My favorite Baldwin and one of the only New York novels that so well captures the simultaneous muchness of The City through vibrant, compelling characters. They live uptown and downtown and in every borough. They are out late until it's early and then they are out early. They hustle and halt and fail and fuck it all. They surprise themselves and the reader, are tender, are angry, are knit together through the end and so on and on. These characters will never leave you.
My youthful romance with the Harlem Renaissance awakens from a slumber with this wistful compendium of ephemera, collaborative documentation, and assemblage. Stories and souls lie here.
Truly stories of the '60s, Collins writes crooningly and wryly of the intertwining of life political and personal. One of the major strengths of the book is in the characters (in particular, the multiple and multifaceted black female protagonists): beautiful in their complexity, their struggles to find places for themselves delve into race and class relationships in a way that feels prescient and deeply human.
When Dave Chappelle quit/ended his eponymous program back in 2006, he said he did so because he noticed certain people laughing at the sketches in a manner unsettling—taking the surface caricature as the end of the analysis. In Erasure we follow the whole process of frustrated novelist Thelonius “Monk” Ellison crafting a satire that no one understands, yet everyone laughs.
An ars prosaica, as it were, and a daybook of social experimentation. In these page-length essay-poems, each starting from the fixed-base "I began the day," Gladman deftly philosophizes the quotidian, writing about writing, writing about reading, writing about working, writing about teaching. My favorite passage describes onions in headily conceptual philosophical language, as a pungent sphere of spheres.
Written by Jones when she was just 26, and bought by Toni Morrison when she began working as an editor at Random House, Corregidora contains some of the best sex writing I’ve ever encountered, describing in vivid detail all of the ways that sex can entrap and harass us. It is also a harrowing depiction of the ways that the human body contains not just our personal lives but the history of our nations and their policies.
Epic and complete, A Brief History of Seven Killings feels like something new. It has relatives, like The Savage Detectives, but it’s an only child. If you’re wondering if contemporary fiction can still surprise you, here’s your book. (Rated R.)
Too, of team empress, black messiahs, Martin's collection wafts the consciousness of streets, of these times, the/se sexes. "Pull all hair from comb. Fold into square of white paper. Set fire over toilet. When we were kids every day. Nothing."
Not truly sci-fi - indeed the oft-bandied "speculative fiction" - but honestly, I don't know what to make of Morrow's quiet work. Of the psychological interiority of beings? As imagined? (Created?) I was deeply drawn inside Mem's attempt at a reimagined humanity.
Morgan Parker is a national treasure and she deserves so much better than this nation. There's little more than I can say than: open the book, read the first poem, any poem — pause — and try not to say damn. Equal parts complex, deceptively straightforward, and revolutionary; this book is needed. Always more than ever.
Probably best known for her play Topdog/Underdog (2001) this collection of three essays and six plays gives an overview of Parks’ earlier work and working method. Her essays are essentially a roadmap of how to approach her work. Parks’ plays—in characterization, use of language and settings—employ a kind-of symbolic absurdism, which, while purposefully humorous, never lose their sense of urgency, never slip into so-many-jokes. z.B. in Devotees in the Garden of Love, Parks turns traditional courtship into a raging battle—shining a light on both the violence that underpins even the most romantic of traditions, and the cultural shift to consuming violence like it’s a spectator sport.
A semi-autobiographical novel about a gay, Oakland punk visiting his tiny, religious, Alabama hometown for a funeral. He's known many men and spends the novel contemplating those dead and hooking up with those living. Hilarious, touching, with surprising moments of grace. We need more books like this.
Capital-a Absurd story about an epidemic called “Jes Grew” — an anti plague that enlivens the host with an uncontrollable joy, and thus threatens the West, ie, means the End of Civilization As-We-Know-It. Attempts are made to combat this Creeping Thing with modern medicine, hoodoo, an Android saboteur, and an ancient secret fraternity committed to the occident. A formally exciting novel coming from a singular voice in American letters.
An academic treatment of mid-20th century relations between American jazz and African music that isn't academic at all but readable and engaging. One of the best "micro-history" books I've read in a while.
I skipped mass the week I read this but still got taken to church.
Toomer's novel of Jim Crow America is...not quite a novel. Told in short character portraits, each vignette builds on the one before to create one living, breathing South. But it's not just the book's structure that defies definition: as you read, prose will transform to poetry, poetry will become song, and song will take on the gravity and finality of scripture.
What happens when a people, group or culture rationalizes its history? How can the facts be true? What are the hidden truths in their fictions? Or is it all fact spritzed by fiction? In application and reflection; a metaphor of things commonly not associated juxataposed together through poetic poignant wordplay is Kevin Young's essays on African American prose and poetry from the insider's view outward. Wow.
"124 was spiteful." From the opening sentence of Beloved, Morrison's narrative and rhetorical power never wavers; the power to speak from within history, while inventing history; the power to create characters of intricate specificity, characters afflicted with the wildly divergent breadth, depth, and violence of humanity; the power to reward, burden, and sustain us with her vision.
It's clear from Cole's introspective work that he is also an art historian and photographer. The experience of reading Open City oscillates between the minutiae of daily life and the pull of distant nations. If you enjoy Rachel Cusk's Outline Trilogy or solo walks in the city, I recommend Cole's debut novel.
With her poetry, Smith reveals us to be aliens, foreigners in our own worlds. Balancing grand exercises in questioning with intimate compositions of everyday details, she transmutes words into emotions, the most essential components of life.
Overshadowed by the other black writers of his time (namely James Baldwin), Charles Wright finally gets his due in this reissued collection of his three crackling autofictional novels about down-and-out life on the streets of New York. Bisexual and light-skinned enough to be mistaken for Filipino or Puerto Rican, Wright was a man who never quite fit in with any one group but drifted ghost-like through many, sharing the company of both literary high society as well as junkies and drag queens. Though utterly unromantic about the bohemian lifestyle of the struggling artist, the dereliction of his world is nonetheless portrayed with elegance and a deep compassion for everyone struggling to get by day to day.
How does one overcome a disappointing seven generation legacy of all-too-American insipid, brown-nosing Tommery? How does one refute the sins of the father, grandfather, great-uncles, great-grandfathers? Beatty’s debut novel is a bildungsroman concerning a modern messiah born in the purported political corrections of late-20th century America — the early history of Gunnar Kaufman as he leaves the lazy life of Santa Monica surfing for the pressed-crease unknown of Hillside, CA.
Released in 1966, this classic STILL feels ahead of its time. It's poetic and revels in language. It's queer and it's weird and you really should have read this by now.
Like watching a J train showtime(!) with your Jewish grandparents...on psychedelics.
With the same vividly evocative, graceful touch this book portrays the sweetest joys of childhood and their extinction amid the most horrific of circumstances. A book about the all-consuming pervasiveness of war, the destruction of home, the anguish of memory – and its promise of healing.
A ghost story set in reality, which haunts long after the last page. With adept restraint, Forma chronicles the way that the legacy of violence in a place simultaneously holds fast and omnipresent for those who have lived through it, while remaining invisible to those who enter into it blissfully ignorant and unaware.
It's 1926 in New York City and Joe and Violet Trace have each done something heinous: a murder and a mutilation of a corpse, respectively. That's just the first paragraph. The rest of the novel provides context to their desperation and made even their worst deeds somehow holy. I'm convinced that, given the same circumstances, I would murder or mutilate too. It's Morrison's only NYC novel and one of her best. Each paragraph is so dense with beauty you may want to pin it to your breast.
What do you do when you can’t regain what’s been lost? Can you lead a revolution without saying a word? Observe the townsfolk of Sutton as they witness and try to make sense of radical change silently sweeping over their sleepy hamlet after Tucker Caliban, 22, father and landowner, suddenly salts his field, slaughters his livestock, burns down his house, and makes an exodus with his family.
Though I was never a huge fan of Touré's work, he has hit the jackpot here with a true love of a subject he knows very well. Evolved from a series of lectures at Harvard, this is Prince as icon, as emissary of God, religion, sex, ego, brilliance. This is the psyche and soul of a musician at war with himself and an era.
A portrait of the black upper classes circa the 1950s, ie 'Negroland' through the lens of Jefferson's own childhood in Chicago. Beautiful and formidable, from one of this country's greatest cultural critics.
This epic novel keens, roars and destroys with the ferocity of the hurricane it portrays. Jesmyn Ward takes on Homer, Faulkner and Katrina and wins. Brilliant and harrowing.
Here are ten stories about the downtrodden, those unseen who fall in-between the cracks of society, written with a tenderness and mercy that can only be given by someone who themselves has been one of those people and has known their company. McPherson's debut short story collection is filled with prose as crisp, clean, and comforting as a fresh apple, with a pathos for those who are destroyed and discriminated against by the world, not explicitly but by a thousand societal paper cuts. Classic and timeless in the best sense of both of those words.
Believe the fuss—much intense contemplation of 70s and 80s soul music (and rock & experimental jazz) as historical "memory". Philosophical concerns with the nature of music, and who we are. Hip-hop. Philly. The Beach Boys.
Formerly the second and last Poet Laureate of New Jersey, the recently departed Amiri Baraka was also the writer of the first book on African-American music by a black author. Suffused with lyrical outrage, it traces the history of a displaced people who used a foreign language and unfamiliar instruments to both describe and transform their conditions. Baraka calls this productive force the Blues Continuum, a subversive undercurrent that still drives America's most original art form: its popular music.
I first read this book in junior high school and it seared like a flame. I remember it to this day. Ferocious and unforgttable.
Whittled down from thousands of pages, this memoir by one of jazz's greatest composers is framed as a conversation with his shrink. Like Mingus's music, it's beautiful, raunchy, and slightly insane.
Each new line of this book follows the last with devastating clarity and precision. Rankine asks what it means to be American in the age of terrorism, prescription medication, and cancer. What does it even mean to be alive? Are you even alive? Look at the television. No, really, look at it. Look at it. It's on every other page.
— Sarah G.
Smith's novels are neo-Dickensian comedies where characters' lives overlap in surprising ways, and leave us with the comforting feeling that, somehow, everything is connected. At least, that's what everyone used to say before NW. Smith's return to northwest London is an extremely engaging formal departure (read it aloud!), where lives collide rather than overlap, and aspirations fail to coincide with identities.
We live in a day and age where everybody wants to be black, but only if it (blackness) is profitable. Case in point, Kylie Jenner continues to profit on Blackness i. e black people, black culture, and black creativity, which has led her to be a “self-made millionaire." The subject title of Jasmine Lee-Jones' intelligent and imaginative play Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner takes place partially on Twitter, where a young dark-skinned Black woman articulates her grievances (memes included), and in Twitter fashion, things get a little out of hand. Jasmine Lee- Jones cleverly incorporates the black Twitter lexicon in an innovative way that is *chef’s kiss*.
Do yourself the favor. It's a uniquely American epic following X from childhood church pews to Harlem hustling and all the way to Mecca. It's compulsively readable and as relevant as ever.
This is a novel replete with simple and startlingly original use of language. Phrases that defy you to find their precedent, effortlessly turning the mundane into something markedly more profound. It will remind you of all those times in your childhood when you had to #### out stolen and quickly-devoured unripe guava. Oh, the good old days.
Harkens back to Dave Chappelle at his most incisive and Thomas Pynchon at his most stoned.
I've got a reputation around here for maintaining a frame of mind partial to darkness & despair and a complete intolerance for anything that resembles hope in humanity. So let's keep it between us that I consider this book -- a magical-realism love story set on a tiny island off the southern coast -- one of my favorites of all time. Deal?
This one is 100% crae. If you want to get wrapped up in a parallel story of time and space and people and love and hate and the American South then take this trip. I laughed out loud numerous times on the subway because of the protagonist's wit. FYI he's a bit of a smart ass. You may not be the same afterwards.
If you're looking for a book where things make sense, and everything wraps up neatly and nicely, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you're looking for something disturbing, murky, uncertain, and cerebral, then Marie NDiaye is the writer for you. Her language (in Jordan Stump's excellent translation) is grotesque, looming, and decadent, seeping into every page and oozing out of every word. Once you've sunken yourself into this world of paranoia, you won't be able to stop turning the pages as you watch the madness and cruelty unfold in this small French town.
— Jacob R.
An archly facetious would-be tourist's guide to Antigua, channeling Fanon with a breathtaking precision of image and argument. Kincaid explains tourism as a neo-colonial form of occupation from without, and offers no expiation whatsoever for the guilty conscience of the thrill-seeker, whom she excoriates in the second-person: "the banality of your own life is very real to you; it drove you to this extreme, spending your days and nights in the company of people who despise you, people you do not like really, people you would not want to have as your actual neighbour." Uncomfortable and unforgettable; the opposite of beach reading.
In the '90s Mayor Rudy Giuliani Disneyfied Times Square in the name of "public safety." Gone were the peep shows, porn theaters, and dive bars, and before you say 'good riddance,' like so many others, this sexual underground was one of the few refuges for men (gay, Black, and Brown men in particular) from all classes to love and be loved, away from the alienating ravages of late capitalism. A Valentine to a bygone era, written with so much affection and insight that Delany gives us two incredible essays for the price of one.
There comes a point in this story when you ask yourself, "Am I still this interested in elevators?" But you really are.
The most convincing love stories are the forbidden ones: Romeo & Juliet, Lolita & Humbert Humbert, Jake & Ennis. Add to that list the very nonfictional Chip & Dennis, famous science fiction writer and homeless New Yorker. Bread & Wine gets down and dirty (not to mention really, really smelly) in all the wrong ways (the right ways?), but it's also an intelligent paean to marginalized erotic subjectivities, and a lofty, Hölderlin-infused testimony to love's utter disregard for difference.
In this book, Jim Crow/American/human society is posited as a matrix of self-seeking, for which conflict is a source of sustenance rather than a malignancy awaiting a cure. A crafty weaving of absurdified archetypes and scrupleless schemes, Schuyler’s satire bypasses any expected righteousness in favor of exuberantly-scathing romp.
The characters in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments are rarely written about. For the most part stories about women of color born into poverty are lost or erased, they survive only as names in the ledgers of correctional facilities, or a point of evidence in some sociologist's dissection of a social problem. Hartman's book is an in-depth study of just these kinds of girls, women who were part of the great migration to the north after Emancipation, girls who ended up in riots, or a chorus line, instead of a home or a steady job. Because there's so little concrete evidence about these women, Hartman's book is part fiction, part history, filled with exquisite descriptions of heartbreak and lost virginities and long nights, of the smell of summer in Harlem and the screech of voices on the Atlantic City boardwalk. This is history told as fiction because it is, in part, the only way it can be recovered, and I promise you it will be one of the most astonishingly beautiful books you have ever read.
I was tired of reading the same sci-fi novel over and over again. But through Binti, Nnendi Okorafor turns many classic tropes on their head. What does it mean to be an alien when you are already an outsider on your own planet and winin your own culture? Binti is the first Himba girl to attend Oomza University, a school far from earth and her family. What follows are life-changing experiences which ask questions of belonging, culture, loyalty, and how new perspectives can change the world.
Lovely graphic storytelling of the early years of what we've come to call "hip-hop," but also an attempt at an academically accurate rendering of the micro-stories that go along with that history to boot.
Artist biography as novel, cinematic. Crouch tells the early years of Charlie Parker's tale with the intimacy of diary. What we get is as much a history of mid-century African American culture as musical tales of jazzmen and their travails.
John Keene challenges the accuracy of the archive by using fiction as a tool to subvert oppressive historical narratives. This collection spans centuries and continents to weave stories that function as an examination of the Western literature canon for its lack of Black subjectivities. In its strongest moments (see "Carmel" and "The Aeronauts"), Counternarratives is magic.
Brooklyn, 1996, a renaissance is underway. Maria, 26, one half of the perfect couple, and a PhD candidate doing ethnomusicology research on the People’s Temple, finds herself on the short slide into a quarter-life crisis just as she seems poised to attain a life she didn’t know she could have. A kind-of romance novel about the obsessive aspect of infatuation and how it can metastasize to consume your whole life.
Passing is the unforgettable tale of friendship and obsession between two women set in 1920s Harlem. When Irene Redfield encounters her childhood friend Clare Kendry after many years, both are passing at a whites-only restaurant. But while Irene lives comfortably with her family in a thriving black community, the performance for Clare can never end---she is married to a wealthy, racist white man who is unaware of her African American identity. In a world of fixed boundaries, Nella Larsen boldly refuses conventional narratives around race, gender, sexuality and desire in this provocative psychological thriller that has become a modern classic.
— Madelaine L.
A war-ravaged Earth is in desperate need of saving. Good thing an alien race that preaches benevolence, healing, and unity has come to offer a fresh start! Of course there's a catch. A mind-meltingly good sci-fi/fantasy trilogy that makes brilliant use of worldbuilding to highlight the dangers of tribalism, savior narratives, and identity politics that only serve to uphold the status quo. If you like The Fifth Season and/or The Area X Trilogy, you won't be disappointed.