Ilana Masad

A couple months after Lauren Hough's essay "I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America" went viral at the tail-end of 2018, I assigned it to my creative writing students in a unit on "character."

Hough's essay had a distinct narrative voice — and she was capable of giving so much information about the people she encountered through a few quick details, like one of those cartoonists who can sketch out four lines and suddenly you see your face in them.

Sanjena Sathian's debut novel, Gold Diggers, is full of voice. Neil — Neeraj when his parents are mad — Narayan's voice to be exact, telling the defining stories of his life from a hazy point in the future that is, at first, only hinted at. His rollicking, at times painful, and ultimately intensely satisfying tale begins when he's a teenager living in Hammond Creek, Ga. with his parents and older sister. He considers his existence to have been shaped by his parents' ambitions for him, but now that he's in high school, he's got a few ambitions of his own.

Peering back at one's childhood and adolescence can be a daunting task.

We all tell ourselves stories about the days of our youth, no matter how far behind us they are, and it's easier to make these stories simple: a good childhood, a terrible one, or one so ordinary that there's no reason to think about it much.

Right from the beginning, Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green reads like the hardboiled true crime book that it is.

On Jan. 6, rioters broke into the U.S. Capitol building and disrupted democracy in action — in the name of saving the United States of America, so-called land of the free, from an election that was not stolen, as they claimed, but free and fair.

Nadia Owusu has lived many lives.

She's been the privileged child of a UN agency employee, ferried to school and back by chauffeurs while civil wars brewed outside walled compounds guarded by young men, where women called house girls cleaned and cooked for expats.

She's been a world traveler, experiencing life in Tanzania, England, Italy, Ethiopia, Uganda, and finally the United States, all before she turned 20.

She's witnessed and experienced the aftershocks of colonialism in several nations.

A bestiary is, traditionally, a compendium of beasts, both real and mythical. It's fitting, then, that K-Ming Chang's debut novel is titled Bestiary, for it too is a compendium of real and mythical beasts — some human, some animal, most a bit of both — that roam through a family's lineage and the stories its members tell each other from one generation to another. Everything is alive in their stories: The ground grows mouths, rivers become women, roads become rivers, crabs give birth to girlchildren, trees get up and march off in search of lost loves.

Melissa Faliveno exists in liminal spaces, but her debut essay collection Tomboyland opens and ends in the landscapes that shaped her: Mount Horeb, the small town (or, technically, village) that she grew up in — the stretch of hills called the Blue Mounds, and southwestern Wisconsin more broadly.

Anyone who has ever heard me talk about being a book critic (whether by choice or as an innocent, no-doubt-extremely-bored bystander) knows that I am passionate about this work and take it extremely seriously. It's rare that I begin reviews so self-consciously, but since The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine spends some time on the relationship between artist and critic and audience, I can't help but be especially aware of Tomine potentially reading these words.

Drug addiction continues to be wildly misunderstood and deeply stigmatized in the United States.

If the 22 stories ("& Other Revenges") that make up Amber Sparks's newest collection, And I Do Not Forgive You, were a mix tape, or mix CD, or more contemporarily, a playlist, it would be the kind you'd listen to after a breakup. But also the type you'd sing along with while driving on a perfect summer afternoon. Or that you'd put on late at night, curled up next to your best friend, sharing headphones and a mattress and each other's warmth.

What makes us who we are? Suppose that Theseus, the mythical founder and king of Athens, was survived by his famous, battle-tested ship, and that someone with a sense of history or enterprise placed it in a museum. Over time, the materials the ship was built of would begin to decay, and the museum curator might reinforce an old board there, or place a new screw here; replace this beam for a better-polished one and that figurehead with a more illustrative replica. Eventually, the ship will be made of entirely new parts — is it then the same ship, this thought experiment asks?

Robert Harris' novels have often looked at the complex workings of powerful people and institutions, with Fatherland (1992) and The Ghost (2007) being perhaps the most prominent examples.

In an interview with ArabLit this year, critic Hend Saeed asked Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi about what his Western readers might lose in translation. "Dealing with the Western reader isn't easy if we take into consideration what they don't know about us, by which I mean the Kuwaiti culture in particular," Alsanousi said. He added, "That puts a huge burden and responsibility on me, when I write and present my local culture and heritage."

Many of the allegations of sexual assault and rape that received widespread media coverage in the past few years have involved men in positions of power — producers, high-powered comedians, America's one-time favorite TV dad — accused of coercing, pressuring, or outright assaulting women who were beholden to them in some way.

More than 1 in 5 people living in the U.S. has a disability, making it the largest minority group in the country.

A few months ago, I watched a chilling film, My Friend Dahmer, based on a graphic memoir written by a high school friend(ish) of infamous serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

While IMDB's logline for the film reads, "A young Jeffrey Dahmer struggles to belong in high school," I saw it more as an attempt to contextualize Dahmer. It showed his chaotic family life, the masculinity he was expected to perform yet couldn't, his social ineptness, and the disturbing ways his instincts were and weren't validated.

Plague, virus, and zombie apocalypse narratives tend to share a few common threads: Often, humanity brings such terrors upon itself; usually, survivors or those with immunity come together in ragtag groups and attempt to find a cure and/or fight their way through to where the other healthy people are; and, almost always, humanity survives — perhaps in drastically reduced numbers, sans modern technology — and must learn to rebuild itself anew.

An ex-pastor, an alcoholic, and an atheist walks into a bar ... No, that's not a typo in the verb conjugation; Mark Haines is all three of these things, and rather than turning into a terrible, corny joke, he emerges as an empathetic, deeply complex, and fiercely self-critical protagonist and narrator in Patrick Coleman's debut novel, The Churchgoer.

Audacity in the face of great odds is a mesmerizing thing to watch. It is the kind of performance that ambitious women have always had to put on in their quest to achieve their dreams — just think of superstars like Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and others, all of whom project a confidence and strength onstage and in their work to such an extent that it's easy to forget that they are human beings with complex inner lives, insecurities, moments of weakness or doubt or shame. Fame discourages us from looking at icons as people, as if doing so will make them lose their power.

I have a theory. We, consumers of media in a capitalist, money-obsessed country, love a good fraudster. There's some compelling evidence, too.

It's been a minute since I've read a book whose narrator I didn't like at first. Maybe it's because some part of me, the perfectionist hungry to be loved and eager to be accepted, shies away from protagonists who don't care about such things. Maybe I just haven't been reading many narratives told in first person recently. Probably, it's a mix of both.

When the kerfuffle over the impending release of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman was cluttering up my news feeds in 2015, I confess that I didn't pay much attention.