What to Read this Month: September 2020

As we reach the midpoint of this unusual semester, we’d like to highlight a variety of new reading material in our collection. These books are currently held in our New and Noteworthy collection, or in Duke’s Overdrive e-book collection. As always, we encourage you to check out both of these resources in full if you’re looking for something new to read! This month’s selections feature a mix of recent fiction and nonfiction.


IF I HAD TWO WINGS

If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan. Randall Kenan, a long-time professor of creative writing and food writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as the 1994 William Blackburn Visiting Professor in Creative Writing here at Duke, died this past month at the age of 57. Having grown up in Duplin County, North Carolina, he was renowned for his rich portrayals of poor, Black, and gay lives in the rural South, crafting unique characters whose experiences were often tinged with a touch of magic and mysticism. His latest collection of short stories, published a few weeks before his death and currently one of ten nominees for the National Book Award for Fiction, features a return to Tims Creek, North Carolina, a fictional community which originally appeared in Kenan’s 1989 novel, A Visitation of Spirits. The ten stories in this collection relay the exploits and experiences of characters who interact with the community in various ways, ranging from a retired plumber who leaves the town for Manhattan, an elderly woman who becomes a miracle-worker, and even a fictionalized Howard Hughes, who arrives searching for a woman who once made him butter beans. You can read a review here, its National Book Award nomination here, as well as Kenan’s recent New York Times obituary here.


Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. In this book, which debuted earlier this month, science journalist Angela Chen offers a “big-picture exploration of ace issues,” or a generalized look at asexuality and its place in society. Drawing in part on her own experiences as an asexual person, Chen describes what it means to be asexual in a world where asexuality is underrepresented and often misunderstood. As a “blend of reporting, cultural criticism, and memoir,” she also reports on the experiences of other asexual people of various genders and romantic orientations, all the while acknowledging that there is no singular experience of the sexuality. In this way, the book serves as an elucidating and approachable introduction for readers of any sexual orientation. You can read a review here, and listen to an interview with Chen here.


Axiom's End

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis. This book is the debut novel of Hugo Award finalist Lindsay Ellis, video essayist and co-host of PBS web series It’s Lit!. The science fiction novel offers a unique variation of the popular “first contact” narrative. Set in an alternate universe version of 2007, it tells the story of Cora, a young woman who learns that her family, including her estranged whistleblower father, has been involved in a decades-long US government coverup of humankind’s first contact with an alien species. After government agents kidnap her family, Cora finds that she must align herself with a member of the alien species who is searching for some of his compatriots being held on Earth. The two forge a deep bond as they work together, and ultimately, the novel offers compelling commentary on themes of xenophobia and grief. A sequel to the novel is forthcoming, slated to be released next year. You can read a review here and read an interview with Ellis here.


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How to Be Autistic by Charlotte Amelia Poe. In this memoir, writer and artist Charlotte Amelia Poe relays the story of their life and experiences as an autistic person. The book, which was published last year, serves as a sort of companion piece to Poe’s 2017 short film of the same name, in which they discussed some of the experiences and incidents that the book covers in more detail. Being a memoir, Poe’s book only focuses on their individual experiences, but the issues they touch on ring very true for many other autistic people. Among other things, Poe discusses their childhood sensory and motor issues, problems cultivating interpersonal relationships, a late diagnosis in their twenties, coming to understand their sexual and gender identity, and generally learning how to navigate a neurotypical world as an autistic person. While the subject matter is often very heavy—and this is something readers should consider—it is frequently punctuated by Poe’s wry and enjoyable humor. You can read a review of the book here, and an interview with Poe here.


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Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang. Chang’s debut novel, published this year, centers on Jing Jing, a Chinese-American woman in her mid-twenties working as a tech journalist in Silicon Valley. Jing Jing is deeply unsatisfied in her position, finding it difficult to thrive in the publication’s male-dominated, racist atmosphere while also being one of its only woman writers of color. When her white boyfriend of five years, J, gets accepted into a biochemistry PhD program at Cornell, she sees an opportunity to escape Silicon Valley and live a better life in New York. However, this decision brings its own complications for Jing Jing, as she comes to question her place in her interracial relationship with J, meditating on her longing for his approval and the connection to whiteness that he provides her. In the midst of all these events, Jing Jing also visits her father, now living in China and urging her to live there as well, and the trip brings its own insights for her. Throughout the whole of novel, Jing Jing has a compelling conversation with herself, contemplating her identity in the prejudiced society in which she lives while also making numerous dry, humorous observations about it. You can read a review here and an interview with Chang here.

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