“After the First Death,” Robert Cormier
I read Robert Cormier’s young adult novels when I was a young adult. At the time they — especially “The Chocolate War,” “I Am the Cheese,” and “After the First Death” — were among the most frightening and upsetting books I’d ever encountered. I’ve been rereading them recently, and they still are.
They’re all about authority figures who are eager to manipulate and betray adolescents for their own purposes. As such, they provide excruciating metaphorical lessons about larger-scale human politics, lessons you don’t want to learn but have to. For me, “After the First Death” is the most disturbing of them all, with its title taken from the last line of a poem by Dylan Thomas: “After the first death, there is no other.” OR IS THERE. — Jon Schwarz
“Blue Skies,” T. C. Boyle
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see
— Irving Berlin
I’ve been reading T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novels and stories since 1987’s “World’s End,” which intricately plotted Hudson River Valley families through the 1700s, 1940s, and 1968 just as I became a refugee to the area. Now Boyle’s 19th novel takes place in a near-future climate apocalypse in familiar California and Florida coastal paradises, where Western drought and Eastern storms and rising tides are already in progress. As we become inured to news of 115-degree days, bee colony collapse, glaciers melting, and raging wildfires, Boyle writes beyond his customary satire to a state of (yet another vocabulary word I’ve learned from him) mithridatism: the production of immunity against the action of a poison in gradually increased doses.
Will we notice when all the insects suddenly die off (but not the spiders), when we need to take a rowboat to get from the luxury beach house to our Tesla parked on higher ground, driving over the migrating bodies of catfish or facing down alligators swimming on the road, when our career goal of internet influencer is thwarted by the bad behavior of illegally imported pythons? The answer seems, yes, we can survive if there are still local bars serving mojitos, wine, beer, and sake. From baking with cricket flour to eating homegrown gourmet grasshoppers and lab-created chicken, while feeding rats and rabbits to pet snakes, from insect tattoo art to bug-born infections, it seems to be “doom atop doom.”
The antihero Bug Boy, grievously harmed by a tiny tick while searching for the disappearing monarch butterflies, explains: “Nature bites back. That’s what this is all about.” — Margot Williams
“Widespread Panic,” James Ellroy
I somehow missed this when it came out 2021 (was there something going on in the world that distracted me? Perhaps), despite being a longtime Ellroy fan. I’m catching up now in anticipation of its sequel, which comes out later this year. It’s typical Ellroy, and his 1950s Los Angeles is, as usual, a sewer in hell, and seemingly every single human who lives in it is crooked, racist, and violent. It’s not his best novel by a long shot, but as a member of the media, I thought it was important to read a book with this particular premise: Ellroy’s protagonist has struck a deal with Satan to confess his way out of purgatory by revealing every questionable and outright evil thing he did as a magazine employee. — Sam Biddle
“The Prague Cemetery,” Umberto Eco
What if everything you thought you knew about history was based on a lie? This is the premise of the 2010 novel by Umberto Eco. He sketches the events that led up to the publication of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and eventually, the Holocaust, told through the foibles of an Italian document forger with a deep hatred for Jewish people who is exiled to Paris after one too many overzealous missions for his overlords in various national clandestine services. One minor complication: An unknown event has given our protagonist a case of split personality, and he tells his story through alternating accounts from a Captain Simonini and an Abbé Dalla Piccola, a cleric who may or may not be real. Simonini is one of the only fictional parts of the book. The historical characters and events Eco describes all happened, including plots to curb Giuseppe Garibaldi’s influence in northern Italy by blowing up a ship with a chest of sensitive documents and a psy-op national campaign to foment a war for influence between the Jesuits and Free Masons, complete with tales of satanic cults. At the heart of Eco’s novel is the nature of reality, the power of fake documents and narratives to shape real events, and how, throughout history, the thirst for money and influence has driven the creation of a hatable “other” and created the conditions for humanity’s most horrific episodes. — Akela Lacy
“The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Josephine,” Andrea Stuart
“Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture,” Sudhir Hazareesingh
I’m currently reading two books at once that I’ve found to be a perfect pairing in an unusual way, and I’m doing one on audio and the other in book form, which helps keep them distinct. One is “The Rose of Martinique,” a 2004 biography of Napoleon’s wife Josephine, whose full name is way too long for me to bother remembering. She was raised on a slave plantation in the Caribbean before coming to Paris for an arranged marriage with a philandering noble who became a leader in the French Revolution, before both he and she wind up on the wrong end of Robespierre. Without spoiling too much, her husband gets the guillotine, but Robespierre meets his own maker before Josephine — then known as Rose — gets her turn under the revolutionary blade. Her second act is as the first lady of France after her new husband, Napoleon, becomes First Consul and then emperor. All the while, her lifestyle is financed — and sometimes not financed, depending on the political winds — by the slave plantation back home. Through her husband, she also winds up owning one in Haiti.
That’s where the second book comes in: “Black Spartacus,” a new biography of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Like Rose, Toussaint was also born on a slave plantation, though he was obviously born on the other side of it. After the revolution, Rose appealed to Toussaint to make sure her plantation was safe, and he made it a priority that it not be burned or harmed and continued sending revenue to her, even after emancipation. Toussaint wanted an alliance with Napoleon and argued that he and his actions made them proud French republican revolutionaries. Napoleon briefly considered accepting the alliance but instead sent troops to crush the revolt and reinstate slavery in Haiti. He failed — but did capture Toussaint. He later called the failed expedition one of the greatest mistakes of his life. – Ryan Grim
“Shadows at Dawn: An Apache Massacre and the Violence of History,” Karl Jacoby
In “Shadows at Dawn,” historian Karl Jacoby applies a kaleidoscopic lens to one of the darkest chapters of westward expansion. The subject is the April 1871 slaughter of nearly 150 Apaches —mostly women and children — by a combined force of Anglo Americans, Mexican Americans, and Tohono O’odham members in a remote canyon northeast of Tucson. What makes Jacoby’s account of the Camp Grant Massacre unique is his telling and retelling of the story from the vantage points of all parties involved — vigilantes and victims alike. The result is an unsettling portrait of the way acts of mass violence are justified, remembered, and mourned across generations. – Andrea Jones
“Supervision: On Motherhood and Surveillance,” edited by Sophie Hamacher and Jessica Hankey
“My vision changed after becoming a mother,” artist and filmmaker Sophie Hamacher writes in the preface to this stunning new volume about how state and commercial surveillance blend and contrast with a watchful maternal gaze. “Whereas before motherhood I was learning to see, as a mother, I was learning to watch.” A visually rich compendium of exchanges between Hamacher and an array of activists, artists, social scientists, poets, and mothers, “Supervision” turns a critical eye on everything from ultrasounds to nanny cams, infant biometrics, and the invasive tracking of Black, brown, and poor mothers by public health, child welfare, and law enforcement agencies. It is the book I wish I’d had when I was becoming a mother and my current go-to gift for the new moms in my life.
“Supervision” ranges widely across the uneven territory of motherhood. It includes video stills Hamacher captured with a phone while strolling her infant daughter through Harlem and at least two breastfeeding diaries, one of which is represented in glorious multicolored pinwheels. There’s also a pocket history of the evolution of baby monitors from military technology and countless reflections on how brutal, patriarchal laws and state scrutiny have harmed mothers and children worldwide. While much here is political, I’m most powerfully drawn to the personal reflections of the book’s 50 contributors, including a Cairo mother’s text messages to her absent partner documenting the horrors of endlessly solo parenting a 2-year-old; a painting by Tala Madani titled “Shit Mom (Dream Riders),” of a woman made of excrement on her hands and knees, being ridden by a toddler; and haunting “hidden mother” photos of women draped in black cloths holding their babies, a Victorian genre of portraiture designed to hide women while foregrounding their offspring. I’m still working my way through this dense, dreamlike book and likely will be — in one way or another — until my kids are grown. — Vanessa Gezari
“The Awful Truth,” Diana Hamilton
Split into two long pieces that blend essay and poetry, Hamilton explores the self, fear, anxiety, and dread. Perfect for those hot, long end-of-summer days. – Annie Chabel
“Solito,” Javier Zamora
In his 2022 memoir, “Solito,” writer Javier Zamora recounts his solo journey as a 9-year-old boy from El Salvador to reunite with his parents in California. The description is simple enough, but it belies what’s truly special about this remarkable book.
Telling stories about migration and borders is not easy. For many would-be readers, it seems the subject matter is too grim and the political problems too intractable to contemplate at length. To hear “Solito” sketched in general terms could evince such a reaction, but to write Zamora’s story off as yet another unsettling account from the borderlands would be a mistake.
At its core, “Solito” is an adventure story, seen through the eyes of a child putting on a brave face in an unfamiliar world. Zamora writes in the voice of his 9-year-old self, allowing readers to access his journey with the same wonder that he did. As far as narrative devices go, it was a bold choice, and Zamora pulled it off exceptionally, with humor and heart.
I happened to listen the audio version of “Solito,” which Zamora narrates. This, too, can be a gamble for an author, but Zamora, a published poet, was perfectly suited to the task. Hearing him read his words — with his cadence, his passion, and his Salvadoran slang — enriched the experience many times over. By the final chapters, I was so invested in the world he rendered that I began rationing my listening, so as not to exit too soon.
You don’t need to be a border studies expert to appreciate this book. You don’t even need to be particularly passionate about immigration. That is because Zamora transcends the realms in which his story is ostensibly situated and in doing so illuminates those spaces in exciting new ways.
To be sure, there are scary moments in “Solito.” Zamora doesn’t shy away from the life-and-death trauma of the border, but he matches that darkness with love, particularly for the strangers-turned-family-members who made his present life possible. The result is a joyful, moving masterpiece of narrative storytelling. — Ryan Devereaux
“Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World,” Naomi Klein
Like many, I find conspiracy theories fascinating, especially any that include thrilling depictions of a group of powerful, unaccountable — maybe even sinister — people controlling the fate of the world. Why are they so alluring? “Conspiracy theorists get the facts wrong but often get the feelings right,” Intercept contributing editor Naomi Klein says in her new book, “Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World.”
For this journey, Klein takes you down the rabbit holes she plunged into deeply during the disorienting days of the pandemic, when many of us, like her, were home alone with the internet filling so much of our social life and time — primed for wild unsubstantiated conjectures. She begins by exploring her own double — the author and political figure Naomi Wolf — who she has been persistently mistaken for over the years and whose political transformation reflects the magnetism of conspiracy theories. With prose so dead on, Klein untangles the mirror world of speculative narratives and anti-democratic forces dominating much of today’s politics in the U.S. and around the world. This must-read captures the ethos of this baffling period we find ourselves in where so many reject objective reality. – Laura Flynn
“Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation,” Linda Villarosa
It’s almost a national pastime to complain about how broken the American health care system is, but after reading this book, I am enraged. Enraged by how prevalent and pervasive racism is in all parts of our system and the real-life consequences that has for patients. Villarosa does an extraordinary job of weaving together human stories (you will never be able to forget the Relf sisters) with the historical record and scientific studies. The voluminous footnotes at the end of the book chronicle just how painstakingly she has researched every statement. But her exceptional talent is at getting people to share the most intimate details of their health experiences from birth all the way to death. And she does it all with reportorial grace and care. All of us interact with the health care system in some way or other; this book will change how you view those interactions going forward. — Sumi Aggarwal
“American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,” Adam Hochschild
A land war in Europe turns into a grinding stalemate. White supremacist violence rampages unchecked. A global pandemic kills millions.
A century ago, that was the backdrop for some of the worst repression in U.S. history. In terrifying detail, Hochschild chronicles how entry into World War I offered the occasion for violent crackdowns on those deemed insufficiently loyal — not only radical dissidents and draft resisters, but also journalists, immigrants, and activists of all sorts.
The book also offers a timely reminder to those who yearn for a more elevated and erudite political discourse. Woodrow Wilson (still the only U.S. president with a Ph.D.) campaigned in the lofty poetry of progressive internationalism, but he governed in brutal prose — the ongoing consequences of which include the use of the 1917 Espionage Act to criminalize journalism. – Michael Sherrard
“Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket,” hosted by Jill Lepore
“Elon Musk: The Evening Rocket” for me stands out as the most illuminating story about one of the most powerful people in the world and the future he is trying to manifest. By revisiting the science fiction that shaped Musk’s life, historian and host Jill Lepore guides you through his motivations and worldview. It’s a view she calls Muskism, “a new kind of capitalism,” one more extreme and even extraterrestrial “where stock prices are driven by earnings and also by fantasies.” The sound-rich series is full of fun throwbacks like the BBC’s 1970s airing of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. Lepore digs into the significance of Adams’s book on Musk and what he gets wrong about the story and its “indictment on economic inequality.” What is the vision of the future that Silicon Valley technobillionaires like Musk want to create? A ride on the evening rocket will give you a view into the bleak playbook. – Laura Flynn
“Ear Hustle,” hosted by Earlonne Woods, Antwan Williams, and Nigel Poor
“Ear Hustle” isn’t the kind of podcast with a revolutionary format or grandiose goal. It’s really just two guys talking about their lives, maybe looping in a friend now and again. The novelty of the production lies in the setting: Woods and Williams, the main hosts, are incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. The stories they tell bring into clarity those pieces of life that get pushed out to the edge of conversations around criminal justice and prison reform. The topics range from cellie struggles to the frustration of leading a meaningful life from behind bars. Roommate problems and existential crises both being topics that everyone struggles with, the show also details the feeling of being left behind as major milestones pass you by and the sense of alienation from your “life before” fading into a memory. “Ear Hustle” excels at making those human connections built from storytelling that penetrate your own life and self-perception, forcing you to — dun dun dun — empathize with others! — Jeehan Mikdadi
“The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality,” hosted by Imara Jones
I learned about the “Anti-Trans Hate Machine” podcast from a panel discussion on the role of news in combating extremism at a recent journalism conference. I started listening to it and immediately binged both seasons. This investigative podcast, hosted by award-winning journalist Imara Jones, unravels the dark money, billionaires, and powerful Christian nationalist hate groups that are behind the wave of hundreds of anti-trans bills across the country. Did you know that the panic about transgender kids playing sports isn’t grassroots at all? It was focus-grouped to determine the most effective way to spread anti-trans hate. Did you know that the same people — authoritarian Christian nationalist billionaires — who lost their decadeslong homophobic fight against same-sex marriage are behind today’s anti-trans hate machine? This is an enlightening podcast that I highly recommend. — Micah Lee
“Classy,” hosted by Jonathan Menjivar
Swap meets pepper working-class neighborhoods all over LA. I grew up going to them. For my friends and I, it was where we’d find cheap T-shirts, socks, and occasionally DJs selling their house or techno mixes. So when I heard a recent talk given by the makers of “Classy with Jonathan Menjivar” describe visiting one for an episode, I thought, I need to listen to this. In the episode, host Menjivar and producer Kristen Torres visit the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, a place they both frequented as kids. Torres wants to buy socks her mom used to buy for her, until she realizes she doesn’t like the blend, raising the essential question of the episode aptly titled “Am I a Classhole?” The series is full of deeply personal stories exploring the everyday ways — both small and big — class shows up in our lives, and the discomfort, anxieties, and real-life challenges they produce. Menjivar guides you through his own experience growing up as a working-class Latino kid in LA, with TV role models like Huell Howser and his legendary show “California’s Gold” and aspirations straight from the pages of Country Living magazine. This podcast is full of fun and difficult snippets of life that skillfully and cleverly convey the class chasms so prevalent in our society. – Laura Flynn
Film and Music
“Welcome to Union Glacier,” directed by Temujin Doran (Studiocanoe)
This 53-minute Vimeo documentary is something I’ve kept in my back pocket ever since I first saw it years ago with my high school buddies. The brief arctic jaunt is an exercise of simplicity, a glimpse at the joyous regularity of the subjects working and living at a camp in one of the coldest places on Earth. With its uncontrived pleasant characters, enchanting visuals, simple yet immersive sound design (and complementary soundtrack), this short film is suited to fans of Wes Anderson, Anthony Bourdain, and David Attenborough alike. “Welcome to Union Glacier” offers us a ticket to an uncommon sojourn to West Antarctica, producing a warm, soft prospect of what the “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” may have encountered during his contemplation. The film welcomes us to consider the meaning of our capacity to accomplish the ordinary in, and in service of, an extraordinary world surrounding us and begging for our communal participation and presence. In some ways, “Welcome to Union Glacier” stands contrary to a genre which might envelope us in the exceptional, the accomplishments of the few. Indeed, the movie brings us in, not to imagine the impossibility of another’s abilities, but rather the routine actualization of them, and in turn, the possibility of our own. — Prem Thakker
“Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop,” directed by Hannah Beachler, Raeshem Nijhon, and dream hampton
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop. The music genre that was once deemed a passing phase has made a global cultural impact in such a short period of time. As the world celebrates hip-hop pioneers, much recognition has been given to the men including Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, and Jay-Z. But Netflix’s documentary series “Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop” shines light on women who’ve influenced the culture on the mic and behind the scenes. In the series, you hear the journeys and growth as artists from hip-hop icons like Queen Latifah, Roxanne Shanté, and MC Lyte. The series also draws attention to the misogyny and abuse women faced, including that by music journalist Dee Barnes. Overall, the series doesn’t shy away from the dark side of the industry but offers hope for the new generation of women in hip-hop. — Alyxaundria Sanford
“The River Doesn’t Like Strangers,” Chelsea Carmichael
U.K.-based composer and saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael’s debut album, “The River Doesn’t Like Strangers,” has been in heavy rotation for me this summer. Released in 2021 on Shabaka Hutchings’s Native Rebel record label, the album is an engaging sonic journey. For me, no matter the activity — working, talking a long walk, or tending to the garden — there are moments that vibe perfectly with each. – Akil Harris