Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie (2021) reminds me of Terry McMillan for its focus on Black working women’s lives and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers for its slant towards mothering. The novel looks back, specifically to the election of Barack Obama in 2008: “Their feet felt light and their chests, too, the weight of wait your turn, not so fast, and never having lifted, at least for one night.” Within that context, Ruth is looking back even further Although she’s been married a few years now, she hasn’t told her husband about her child, born when she was a teenager. Once she returns home, to find out how her family resolved that “problem” for her, she becomes quickly reimmersed in that small, enmeshed community. She can’t “be sure if her memories were her own or someone else’s”. And her mother disapproves: “You keep turning up the dirt, you bound to run into a snake one day,” she warns. Everything remains unsettled until a crisis erupts. Ultimately the questions revolve around authenticity and the promise of the future, but also compromise and disappointment: “A lifetime of lies that started small, like a nick in the windshield, then eventually shattered the glass.”

T. Colin Campbell’s The Future of Nutrition (2020) builds on the research material first explored in The China Study (a study conducted by Oxford and Cornell and the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine over twenty years, which examined mortality rates due to cancer and other chronic diseases) and the reductive nature of nutritional studies and recommendations, which he elaborates on in Whole. Illness is becoming normalized in American society. In this context, the status quo works for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and clinics, corporations and technologies, and industrial agriculture; their priorities are not the same as an individual’s. The question of profits and subsidies being prioritized over people’s health isn’t new. But in 2015, for the first time, the average life expectancy of American citizens decreased; a decrease in one year could be dismissed as a glitch, but it has, since, continued to slowly decline each year. (It increased very slowly, too, way back when.) The status quo means that more people are dying, but preventative medicine and studies that produce results which challenge profitability or convenience are controversial. The last chapter considers the implications of the current pandemic and fits perfectly with the overarching idea that everything is connected and each of us plays a small part; separating out a single nutrient misses the point and examining just one COVID case doesn’t offer a silver-bullet solution.

You might not expect it to be this way, but Gayle Tzemarch Lemmon’s book about an all-female militia on the front lines of Syria is both accessible and engaging: once you begin The Daughters of Kobani (2021), it’s difficult to set it aside. She outlines the basics quickly (the Kurds, for instance, being the largest ethnic minority in Syria, about 10% of 21 million-ish people, existing without a homeland, in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran). What drives the narrative is the “sense that something important was happening in a place the world wanted to forget”. The women engaged in this battle, however, are motivated and dedicated: they are fighting ISIS now, but only as a “first step toward defeating a mentality that said women existed only as property and as objects with which men could do whatever they wanted.” They pursue long-term political and social change and it’s amazing to read their individual stories. Yes, some of the book is grim: “At a certain point in war, everything can become normal.” But I was partly inspired to read this because of Mylène Sauloy’s 2016 documentary film Girls’ War…and the book is even more satisfying.

One of the few books with as much buzz around it as Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (2020) was her debut novel, Homegoing. In her follow-up, Gifty has a lot of fundamental questions about life and that makes her situation relatable; as a young PhD candidate at Stanford, her questions revolve around her studies in neuroscience. But her additional questions circle the relationship between science and religion, cast against the backdrop of her upbringing in the Christian church. “I haven’t much changed,” she says: “I still have so many of the same questions…. My soul is still my soul, even if I rarely call it that.” When her mother sings at her brother’s funeral in Twi, the English translation immediately follows; Gyasi handles her theme in a similarly clear-cut way, vacillating between musings on science—based in her lab, and musings on faith—based primarily in memories (some from Ghana and some around her mother, who survives on soup and prescription drugs but is essentially shuttered in the wake of her son’s—Gifty’s brother’s—death). The prose is straightforward, with an occasional simile (for instance, her brother’s addiction eating away at her “like moths in cloth”) and the structure is uncomplicated; this will better suit readers who prioritize story, whereas for my taste, I’d have liked a more nuanced exploration, reflecting her realization that “the hard part is trying to figure out what the question is, trying to ask something interesting enough”. Even though the story seems to circle an “and-also” resolution, the book feels like it’s structured as an “either-or” question. And I longed for more meandering, particularly on how suffering is incorporated into both hierarchies she investigates in her search for answers. Which could be exactly where Gifty is at, the more interesting questions still unasked.

Rebecca Carroll’s memoir Surviving the White Gaze (2021) has such a strong narrative pace, with an acute focus on character and the small details that evoke individuals and specific settings that, many times, I had to remind myself that this is a memoir. She is an experienced and practiced writer (also, host of the podcast Come Through, fifteen conversations about race in 2020 America) and this volume is polished from start to finish. Readers meet her at four years old, playing with her sister, when they were “…easy with one another’s company, sewing a fragile thread of siblinghood that we never imagined would fall apart.”. The kids in the family are all white and Carroll-born—only Rebecca is Black and adopted). A few years later, Rebecca learns the details behind her adoption and more about her mother, who had once been a student of Rebecca’s adopted father: “The idea of her loomed large as the central character in a fairy tale written just for me, and I lived somewhere in between faith in her existence and disquiet over the lack of any proof beyond the story my parents told me.”

When Rebecca’s eleven, they meet: “I felt hooked up to her, as if her language, her thoughts and explanations, were all coursing through my veins like a blood transfusion.” Her understanding and experience of institutionalized racism permeates the story; it feels like an immersion rather than a presentation and the years unfold naturally, chronicled in an engaging—but simultaneously reflective—tone. From crushes on TV actors to People Magazine, from DeBarge and David Bowie to Toni Morrison and Angela Davis: the memoir feels intimate and inviting. I’ll be looking for more of Rebecca Carroll’s work.

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel A Burning (2020) claimed a cover review in the New York Times last year: quite an achievement for a debut novelist. There are three dominant perspectives for readers to inhabit: a young woman who longs for the world to be more just, a young hijra who dreams of being a star on screen (whom the justice-seeker taught to read, voluntarily and secretly), and an older teacher (who taught the gym class the justice-seeker attended when she was a girl). In addition, various sidelined characters appear in interludes, each adjacent to the major plot lines, inhabiting scenes just a few pages long, which are designed to underscore the themes of struggle, culpability, corruption and authenticity. The novel’s characters offer opportunities to explore poverty and gender, ambition and shame; but, while the three perspectives are different, the characters’ voices are not meticulously distinct, so ultimately the focus remains on the plot (and themes) which erodes the emotional intensity. For its scope, Majumdar’s debut reminds me of Zadie Smith’s debut White Teeth, for its reach and its root in an act of violence I’m also reminded of Tommy Orange’s There There (for the kaleidoscopic view), and its dedication to theme brings to mind Anoshi Irani’s fiction (like The Parcel, which also features a hijra character); I’m looking forward to Megha Majumdar’s next novel.

Eden Robinson’s Trickster Drift (2018) is the second volume in the Trickster series. I chatted about the first here; the third was published last month. Jared longs for the kind of life where his biggest worry is “bills and passing his courses with decent marks”; instead, he is a “chaos magnet”. He’s left Kitimat for Vancouver (a west-coast city in what is now called Canada, which is described brilliantly in the fifth chapter), so the cast of characters widens and action intensifies. Complicated relationships make for a satisfying story: Jared balances sobriety and self-sufficiency, loneliness and independence, and late-night work in a donut shop with daytime classes. It’s an ordinary story: I learned how to dye my hair blue with Kool Aid. It’s also extraordinary: a person’s humanity is merely a skin-deep disguise. Here, the smell of sage can conjure up memories of holiday cooking or a quick ghetto-styled smudge routine. Above all, Jared knows how to cook because he knows how to survive. (He’s also adept with geeky references, from Douglas Adams to Star Trek. Those references are mostly vintage but the dialogue is contemporary realistic and, combined with the short chapters, buoys readers through a few hundred pages in quick-step. This feels like a between-story, not because it’s incomplete but because it leaves you longing for resolution.

Have you read any of these? Or, are some of them on your TBR list?
What books have stood out for you, in the early months of 2021?