The love for literature comes naturally to some folks. For others, it can represent a chore because reading is entirely linked to work or academic pursuits outside of a central passion. The one factor that can make or break or largely set the temperature of a romance with reading is if a book fails to recognize and resemble the reader’s personhood, history, ancestry or anything familiar. Finding oneself unrepresented in a book and struggling through the pages while telling yourself to think of alienation as an “out of body experience” that builds character only goes so far.
What to do? As people in the love-lit category above will tell you: Keep trying!
Here then is a wildly eclectic list of suggestions (most already on the shelf, some just on the cusp for release in early fall). All of the books feature and have been curated for solid and compelling writing, intriguing plot lines or topics, thorough research when a book includes or is based on historical or scientific facts—and more often than not, risk-takers. These books dare to be different, to strike independent tones and carry maverick points of view. If a reader can’t find a recognizable character or person or experience to relate to…again, keep trying! Read on and send a reply to let us know your discoveries.
Less is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer (Little, Brown and Company)
Greer smashed out of the gate previously with his bestselling and Pulitzer Prize-winning Less, a satirical novel that tracked the around-the-world-in-80-days literary tour of a flailing novelist, Arthur Less. In this second outing of Less, Greer’s protagonist has resolved himself to being a moderately accomplished novelist and locks into a steady relationship with his partner, Freddy Pelu. A death and a money crisis send him back on the road, this time, not in Europe, but in the United States. Laugh or cry, smirk or smile, Greer makes all responses possible while illuminating the universal truths of love, life in America and stories we tell ourselves to get through it all.
On the Rooftop by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Ecco)
Following the admirable footprint of her previous novels, A Kind of Freedom and The Revisioners, Sexton swings into the 1950s and the Jazz-era Filmore District in San Francisco. Three sisters, known as the singing act The Salvations, aim for the national spotlight under the keen eye and matriarchal management of their mother, Vivian. Ambition, family, gentrification, gender and racial inequity and a host of other themes are easily within Sexton’s wheelhouse. Great characters, history brought to life, vivid scenes, action and tension and tenderness: It’s all there. Sit back—learn lots—and enjoy while a master craftsperson does her thing in this fine new novel.
Self-Portrait with Ghost by Meng Jin (Mariner Books)
Bay Area-based Jin’s new collection of short stories is super charged. Memory, desire, love and more are engineered into haunting tales (with a sidecar of humor). Settings from urban China to San Francisco to otherworldly landscapes, where walls dissolve and disaster lurks online and spreads outside of any lines recognizable or imagined, are just one captivating element of these stories. Jin’s first novel, Little Gods, earned critical acclaim and industry awards. Her story collection upholds all previous standards and more.
See and Unseen by Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, with Ansel Adams’s Photographs (Chronicle Books)
This book aimed at the middle grade reader features the work of three iconic photographers as it unfolds the story of Japanese people and Japanese Americans in the United States who were hurled into incarceration camps in the early 1940s. Three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered people of Japanese descent or citizenry be interned. See and Unseen documents life at Manzanar, a camp located in the California desert. Energized by the writing of Elizabeth Partridge and including illustrations by Lauren Tamaki, the book comes with meaningful add-ons, in end matter notes and historical essays, that provide context and important facts about this tragic episode in American history.
The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (Doubleday)
Readers who missed Fruit of the Drunken Tree, her daring, vibrant debut novel, need not worry. If The Man is the first book they encounter by Contreras, it’s a stand alone gem and there’s plenty of opportunity to throw the reading into reverse gear and crack open Fruit after The Man. In this book, memoir melds with mystery and myth-making—especially as the real life story of hitting her head, receiving a concussion and succumbing to amnesia manifests itself in the narrative. Any book that has internment of a grandfather and a mother who fell into a well has us hooked on darkness, but Contreras knits a rainbow of colors into her quilt-like, episodic tale that reads like a love letter to things imperfectly remembered and things (also imperfectly) loved.
Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book by W. Kamau Bell and Kate Schatz (Workman Publishing)
A White Supremacy Word Scramble; Great* Moments in Presidential History (*“Great” as in “Wow! That’s a great big amount of racism!” a footnote states); an Accountability Partner Contract; Coloring Page breaks; Paper Doll cutouts; Black To The Future crossword puzzles; tests and tons of facts; hard scripts and ideas for hands-on understanding of systemic racism and how to pull the scaffold down and rebuild toward justice.… There’s all that and more in this thick workbook from writer, comedian and award-winning documentary series radio host Bell and New York Times bestselling author Schatz. Expect a solid dose of feminism and fun mixed with formidable challenge from these two local talents. Plus expect to get busy recognizing the ugly inside and urgently do the work toward the real deal: universal liberty for all.
The Herbivorous Butcher Cookbook: 75+ Recipes for Plant-Based Meats and All the Dishes You Can Make With Them by Aubry and Kale Walch, with Sandra Doria and Danny Peo (Chronicle Books)
Alternative, plant-based meats and cheese are the real “real thing,” according to the Guam-born brother-and-sister team who don’t hesitate to march on the cutting edge of the vegan movement. Butcher shop classics blaze a path in the all-plants foodie frontier with chicken cutlets, ground beef and chamorro chorizo. The Walch duo claims their products are indistinguishable from the meaty versions. Beginning with good eats as simple as brats and fish sticks, the Walch cookbook branches out into dishes such as Hobbits of the Shire Shepherd’s Pie, Smoky Reuben Croquettes (yes, vegan corned beef does exist) and Kales Very Fine Lasagne. There are soups, sides, snacks, sandwiches, butters and sauces, plus breezy meet-the-cooks essays and must-have-tools and pantry list. Insider tip: Their Herbivorous Butcher shop that opened in Minneapolis in 2016 was an instant hit, and in 2022, they ship their small-batch vegan plant-based meat products nationwide.
The Torqued Man: a Novel by Peter Mann (Harper)
The life of an Irish spy described in two manuscripts found in Berlin in September 1945 is the springboard for this terrific novel. Mann perfectly captures the distinct, narrative voices of ex–Irish resistance fighter Proinnsias “Frank” Pike and German intelligence operative Adrian de Groot, aka Johann Grotius, a German spy handler and his Irish secret agent. Torqued Man twists the two tales into knots and an interwoven story with divergent voices where only the reader knows all is gripping. The writing is cunning and effortless. As the two story streams eventually converge, satisfaction comes courtesy of sophistication delivered without pretense by a marvelous storyteller.
Leo + Lea by Monica Wesolowska (Scholastic)
Kids who love math or art will adore Wesolowska’s first children’s picture book. Marvelously rendered illustrations by Kenard Pak illuminate the text that tells of a friendship that opens up when Leo and Lea bridge the gap between their numbers-versus-art islands. With abstract origins in the Fibonacci Sequence, a mathematical series in which each number is the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on, this charming story adds up to a glorious celebration of connectedness. While children hold onto this treasure of a book, adults might seek out a copy of Wesolowska’s Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. In her intensely moving and searingly honest memoir, the Bay Area-based writer describes her first child’s brief life. The medical choices she and her husband face as they grapple with unimaginable loss are just one aspect of an unforgettable tale that along the way serves up a profound example of maternal love. Wesolowska is a writer of immense capacity whose limits seem to be boundless.
Living While Black: Portraits of Everyday Resistance by Ajuan Mance (Chronicle Books)
Mance is a professor of African American literature at Mills College in Oakland. Living While Black is her personal response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Forty brilliant, joyful images show Black people in everyday life and engaged in common activities using a bold color palette and portraits rendered in contemporary and lively—but never hawkish or cartoony—style. Expressive artwork prefaced with a provocative forward essay about racism and resistance written by activist Alicia Garza, this book offers a feast for the eyes and food for thought.
Nature Swagger: Stories and Visions of Black Joy in the Outdoors by Rue Mapp (Chronicle Books)
Bay Area-based Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Oakland-based Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit organization and cutting-edge network of folks working on the front lines to celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature. This edition from Chronicle Books features photography, stories, profiles and essays from Outdoor Afro group members, Black leaders in outdoor spaces and other organizations. Urging Black people to reclaim their place in the natural world, Mapp shares the history and highlights of Black involvement in the outdoors, activism and conservation. Resources at the end of the book give every reader ideas for carrying the Blackness Outdoors movement forward.
Martian: The Saint of Loneliness by James Cagney (Nomadic Press)
Cagney is an Oakland-based poet and the author of Black Steel Magnolias In The Hour of Chaos Theory (Nomadic Press, 2018). Winner of the PEN Oakland 2019 Josephine Miles Award, Cagney builds on his earlier success in this second collection of poetry. Blistering and boiling its way along themes related to America’s history of anti-Black violence, there’s no doubt Cagney is both satirical and serious. In these poems, a reader doesn’t have to choose or have a preference for either tone because Cagney can hit two bells simultaneously and strike both with equal, unflinching power. This is precious, potent poetry from local press Nomadic, a non-profit publisher that supports the works of emerging and established writers and artists. Applause all around.
Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party, photographs by Stephen Shames and text by Ericka Huggins (ACC Art Books)
This long-delayed story of the women of the Black Panther Party is told in pictures, original text and contributions by over 50 women party members, including Angela Davis, Fredrika Newton, Barbara Easley-Cox and others. As revealed in this book, a multi-generational cast of women from diverse backgrounds agitated, protested, organized, advocated and took action in the fight for social justice, often providing food, housing, education and healthcare as unacknowledged members of the Black Panther Party. Comrade Sisters combines photos by Shames, who at the time was a 20-year-old college student at UC Berkeley, with text by Huggins, an early party member. A longtime activist, Huggins for 40 years has lectured across the country and spent 14 years in the Black Panther Party. Expanded with words and essays from contributors well-known or lesser known, these stories are long overdue.
The Black Period: On Personhood, Race, and Origin by Hafizah Augustus Geter (Random House)
Poet and essayist Geter shares her origin story as the queer daughter of a Muslim Nigerian immigrant and a Black American visual artist. In this riveting memoir, Geter creates space for Black beauty, Islamic faith, disability and queerness. Refusing to vanish, responding to societal efforts at erasure, Geter’s memoir includes original artwork created by her father, artist Tyrone Geter. The tragic story of losing her mother and other losses combine with victories to form a collective history and surprisingly intimate portrait of a person still wrestling to find hope and love and linkages.