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The hottest books to read this summer

  • Scott LaMar
Young woman reading a book while relaxing on a patio.

Young woman reading a book while relaxing on a patio.

Airdate: Thursday, June 8, 2023

Thursday was The Spark‘s annual program devoted to good books to read during the summer or on vacation.

But now, there’s another scenario or maybe a reason to read – smoke. Central Pennsylvanians are being advised to stay indoors due to the unhealthy smoke from wildfires in Canada that have blanketed the area over the past few days. So, if you’re in the house – possibly with air conditioning or an air filter – sit down and read a good book.

The smoke could be gone by early next week so then we can return thoughts of lounging on the beach or next to the pool with a book – or heading for any other vacation spot where relaxation is the goal. Or of course, there are children at home from school this summer and they will need something to read.

Our panel has recommendations. With us on The Spark today are Catherine Lawrence, co-owner Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Travis Kurowski, Ph.D, assistant professor of creative writing at York College of Pennsylvania, and Carolyn Blatchley, Executive Director, Cumberland County Library System.

On The Spark: Travis Kurowski, Carolyn Blatchley and Catherine Lawrence

Book recommendations from our panelists:

Summer Reading Recommendations from The Midtown Scholar Bookstore – June 2023



Happy-Go-Lucky, by David Sedaris [just issued in paperback; signed copies available]

Humorous, honest, poignant reflections on the pandemic lockdown in New York.


King, by Jonathan Eig [just published; signed copies available]

A landmark new biography of Martin Luther King Jr. that draws on recently declassified FBI files. Eig dramatically re-creates the journey of King, who recast American race relations and became our only modern-day founding father—and the nation’s most mourned martyr. King demanded peaceful protest for his movement, but was rarely at peace with himself. Eig offers a revelatory, intimate portrait of this deep thinker, brilliant strategist, and committed radical, whose demands for racial and economic justice remain as urgent today as ever.

Psychology and Sociology

Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity, by Devon Price [2022]

A social psychologist and Autistic trans man, Price shares his personal experiences with masking versus non-conforming. He interweaves the history of psychology and the latest research in social science with intimate individual profiles, to tell intersectional stories of neurodivergence. His stories center perspectives and voices from within the Autistic community, rather than from the outside looking in. He challenges us to honor the needs, diversity, and unique strengths of Autistic people so that they no longer have to mask—and he calls on everyone to work for greater public acceptance and accommodation of difference. By embracing neurodiversity, everyone can learn to live more authentic lives.

In Unmasking Autism, Dr. Devon Price shares his personal experience with masking and blends history, social science research, prescriptions, and personal profiles to tell a story of neurodivergence that has thus far been dominated by those on the outside looking in. For Dr. Price and many others, Autism is a deep source of uniqueness and beauty. Unfortunately, living in a neurotypical world means it can also be a source of incredible alienation and pain. Most masked Autistic individuals struggle for decades before discovering who they truly are. They are also more likely to be marginalized in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other factors, which contributes to their suffering and invisibility. Dr. Price lays the groundwork for unmasking and offers exercises that encourage self-expression, including:

• Celebrating special interests
• Cultivating Autistic relationships
• Reframing Autistic stereotypes
• And rediscovering your values

It’s time to honor the needs, diversity, and unique strengths of Autistic people so that they no longer have to mask—and it’s time for greater public acceptance and accommodation of difference. In embracing neurodiversity, we can all reap the rewards of nonconformity and learn to live authentically, Autistic and neurotypical people alike.

Poverty: By America, by Matthew Desmond [2023; signed copies available]

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Evicted reimagines the debate on poverty, making a provocative argument about why it persists in America: because the rest of us benefit from it.

Science and Philosophy

Fires in the Dark: Healing the Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison [just published]

An expansive cultural history of the treatment and healing of mental suffering. From the trauma of 20th-century battlefields, to those who are grieving, depressed, or otherwise have unquiet minds, to her own experience of bipolar illness, Jamison explores the transformative effects of psychotherapy and other treatments, and examines the healers themselves.



The Only One Left: A Novel, by Riley Sanger [ 6/20/2023; the Midtown Scholar will be welcoming the author, along with novelist Ruth Ware (Zero Days), for a ticketed book talk and signing, on Tuesday June 27th]

Set in Maine, a Gothic chiller about a young caregiver assigned to work for a woman accused of a Lizzie Borden-like massacre decades earlier.


Death of a Bookseller: A Novel of Suspense, by Alice Slater [2023]

An edgy, darkly funny suspense novel that raises ethical questions about the fervor for true crime and how we handle stories that don’t belong to us.


Jane and Edward: A Modern Reimagining of Jane Eyre, by Melodie Edwards [2023]

A reimagining of Jane Eyre, set in a modern-day law firm. Jane is a former foster kid and leads a solitary life as a waitress in the Toronto suburbs, until she takes classes to become a legal assistant and receives a job offer at a prestigious downtown law firm. Her boss is the notoriously difficult Edward Rosen, of Rosen, Haythe & Thornfield LLP. He has never been able to keep an assistant—he’s too loud, too messy, too ill-tempered. Until the quietly competent, delightfully sharp-witted Jane begins to intrigues him. Romantic feelings develop between them. But when Edward’s secrets put Jane’s economic independence in jeopardy, she must face long-ignored ghosts from her past and decide if opening her heart is worth the risk.

Women’s Fiction

One Italian Summer, by Rebecca Serle [paperback issued this spring; signed copies available]

A powerful novel about the transformational love between mothers and daughters, set on the breathtaking Amalfi Coast.

Literary Fiction

Coming in July: Crook Manifesto, by Colson Whitehead, set in the 1970s, continuing on with characters like Ray and Pepper from Harlem Shuffle [The Midtown Scholar is hosting the author in Harrisburg for a ticketed book talk and signing, Friday July 21st at the Whitaker Center]

Or, read now: The Colossus of New York, short essays on the city by Colson Whitehead [2003]


She Is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran (they/them) – gothic thriller/horror [2023]

A house with a terrifying appetite haunts a broken family. When Jade Nguyen arrives in Vietnam for a visit with her estranged father, she has one goal: survive five weeks pretending to be a happy family in the French colonial house Ba is restoring. She’s always lied to fit in, so if she’s straight enough, Vietnamese enough, and American enough, she can get out with the college money he promised. But the house has other plans.

From the World of Percy Jackson: The Sun and the Star (Nico Di Angelo Adventures), by Rick Riordan and Mark Oshiro (they/them) – action/adventure [just published]

A stand-alone adventure featuring two of the most popular characters in the Percy Jackson saga. The son of Hades, Nico di Angelo must face demons both internal and external as his relationship with his boyfriend Will Solace, the son of Apollo, is tested to the core.

Gallant, by V. E. Schwab – Shirley Jackson meets Neil Gaiman [just released in paperback; signed hardcovers available]

Schwab weaves a dark, original tale about the place where the world meets its shadow, and a young woman beckoned by both sides. Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for Girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home to Gallant.

Children’s Picture Books NEW RELEASES

This Is a Story, by John Schu, illustrated by Harrisburg’s Lauren Castillo – in praise of libraries, librarians, and finding the perfect book [2023; signed copies available]

“This is a word on a page. This is a page in a book. This is a book on a shelf . . . waiting.” With a sea-horse kite in hand, a child heads out with Dad to the library. They stop at a park, where other people are flying kites, too. At the library, a person toting a big pile of books hands over a story on a favorite subject: the sea horse. We see the ways books foster connection and understanding—and how they can empower children to transform the world.

The Night Before Freedom: A Juneteenth Story, by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Corey Barksdale [2023]

Eight-year-old David and his family gather at Grandma’s house in Galveston, Texas, for a cherished family tradition: Grandma’s annual retelling of the story of Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States.

Big, written and illustrated by the award-winning Vashti Harrison [2023; signed copies available from Harrison’s recent visit to the Midtown Scholar on Independent Bookstore Day]

Traces a child’s journey to self-love and shows the power of words to hurt and to heal.


Carolyn Blatchley, Cumberland County Library System recommendations for WITF The Spark – June 8, 2023

28 Summers: A Novel
by Elin Hilderbrand

The best-selling author of Summer of ‘69 presents a tale inspired by the film, Same Time Next Year, that follows a man’s discovery of his mother’s long-term relationship with the husband of a Presidential frontrunner. (romance)

The Sixth Wedding: A 28 Summers Story
by Elin Hilderbrand

In a postscript to “28 Summers,” Jake McCloud returns to Nantucket for the Labor Day weekend in 2023, this time without Mallory. (ebook, novella, 107 pages.)

How to Sell a Haunted House
by Grady Hendrix

Forced to return to the small Southern town where she grew up to sell her late parents’ house, Louise discovers that her and her brother’s old grudges pale in comparison to the terror that still lurks within its walls.

The Librarianist
by Patrick Dewitt

Tells the story of Bob Comet, a man who has lived his life through and for literature, unaware that his own experience is a poignant and affecting novel in itself. (Publication Date: July 4, 2023)

The Woman in the Library: A Novel
by Sulari Gentill

In the Boston Public Library, on lockdown after a threat is identified, four strangers sitting at the same table pass the time in conversation—and it just so happens that one of them is a murderer, but which one?

The Island of Sea Women: A Novel
by Lisa See

The ostracized daughter of a Japanese collaborator and the daughter of their Korean village’s head female diver share nearly a century of friendship that is tested by their island’s torn position between two warring empires.

Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World
by Christian Cooper

The Central Park birder at the center of a racially-charged viral video reflects on his lifetime journey towards self-acceptance while offering insights into the wonderful world of birds and what they can teach us about life. (Publication Date: June 13, 2023)

The Summer of 1876: Outlaws, Lawmen, and Legends in the Season that Defined the American West
by Chris Wimmer

Weaves together the timelines of the biggest legends in frontier mythology to demonstrate the overlapping context of their stories and to illustrate the historical importance of that summer, highlighting significant milestones in 1876?—?the inaugural baseball season of the National league, the invention of the telephone and more.

Love & Lemons: Simple Feel-Good Food
by Jeanine Donofrio

Offering visual guides to reusing, mixing and matching ingredients for fresh, must-eat vegetarian meals, the creator of the hugely popular Love & Lemons blog provides both make-now recipes made with minimal prep and ingredients and make-ahead recipes for full meals destined for the freezer. Illustrations.

When Stars are Scattered
by Victoria Jamieson

A Somali refugee who spent his childhood at the Dadaab camp and the Newbery Honor-winning creator of Roller Girl present the graphic-novel story of a young refugee who struggles with leaving behind his nonverbal brother when he has an opportunity to help his family by going to school. (Local Author; Lancaster, PA.)

The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone
by Joseph Tychonievich

A gardening guide, in the form of a graphic novel, that walks beginners through the steps of planning, planting, caring for and harvesting their first vegetable garden, along with “cheat sheets” of key facts and techniques. Longwood Gardens Community Read 2023.

Mel Fell
by Corey R. Tabor

A heartwarming celebration of self-confidence and taking a leap of faith depicts an endearing, courageous kingfisher who falls down, down, down before learning to fly up, up, up. By the Geisel Award-winning creator of Fox the Tiger. PA One Book Early Literacy 2023 selection.

by Cynthia Rylant

This ode to the beauty and magic of a rainy day — one during which some get cozy inside, while others soak up the showers — shows that rain is good for everyone!


Travis Kurowski, York College professor recommendations, June 8, 2023


Monsters, by Claire Dederer (2023). I bought Monsters after listening to an interview with Dederer on the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi—not just because she quoted an interview done by one of my former students, but because Dederer was engaging head on with the complicated morality of taste and entertainment, and what else is reading and writing literature about? Not to mention the deluge of summer blockbusters to consider. From the publisher: In this unflinching, deeply personal book that expands on her instantly viral Paris Review essay, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Claire Dederer asks: Can we love the work of Hemingway, Polanski, Miles Davis, or Picasso? Should we love it? Does genius deserve special dispensation? Is male monstrosity the same as female monstrosity? Does art have a mandate to depict the darker elements of the psyche? And what happens if the artist stares too long into the abyss? She explores the audience’s relationship with artists from Woody Allen to Michael Jackson, asking: How do we balance our undeniable sense of moral outrage with our equally undeniable love of the work? In a more troubling vein, she wonders if an artist needs to be a monster in order to create something great. And if an artist is also a mother, does one identity inexorably, and fatally, interrupt the other? Highly topical, morally wise, honest to the core, Monsters is certain to incite a conversation about whether and how we can separate artists from their art.

Animal Liberation Now, by Peter Singer (1975; 2023). I have been a pescatarian since 2016, influenced by my oldest daughter and a couple of brilliant former students. I thought for some time I was just doing it because of the environmental impact of factory farming, but I’ve since realized that I am also motivated by the immorality unnecessary and brutal of animal suffering—a concern largely brought to contemporary consciousness by Peter Singer, a philosopher perhaps most well-known for his influence on effective altruism. Singer’s ideas about animal rights were introduced in his 1975 book Animal Liberation Now, which is this year being re-released, revised and updated, with a new introduction and forward. Grab a copy from PETA, like I did. Maybe by summer’s end I’ll finally get to fully vegetarian. From the publisher: Few books maintain their relevance – and have remained continuously in print – nearly 50 years after they were first published. Animal Liberation, one of TIME’s “All-TIME 100 Best Non-Fiction Books” is one such book. Since its original publication in 1975, this groundbreaking work has awakened millions of people to the existence of “speciesism”—our systematic disregard of nonhuman animals—inspiring a worldwide movement to transform our attitudes to animals and eliminate the cruelty we inflict on them. In Animal Liberation Now, Singer exposes the chilling realities of today’s “factory farms” and product-testing procedures, destroying the spurious justifications behind them and showing us just how woefully we have been misled.

The Climate Book: The Facts and the Solutions, by Greta Thunberg (2022). After seeing The Inconvenient Truth movie in the theater in 2006, I awoke to our climate emergency, started writing and teaching about it, and bought for a home climate change reference the book Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. Almost 20 years later, there is a new reference book for our climate era, and from one of our leading moral voices about our world on fire: The Climate Book, by your Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. I type this as my Pennsylvania home city is shrouded in smoke from the wildfires raging across Canada. Moreover, according to The Washington Post earlier this week, the likely transition to El Niño heralds another summer of “extreme weather.” How will we get prepared? When will we wake up to our shared global emergency? And what—together—can we do? From the publisher: In The Climate Book, Greta Thunberg has gathered the wisdom of over one hundred experts – geophysicists, oceanographers and meteorologists; engineers, economists and mathematicians; historians, philosophers and indigenous leaders – to equip us all with the knowledge we need to combat climate disaster. Throughout, illuminating and often shocking grayscale charts, graphs, diagrams, photographs, and illustrations underscore their research and their arguments. Alongside them, she shares her own stories of demonstrating and uncovering greenwashing around the world, revealing how much we have been kept in the dark. This is one of our biggest challenges, she shows, but also our greatest source of hope. Once we are given the full picture, how can we not act? And if a schoolchild’s strike could ignite a global protest, what could we do collectively if we tried?

The Myth of Normal, by Gabor Maté (2022). My lovely neighbor is suffering from cancer. Her husband suffers from his own trauma, and also shares hers, as much as he can. One of the obstacles in our suffering, and our understanding of our illnesses and isolation, is the idea of what normal is, normal life, work, community, emotions. Last year I bought the 500+ page The Myth of Normal from well-known medical doctor and addiction expert Gabor Maté, because of my sneaking suspicion—as a father, teacher, human, global citizen—that the way we live (isolated, online, commodified) impacts our health in unexpected ways. Maté, along with the host of research he’s compiled, agrees. I keep mentioning the book to my neighbor (and my daughter); this summer should give me time to finish reading it. From the publisher: Over four decades of clinical experience, Maté has come to recognize the prevailing understanding of “normal” as false, neglecting the roles that trauma and stress, and the pressures of modern-day living, exert on our bodies and our minds at the expense of good health. For all our expertise and technological sophistication, Western medicine often fails to treat the whole person, ignoring how today’s culture stresses the body, burdens the immune system, and undermines emotional balance. Now Maté brings his perspective to the great untangling of common myths about what makes us sick, connects the dots between the maladies of individuals and the declining soundness of society—and offers a compassionate guide for health and healing.

Air Age Blueprint, by K Allado-McDowell (2023). A fascinating work of literary art that was cowritten with AI, for readers who want to explore the avant garde of where technology and expression might collide. From the publisher: A young filmmaker’s life is disrupted by a fated encounter with a Peruvian healer. Called to twin paths of artistic creation and mystic truth-seeking, they set out on a transcontinental journey. In the Pacific Northwest they meet K, a double agent working between art and technology, who invites them to test a secret program called Shaman.AI. This human-machine experiment, rooted in magic, produces a key to rewriting reality – a manifesto describing how entangled human and non-human intelligence will remake our technologies, identities and deepest beliefs. Allado-McDowell (along with their AI writing partner GPT-3) weave fiction, memoir, theory and travelogue into an animist cybernetics – an air age blueprint.

Pageboy, by Elliot Page (2023). A longtime favorite actor of my family is out with this timely memoir about trans identity. Such books are near must-reads today, a time when trans people are being attacked and hounded by state governments. “The emergence of our true selves is all of our life’s work. Pageboy helps chart the course,” says Jamie Lee Curtis about the book. From the publisher: With Juno’s massive success, Elliot became one of the world’s most beloved actors. His dreams were coming true, but the pressure to perform suffocated him. He was forced to play the part of the glossy young starlet, a role that made his skin crawl, on and off set. The career that had been an escape out of his reality and into a world of imagination was suddenly a nightmare.  As he navigated criticism and abuse from some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, a past that snapped at his heels, and a society dead set on forcing him into a binary, Elliot often stayed silent, unsure of what to do. Until enough was enough. The Oscar-nominated star who captivated the world with his performance in Juno finally shares his story in a groundbreaking and inspiring memoir about love, family, fame—and stepping into who we truly are with strength, joy and connection.


The Archive Undying, by Emma Mieko Candon (2023). A huge post-apocalyptic science fiction book about AI gods to read all summer?!? Yes, please. From the publisher: When the robotic god of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched. It killed its priests, its city, and all its wondrous works. But in its final death throes, the god brought one thing back to life: its favorite child, Sunai. For the seventeen years since, Sunai has walked the land like a ghost, unable to die, unable to age, and unable to forget the horrors he’s seen. He’s run as far as he can from the wreckage of his faith, drowning himself in drink, drugs, and men. But when Sunai wakes up in the bed of the one man he never should have slept with, he finds himself on a path straight back into the world of gods and machines. The Archive Undying is the first volume of Emma Mieko Candon’s Downworld Sequence, a sci-fi series where AI deities and brutal police states clash, wielding giant robots steered by pilot-priests with corrupted bodies. Come get in the robot.

The New Earth, by Jess Row (2023). Jess Row’s last novel, Your Face in Mine, was one of the best books about the problem of race and racism in America I have read in the 21st century. Now, Row follows it up with a global consideration of our fractured earth identities. From the publisher: For fifteen years, the Wilcoxes have been a family in name only. Though never the picture of happiness, they once seemed like a typical white Jewish clan from the Upper West Side. But in the early 2000s, two events ruptured the relationships between them. First, Naomi revealed to her children that her biological father was actually Black. In the aftermath, college-age daughter Bering left home to become a radical peace activist in Palestine’s West Bank, where she was killed by an Israeli Army sniper. Now, in 2018, Winter Wilcox is getting married, and her only demand is that her mother, father, and brother emerge from their self-imposed isolations and gather once more. After decades of neglecting personal and political wounds, each remaining family member must face their fractured history and decide if they can ever reconcile. Assembling a vast chorus of voices and ideas from across the globe, Jess Row “explodes the saga from within—blows the roof off, so to speak, to let in politics, race, theory, and the narrative self-awareness that the form had seemed hell-bent on ignoring” (Jonathan Lethem). The New Earth is a commanding investigation of our deep and impossible desire to undo the injustices we have both inflicted and been forced to endure.

Greek Lessons, by Han Kang (2023). Han Kang’s Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian—a magical realistic excavation of food, art, gender, and the body—made her a global literary name. Human Acts, her next novel translated into English, viscerally explored revolution and repression in Korean history. Neither of those descriptions begin to explain the artistry of Kang’s language and narrative playfulness, which is unparalleled. I look forward to reading her newest book this summer. From the publisher: In a classroom in Seoul, a young woman watches her Greek language teacher at the blackboard. She tries to speak but has lost her voice. Her teacher finds himself drawn to the silent woman, for day by day he is losing his sight. Soon the two discover a deeper pain binds them together. For her, in the space of just a few months, she has lost both her mother and the custody battle for her nine-year-old son. For him, it’s the pain of growing up between Korea and Germany, being torn between two cultures and languages, and the fear of losing his independence. Greek Lessons tells the story of two ordinary people brought together at a moment of private anguish—the fading light of a man losing his vision meeting the silence of a woman who has lost her language. Yet these are the very things that draw them to each other. Slowly the two discover a profound sense of unity—their voices intersecting with startling beauty, as they move from darkness to light, from silence to breath and expression. Greek Lessons is the story of the unlikely bond between this pair and a tender love letter to human intimacy and connection—a novel to awaken the senses, one that vividly conjures the essence of what it means to be alive.

Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck (2023).I don’t know the leading German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, but reviewers are raving about Kairos—and her work in general. I will be reading this book in the woods this summer and crying about love and loss alongside it’s heartbroken, nostalgic characters. Just like life. From the publisher: Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel Kairos—an unforgettably compelling masterpiece—tells the story of the romance begun in East Berlin at the end of the 1980s when nineteen-year-old Katharina meets by chance a married writer in his fifties named Hans. Their passionate yet difficult long-running affair takes place against the background of the declining GDR, through the upheavals wrought by its dissolution in 1989 and then what comes after. In her unmistakable style and with enormous sweep, Erpenbeck describes the path of the two lovers, as Katharina grows up and tries to come to terms with a not always ideal romance, even as a whole world with its own ideology disappears.

Yellowface, by RF Kuang (2023). Award-winning and best-selling fantasy author RF Kuang tackles literary identity, racism, and appropriation. From the publisher: Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars. But Athena’s a literary darling. June Hayward is literally nobody. Who wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks. So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers during World War I. So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song—complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree. But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves. With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface grapples with questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation, as well as the terrifying alienation of social media. R.F. Kuang’s novel is timely, razor-sharp, and eminently readable.


West: A Translation, by Paisley Rekdal (2023). I am from Oregon, and have long felt that the American west needs a richer, more diverse literary exploration of its painful history and where it sits in human imagination. Paisley Rekdal’s poetic exploration of America’s westward expansion, the railway system, and Chinese exclusion seems a heartbreaking and important addition. From the publisher: In 2018, Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal was commissioned to write a poem commemorating the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. The result is West: A Translation—an unflinching hybrid collection of poems and essays that draws a powerful, necessary connection between the railroad’s completion and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943). Carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station, where Chinese migrants to the United States were detained, is a poem elegizing a detainee who committed suicide. As West translates this anonymous Chinese elegy character by character, what’s left is a haunting narrative distilled through the history and lens of transcontinental railroad workers, and a sweeping exploration of the railroad’s cultural impact on America. Punctuated by historical images and told through multiple voices, languages, literary forms, and documents, West explores what unites and divides America, and how our ideas about American history creep forward, even as the nation itself constantly threatens to spiral back.

To 2040, by Jorie Graham (2023). Josie Graham is our leading American poet of the Anthropocene. This is her 15th book, and perhaps her most profound yet: “Inhale. / Are you still there / the sun says to me.” From the publisher: It is rare to find in one collection an entire skyline burning and the quiet to follow a single worm, to hear soil breathe—in Jorie Graham’s fifteenth poetry collection, you do. Jorie Graham’s fifteenth poetry collection, To 2040, opens in question punctuated as fact: “Are we / extinct yet. Who owns / the map.” In these visionary new poems, Graham is part historian, part cartographer as she plots an apocalyptic world where rain must be translated, silence sings louder than speech, and wired birds parrot recordings of their extinct ancestors. In one poem, the speaker is warned by a clairvoyant “the American experiment will end in 2030.” Graham shows us our potentially inevitable future soundtracked by sirens among industrial ruins, contemplating the loss of those who inhabited and named them.

Bread and Circus, by Airea D. Matthews (2023). From Philadelphia’s poet laureate comes a fascinating autobiographical collage poetry examining our capital inheritance and present. A visually stunning book of poetry filled with cut-ups, typography, and photos. From the publisher: As a former student of economics, Airea D. Matthews was fascinated and disturbed by 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith, and his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. Bread and Circus is a direct challenge to Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, which claims self-interest is the key to optimal economic outcomes. By juxtaposing redacted texts by Smith and the French Marxist Guy Debord with autobiographical prose and poems, Bread and Circus demonstrates that self-interest fails when people become commodities themselves, and shows how the most vulnerable—including the author and her family—have been impacted by that failure. A layered collection to be read and reread, with poems that range from tragic to humorous, in forms as varied and nuanced as the ideas the book considers, Bread and Circus explores the area where theory and reality meet.


Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe (2019; deluxe edition 2022). As noted recently by PEN America, “The 2022-23 school year has been marked to date by an escalation of book bans and censorship in classrooms and school libraries across the United States”—overwhelmingly targeting books by and about LGBTQ+ individuals, with Maia Kobabe’s powerful graphic memoir Gender Queer one of the most targeted books in America. A new deluxe edition was released in 2022 with new art, and commentary from ND Stevenson and Kebab. I plan to read, and share, as many as possible of these books about queerness, love, and self-love that people are trying to keep from us. From the publisher: In 2014, Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, thought that a comic of reading statistics would be the last autobiographical comic e would ever write. At the time, it was the only thing e felt comfortable with strangers knowing about em. Then e created Gender Queer. Maia’s intensely cathartic autobiography charts eir journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fan fiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears. Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: It is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.

The Gull Yettin, by Joe Kessler (2023). What I love about comic books is that they are often also intensely beautiful works of art—none more so recently than what I’ve read in Joe Kessler’s new, magical book The Gull Yettin. The layout and narrative style are stunning and near claustrophobic, like you’re walking through the book rather than just reading it. From the publisher:  Joe Kessler is at the forefront of European comics. Co-founder and art director of UK’s Breakdown Press, and winner of the Angoulême International Comics Festival’s Fauve Révélation for his breakthrough comic book Windowpane, Kessler rejuvenates the form once again with his vivid and moving The Gull Yettin. Told in striking colors and loose but confident lines, The Gull Yettin’s story begins when a young boy awakens late one night to find his home on fire. The boy is saved by a lanky, shapeshifting Gull. Orphaned by the fire, and now adrift in a boat piloted by the Gull, the boy faces an uncertain future, one that will be both helped and hindered by his new attendant. Without a word, Kessler builds a strange but recognizable world, using it to explore all the forms that grief, jealousy, longing, and love can take in our lives, and the compassion and cruelty that can dwell in a single heart. Filled with all the warmth and poignancy of a great folktale, The Gull Yettin proves that Kessler is pushing comics to new heights.

The Talk, by Darrin Bell (2023). A new book-length memoir from Pulitzer Prize winning comic artist Darrin Bell about having a black body in America and parenting children in a racist world. From the publisher: Darrin Bell was six years old when his mother told him he couldn’t have a realistic water gun. She said she feared for his safety, that police tend to think of little Black boys as older and less innocent than they really are. Through evocative illustrations and sharp humor, Bell examines how The Talk shaped intimate and public moments from childhood to adulthood. While coming of age in Los Angeles—and finding a voice through cartooning—Bell becomes painfully aware of being regarded as dangerous by white teachers, neighbors, and police officers and thus of his mortality. Drawing attention to the brutal murders of African Americans and showcasing revealing insights and cartoons along the way, he brings us up to the moment of reckoning when people took to the streets protesting the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And now Bell must decide whether he and his own six-year-old son are ready to have The Talk.

Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story, by Julia Wertz (2023). The drawing style of Julia Wertz—who I first discovered with her amazing 2010 book Drinking at the Movies—feels like reading a face, often a melancholic one. The assured, curved lines of her highly detailed work mirror the relaxed warmth of Charles Schulz—only Wertz’s stories are packed with the black honesty of adult life. Needless to say, I cannot wait to get my hands on this book. From the publisher: Opening at the culmination of a disastrous trip to Puerto Rico, the first page of Impossible People finds Julia standing stupefied in the middle of the jungle beside a rental Jeep she’s just crashed. From this moment, the story flashes back to the beginning of her five-year journey towards sobriety that includes group therapy sessions, relapses, an ill-fated relationship, terrible dates, and an unceremonious eviction from her New York City apartment. Far from the typical addiction narrative that follows an upward trajectory from rock bottom to rehab to recovery, Impossible People portrays the lesser told but more common story: That the road to recover is not always linear. With unflinching honesty, Wertz details the arduous, frustrating, and hilarious story of trying and failing and trying again.

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