Shelf Life
In which we answer the question, What have you read and loved recently?
Pew by Catherine Lacey

Reading during the pandemic has proven pretty strange. Some days it’s hard to concentrate on the page, others it feels like reading is the only thing we can do to keep ourselves from the endless scroll. Here, we share a few highlights from our recent reading adventures.

Luster by Raven Leilani (2020)

It’s been a while since a narrator has charmed me as quickly as Edie, the voice of Raven Leilani’s debut novel. Edie’s a young Black publishing coordinator and latent artist juggling all that NYC can throw at her, from shitty apartments to unfulfilling jobs to questionable romantic partners. (“I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men,” she muses at one point.) Soon, she unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of a suburban white couple’s messy open marriage and befriending their adopted Black daughter. It’s a whirlwind story, with the only constant being Edie’s inner monologue, full of so many witty and honest observations about class, race, sex, and art that you’ll wish you could just hang out with her IRL. —MML

Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman (2020)

Did I shed a tiny tear at the end of this book? Maybe so. I’ve been such a fan of Aminatou and Ann’s long-running Call Your Girlfriend podcast, that it was a real treat to read their voices together on the page. (And just as interesting, actually, to hear about how they wrote it.) Friendship is such a big deal in our lives, but we don’t often have the tools or vocab to navigate conflict within it (unlike the way we do for familial and romantic relationships). Aminatou and Ann spend their book tracing the beginnings of their 10-year friendship and opening up about the conflicts that almost tore it apart. They write about working to create a healthy interracial friendship dynamic, learning to communicate in friend therapy (a thing they hadn’t heard of either), and finding ways to help each other shine. In a world where seeing friends is nearly impossible but their existence is maybe more necessary than ever, it warmed my heart to read a book that celebrates these relationships for the lifelines that they are. —MML

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)

I hadn’t read any books by Jacqueline Woodson before picking up Another Brooklyn, but I loved it so much that I quickly chased it with Red at the Bone. Another Brooklyn follows four teenage girlfriends growing up in ‘70s Bushwick, each one figuring out what they want from the world. At its center is August, who moves to Brooklyn from Tennessee, where her mother stays behind. Woodson’s details knocked me out; the book reads like a love letter for a very specific era of female friendship, when your body starts to change and other people start to notice, including your friends. (“We envied each other’s hair, eyes, butts, noses,” she writes.) A time when you start to define who you are in relation (or opposition) to your parents’ and society’s expectations. It’s one of the warmest, truest depictions of girlhood I’ve heard in a long time. —MML

Pew by Catherine Lacey (2020)

The plot of Catherine Lacey’s latest novel reads almost like a Southern Gothic fable: a young, gender and racially ambiguous stranger is discovered sleeping in a church pew and quickly has everyone in a small Southern town gossiping about their presence. Pew, nicknamed for the bench on which they were discovered, doesn’t talk much; instead we listen to stories from the local townspeople who shuffle Pew from home to home, trying to figure out if they’re a boy or girl, black or white, peaceful or malicious. As someone who, like Lacey, spent some time growing up in Mississippi, the “good intentions” and doublespeak of the mysteriously religious locals felt familiar—like when “You’re welcome to stay here” sounds a lot like “You’re not welcome to stay here.” It’s an interesting study of our need to sort people into binaries, and an eerie tale that builds up to an almost Midsommar-like reckoning. I’m still simmering on what it all means. —MML

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (2020)

When I first decided to read this book I had no idea it was going to be 450 pages long. I thought to myself, damn, how the heck am I going to finish this during a pandemic??? I mean, it took a few months but I finally got to the last page, woohoo! (And I also read other things in between, sorry.) But you know what, I really loved all of it! In essence, this novel examines what it means to be inside a woman’s body, from the perspectives of three women living in modern-day Japan. No spoilers but perhaps the title of this book can clue you into what kinds of bodily scrutinies are subjected in this novel. —JL

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (2020)

A collection of brain-balmy essays about what it means to be Asian in America. It’s complicated, hahahaha! Honestly, I didn’t have an urge to read this immediately upon its release—but then quite a few Asian friends couldn’t stop bringing it up. Sometimes your community knows when you ought to pick up a book! Thank you to my Azn community. This was very much worth the read. Hong is a master of words. —JL

Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott (2020)

Reading straight-up novels has been hard during lockdown. And I know I’m not the only one who hasn’t been able to concentrate! My solution? Picking up graphic novels and comics. Eeee this book is so fucking funny, makes very astute observations on art (and the people who make them), and explores identity (race, sexuality, et al) in a way I hadn’t consumed before. I loved! —JL

Angela Davis: A Biography by Angela Davis

This biography…whew! Davis wrote this all before she was 30 years old—in her forward she mentioned she didn’t feel like she had lived long enough to warrant an autobiography up to this point. (Her editor, Toni Morrison, urged her to reconsider.) And, of course, there was actually much to recount with readers. This book covers Davis’s personal life up until the Soledad Brothers case, but even so, she’s packed in a whole lifetime of wisdom and activism here. Much of the same language and sentiment in this book are what we still hear today, and while that’s a certain devastation in that, this book will (hopefully) invigorate readers to take action in 2020 times. —JL

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (2020)

OK, here’s another graphic novel. I can’t stop! This one’s a memoir by Adrian Tomine, who is quite the nervous nelly, a keeper of painful memories, a reflector of cringe-worthy moments. Have you ever met a person who is just a ball of nerves? Someone whose energy makes you on edge? Who overanalyzes and overthinks and sweats the stuff, however big or small? That’s Tomine for you. But his softness, his anxieties, his emotions…ugh, they really get you. This book is a reminder that life is an ever-expanding quilt of memories that all contribute to the person you eventually become. Here’s a man who has turned his difficult times into a beautiful illustrated memoir. —JL