My Soul Looks Back

Book cover: My Soul Looks Back by Jessica B. HarrisFresh out of college in the early 1970s, a naive and bright-eyed Jessica B. Harris began teaching French at Queens College in New York. A new wave of Black intelligentsia was forming, and though Harris was considered a little too young and bourgois for colleagues to fully embrace her, she did manage to develop a friendship with the undeniably cool Samuel Clemens Floyd III, an older, magnetic professor at the college.

That friendship turned into a years-long romance filled with food and travel and creativity, all made possible by Sam’s close friendship with “Jimmy” — James Baldwin. Harris was younger than Sam’s crowd of artists and literati, but as Sam’s girl, she was allowed entry into a world few ever got to see. In My Soul Looks Back, she recounts her years on this periphery of Black genius. Toni Morrison had written The Bluest Eye but was still an editor at Random House, Roots was about to be published, Nina Simone occasionally dropped in on Jimmy’s parties, and Dr. Angelou was still “Maya” (who also happened to be Sam’s former lover). Everyone was poised for greatness, and Harris was there on the outer edges. Just like at Queens College, she was the outsider, the young one, but there to witness everything nonetheless.

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You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me

Book cover: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman AlexieSherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.

Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety.  After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.

Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Book cover: Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana EnríquezAlthough they’re set in contemporary Argentina, many of the short stories in Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire have an almost primal feel. A current of macabre superstition and urban legend threads the collection together, and nearly every story has some kind of undefinable darkness looming over its protagonists. The terror that transpired during Argentina’s relatively recent dictatorship — thousands were murdered in the 1970s and early 1980s — also haunts the pages. These are horror stories feel like they could be real.

Enríquez is very talented when it comes to creating atmospheric tension. Most of the stories take a surreal turn, but they all start out with recognizable contemporary scenarios: poverty, drug abuse, social inequality, childhood curiosity, obnoxious boyfriends. It isn’t until the reader is drawn into the relatable, reality-based settings that weird things start happening.

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The Book of Joan

Book cover: The Book of Joan by Lidia YuknavitchLidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel is a dystopian reimagining of Joan of Arc. Set in the near future, Earth has been ravaged by radioactive fallout following several world wars. Survivors are white, sexless, hairless creatures who live as slaves under CIEL’s tyrannical rule; these creatures inscribe epic stories onto their skin. Other humans — the wealthy — have escaped and now hover safely above Earth. CIEL is headed by Jean de Men, a sadistic leader who rules with an iron fist.

Jean de Men is believed to have killed a child named Joan of Dirt, turning her into a martyr for a resistance that is brewing. Joan glows blue light and has a mystical relationship with the Earth; she has the power to destroy, but she also has the power to bring things back to life. In this new world, where everyone’s genitalia has basically shriveled up and fallen off, her powers have made her the stuff of legend. One of the sexless slaves, Christine Pizan (a nod to 12th-century proto-feminist author Christine de Pizan), is particularly enamored with Joan of Dirt’s story.

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women

Book cover: The Radium Girls by Kate MooreA century ago, radium was one of the most exciting wonders of modern times. Not only could it make things glow in the dark, it also had healing properties that could be used for medicinal purposes. Then America went to war, and the demand for radium products skyrocketed. In 1917, many young women from Newark, New Jersey were presented with the opportunity to work for the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. Painting radium on watch dials paid well, and the positions were highly sought. The women, most in their late teens and early twenties, were taught how to mix radium — a fine powder that floated everywhere — with water to create a paint. To get a fine enough point on their paintbrush, they were instructed to put the brush tips between their lips. Lip…dip…paint.

The Newark plant was rather strict about how much of their product was used, and the women were reprimanded if any was wasted. Demand for radium products increased, and a second plant in Ottawa, Illinois was opened. There, they weren’t so strict. Radium was fun — and healthy! — and the girls were allowed to take leftovers home to paint on their skin and clothing; their fashionable glow made them the envy at dances.

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