15 Must-Read Books For May

What to read this month

April showers bring... lots of really great things to read in May. I think that's the saying, right? Even if it's not, who cares? Because this month really does bring an abundance of wonderful things to read. Check out all our picks for fabulous May books, below.

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley (available May 1)This spectacular debut signals an important new literary voice in Jamel Brinkley, whose exploration of the dynamics between fathers and sons, between black men and a society that takes from them but rarely gives back, is quite simply stunning. In each of the nine stories in this collection, Brinkley explores and explodes the myth that any of us are anything but the products of our pasts and our surroundings; he deals with issues of race, class, identity, love, and desire, and is willing to go headfirst into territory that most people would run away from. Instead, he shines a light on difficult truths, making it easier to confront them, even if no solution to their problems is available.

Motherhood: A Novel by Sheila Heti (available May 1)Apparently, the big word in publishing this year was "mother," because there are a lot of prominent books centered around this topic and even, literally, this word. But that's fine by me! Especially when it means that we get a new novel from the brilliant Heti, who here brings her acerbic wit to the topic of motherhood, and how women must navigate its treacherous shores in a way that is wholly unique to us, collectively, as a sex, but then also individually, as we seek to understand not only "how should a mother be," but "how should I, specifically, be as a mother." 

The Pisces by Melissa Broder (available May 1)This novel has everything: love addiction group therapy sessions, bathroom sex, bad Tinder dates, UTI-induced hospital trips, crystals, and, um, an impossibly sexy merman who is familiar with the work of ancient Greek poet Sappho. If you're not intrigued yet, I don't know what to tell you. Get better interests! But probably you are intrigued, as you should be; with The Pisces, Melissa Broder offers up one of the funniest, sexiest looks at the realities of being a woman looking for love in this modern, mindfuck of a time, in which options are limitless and yet also dead-ended.

Read more about The Pisces in my interview with author Melissa Broder, here.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (available May 1)After reading her absolutely brilliant novel The Flamethrowers, I pretty much vowed I would follow Kushner's writing wherever it took me. That her follow-up novel takes us to a California women's prison was not necessarily what I was expecting, after existing in the art world-centered pages of The Flamethrowers, but now I realize that it kind of makes perfect sense, because what is the art world but a prison full of arbitrary expectations and limitations, in which the people running the show are capable of doling out arbitrary cruelty and compassion alike? But so anyway, The Mars Room centers around Romy Hall, who has been given two (consecutive) life sentences, and so must accept that the reality she used to know will never exist for her again. Instead, she must acclimatize herself to institutional living, to the graceless barbarism that exists all around her, the myriad indignities, the constant hustle. Kushner is a masterful world-creator, and her accomplishment here is unparalleled; she has created a dazzling (like, it feels as if it would hurt to look too closely) world, full of pain and debasement and brutality, yes, but also an unsentimental form of hope and spirit.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo (available May 1)This is the second novel for Onuzo, though her first published in America, and it heralds the young writer's great talent, her ability to weave together multiple story lines into one vibrant tapestry, and her gift at inhabiting myriad perspectives while maintaining the singularity of each individual voice. Welcome to Lagos follows the stories of Chike, an officer in the Nigerian army who deserts his post rather than kill innocent civilians; Yemi, who served under Chike in the army and also wants to leave; Fineboy, who has been fighting with a rebel group but wants out of that; Isoken, a teenager who fears for her safety if she stays at home; and Oma, who has been suffering under the hand of an abusive husband. Together, this group heads toward Lagos, uncertain of what they will find, only certain that they must keep moving forward. With this novel, Onuzo doesn't try to make any sweeping—and reductive—statements about the state of life in Nigeria; instead, she concentrates on specific, intimate portraits, and her sensitivities toward her characters reveal far more than any simplistic generalizations ever could.

Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss (available May 1)Taking its title from the name of one of Rembrandt's still life paintings, Diane Seuss' new poetry book meditates on all the different aspects of the Dutch master's piece. Seuss analyzes each small part as a means to better understand the whole thing and, in doing so, allows readers to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which it is possible to make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible, if only we take the time to pay enough attention.

D C-T! by Joana Avillez and Molly Young (available May 1)A pure pleasure to explore, this wittily illustrated book is an homage to William Steig and an incredibly fun adventure for anyone who loves word games, New York City, and jaunty drawings of rats. That's everyone, right? Truly, though, Avillez and Young have created a real conversation piece with this wondrous book, which will have readers guessing the meanings of seemingly inscrutable letter combinations (hint: sound things out, and you'll have an easier time understanding) and delighting in seeing the city they love come to life on the page. This is the kind of treasure you keep and pass down to your kids one day.

Learn more about D C-T! in my interview and video with Joana Avillez and Molly Young, here.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam (available May 8)Alam's debut novel, Rich and Pretty, was one of our favorite books of the last couple years, and his follow-up demonstrates even more clearly that his is a voice we want to read on just about every issue. In this novel, the issues he addresses are parenting, race, class, and privilege, and he explores these fraught topics with his trademark wit and sensitivity, never pandering or veering into cliche. Alam subverts so many of the ideas we hold dear about motherhood as being this sanctified position, and instead lays bare all of its institutional flaws, but he does so with real compassion and an understanding that our failures do not mean we need to give up entirely but rather, must instead work toward better building the lives we want to see, the world we want to have our children live in.

Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel (available May 8)These surreal stories, suffused with humor and a casual tenderness, feature the kind of writing that gets stuck inside your head, right behind your eyes, so that, after you read it, everything about the way you view the world seems colored and warped by this new lens. Bullwinkel is not afraid to get strange, to explore those long ago misunderstandings we had as children, like erroneously thinking that the church we visit every Sunday is hungry, and needs us to feed it, lest it just open up its mouth and eat the congregation. See? Strange. And yet, even in the stories in which there's a kind of muted horror present, any terror is complemented by a familiar type of ecstasy, that very specific—sometimes grotesque—joy we've all felt about being alive.

Alternative Remedies for Loss by Joanna Cantor (available May 8)Joanna Cantor's debut deals with parental loss and the many ways in which we search for our true selves, even though we have no idea what we're looking for or what exactly we might find. In the book, Olivia is just 22 when her mother dies, and this event leads her on a journey of self-discovery (why, yes, there are many bad experiences with men along the way). Along the way, Olivia realizes what things from her earlier life she should hold onto and learn from, and what is okay to surrender to the past.

Baracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (available May 8)This never-before-published work by the late Hurston (who wrote one of the great American novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God) is based on reporting Hurston did in the late 1920s, in which she spent time in Plateau, Alabama, talking to Cudjo Lewis, one of—if not the—last surviving people to have been sent from Africa to America on a slave ship. Though Hurston tried to sell the book in 1931, publishers rebuffed her because she had incorporated the dialect used by Lewis into her writing. Hurston refused to cede to their demands to make the changes, and the book languished, even though Hurston wrote about Lewis in her own autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road. Now, at last, the work will be published, and showcase the estimable reporting skills of Hurston, the horrific and all too close legacy of slavery, and the life of Lewis, whom Hurston described in Baracoon as "the only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has 67 years of freedom in a foreign land behind him.”

Junk by Tommy Pico (available May 8)Honestly, don't even waste time reading my blurb about this book, because you could—and should—read all of Junk in one feverish sitting, and you'll feel like it's been injected right into your gut, where all good and weird things and feelings live and breed. I mean, if you really want a summary, here you go: Junk is a slim volume, one long, rhythmic (it's all written in couplets) breakup poem, whose cadence becomes addictive; your own heart will feel like it's beating along in time to Pico's words. There are references ranging from Janet Jackson to junk food within it, and I don't know, I don't even want to describe it anymore, I just want you to read it. So go do that. You'll thank me later.

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions, & Criticisms by Michelle Tea (available May 8)I'd read anything Michelle Tea puts out into the world, but it's still a particular kind of pleasure to get to dive into her essays on the kind of wild, brilliant, complicated women who live on the radical fringes of society. (And, yes, that does mean that Tea writes about herself as well.) These essays are a thrill to read, and an essential look into lives too often relegated to the margins of literature, instead of where they belong: front and center.

Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin (available May 15)This debut novel follows the story of Mona, a young woman in her early 20s who is, as one does at that time in life, drifting, and in need of a purpose beyond the regular, fascinating insights into the behind-closed-doors lives of the people whose houses she cleans. So, also as one does, she heads to New Mexico in order to help get past the heartbreak of a relationship with a junkie, aptly named Mr. Disgusting. Of course, salvation can rarely be found externally—even when you find yourself among New Age hippies in Taos—but salvation stops becoming the point, really, as Mona starts to examine the damage she suffered growing up in a singularly chaotic environment. Beagin's work has been compared to Denis Johnson, which is high praise indeed, and totally deserved based on this smart, funny, darkly profound debut.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel (available May 15)A page-turner of a debut, Gabel's novel follows the lives of four friends whose relationship is predicated less on really liking each other, and more on needing each other for professional advancement. That sounds... healthy, right? Yeah, no. The Ensemble is set in the world of classical music (so, yes, this is a good book for all you Mozart in the Jungle fans) and tracks the way the friends, who comprise the Van Ness Quartet, navigate their youthful inexperience, riotous success, professional failures, and all of the other things that come with sky-rocketing ambition and a reliance on other people. Can you say "beach read"?

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