It’s finally June. After what feels like an infinitely long winter, there’s time and space to lay in the grass with a book (or two, or three). The days are long and made for contemplation – which is why this month we’re bringing you a variety-pack of thought provoking books, from a summertime romp from the 80s to particle physics to a metaphysical mystery. Happy reading!
Nothing Burns as Bright as you by Ashley Woodfolk
GENRE: Novel in verse | versify 2022 | REVIEWED BY Megan foster
“And this / is a perfect metaphor / for us: / Fire and water. Flames and frost. / Hot and cold, burning and freezing. Opposites…I always want to be close to the inferno of you, / even if it kills me” (6). In her heartbreaking novel in verse, Nothing Burns as Bright as You, Ashley Woodfolk tells a love story that unfolds over the course of a single day and begins when two unnamed Black teenage girls start a dumpster fire. Shifting between flashbacks and the present, the protagonist faces the ramifications of her and her friend’s actions while reliving their explosive chemistry leading up to that fateful day. Woodfolk’s exquisite writing sizzles and burns in the best way; I do not say lightly that she reminds me of Jacqueline Woodson. Overall, Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a devastating reminder that sometimes love is not enough. If you, too, cherish excellent poetry and a good cry, then by all means give this one a go.
Why We Love It: This novel-in-verse about two young Black girls is romantic, emotional, and lyrically stunning.
Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
GENRE: fiction | random house 1984 | REVIEWED BY Patricia steckler
Foreign Affairs, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alison Lurie, features a single woman in her mid-fifties, Vinnie Miner, an English professor on a six-month sabbatical in England. Vinnie’s plain appearance and unassuming demeanor marginalize her, giving her an unfettered view of aging, singlehood, and Anglophilia.
With wit and an outsider’s perspective, Vinnie makes wry cultural comparisons between Americans and Brits, embodied by a slate of colorful characters. A combination of temporarily transplanted, disgruntled, prosaic Americans, including a florid-faced cowboy-type from Oklahoma, intersect with assorted Londoners, including titled actress Rosemary Radley. Rosemary flounces in butterfly-winged chiffon, her face coated in layers of age-disguising make-up, flitting about with her cadre of eccentric cronies. This irresistible cast engages in hilarious and poignant scenes, evoking the reader’s sympathy and affection.
The plot unfolds as a Hollywood-handsome American colleague of Vinnie’s falls for Rosemary, who welcomes him into her elite circle. Then, in an unexpected turn, Vinnie falls for the beefy cowboy, Chuck. Teas and dinners unite the entire dramatis personae for quirky, off-beat, and outrageous behavior. That would be enough for a total romp, but Foreign Affairs offers much more.
Lurie was ahead of her time in 1984 when she chose Vinnie, single and over-the-hill — by conventional standards — as the protagonist for a book that looks starkly at aging and the low social status of single women. But, thanks to Lurie’s deft hand, Vinnie is far from a pitiable figure. Not a stereotypical spinster-wallflower, she has a clear voice, a steely resolve, and a heart that melts and breaks. Vinnie is the true star of this lovely tale.
Why We Love It: This playful romp about a single, 50+ year old woman defies spinster stereotypes and warrants a second look.
Portrait of an Unknown lady By Maria Gainza, trans. by Thomas Bunstead
GENRE: literary mystery | catapult 2022 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley
“Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original?” This is the question posed by many characters in Maria Gainza’s metaphysical mystery novel Portrait of an Unknown Lady, including our mysterious narrator, who finds herself enmeshed in a decades-long mystery when she apprentices with art-expert and life-long peddler of forged artworks, Enriqueta Macedo. When Enriqueta dies, the narrator copes with her grief by searching for Marietta Lydis, the forger who put Enriqueta on the map before disappearing forever into the alleyways of Buenos Aires.
Though its plot leans toward noir, Portrait of an Unknown Lady offers none of the resolution of a classic detective novel. In fact, the narrator warns us of this in the first few pages. “Any person reading this ought not to expect names, numbers, or dates,” she says. “The stuff of my tale has slipped through my fingers, all that remains now is a little of the atmosphere…” In this novel, as with most great works of literary fiction, the purpose is the search. As she interviews the bohemian elderly of Buenos Aires, our narrator butts up against unanswerable questions like what makes a work of art authentic? And how much of our identity is dependent on how we are remembered?
Ultimately, this novel isn’t a portrait of forger Marietta Lydis as it is a portrait of our narrator, whose obsession with the lost artist is in fact a search for her late mentor–“…because one day the person you love above everyone else disappears and you realize that the conversation has been cut short.”
Why We Love It: This metaphysical detective novel offers style, suspense, and quirky character studies that keep you turning the page while you question what it means to make “authentic” art.
The disordered cosmos by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
GENRE: physics/non-fiction | bold type books 2021 | REVIEWED BY rey katz
In The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, theoretical physicist, illuminates facets of our natural world. Particle physics is especially difficult to understand, but Dr. Prescod-Weinstein offers expert, enthusiastic, yet not overwhelming descriptions of her research. She clearly explains tiny particles, telescopes built on Native American sacred sites, and the physics of skin color (from melanin molecules to discrimination).
As Prescod-Weinstein points out, it’s impossible to separate the study of physics from racism, sexism, and colonialism. Physics is a mathematical framework for understanding the universe– but the question is, who created that framework? There is no universal way to understand natural phenomena, and yet white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual perspectives dominate published scientific research. I am grateful Prescod-Weinstein shares her experience as a queer, Black, Jewish, agender woman and physics professor. As a nonbinary former physics undergrad, I appreciated reading an agender perspective on working in the physics community, including experiencing sexism and abuse from colleagues.
I wish I had read this book when I was studying physics (it hadn’t been published yet, and I know of no other comparable resource!) and I highly recommend it to anyone who is involved in science, whether you are a journalist, an instructor, or a researcher.
Why We Love It: This book will help you grasp particle physics, recognize prejudice, and see the human perspective in scientific research.
one person can hold so much silence by David greenspan
GENRE: poetry | driftwood press 2022 | REVIEWED BY rebecca valley
In David Greenspan’s debut collection One Person Can Hold So Much Silence, he builds a world from the matchsticks of vocabulary. We find ourselves in humid Florida, in corn fields, in the ghost-world of memory where overdoses and a violent father loom large and frightening on the page. These poems are lush the way a strip mall is lush, full to bursting with objects, rhetoric, bodily fluids, advertising. Greenspan writes:
"I've built something closely resembling a life of lemon bright distraction... Overdoses and tumors, boxes of clementines, they all come back and go dancing."
Along the way, the landscapes that fill this collection make space for a greater landscape – the landscape of the body, which is stretched and opened and made new in each poem. “Let me say it quickly / & briefly,” Greenspan writes, “my skin has a zipper.” This body, altered by language, often decomposing, stumbles through a world that is just as rotten. As Greenspan writes in “Poem to Pass the Time”:
"maybe today I'll leave the house enter a world of small violence rain & restless legs... I wanted to see what an economy was besides blood & equation..."
The body in this poem is transformed by Greenspan’s “wet metaphors” into something that speaks for itself. In fact, in these poems Greenspan fills the silence (within memory, within ourselves) with language. As if vocabulary is a salve for the wounded, the weak, the grieving. As if, by writing, he is freeing us from the prison of our silence.
Why We Love It: These poems are vivid, visceral, and surprisingly soft. They invite you into a new conception of what it means to carry memory.
Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover.