimately, however, Zauner’s precise depiction of her relationship with her mother and her deft use of food and culture to emphasize family bonds proved irresistible. If you are interested in stories about mothers and daughters that feel real and close to home, Ella King’s Bad Fruit will similarly keep you hooked.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. This novel precedes Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet but has seen a revival thanks to Maggie Gyllenhal’s perfectly cast film with Olivia Coleman in the title role of Leda, a woman who, while on vacation, witnesses a young mother’s struggles and is reminded of her own youth. I’m sorry to say I read this in Italian, truly sorry, because I so admire Ann Goldstein as a person and as a translator that I just know the English language version of this novel is bound to benefit from that extra layer of her genius.
In The Lost Daughter, Ferrante masterfully captures the often unspoken erasure mothers endure when their identity is limited to the role of wife and mother, as if who they once were or aspire to be as an individual is of no consequence. Ann has now translated for Astra House a novel by Alba de Cespedes, who Ferrante cites as an inspiration, which tackles this same theme. In Forbidden Notebook, de Cespedes’ central character’s ostensible contentment with domesticity falls apart when she starts to keep a journal. The radical act of writing in secret, scrutinizing her daily life and her relationship with her husband and adult children, causes the fragile fabric of bourgeois respectability to tear apart.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. This book floored me for so many reasons. The boldness of each storyline, the taboo themes that are loudly represented; the strong female characters and the way the author gives them the space they deserve, the lingering questions about religion, faith, and love; and, most importantly, the Blackness that is present throughout, without once having faltered its audience. Deesha Philyaw has also been such a supporter of our books and is simply a gem of a person!
The Sex Lives of African Women, though nonfiction, it’s another book that takes on the same themes. It’s bold with strong females who have pushed forward, despite the obstacles, the lingering questions about love and women’s sexuality, which for some reason is taboo to even speak of, and of course the beautiful Blackness of it all.
The Copenhagen Trilogy. Upon the recommendation of nearly everyone whose literary opinions I trust, this year I finally read Tove Ditlevsen. Together, Childhood, Youth, and Dependency tell the story of a woman who put writing above all else at a time when women weren’t really doing that.
Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets. It’s an arresting, uncanny blend of ethnographic research and memoir centered on women’s daily lives in the Donbas, the gritty, industrial Ukrainian borderland where a war predating today’s full-scale invasion has been ongoing since 2014. This story collection from the Kyiv-based feminist and photographer debuted last March; in a strange twist of fate, Lucky Breaks’ pub date brought the small translation outsized attention as readers far and wide began to grapple with Russia’s central position in the Eastern European culture industry. Among the delightful characters who fill these pages are a cosmetologist and a witch who catches newborns with an oven mitt.
If you like Lucky Breaks you’ll also like Stalking the Atomic City, which came out from Astra House earlier in 2022.
Right now I’m happily toggling between Cassandra at the Wedding and Ducks by Kate Beaton. But if I mention those coming-of-age stories at holiday gatherings and get blank looks, I’ll ask people what they do and how they made the choices that led them there and then quickly segue to mentioning Home Bound because it does such a wonderful job of elucidating how one person chose to become a lawyer and how, really, everyone should read it—especially people who are trying to figure out what they want to be, because it so deftly fuses identity with life mission.
And then, if I’m talking with people whose occupations and life missions are already quite well-defined, I’ll press Collected Works by Lydia Sandgren on them and talk about how Sandgren creates a world where people puzzle over how they got to mid-life and what they lost–and gained-on the way there.
Many of you will know me as the editor of Andrea Abreu’s filthy, sexy, unsettling debut novel Dogs of Summer (goes out without saying this is my #1 book recommendation for the year.) So it should come as no surprise that my other favorite book in recent memory is a story about S-E-X, new experiments in dominance/submission, self-harm, femininity, and the ever-surprising humiliations that inform desire’s inexorable pull. In I Fear My Pain Interests You by Stephanie LaCava, a young woman suffers a neurological condition that does not allow her to feel physical pain. And what does that say about emotional harm? Can a person hurt you, if they cannot hurt you? It’s such an elegant conceit, and strangely, sublimely rendered by LaCava’s ruptured prose.
I’ll also be liberally gifting Emergency by Daisy Hildyard, which has one of my favorite Astra House covers—and with its hypnotic, earthy power, is, I think, one of my favorite Astra House novels. Don’t sleep on this one.
I recently visited P&T Knitwear on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to listen to Vanessa Bee read from her hypnotic memoir, Home Bound, as part of the “Debuts and Redos” reading series. While I listened to Vanessa and her fellow readers talk about their work, about reclaiming space and shining light on the people who have often been underrepresented in the historical narratives of specific geographic locations, a striking cover caught my eye on one of the bookshelves beside them. When the reading was over, I approached the book and began reading it and couldn’t put it down. when i sing, mountains dance by Irene Solà, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, is a playful, polyphonic, pastoral novel filled with pathos (alliteration feels appropriate here) and set on the outskirts of a small town in the Pyrenees, a space haunted by the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War. Each chapter is told in a different voice, from a witch to a widow to storm clouds and chanterelles and nosy neighbors and roe-deer. There are chapters told in poems, chapters told in diagrams, confessional chapters, chapters told as fairy tales . . . and this formal playfulness reminds me of Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s stunning novel in verse, Dreaming of You. In its roving perspective and the way it plays with the interconnectedness of human life, flora, fauna, and even weather, Solà’s novel reminds me of Daisy Hildyard’s Emergency.