Every year, the National Book Foundation nominates 25 books for the National Book Award. A celebration of the best of American literature, the nominations span fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young adult books. And every year since 2014, we at Vox read them all to help our readers figure out which ones they might want to check out. Here are our thoughts on the 2021 nominees and winners.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Cloud Cuckoo Land is so skillfully crafted that reading it feels a little like prying open a watch to admire the clockwork. It’s not always clear what you’re looking at, but it’s undeniably impressive that someone was able to put all those cogs and gears together.
There are five main characters in this book, and they exist on four different timelines. We start on a spaceship in the 22nd century. Flip the page, and you’re in the Midwest in 2019. Flip the page again, and you’re in 15th-century Istanbul. Flip the page again, and you’re in Korea during the war.
Doerr’s clever plot eventually brings these characters and timelines together. But even before the satisfying conclusion, they’re united by a single theme. Each of our protagonists lives at what they understand to be the end of the world. They each seek refuge in the same book: a lost comedy from ancient Greece that keeps emerging into history through luck and happenstance.
Doerr’s built an elegant structure. It’s also much too long: In the time it takes for all five plotlines to cohere, a lot of urgency has drained out of the book, leaving the book’s long middle feeling circuitous, rambling, and badly in need of a point. The author moreover seems palpably uncomfortable when it comes to writing women, even when they are minor characters. Still, Doerr’s tribute to the perseverance of life and books in the face of apocalypse is moving — and no matter what, it’s quite a sight to open the covers of Cloud Cuckoo Land and watch that clockwork tick. —Constance Grady, book critic
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff’s Matrix, about a group of nuns who build a utopian community in 12th-century England, is the most purely sensual book I’ve read all year. Every line is rich with physical details, precise and exquisite: apricot flesh with “a little give to it like the firm thigh of a girl;” the voices of nuns as they read aloud “mixing so beautifully that the impression is not a tapestry of individual threads but a solid sheet like pounded gold.”
Matrix, which takes its title from the Latin word for mother, is built around the real-life French poet Marie de France. Groff’s Marie is a painfully awkward girl of 17 when the novel begins, ugly and ill-mannered but possessing both great strength and great ambition. She’s shipped off to an impoverished abbey in middle-of-nowhere England on the grounds that she’s too ugly to marry but decent at managing an estate. Out of sheer force of will, she transforms the abbey from hovel into an Eden of sorts: a safe haven for women, replete with art and sheltered from violence, but always troubled by both the demands of encroaching men and Marie’s relentless plans for more, more, more.
Marie’s ferocious, boundless ambition is the force that powers Matrix forward and keeps you turning the pages. But it’s her insistence on experiencing life through her body that truly makes this novel special: The way Marie revels in her physical strength, in good food, in sex, in cool water after a hot flash. She’s an unforgettable character, and Groff evokes her point of view so strongly that it takes over your whole body. You don’t read this novel so much as immerse yourself in it, as though you’re being baptized. —Constance Grady, book critic
Zorrie by Laird Hunt
Can you capture a whole life in a slim little book? Hunt has tried — and succeeded, beautifully — in Zorrie, a deceptively simple book about the curious forces that shape a life. The title character, Zorrie Underwood, lives nearly her whole life in a farming community in Indiana, first as an orphan raised by an uncaring aunt, then as a drifter during the Depression, a wife, and finally a young widow living next door to her neighbor Noah, who harbors a tragedy in his heart. Hard work is all she’s ever known, but it’s far from the sum of who she is. Zorrie takes pleasure in the home she crafts in Indiana: “the dirt she had bloomed up out of, it was who she was, what she felt, how she thought, what she knew.”
A key, brief moment in Zorrie’s life — the one that comes back to both bless and haunt her — is two months she spends in Illinois as a young woman, working for the Radium Dial Company painting clocks with glow-in-the-dark numbers. She and the other young women there, especially her friends Jane and Marie, often lick their paintbrushes, coated with a substance not yet known to be a potent carcinogen. The glowing of that powder follows Zorrie through her life, marking her hopes, her fears, and ultimately her sense of meaning. Hunt’s novel reads like poetry, evoking writers like Paul Harding and Marilynne Robinson, and radiates the heat of a beating heart. —Alissa Wilkinson, film critic
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel The Prophets is a powerful story of forbidden love between Isaiah and Samuel, two enslaved men in the antebellum South. “The two of them” can exist in the world they create for themselves in the barn at the edge of the plantation until they are ultimately betrayed. Jones Jr.’s work has garnered considerable praise for revealing what queer love may have been like for enslaved people.
But it’s the gravitational force of his prose — lyrical, alarmingly clear, with the ability to evoke moments intimate or grand in scale — that sets his work apart. It’s evident in the way Jones Jr. describes Isaiah and Samuel when they are alone together: “every separate motion building upon the other to form something that seemed to sway to its own music, back and forth, like the sea.”
Nearly every review of The Prophets mentions the late James Baldwin — and for good reason. Baldwin’s last wish was that someone might be able to find something in the “wreckage” he left behind, in other words, that other authors could find inspiration in his work. In the acknowledgments for The Prophets, Jones Jr. thanks Baldwin and writes: “We did that.” Baldwin was nominated four times for a National Book Award but never won. It would be inspiring to see Robert Jones Jr., who stands squarely on Baldwin’s shoulders, take home the prize. —Jariel Arvin, former Vox foreign fellow
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott — WINNER
Hell of a Book is a hellish journey, dark and rife with unease. Half of the book is stream-of-consciousness narration by an unnamed bestselling author who tells the reader he’s been haunted by hallucinations since childhood. The other half tells the story of a dark-skinned boy (who may, or may not, be dead) referred to only by the name given to him by bullies: Soot.
The unnamed author’s tenuous grasp on reality gives the book a dreamlike quality: It’s unclear if what you’re reading is actually happening, an ambiguity heightened by the fact that many of the author’s encounters seem too fantastic to be real. Chief among these are his regular visits from Soot, who becomes the author’s connection to the horrors of police brutality, something he would prefer to ignore.
Police brutality becomes a recurring theme in the book, as do other elements of the Black American experience. Among other things, Jason Mott touches on loss, memory, race, colorism, family, love, and the United States. In taking such a wide aim, he isn’t really able to explore any of these subjects in depth. Ideas blur into one another, the way the real and unreal merge for the author narrator. The result is a strange, sad story, one both stylish and meandering. —Sean Collins, news editor
A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib’s prose is always breathtaking, but A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance shines in particular. Divided not into sections or chapters but “movements,” each part of this collection explores Black joy and pain while weaving in his own personal memories and musings of his life, and the lives of other Black people that thread through American culture.
In a section about jazz star Josephine Baker, Abdurraqib writes: “There are streets named after Black people situated throughout America’s cities. Most of the times, the Black people are dead. Sometimes the street bearing the dead Black person’s name doesn’t have many living Black people on it.” Abdurraqib thrives when coupling simple fact with significance, and throughout this book he paints larger-than-life pictures of memory and history.
Black performance presents itself in many ways — not just through music or dance or living life, but in the attempts white folks make at emulating it. A section that discusses the story of William Henry Lane, a minstrel performer that Charles Dickens wrote about, soon gives way to a parallel: how Black people are imitated on the internet, and how this social creepiness has become normal because, well, it’s been normalized since the beginning of time.
The collection speaks to the way Blackness is performed, born, killed, warped, loathed, and loved, with beauty and thoughtfulness. “Anyone who speaks a language inside a language can see when that dialect is presenting a challenge for someone ... or when it is coming from someone who watched a movie with a Black person in it once and then never saw a Black person again,” he writes. “It would be humorous or fascinating if it wasn’t so suffocating. I would laugh if I was not being smothered by the violence of imagination.” —Melinda Fakuade, associate editor, culture and features
Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire
The depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, a vast expanse of groundwater lying under the Plains states, is the subject of Lucas Bessire’s Running Out; In Search of Water in the High Plains. But it’s also the device for Bessire’s reconnection to his family roots in western Kansas and his definition of “depletion” in all its forms. Bessire is an anthropologist and a filmmaker, which is evident in his fieldwork approach and his scenic portrayal of the Plains.
The Ogallala aquifer was once an ancient sea, buried millions of years ago by the formation of the Rocky Mountains. Today, it supports a sixth of the world’s grain output, but maybe not for long: In just 80 years, farmers have been sucking the aquifer dry. Bessire takes us along on an investigation of the short-sighted water management policies that govern industrial-scale agriculture. This pursuit is with the help of his formerly estranged father who serves as his local “fixer,” bringing him to water board meetings and introducing him to local stakeholders.
Bessire also has a reckoning with his family’s role in the aquifer’s depletion: His great grandfather “RW” was one of the first farmers to tap the Ogallala aquifer. What struck me was the way Bessire connects the Ogallala with other forms of natural resource depletion: A childhood memory of finding a buffalo bone on his family’s property introduces a devastating historical account of how buffalo herds once roamed the region, before early Plains settlers hunted them to the point of annihilation. This book left me heartbroken with the knowledge of more ways that human nature, politics, or profit motives have caused a failure in our stewardship of Earth’s irreplaceable resources. —Laura Bult, video producer
Tastes Like War: A Memoir by Grace M. Cho
Food and memory are inextricably linked in Grace Cho’s gut-wrenching memoir, Tastes like War, which explores how different dishes and items embody history and trauma.
Named after a comment her mother previously made about powdered milk — a food she avoided and despised because it reminded her of what American soldiers distributed to Korean people during their military occupation — the book examines the pain and struggle that food can carry.
“I can’t stand the taste of it,” [Cho’s mother] said of the powdered milk. “Tastes like war.”
Throughout the book, food — including kimchi, apple pie, and cheeseburgers — are markers of Cho’s personal memories and symbols of everything from the tragedies that people endured during the Korean War to the push to assimilate that many immigrants encounter in the US. A fixation on apple pie, for instance, is representative of how fiercely Cho’s mother attempts to blend in, in her father’s exceedingly homogenous hometown.
“Baking, for my mother, was a way to become American,” Cho writes. “Baking was a way to forget.”
Powered by sharp, unflinching prose, Cho’s book is as much about her personal history as it is about the history of American hegemony in Asia — and the many scars it has left on the millions of people who have experienced it. By chronicling her own relationship with her mother, who struggled with schizophrenia, and many of the foods they shared, Cho offers an incisive portrait of how haunting these conflicts continue to be. —Li Zhou, politics reporter
Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America by Nicole Eustace
In 1722, in the Pennsylvania woods, an Indigenous man named Sawantaeney is murdered by two English fur traders. It’s a business deal gone wrong. Covered With Night tells the story of the thwarted negotiation that follows: The colonial government offers capital punishment as justice but ignores Native pleas for restoration, communion, and reparations. The colonists just don’t get that their neighbors aren’t placated by the idea of an eye for an eye. What else, they wonder, could these people possibly want?
A gripping narrative takes us through the tension between punitive proto-American concepts of law and order and the community-focused beliefs of the Haudenosaunee, through Indigenous attempts to see their traditions and ethics honored. While the English of the time didn’t deign to write down — or even, it seems, comprehend the existence of — Native philosophies of fairness, NYU professor Nicole Eustace reads the original documents closely and finds their accidental inclusion. This book is a feat of primary source gathering and close reading.
While we haven’t learned exactly the right lessons in the intervening 300 years, Covered With Night explains a horrible lot about our past, and offers something of a vision for a brighter future. —Meredith Haggerty, senior editor, culture
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles — WINNER
At a moment when conservative lawmakers want teachers to dial back their instruction on slavery and its lasting impact, author and Harvard historian Tiya Miles gives readers many reasons to keep unearthing and sharing the truth about the cruel institution that shaped America. In All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, Miles tells the story of survival in the face of unspeakable hardship.
Rose, an enslaved Black woman in coastal South Carolina in the early 1850s, learns that she or her daughter Ashley will be sold on the auction block. Rose’s lineage, which lived on through her only child, was in danger, and the love that she and her daughter shared would forever be damaged. Nonetheless, with what little she had in the way of possessions, Rose mustered the will to be creative, thoughtful, and resourceful. She gave her daughter, only 9 years old, a sack of items: a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, and a braid of her own hair. She told her daughter, “It be filled with my Love always,” and never saw her again. The act of filling a sack with meager possessions might seem inconsequential, but it spoke to the love, resilience, and hope that Black women summoned for survival through generations. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter learned of her great-grandmother’s act and embroidered the story on the sack, further preserving the story for her progeny.
What makes this historical account so impressive is how Miles expands the story beyond this one family to show how it stands in the greater historical record of the lengths African American families went to preserve themselves and their memories through crafting and working with fabric. Miles pulls in her own family history to talk about the importance of textiles like quilts. Miles goes to great lengths to extract histories that the archives did not care to preserve, a brave endeavor that continues the very practice that Rose started almost two centuries ago. —Fabiola Cineas, race and policy reporter
What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C. Bailey
The poetry of What Noise Against the Cane interlaces Black and political resistance, Afro-Caribbean customs, liberation, the body and nature, sense-making, and freedom, to name a few, across the Black Diaspora and Black America. The book begins with its long poem, “Chant for the Waters and Dirt and Blade.” Bailey charts the spiritual turmoil and complex wavering of an enslaved woman’s journey through the transatlantic slave trade to the brink of the Haitian Revolution — a turmoil beyond injury, beyond reconfiguration, and beyond placemaking.
As I navigated this poem, I found myself taking pause; digesting each stanza. Aside from Bailey’s play on words and diction, the magnitude of lines like “melody of home: a ruthless drift / a song that doesn’t return” and “praise our mothers’ fading homes / which we may only see in dreams” made me sit for a moment. The book’s spirit spoke directly to me —through its woman-led perspective, perhaps, but most certainly through the character’s negotiations with memory. “words I can’t speak cause I don’t want / my flesh to remember but the stink / collects there mapping / a route to my head / I want my memory to fail I want / to drive it out with the scent of pésil.” I was moved to ask myself: What are the ways our bodies remember? How were our ancestors’ bodies tethered to nature? How do our bodies store trauma across generations?
Here I found explorations of contemporary Black America and the Diaspora, negotiations of identity, and themes of home, nature and body, womanhood, and reckoning of self and lineage. I encourage readers to remember Haiti as the first Black republic and to think through the book’s and poems’ titles, the body’s relation to nature (which can seem quite the opposite at times), and what freedom looks and feels like in the quest for liberation. —Sierra Enea, video clearance producer
Floaters by Martín Espada — WINNER
Martin Espada invites the reader to understand the lives of different Latinx people using personal memories, lyrical fiction, and historical and current events. The title “Floaters” introduces the story of a Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in an attempt to cross the Río Grande in search of a better life. From the unity of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria to being called a “José” in a New York taxi, Martin Espada covers an unjust and bigoted United States that persists today.
Espada recalls his time working in Brooklyn as a tenant lawyer, only to be seen as a robber because he is Puerto Rican. He accurately depicts the ridiculous slurs, physical and mental abuse towards Latinos, that have been reignited and made even more visible than before through the Trump era. In opposition to the hate, he brings poems that carry a universal truth to all Latinos, to have pride in your identity, resilience in your work, and untiring care for your community.
This diverse collection of poems uses Spanish words to create a personal and emotional attachment to the characters (some fictitious, others not). Some words simply do not have a great translation to English, and the author embraces it. One learns and identifies with the stanzas of what it was, and still is, to be a Latino, migrant, or Puerto Rican in the US.
The last poem, dedicated to his passed father, brings up childhood memories and thoughts of seeing parents as gods, only to learn they are mortals that have made incredible sacrifices, like leaving a paradise of a home, for a better chance at life for the next generation. A Latinx person who reads this will feel this book hitting home, and those who are not Latinx are invited to learn and understand. —Natalie Ruiz-Pérez, video clearance producer
Sho by Douglas Kearney
Kearney’s poetry sings and crackles, loud and clear — no small feat for poetry that begs to be seen on a page. Kearney, who’s described his visually experimental of previous works of poetry as “performative typography,” sticks mostly to more traditional text and line structures in Sho. The breaks and indents and whitespaces breathe and ebb and flow, giving the sense of life pulsing all around his poems.
That’s necessary for these poems, which are often rendered in vernacular and thus seem like voices leaping off the page. “Fire” marries the physicality and soul-blazing music of a church service (“That GOD — / Good Spirit flow pierced run swayed bowed / what we owed the body / I see / we sang / a sweet body of / the sweet body—We give”).
“Negroes are a Fatsuit, Hollywood, USA” is like a quick prose poem of frustration and grimace, all set in italics, that you might utter in your heart while scrolling through a TV (“zooms inflate their wideness in whatever rerun I’ve them. I glut the frame with their material: a too muchness.“) “Close” is dedicated to Kearney’s family (“Our Black asses / been hunkered in / this house, this now / ‘transitional’ hood, / we steal away where / some call ‘White Cliffs’— / Fool!“) Sho reads like testimony, a chorus of voices that tell a story of Black communities, a nation, and a very singular poet at the center of it all. —Alissa Wilkinson, film critic
A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure by Hoa Nguyen
Some mothers choose to shelve away their past lives. They keep their personal histories separate, untouched and indiscernible from the knowledge of their adult children. Not the mother of the poet Hoa Nguyen, Linda Diệp Anh Nguyễn, who is the centrifugal force of her fifth poetry collection.
Nguyen is a mystical myth-writer, and the book is a tender attempt at guiding readers through the non-chronological corridors of her mother’s life, first as a flying motorist in an all-women circus troupe, and later as an elderly homesick figure. Speckled throughout the collection are also her observant, insular intimacies of the Vietnamese diaspora: “who wants to hear / about your Asian North American experience anyway,” “look ma / no accent,” “people will ask about bar girls / and Saigon tea will ask about about my language / with me being a bastard.”
Nguyen’s references to the Vietnam War are akin to surrealist word-paintings. She describes the absurd and senseless violence wrought by the United States with minimally abstract, almost-clinical language in “Napalm Notes” and “Notes on Operation Hades.” Yet, the book doesn’t linger on war-torn Vietnam. It is one of the poems’ many narrative backdrops, next to the “washed out washington dc stars,” an oxbow lake, and a fruit stand called Mexico in Vinh Long province.
Nguyen’s work spans across time, continent, trauma, and language, but the book’s opening and closing images are that of Hoa’s mother, frozen in her youth. They are an ode to Diệp’s adrenaline-packed memories and her past life, one stuffed with secrets, tangled love affairs, and rapturous adventures that the writer outlines in “words [that] hang in sinew and care.” —Terry Nguyen, reporter, The Goods
The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void by Jackie Wang
Other people’s dreams are boring. They’re a conversation killer. The only person they appeal to is the dream-haver, who finds them innately interesting, even though they know that if someone else were relaying these same dreams, their eyes would glaze over.
Jackie Wang’s collection The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void relays dream after dream, demonstrating poetry is perhaps the only medium suited to dream-telling. Wang elegantly weaves in and out of the realistic and the fantastical, often poking at longing and loneliness. As in dreams, there is an undercurrent of distress and confusion, though the tenor never tips into nightmare.
Wang’s work shines brightest when her dreams lead to the casually sharp profundity we all believe our own dreams achieve, as in “Panic at the Disco”: “I’m not “with” everyone around me. But where am I? / Maybe I’m trying to find you, then forget you, by jumping into the pool. / Yes, we are living by three tempos: party, catastrophe, and limerence.”
Dreams sound better when rendered in verse. —Julia Rubin, editorial director, features and culture
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin; translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins — WINNER
The threat of some dire happening ebbs and flows in Winter in Sokcho. It’s set in a sleepy seaside resort town near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. So when a more-or-less-clueless Frenchman asks a bored hotel clerk to take him there, you might hear narrative alarm bells in your head.
But this isn’t that kind of book. The discomfort is more about the cultural exchange and power dynamics between the clerk (the delightfully apathetic protagonist) and the Frenchman (an older comic book artist looking for a muse). The clerk is not as knowing as she thinks; the Frenchman is not as naive as he seems. Still, they awkwardly navigate something less than a romance and more than a distraction from their existential doubts.
In between are spare details that bring the town to life: The woman waiting behind bandages to reveal her newly redone face, a car ride past ocean waves spiking in the rain “like the spines of a sea urchin.” Always, the cold, a reason not to go out and instead dream about lives redrawn on the other side of a paper wall.
The ending may be a bit of an anticlimax, but such is the way of the novella. Just enjoy your stay in Sokcho while it lasts. —Tim Williams, deputy style and standards editor
Peach Blossom Paradise by Ge Fei; translated from the Chinese by Canaan Morse
In Peach Blossom Paradise, Ge Fei focuses much of the book on his main character Xiumi and the constellation of people who make up her life. Xiumi comes of age in a transformative time in Chinese history as the 20th century is just dawning in the waning years of the Qing dynasty. But in Fei’s telling, revolutionaries are not heroes, but deluded — deluded that they can change the world, deluded about the harm they can cause, and even deluded about their own motives.
”You go on and on about revolution and unification, your worry for the world and the heat of your ambition, but all you really want is a piece of ass,” Xiumi says at one point, gesturing at one of the larger themes in Fei’s book: the subjugation of women.
Throughout the book, women are forced to reckon with their lack of autonomy. Foot-binding, rape, and murder are companions to the women in Fei’s writing. The book opens with Xiumi, unaware of what a period is, finding that she is bleeding. Terrified, she believes she is dying and seeks to conceal the evidence. Throughout the book, she will fight for control of her body and she will lose.
Near the end of the book, Fei gives his main character a moment of clarity — as character after character attempts to understand and re-make the world, Xiumi finds a moment of peace in her memories: “These past events, which Xiumi had not consciously brought forth, or even thought she had experienced, now tumbled one after another in her mind. She saw how poignant and incontrovertible even the most mundane details could be as constituents of her memory. Each one summoned another in an endless and unpredictable sequence. And what was more, she could never tell which memory particle would sting the soft places in her heart, make her cheeks scald and her eyes brim with tears, just as the gray embers of the winter hearth do not announce which one of them can still burn your fingers.” —Jerusalem Demsas, policy writer
The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernández; translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
The Twilight Zone delivers to its readers a sort of twisted familiarity, revealing a destination that will likely read as either too-possible or too-familiar depending on where or when in the world you’re living. As you read Nona Fernández’s tale of 1980’s Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, which she deftly juxtaposes with the near-mundanity of life lived in between, around, and on top of the horrors of secret tortures and suddenly revealed betrayals, what resonates deeply is how tragically and incomprehensibly different life under authoritarian rule can be, even between the same houses on the same block.
The book makes for a fast-paced, clever, and powerful read. You could absolutely read this book simply for the clever storytelling, for the story of a modern documentarian obsessed with a member of the Chilean secret service, or even for a quick political and cultural history lesson, but what you will inevitably walk away with is a reminder that what you see in front of you is rarely the whole story of a person, a time, or a place. The Twilight Zone is inevitably a reminder to look for the seams separating the reality we’re comfortable with from the surreal nightmare of authoritarianism whose victims deserve to be remembered. —Ashley Sather, production manager, Vox video
When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut; translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West
When We Cease to Understand the World is extraordinary. It took over my mind when I read it. For days, I couldn’t think of anything else.
Benjamín Labatut, a Chilean author born in Rotterdam, has described his book as “a work of fiction based on real events,” adding, tantalizingly, that “the quantity of fiction grows throughout the book.” His subject is scientific discovery, which he renders in five meditative essayistic chapters as a sort of pure philosophical ecstasy. And that ecstasy can shiver over the boundary into existential horror in a whisper, an eyeblink. The more we discover about the inner workings of the universe, Labatut fears, the more we can see how little it corresponds to the reality in which we live our small human lives.
Take, Labatut suggests, Karl Schwarzschild. He was a German philosopher and astronomer fighting during World War I, and the first to solve the equations of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Schwarzschild found hidden at the center of those equations something abhorrent to imagine: a point in space in which “the equations of general relativity went mad: time froze, space coiled around itself like a serpent.” The point is the center of a star that has gone nova, where mass collapses in on itself into “a single point of infinite density.” It came to be called the Schwarzschild singularity, and in Benjamín’s telling, simply contemplating the full monstrousness of the idea of the singularity breaks Schwarzschild’s mind and body. By the time Einstein receives a letter from Schwarzschild solving the equations of general relativity, Schwarzschild himself is already dead in a military hospital.
This book is haunting, uncompromising, filled with sentences of clear and limpid beauty. Read it and feel your mind expand as it tries to take in all that Labatut has to offer. —Constance Grady, book critic
Planet of Clay by Samar Yazbek; translated from the Arabic by Leri Price
Planet of Clay documents the Syrian war from the perspective of one girl caught up in its devastation. Rima, the narrator, is mute, and, though it’s never fully explained why, is constantly driven to walk. “My head is my feet,” she writes. For this reason, her mother and brother keep her tied closely to them, and attach her wrist with rope so she can move about a room, but never leave on her own. This makes Rima a witness, but also leaves her without control of her own fate — not unlike civilians caught in the middle of conflict.
The book’s narrative mirrors the trajectory of conflict. Early on in the book, Rima’s mother is killed at a checkpoint, and Rima herself is shot and wounded. From there, the horrors only escalate. Rima is brought by her brother to a hideout that is eventually bombed. She experiences a chemical attack, and sees women and children “disappear,” as she calls it.
The account Rima tells is deeply personal, but also refracted: She does not fully grasp the politics of the conflict or why this is happening, but she feels and experiences the tragedy. The writing takes on this quality, too. It is poetic and spare, but sometimes lacking in specific detail to ground the narrative. But that is also what gives the book a lot of its power. When the politics fall away, you more sharply feel the cruelty and almost sick routine of war: the indignities, the death, the torture, and the planes dropping bombs overhead night after night after night. —Jen Kirby, foreign writer
Young People’s Literature
The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor
“Every night, my father and I feed a hundred lumberjacks,” Shing Yin Khor writes in the opening to her endearing, vibrant graphic novel The Legend of Auntie Po. “We also feed forty Chinese workers who do not receive board.” With this, we’re ushered into the bustling life of a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885, as seen through the eyes of Mei, a teenager who lives and works on the camp with her father. Around the campfire, Mei tells stories, transforming Paul Bunyan into a super-strength Chinese auntie, Po Pan Yin.
Although the logging camp is a loving place, the shadow of sinophobia cast by the recently passed Chinese Exclusion Act falls across Mei and her future. As she struggles with the prospect of a life lived on the margins of society despite all her intellect and talent, hate crimes and racism remain a looming background threat. As tensions worsen, Mei begins to wield Auntie Po and her big blue ox Pei Pei as protective totems for her and her community — a giant strongwoman to deal with the oversized dangers of her world.
The Legend of Auntie Po stays profoundly hopeful, despite grappling with complex issues — everything from Mei’s disconnection from her own culture (“I’m angry that I have to make my own gods,” she reflects at one point), her queer identity, and religious faith, to the disenfranchisement of laborers and the way the lens of privilege can trouble even the most intimate found families. Yin Khor has a gift for capturing all these tensions through vivid imagery rather than words. Her characters’ body language and silences often speak for them. An entire commentary on labor rights, the environment, and capitalism gets condensed into an image of a double-handed logging saw aptly called “the misery whip.” It’s all rendered in vivid, warm colors alongside the postcard-ready scenery of the mountains — a poignant story, one that chooses optimism over fatalism, much like the fables Mei creates around Auntie Po. —Aja Romano, web culture reporter
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo — WINNER
Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a story of sapphic self-discovery. Over the course of one year in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s, 17-year-old Lily Hu grows into herself. She says no to friends she’d only ever said yes to, nourishes her interest in rockets and space, ventures to the titular Telegraph Club to see “male impersonator” Tommy Andrews, and all along the way realizes, yes, she loves other women, and one in particular: her new white friend Kath.
In brief chapters interspersed throughout the novel that contribute little to the narrative but significantly to the world-building, Lo flits into other characters’ viewpoints, layering the experiences of the mother, aunt, and father into her exploration of this place and moment. In the midst of it all, Lily must navigate thorny adult issues: duty to one’s family, Red Scare-fueled racism, homophobia. It’s a beautifully done intersectional story, but the novel is still at its best in the small moments of discovery that embody any love, but particularly a first queer one.
The moment Lily notices a group of young women walking in the park who share “shockingly bold” flirtatious grins, and wonders if there’s “something significant” in Kath’s silence as she watches too. There’s another moment when Lily recognizes Kath across the crowded Telegraph Club by her body movement alone. And the moment she discovers something she’d never known, never imagined, “how a first kiss could turn so swiftly into a second, and a third, and then a continual opening and pressing and touching, the tip of her tongue against Kath’s, the warmth of her mouth.” —Caroline Houck, senior deputy editor, policy and politics
Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
The worst part of growing up is being 11. It’s that terrible pocket of time when you realize that you won’t ever instantly turn into the person you daydreamed about becoming, and how what you’re feeling rarely matches up with what you see in the mirror. Everyone tells you what to be, but there’s no guidebook on how to get there. Kyle Lukoff hammers home this uneasy time in Too Bright to See, a kind and caring coming-of-age novel.
It’s the summer before middle school and Bug, an 11-year-old living with her mom in Vermont, is going through that aforementioned awful time where nothing quite fits. She’s also dealing with the loss of her uncle Roderick, who was an effervescent presence in her family’s life. His death and absence haunt her family’s home.
The grief and new start coincide with Bug’s journey of self-discovery; what she wants to look like, what she fantasizes about the person she wants to be, and the realization of her own gender identity. The book never strays into saccharine nor does it ever wander off into pointless cruelty. Bug’s story, as uncertain as she can be, is honest and clear. Too Bright to See is a journey that’s somehow both gentle and brave, and in Lukoff’s caring hands is a spirited success. —Alexander Abad-Santos, senior correspondent
Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon
“The Panthers fought a revolution in their time, just as we are fighting one in ours,” Kekla Magoon writes in her refreshingly blunt new history of the Black Panthers. Tackling the Panthers’ notoriety head-on, she outlines their goals, controversies, and continued relevance.
Revolution frames the Panthers’ movement and the unprecedented suppression effort against them within the ongoing fallout of slavery, the disenfranchisement of Jim Crow, the long history of police brutality and racist violence, and the turbulent civil rights struggle out of which the Panthers emerged. Magoon traces the Panthers’ path to prominence alongside dozens of individual narratives of Black civilians whose lives intersected with the fight for civil rights.
Magoon is especially blunt about the connection between state-sanctioned violence against Black communities and the Panthers’ decision to be armed in public — a decision that exacerbated the chaos and fear, fueled both by racism and irresponsible media, that seemed to greet the Panthers’ every move. “In a vacuum, it is easy to default to saying, ‘Violence is never the answer,’” Magoon writes. “But when it comes to Black history, we mustn’t forget that violence is also the question.”
Magoon highlights the many men and women who died in the struggle for civil rights at the hands of police brutality, hate crimes, and other suppression efforts. She connects the Panthers’ socialist practices to the broader struggles of the poor and working class.
And she depicts vividly the incremental fights for equality, won and lost, in which the Black Panthers had a hand — from voting rights to education, to holding police accountable for brutality, and many more ripples in a sea of change. And although Magoon covers decades, even centuries, of history, she does so with a straightforwardness and detail that makes this book a helpful resource for readers of every age. —Aja Romano, web culture reporter
Me (Moth) by Amber McBride
How you feel about Me (Moth), a debut novel written in verse, will largely depend on how you feel about its ending, which takes an enormous swing. For me, author Amber McBride mostly pulled it off, but the ending is still the sort of thing that tends to crowd out the rest of the book in the memory.
Relegating the rest of the novel to an afterthought, however, would be too bad. McBride has a clear voice and a lyrical notion of how to tell a story across several poems. The plot is simple: A girl named Moth has lost her family in a car accident and now lives with her aunt out in suburban Virginia, where she is one of just a handful of Black students. One day, a new boy enters her classroom, and they form an instant connection. His name is Sani, and he’s of Navajo descent. After a series of events leaves Moth feeling more abandoned than ever, she and Sani embark on a voyage west to visit Sani’s dad in New Mexico.
McBride structures most of the book as one long conversation between Moth and Sani. They tell stories to each other, and they joke back and forth, and they work together on a song about their road trip. (Sani is a wannabe musician; Moth gave up a promising dance career after the accident.) Of particular note are several chapters in which McBride captures the way text communication can feel a little like poetry.
But, again, that ending — it’s good, but it leaves you wondering just how much of the book was meant as a setup for a twist. Less of it than you’d expect but more of it than you’d think, I guess, and some part of me wishes McBride hadn’t felt the need to drop a major reveal. There’s more than enough story in the unlikely connection between Moth and Sani. —Emily VanDerWerff, critic at large