For many of us over the past year, reading has been an escape from the daily terror and monotony of quarantine. We are still unravelling the psychic impact COVID-19 has had on our collective consciousness as New England begins to open its doors. For the immunocompromised, for the parents of young children, and for our families and friends in other countries, this fight is far from over. This bittersweet summer will be a time of simultaneous celebration and somber reflection. The following books range in topics from wrestling with the many facets of grief, imagining life after climate change and meditations on immigration. Let this bold and imaginative prose take you on a journey, whether you’re taking those tentative first steps outside, or you’re still safely nestled at home.
'Antiman: A Hybrid Memoir'
By Rajiv Mohabir
Sometimes there is power in reclaiming an identity that was originally intended to tear you down. Rajiv Mohabir, assistant professor at Emerson College, does this with the title of his memoir, since the word "antiman" is a Caribbean slur for men who love men. As a Guyanese Indian immigrant growing up in central Florida, Mohabir wanted to rediscover the cultural history his family left behind in coming to America. His personal journey takes him to Toronto, New York, Varanasi, India and beyond to discover where he feels most at home — as a queer poet who is unapologetically himself.
'Rise to the Sun'
By Leah Johnson
Two teens who are riddled with heartbreak connect at a music festival. Olivia is healing after a harmful breakup, but as a hopeless romantic, she can’t help but keep her eyes on Toni. Toni is trying to navigate her future now that her dad has passed. Will she follow in his footsteps with a career in music, pursue a college education, or forge a new path for herself? This touching queer romance is ultimately a celebration of Black joy. Author Leah Johnson teaches at New England College.
'We Have Always Been Here'
By Lena Nguyen
If you were exploring the vast expanse of space for a habitable planet after the ecological destruction of Earth, who would you trust — the humans you’re trying to secure a new future for, or the androids who treat you with kindness and respect? In this sci-fi thriller, Dr. Grace Park is treated with hostility by her fellow human crewmates who think she’s a spy for the Interstellar Frontier that governs the galaxy with an iron fist. But when a radiation storm afflicts the crew with a mysterious illness and the androids with strange disturbances, Dr. Park must discover the source before she succumbs to the illness herself. Debut author Lena Nguyen has studied writing at Brown and Harvard.
'The Past Is Red'
By Catherynne M. Valente
My next post-apocalyptic recommendation is a humorously dark novel that imagines the future of humanity living atop trash heaps floating on a flooded Earth, rather than a planetary escape. Protagonist Tetley Abednego (named after the tea brand) first appeared in Valente’s short story “The Future is Blue,” where she is shunned for unapologetically loving her island home, the aptly named “Garbagetown.” Other people in this settlement stubbornly hope to discover dry land and revive the long-abandoned lifestyles of the 21st century. Author Catherynne M. Valente lives on an island off the coast of Maine that’s made of land, not garbage.
By Mona Awad
As the saying goes, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But for Miranda Fitch, she has to grasp a tantalizing opportunity when it presents itself. Her life had fallen to shambles in one fell swoop — a devastating accident crushed her back, her dreams as an actor, and her marriage. Now caught in a battle between agonizing chronic pain and painkiller dependence, all Miranda wants to do is stage a production of “All’s Well That Ends Well’ at the local community college where she teaches. But her students vehemently disagree and she’s in danger of losing her job. When three mysterious strangers give her the chance to transfer her pain to others, she takes it, but naturally, there will be consequences for her decision. Following her critically acclaimed 2019 novel “Bunny,” Boston author Mona Awad delivers another sharp satire with “All’s Well.”
'Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor'
By Anna Qu
The American dream turns into the American nightmare in this grim memoir about Anna Qu’s familial abandonment and subsequent abuse. Qu’s mother immigrated to the United States from China in pursuit of a better life, leaving toddler-aged Anna under the care of her grandparents back home. Her mother wouldn’t return for Anna for six years. When she did, she put Anna to work in her new husband’s sweat shop in Queens — a cruel reminder of their precarious place as immigrants in this country. But Anna quickly learned English and alerted New York’s Office of Children and Family Services of her situation. This stand would eventually divert her path from an obedient daughter to an estranged one. “Made in China” is a heartbreaking reflection of the ripple effects of immigration. Anna Qu teaches at New England College.
'The Human Zoo'
By Sabina Murray
This biting literary novel seamlessly reflects real-world Filipino politics with a veneer of plausible deniability. After building her career reporting on the corruption and violence of the Philippine government, Filipino-American Christina "Ting" Klein unexpectedly throws herself into the lion’s den by traveling to Manila. While staying with an elderly aristocratic aunt, she decides to research the indigenous Filipinos who were forcibly relocated to American amusement parks (such as Coney Island) at the turn of the 20th century. However, as she gets swept up in her family’s upper-class circles and reconnects with some old friends and flames, the brutality of the current regime strikes a little too close for comfort. Author Sabina Murray is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
'The Family Plot'
By Megan Collins
In Connecticut author Megan Collins’ haunting thriller, a true crime-obsessed family encounters a gruesome murder mystery of their own. The family’s isolated mansion is a macabre setting for protagonist Dahlia Lighthouse to grow up in, but when her twin brother Andy vanishes at age 16, it’s made all the more unbearable. Ten years later, Dahlia must return home after the death of her father, only to discover the body of Andy with an ax embedded in his skull. Dahlia decides that the only way to process her grief is to solve her brother’s death. All of her eccentric family members have secrets. Any of them could have motive.
By Ye Chun
In her poetic debut short story collection, Ye Chun explores the most ubiquitous word in the Chinese language — the character 好 (hao). While in modern day, the word most often means “good,” in an interview, Ye says the Oracle Bone sign (some of the earliest known Chinese writing) had been “a kneeling figure with a protruding chest, a woman, holding a child” from the 12th through the 9th centuries BCE. These 12 stories center around the theme of motherhood across China, the United States and hundreds of years of time. Her characters’ relentless perseverance in the face of immigration, racism and sexism comes from an inner strength as strong as the bond between mother and child. Ye teaches at Providence College.
'The Book of Form and Emptiness'
By Ruth Ozeki
In this tender novel from Smith College professor Ruth Ozeki, 14-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices from inanimate objects after the death of his father. Their emotional tones vary, much like the differing personalities of people, and the resulting cacophony at home becomes unbearable as his mother becomes a hoarder. Benny finds refuge in the quiet library, but soon even the books begin to narrate his life. New friends and objects alike help him navigate this strange new world born from grief.