The Game of Love and Death
2015, Arthur A. Levine Books
Through the ages, Love and Death have played a game with human players like Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet: Death always wins. A new game is in motion in Seattle in 1937 and the players are Henry, a white boy who has been taken in by a wealthy family and handed a bright future, and Flora, an African-American girl who sings in and helps to run her family’s jazz club, but dreams of being the aviator Amelia Earhart. Flora and Henry connect through their love of music, but prejudice threatens their relationship and their lives. Every character in this book—including Love and Death—are fully drawn and multidimensional, and the stakes of the game are high for everyone. Brockenbrough captures the 1930s in gorgeous detail, too—the music, the Hoovervilles, the Hindenburg disaster, and the deep divisions of race and class that still resonate today. All of this comes together in a powerful tale about love, death, choice, and the courage to claim what is in your heart. —Stephanie
An Old-Fashioned Girl
Louisa May Alcott
1859, Roberts Brothers
I read about An Old-Fashioned Girl in Briallen Hopper’s fierce and smart essay “On Spinsters,” and borrowed it from the library immediately. (You can also read it for free here, as it’s now in the public domain.) Polly Milton is a simple girl from the country who goes to stay with her wealthy, fashionable friend Fanny, who lives in the city. Polly’s sensibilities, in line with her modest upbringing, are offended by Fanny’s indulgent activities and excessive expenditure. As is to be expected from an 156-year-old novel, the characters have some very dated, and occasionally offensive, notions—Polly is SIMPLY SHOCKED that Fanny enjoys going to the theatre, and thinks flirting IS BAD. All the same, An Old-Fashioned Girl made me bawl. Polly tries to overcome her sadness and jealousy at the sheer magnitude of the disparity between how she and Fanny live. Initially, Fanny and her siblings initially tease poor Polly cruelly, but Polly manages to hold on to her beliefs and values. She helps Fanny become happier by teaching her to attend to simple joys; Fanny and the rest welcome Polly into their hearts as another sister because of her kindness and goodness.
OK, I KNOW this book might sound super-preachy—BE GOOD, DON’T BE BAD—and it is. But I vibed with Polly’s misery at being outside of her friends’ upper-class world. Her willingness to push aside her disappointment and her decision to become an independent woman who will never have to rely on anyone else for anything is so strong-minded and cool. The best part of the book is a chapter where, later on in her life, Polly makes friends with some artists who don’t care about being fashionable or rich. They encourage each other to be creative and happy, and have picnics in their studios. Sounds like the life for me. —Estelle
The Fire Next Time
1963; 1992, Vintage
I cracked open this book out of curiosity one day, and the next thing I knew I was 40 pages in and my sister was asking me where the hell I’d been. The Fire Next Time comprises two essays: “My Dungeon Shook—Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind,” (the latter was first published in the New Yorker). The essays are a marvel. Baldwin is an incredible storyteller and when approaching subjects like cultural theft, rage, and the white gaze, his analysis is deeply empathetic and powerful. He tackles these topics with grace while never shying away from the full scope of racism’s horror. In spite of its focus on the hideous fact of antiblackness and cultural trauma, The Fire Next Time is a work of love. Never sentimental, Baldwin’s essays do not offer forgiveness or absolution, yet each line is an antibiotic for wounds that have yet to heal. —Lucy
2015, Balzer + Bray
Bone Gap, Illinois is a town surrounded by cornfields. It’s also a town where reality is a bit fluid—it has gaps, if you will. People appear and then disappear. Like Roza, who showed up injured one day in brothers Finn and Sean’s barn. She cared for them, and they for her. Then one day she disappears with a mysterious man. Finn witnesses the event, but he cannot describe Roza’s captor except to say that he moved like a cornstalk in the wind. He’s been trying to figure out how to find Roza—and she’s been trying to escape this man, who demands her love, ever since.
This twist on the Persephone myth, is set in a place that reminds me a little bit of a Midwestern Twin Peaks and peopled with characters like the beekeeper’s daughter Petey, who remains fierce despite years of being mocked for looking like a bee, and Charlie Valentine who loves his chickens more than his grandkids and has lived in Bone Gap longer than anyone can remember. Laura Ruby weaves a powerful tale about physical appearances and the meaning of heroism, presenting a new way of looking at the world through myth, magic, and the unique perspectives of her characters. —Stephanie
The Earthseed Books
1993–1998, Four Walls Eight Windows/Seven Stories Press
There’s dystopian fiction, and then there’s dystopian fiction that’s so incisive, so measured yet unsparing in its depiction of near-future horrors that it hardly reads like fiction—it’s more a window into a world we’re cannoning towards, a future that’s not just possible but entirely likely. The Parable Of The Sower (1993) and The Parable Of The Talents (1998) are set in the California of 2024. Widespread drought, lawlessness and violence reign in the areas outside the towering, wire-barbed walls that guard wealthier communities. Slavery has returned to the fabric of everyday life, and the weak government has been revived by the religious, white supremacist Christian America party.
It’s in this setting that Lauren Oya Olamina, a 17-year-old black girl, leaves her demolished community of Robledo and goes on a journey as extraordinary just as she is. Butler writes great depth and insight into this narrative of black girlhood as it unfolds in the pages of Lauren’s journal. That Lauren is exceptional and destined for greatness is clear from the start—she lives with hyperempathy syndrome, has a singular capacity to befriend strangers, and plans to establish a religion called Earthseed. Lauren is remarkable—and in a genre largely populated by white female protagonists, Butler’s dystopian classics are, too, (both novels were shortlisted for the Nebula Award which Talents won in 1999).
Butler planned to expand the Earthseed universe with four more books in this series. Sadly, the third book The Parable Of The Trickster was only half finished at the time of her death. Yet, in some ways Sower and Talents work as halves of a harmonious whole. They are both about parent-child relationships and how, despite our best intentions, we sometimes make the same mistakes our parents made and dole out the same hurts. In the Talents, Lauren’s journal continues the story of her Earthseed community, but this time her entries are interspersed with critical readings by her daughter who is trying to make sense of her lifelong estrangement from her mother. This dynamic recalls Lauren’s strained relationship with her Baptist minister father in the first book—a cycle of misunderstanding and loss that cuts through and prevails across generations. In Talents, the growing creed of Earthseed finally draws the attention of the Christian American fundamentalists, with tragic results. In Butler’s vision of the world just a decade in the future the terror is real precisely because of its familiarity—look around you, the roots of the collapse have already snaked in. —Ragini
Elana K. Arnold
2015, Carlrhoda Labs
16-year-old Sephora Golding has grown up deeply connected to but also in the shadow of her gorgeous mother in Venice Beach, California. Now her mother is dating a man who isn’t much older than Seph, and Seph is still dealing with what happened when she met a much older surfer a few months earlier. She makes art, mostly sculptures, out of found objects, and she uses this as well as her own retellings of fairytales including Sleeping Beauty, and mythical characters such as Persephone, and Philomela to process what she’s going through. The stories she relates to are about young women who have been used, brutalized, and stolen from, yet from them Seph draws the power to create her own identity. This book is dagger sharp, and fearless—a modern teenage girl fairytale that stands up exquisitely to the older tales it draws from. —Stephanie
1818; 1998, Oxford World’s Classics
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 19 years old. She was stuck in Lord Byron’s big house by Lake Geneva and the weather was terrible. She’d run away with Percy Shelley, who became famous as a romantic poet for poems like “Ozymandias” and “The Mask of Anarchy.” Frankenstein began when everyone living in the big house got bored and decided to have a ghost story competition. Byron wrote some snippets then gave up, another guy wrote a short story that people often say is the first vampire fiction. Mary Shelley wrote a novel that somehow captured all the major crises and questions of her era—technology, progress, gender, race, industrialization—and still resonates today. In short: A young scientist named Victor Frankenstein figures out how to give life to inanimate matter and creates a living person in his laboratory. This is the Monster, which is never named. Victor panics and runs off, leaving the creature to its own devices. From then on, things get pretty bloody, pretty scary, and pretty weird. —Derica ♦