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Bethanne on Mental Health Awareness Month, Yiyun Li, R.F. Kuang, Bea Setton and More...
In between grading student portfolios, doing podcast interviews, and meeting deadlines, I hit some great literary gatherings: The PEN/Faulkner Awards (I got to share a tight hug with winner Yiyun Li) and the Washington Independent Writers Conference, where I interviewed Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
You may know I have a book launch this week. I won’t promote it again, but the events I’m attending (the Gaithersburg Book Festival is this Saturday!) are manna for the book lover’s soul. Each writer I meet and new book I learn about nourishes me. I’m sure you feel the same about your literary peregrinations—bookish Wag that you are.
I do want to bring up something related to my book, which deals with mental illness: And that’s how difficult it can be to get out there and schmooze when you’re not feeling healthy. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we should give more attention than usual to the ways mental health affects our lives, families, careers, and communities.
At the events I’ve participated in, I’ve been struck by how many authors talk about the role of reading in their early lives. Books helped them escape family dysfunction, environmental stressors, and peer group difficulties. Reading didn’t necessarily save them from those troubles. But it did give them solace.
We live in difficult times. Many people have chosen to condemn books that challenge their beliefs rather than trying to understand why they offer solace to others. If we’ve learned anything from literature, it’s that humans have a dazzling diversity of experiences. Attacking a drag queen story time won’t lessen the real dangers—gun violence, climate change, rising fascism—that all of us face.
Reading can’t save us from those perils, either. It couldn’t save me from decades of treatment-resistant depression. But it does give us a necessary refuge from our troubles. That won’t cure mental illness or solve urgent problems, but—this month especially—perhaps we can remember how books are lamps lighting a troubled person’s path. Let’s keep as many lamps lit as possible, my friends.
Plug of the Week
For Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m highlighting book lists about mental health curated by everyone’s favorite lamplighters, librarians.
The Madison Public Libraries has put together a terrific array of books about anxiety, depression, suicide, and much more; the San Antonio Public Libraries has devoted a page to resources, including a reading list; the University of Massachusetts Medical School has curated a list that includes academic titles, but plenty for general readers, too (including Bibliotherapy by Sarah McNicol and Liz Brewster); the Stratford, Conn. Library is focused on mental-health resources for teens, including book lists, dividing them by subject areas that include Tough Topics. And finally, the University of Memphis has collected a fascinating mix of fiction and nonfiction on these subjects.
(Have a writing event or publication you’d like to submit for possible Plug promotion? Email me care of firstname.lastname@example.org.)
BookWag is our column for the hip and hyperlexic. Bethanne recommends the best reads around. Join her in literary greatness by subscribing below.
BEST NEW BOOKS
Berlin by Bea Setton
Having been a twentysomething in Berlin—and yes, it was long ago— this portrait of a lost expat millennial rings true. Daphne may not know what to do with herself, but she knows how to tell us about her surroundings in a voice that’s both mustard-sharp and Gummi Bear-sweet. Her Berlin isn’t cutting edge, but it’s totally authentic. And it all gets a lot darker when Daphne’s lies put her privileged existence at risk.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
While we’re on the topic of women who get into trouble for lying, here comes Kuang’s hilarious misadventure about a white woman who tries to pass off her Asian American friend’s manuscript as her own. The scheme goes sideways, and our antihero, June, crumbles beneath a heap of machinations. Some readers may find this publishing metaverse a bit much and the descriptions a little broad, but many will be laughing right along.
The Postcard by Anne Berest
Who sent the 2003 postcard to the Berest home that lists the names of family members killed at Auschwitz? In 2018, Anne Berest —as a fictionalized narrator of a story based on her real family’s history— decides to find out. She travels east, and back in time, to understand what happened to her mother’s parents and siblings. What makes this account brilliant is the author’s evolving view of antisemitism and its contemporary manifestations.
Undaunted by Brooke Kroeger
Scholar and veteran journalist Kroeger shines a light on her foremothers and colleagues, women who have worked in U.S. journalism for decades without much recognition. From Ida Tarbell to Charlayne Hunter-Gault, these pioneers pushed their way out of male-defined women’s sections and followed their passions. An important book that will hopefully inspire more histories of women in journalism.
The World by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Montefiore’s subtitle is A Family History of Humanity, but you gotta love the Guardian’s description: Succession Meets Game of Thrones. The British popular historian (The Romanovs) delves into how the kinship groups humans call family drive our history, expressing themselves in dynasties, kingdoms, and migrations. After thousands of years of existence, our identity as social animals is still deeply linked to fundamental drives to hunt, gather, and survive.
We finished Liaison at my house and I want more Euro-thrillers; I’m still not recovered from Black Spot (I think Laurène is an amazing anti-hero). But while we wait for our next old-growth forest murder show, we’ve finally caught up to The Peripheral, which has legs. (Not least the pair that belong to its protagonist Flynne Fisher, played by Chloë Grace Moretz.) It’s based, of course, on William Gibson’s trippy sci-fi thriller.
I’m not all early-music, all-the-time. This week I needed something much more contemporary as I submitted final grades for the creative-writing classes I’ve been teaching at American University. So I stalked my younger daughter’s Spotify and discovered Lous and the Yakuza, Crash Adams, and Kiwi Jr. The last two are Canadian acts. Why do we ignore Canada so much? I mean, we’re all going to be Canadian immigrants one of these days…
Move over, ubiquitous gochujang (tasty though you are): Here in Washington, DC, we’ve long known the power of Ethiopian berbere spice (I hesitate to recommend my fave Ethiopian spot to you but OK, it’s Chercher and don’t skimp on the beef tibs). Berbere—here’s celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson’s mix—plays a sweet-hot role in many traditional African dishes, but if you’re as lazy as I am, just mix it into some excellent yogurt and use it as a dip with teff-based injera bread or even just a good pita.
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