10 books for your January reading list
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Critic Bethanne Patrick recommends 10 promising titles, fiction and nonfiction, to consider for your January reading list.
Too many resolutions about giving things up or taking up tedious routines like exercise and regular sleep. Why not resolve to finish more books, and keep a list? Our first list for 2024 includes novels with clever and fiery voices — a woman impersonating her dead brother via texts, a pair of translators entangled in the encounter between Hernán Cortés and the Aztecs. January’s nonfiction is equally incendiary, ranging from a personal take on West Coast wildfires to an explosive memoir about open marriage. Happy new year, and happy reading!
You Dreamed of Empires
By Álvaro Enrigue
Riverhead: 240 pages, $28
When Cortés and his conquistadors first encountered the collection of societies we know as the Aztecs — that is, before the Spanish took over what is now Mexico City — these civilizations found each other confusing. Enrigue’s mordantly funny take on a culture clash that changed the world is less historical fiction and more alternative history. The story leads readers to consider which group really came out worse from the meeting.
By Maria Hummel
Counterpoint: 240 pages, $27
Lacey inhabits a hotel suite in Los Angeles, to which she invites her long-lost friend Edith for a room-service dinner. It’s the first meeting since a terrible break between them some 40 years earlier. Both scarred by deep family tragedies, they had leaned on each other as teens, until they were torn apart by a betrayal as young adults in postwar Hollywood. Hummel’s chief business in revealing and revisiting their bond is to show how female friendships ebb and flow and ebb again. Is reconciliation always the goal?
By Kaveh Akbar
Knopf: 352 pages, $28
Cyrus Shams, an Iranian American, finds himself orphaned and adrift at age 30 in the wake of an Indiana upbringing that offered little understanding of his heritage. Attempting to complete an epic called “The Book of Martyrs,” he winds up following a terminally ill artist to the Brooklyn Museum, where she plans to die. This is a big book full of big ideas, and it’s worth pursuing every tangent to understand Akbar’s message of belonging.
Dead in Long Beach, California
By Venita Blackburn
MCD: 240 pages, $27
Coral Brown, a celebrated Black and queer graphic novelist, finds her brother Jay dead by suicide in his Long Beach apartment; in her shock, she responds to text messages on his phone as if she were him. The deception begins to spiral out of control as Coral convinces others that Jay isn’t dead. The novel’s first-person plural narration is probably the chorus from her book-within-the-book, “Wildfire.” Wholly experimental in voice and structure, this unusual work just might be that something new you’ve been looking for.
By Tlotlo Tsamaase
Erewhon: 416 pages, $28
In a future version of Botswana, “body hoppers” reincarnate into the recycled corpses of criminals — bodies that are monitored via microchip by the surveillance state. When Nelah winds up in one of these bodies, her police officer husband can track her, with dangerous consequences for both Nelah and her unborn child, who is growing in a Wombcubator. This Afrofuturist novel’s twisty plot has a lot to say about inequality — and complicity.
Of Greed and Glory: In Pursuit of Freedom for All
By Deborah G. Plant
Amistad: 288 pages, $29
Plant, who edited Zora Neale Hurston’s posthumous nonfiction work “Barracoon,” makes a cogent and compelling argument against our country’s criminal justice system — one that not only privileges the moneyed but often literally builds on land once occupied by slave plantations. Her focus is on Louisiana’s Angola Prison, for personal reasons: Her brother is incarcerated there.
Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity
By Michele Norris
Simon & Schuster: 528 pages, $35
Norris, a New York Times columnist, NPR correspondent and Peabody Award winner, collects the submissions to her Race Card Project — asking people for their six-word stories — into a book of remarkable breadth, containing half a million responses. From “I’m only Asian when it’s convenient” to “Lady, I don’t want your purse,” these answers pose challenging questions in turn, by virtue of their economy and their honesty.
The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History
By Manjula Martin
Pantheon: 352 pages, $29
California’s fire season, a time that is always anxiety-ridden and often deadly, was once limited to the fall. But after Martin and her partner moved to Sonoma County in 2017, she realized things had become much more serious. Her debut memoir blends witness of lightning strikes in redwood groves with a study of how wildfires were handled by Indigenous and early settler groups, ultimately demonstrating that without systemic changes, we’ll have fire season all year round.
More: A Memoir of Open Marriage
By Molly Roden Winter
Doubleday: 304 pages, $28
Molly and Stewart Winter’s decision to have an open marriage risks conforming to stereotypes about selfish partners — especially when the couple’s adolescent children accidentally discover the arrangement. Adultery and jealousy and therapy, oh my! But the author structures her narrative in terms of her personal journey, and when she starts to write about her own mother’s (unacknowledged) open marriage, she also starts to understand why she’s sought one herself.
Lovers in Auschwitz
By Keren Blankfeld
Little, Brown: 400 pages, $33
Zippie Spitzer and David Wisnia met at a concentration camp and fell deeply in love, but did not meet again until Spitzer was very ill (she died in 2018). Expanding on a 2019 feature story in the New York Times, Blankfeld relies mostly on interviews with Wisnia, now 93 and living in Pennsylvania, although Spitzer was the subject of a book of essays, “Approaching an Auschwitz Survivor,” edited by Jürgen Matthäus, a senior historian at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. It’s a complicated, important story, told with great care.