evocative nonfiction and fiction books by poets

Baldwin's iconic novel explores desire, love, and identity in 1950s Paris. James Baldwin draws on his own Parisian experiences and travels and constructs the most beautiful sentences. The story follows David, a young American in Paris whose girlfriend just left him. Following her absence, he explores his own sexuality and grapples with modern masculinity, social expectations, and guilt. There's so much to unpack in such a short classic.
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In his first full-length nonfiction work, poet and journalist Smith explores the legacy of slavery in the United States, and to do so he takes his readers on a tour of sorts, visiting nine physical monuments crucial to that history, like Jefferson's Monticello, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, Angola Prison, New York City, and finally Senegal's Gorée Island. Each visit is packed with stories from both past and present, as Smith examines the site's history and explores what that means for us today. It's always dangerous to go into a book with sky-high expectations, as I did thanks to numerous rave reviews from trusted readers, but I needn't have feared: this is a stunner. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by the author.
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From the publisher: "When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries. Moving fluidly between past and present, quest and elegy, poetry and those who make it, A Ghost in the Throat is a shapeshifting book: a record of literary obsession; a narrative about the erasure of a people, of a language, of women; a meditation on motherhood and on translation; and an unforgettable story about finding your voice by freeing another's. On discovering her murdered husband’s body, an eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary lament. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s poem travels through the centuries, finding its way to a new mother who has narrowly avoided her own fatal tragedy. When she realizes that the literature dedicated to the poem reduces Eibhlín Dubh’s life to flimsy sketches, she wants more: the details of the poet’s girlhood and old age; her unique rages, joys, sorrows, and desires; the shape of her days and site of her final place of rest. What follows is an adventure in which Doireann Ní Ghríofa sets out to discover Eibhlín Dubh’s erased life—and in doing so, discovers her own."
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Poet and professor Hong’s essay collection is a mix of memoir and cultural criticism, exploring a range of issues, from race to female friendship to depression. She examines her relationship to the English language as the daughter of Korean immigrants and the “minor feelings” that arise at the discrepancy between the so-called American dream and her lived experience. Gorgeously written and thought-provoking.
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Award-winning poet Nezukumatathil’s blends memoir with what she’s learned from the great outdoors in her debut essay collection. She extols the virtues of wonder and curiosity as she conveys facts about insects and plants and her own experience growing up as a nature-loving brown girl. This wonder carried her through her family’s many moves from Kansas to Arizona to New York and Ohio. Accompanied by illustrations from Fumi Nakamura, Nezukumatathil’s perspective will leave you inspired.
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Described by the publisher as “Big Love and The 19th Wife set against a contemporary African background”, this story introduces us to Baba Segi and his happy-enough household of three wives and seven children. But when Baba Segi takes a fourth wife—this one a university graduate—her arrival throws the family into chaos. An exploration of polygamy and all its complexities, this is the Nigerian poet’s debut novel.
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In this, her third memoir, Karr delves into her experience of alcoholism and getting sober. She also shares stories from motherhood and how she, as a lifelong agnostic, chose to convert to the Catholic faith. Karr’s memoirs are often rightly referred to as master classes in the art of memoir but she got her start in poetry: her roots are evident in the way she chooses each word with great care.
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A timely memoir about displacement and uncertainty, prize-winning poet Castillo shares his experience growing up undocumented in the US. He was 5 when his family crossed the US border from Tepechitlán, Mexico and 15 when his father was deported. He was finally able to get his green card when he was 26. Castillo gives an unflinching account of his family’s encounters with a draconian system in their quest for a safer, better life and the ripple effect these unforgiving policies had on them all. (Heads up for sensitive readers: this deals with child abuse and domestic violence.)
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In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." The author's husband died just four days after his fiftieth birthday. A few years later, Alexander looks back on their life together, their love, and the impact of that loss in her life. The author is a poetry professor at Yale, which is obvious in the story's richness and language. Her source material is fantastic: Alexander is an American, born in Harlem. Her husband was born in Eritrea, in East Africa, and came to New Haven as a refugee from war. Both were artists—that’s his painting on the cover of the book—and their home sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza with food and friends and music and art. I could barely put this down, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: Alexander's narration of her own work is magnificent. Published April 15 2015.
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Author of four books of poetry, Alyan's debut novel follows three generations of a Palestinian family from the Six-Day War of 1967 to 1990 Kuwait to Beirut, Paris, and Boston. The story opens with Alia's wedding, when Alia's mother, Salma, reads her future in the coffee grounds left in the bottom of her cup and sees both turmoil and travel. While she keeps her premonitions secret, they nevertheless come true as the family is uprooted by war and loss. A lyrical tale of assimilation and the importance of family.
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Seventeen-year old single mother Emoni has always been told she has a magical touch in the kitchen. She dreams of a career as a chef but she doesn't have the time or money for her school's new culinary arts class, not if she's going to still be able to work part-time and provide for her child. She's torn in a lot of directions but her passion for food is clear. Told in stunning prose, this novel captured my heart—and made me want to bake! Acevedo creates fabulous characters to root for, and you'll be cheering for Emoni as you listen.
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Winner of the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography. Jones's remarkable coming-of-age memoir about being a Black gay man from the South is told in a series of moments and scenes from his childhood through young adulthood. My husband Will cited this one as a favorite in What Should I Read Next Episode 214: Deconstructing your best reading year yet because of Jones's storytelling. Note: the audiobook, read by the author, is excellent.
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