Top Reads for May

We may not know what spring is here in the Bay Area (why is the high only 57 degrees?!), but we do know all the best books to read this May, including: the political exposé everyone’s talking about from ex-FBI director James Comey, the latest from Divergent author Veronica Roth, a creative journey with Questlove, and more.

A Higher Loyalty

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Alex P.: The second political book of 2018 to dominate bestseller lists (and headlines), James Comey’s memoir addresses much more of his life than the sound bites might imply. But, ultimately, his description of the presidents he’s served — Bush, Obama, and most chaotically, Trump — and his previous career as a prosecutor, taking down major mob bosses, all coalesce to create a foil against which the unorthodoxies of Trump shine brightly. And he doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing his feelings toward our current commander in chief, either: “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” he writes. “His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty.”

Many will probably pick up A Higher Loyalty for quotes like the one above, and there are plenty of gems for the political buff to enjoy. But beyond the exciting subject matter, the book is well-written and engaging, and offers insight from a man who has had a front-row seat to the highest echelons of government for over a decade. A rare political memoir that transcends the buzz.

The Fates Divide

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Ashley: In case you haven’t heard, we have Veronica Roth’s latest series, the Carve the Mark duology, and IT IS A BIG DEAL! I was so excited I downloaded the ebook and audiobook versions of both books so I could switch between them, no matter the circumstances. It’s hard to put down this intense story of civil strife in space that brings together two unlikely, fate-favored lovers (Cyra Noavek and Akos Kereseth) from across the divide between the Shotet people and the Thuvhesits.

There’s heavy inspiration from Star Wars throughout — instead of the Force, there’s “the current,” which powers everyone’s unique gift (like a superpower). And also much like Star Wars, this is an intimate family drama with galactic ramifications — war between the planets inches closer as the confrontations between the Noaveks, Kereseths, and other Thuvhesit rulers mount. At its heart, this is an earnest exploration of how to break cycles of oppression and brutality — the title “carve the mark” comes from the Shotet practice of cutting a notch into their arms for every person they’ve killed (think Killmonger in Black Panther). Anyone who adored Tris Prior in Roth’s Divergent series will find much to love in Cyra, who’s tough as nails after enduring pain all of her life, but of course fights on the side of justice (at least after meeting Akos and finding strength in his kindness!).

Creative Quest

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David: Creativity is a tricky thing. When I was younger I dreamed of being a professional writer and, now, my career is built around my ability to write. It’s a dream come true, but it’s also something of a double-edge sword, because I’m using creative energy all day, every day. What’s great about Quest Love’s Creative Quest is that it understands that creativity is a finite resource. Yes, the book is full of inspiration, tips, and tools, but it’s also filled with empathetic stories. It’s at once saying “you can do it” and “hey, I know it’s not easy.” That’s why it’s the perfect book for anyone who is interested in exploring their own creativity, better managing how they use their creativity, or increasing their ability to think creatively. Trust me: whether or not you’re a full-time creative, this book will change the way you see the world.

“Bottled Up” by Stephanie Mencimer (Mother Jones)

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Karyne: Did you know that there’s a strong link between alcohol consumption and cancer? And that the International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that for every drink consumed daily, the risk of breast cancer goes up 7 percent? And that alcohol-related breast cancer kills more than twice as many American women as drunk drivers do? If not, you’re not alone, and it’s by design: The alcohol industry has (not surprisingly) played a key role in making sure that information regarding the negative health effects of alcohol never reach consumers, much like the tobacco industry has done in years past. 

Mother Jones’ reporter Stephanie Mencimer didn’t know either, until she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer and started doing her own research for her article “Bottled Up” from this month’s issue of that magazine. Give it a read; you might think twice before ordering that next glass of red wine.

The Mars Room

Alex P. (again!): I finally got around to reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden a couple weeks ago (side note: it’s excellent), and in some ways those stories feel like a prologue to Rachel Kushner’s new novel. Kushner’s characters could be the sisters or girlfriends of Johnson’s — both worlds are populated with disillusioned academics, addicts and strippers, drifters and convicts. And Kushner’s prose, like Johnson’s, is filled with dark humor and a humanity that shines through the grit.

The title refers to a San Francisco strip club where Lucy, the protagonist, works: “There isn’t any status in it unless you’d be impressed to know that the Mars Room is not a middling or mediocre strip club but definitely the worst and most notorious, the very seediest and most circuslike place there is.” But though interactions at the club have broad implications throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place in the cells of the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that much of the novel deals with constriction, justice, and morality. The skill with which it addresses these themes, however, would be surprising, if Kushner weren't already a national treasure: The Mars Room manages at once to offer a broad critique of the criminal justice system, and to be a carefully observed novel of believably flawed and fascinating characters. A great, smart new book for summer — or, really, for any season.

The Face That Changed It All

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Adia: Beverly Johnson is many things, including supermodel, businesswoman, and mother, but she’s also a fighter, which is evident throughout her book The Face That Changed It All.

She writes about is the time when Bill Cosby drugged and physically assaulted her. As she describes vividly, Johnson became aware of what had happened. Before she passed out, she cussed him out, which enraged him and he dragged her out of his house. Afterward, she kept quiet, afraid of the repercussions she’d face if she spoke about it. 

But the fight never left her. Almost thirty years after Cosby violated her, inspired by other women who had come forward, she publicly shared her experience. In this book, she says: “I can only hope that telling my story gives courage to other women to speak out about the trauma that they have faced.”

Johnson also discusses her decades-long struggle with drug, alcohol, food, and nicotine addiction, as well as her path to recovery. She says, “Recovery from any addiction is a continuous process—it’s not the end when you kick your habit, only the beginning.”

Johnson also writes about her illustrious modeling career, including becoming the first black Vogue cover model in 1974. But what stood out most to me in this timely book is how Johnson rose, struggled, and ultimately has continued to triumph.

Killers of the Flower Moon

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Katie: David Grann (The Lost City of Z) is a rockstar researcher and journalist. In Killers of the Flower Moon, he brings to life one of our nation’s most chilling murder conspiracies. Illuminating a dark period of racism, greed, corrupt lawmen, and ruthless outlaws, Grann animates his meticulous, detective-like research into a page-turning mystery.

In the Wild West of the 1920s, Native Americans in Osage County are murdered, one by one, after oil is discovered on their land. J. Edgar Hoover, the young director of the newly formed FBI, and his undercover agents struggle to find the killer amid vicious frontier gangs and seemingly respectable townsfolk. 

I usually have a knack for anticipating plot twists. This book stumped me. It will keep you guessing until the final pages. And the conspiracy Grann reveals will stick in your gut.


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