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The Office of Historical CorrectionsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Danielle Evans

Summary

Danielle Evans is widely acclaimed for her blisteringly smart voice and x-ray insights into complex human relationships. With The Office of Historical Corrections, Evans zooms in on particular moments and relationships in her characters' lives in a way that allows them to speak to larger issues of race, culture, and history. She introduces us to Black and multiracial characters who are experiencing the universal confusions of lust and love, and getting walloped by grief—all while exploring how history haunts us, personally and collectively. Ultimately, she provokes us to think about the truths of American history—about who gets to tell them, and the cost of setting the record straight.

In "Boys Go to Jupiter," a white college student tries to reinvent herself after a photo of her in a Confederate-flag bikini goes viral. In "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain," a photojournalist is forced to confront her own losses while attending an old friend's unexpectedly dramatic wedding. And in the eye-opening title novella, a black scholar from Washington, DC, is drawn into a complex historical mystery that spans generations and puts her job, her love life, and her oldest friendship at risk.

BookBrowse Review

In The Office of Historical Corrections, the second story collection from Danielle Evans, readers are given a revelatory look at injustice, forgiveness, identity and history. With each story, Evans reveals the realities of present-day America, focusing in particular on the experiences of Black women in a country that considers whiteness the standard.

This collection contains six short stories along with the titular novella, a piece that challenges American narratives stemming from a colonial and racist past. Within its 104 pages, readers are introduced to Cassie and Genevieve (Genie), who at one point both worked for the Institute for Public History, a government agency tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies. The two women were often at odds with each other and eventually Genevieve was fired, while Cassie remained to continue her work with the organization. The revisions made by IPH agents are not always well received, and when Cassie is sent out on an assignment to correct something Genevieve was responsible for, she finds out how dangerous the job can be. As she uncovers the true story behind the death of a Black shopkeeper in 1937, she inadvertently draws out anger and violence from a radical white "preservationist."

It would be easy to assume that the novella is the highlight of the book, with the preceding stories serving as mere preludes, but this assumption would be inaccurate. While the novella is certainly memorable and arresting, the short stories stand alone as prescient, unique literary revelations of mortality, desire and other aspects of the human condition. From "Boys Go to Jupiter," an account of a thoughtless white college student who faces the consequences of donning a Confederate-flag bikini in rebellion against her stepmother, to a twisted tale of male ego and the objectification of women in "Why Won't Women Just Say What They Want," each story follows overarching themes of apology, correction and grief with its own distinctive narrative.

In particular, "Anything Could Disappear" feels as full as a novel despite being only 30 pages long. In this story, we meet Vera, a young woman who is looking for escape but instead finds herself in charge of a child and part of the illegal underground workings of a New York courier service. At her core, Vera is driven to do the "right" thing, even as she struggles to define what that is, and even as she is often tripped up by impulsivity and the desire to be accepted. Her journey from a neglected Missouri girl to a woman on the lam challenges assumptions of race and morality while presenting clear, touching examples of love and commitment.

Throughout the collection, Evans' writing is honest and nuanced, sometimes revealing a wryness — almost a dark wit — that comes close to toppling into cynicism but never does. This quality is present in "Happily Ever After," where readers are introduced to Lyssa, who is faced with life on her own after losing her mother to ovarian cancer (see Beyond the Book). Lyssa is a sharp-minded, competent woman fighting to be seen as more than a token, a prop in a white world. Often, she must fight to be seen at all. This is especially true during her mother's battle with cancer, as Lyssa experiences microaggressions and assumptions from doctors. She feels the pressure of the standards Black women must meet in order to receive equal, respectful care in the medical system.

In each story, the author shows herself to be a master of lyricism and tightly woven text, exercising the ability to write with a perfect balance of soft, inviting prose and razor-sharp commentary on adversity, trauma and pain. With their urgency, these stories bring present-day anxieties to the surface without ever becoming predictable. Evans' literary touch successfully reveals the (typically unacknowledged) cost of troublesome expectations and ideals surrounding reconciliation and redemption as defined by a society that refuses to own its brutal past.

Through fully developed, complex characters, she navigates the tensions layered within women's relationships to each other, as well as the fraught relationships women (especially Black women) have with racism, classism, sexism, invisibility outside of stereotypes and society in general. Readers who enjoy short story collections, and likely even those who do not typically read short stories, will find themselves satisfied and fulfilled by The Office of Historical Corrections.

Book reviewed by Nichole Brazelton

Beyond the Book:
Ovarian Cancer

Ovarian cancer cells in a 3-D model In Danielle Evans' collection The Office of Historical Corrections, the short story "Happily Ever After" centers around Lyssa, who at 30 years old is navigating life after her mother's death from ovarian cancer and has been advised to have her own ovaries removed as soon as possible. Ovarian cancer is the seventh most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, and the eighth leading cause of cancer-related death for women. It is the deadliest form of gynecologic cancer.

Racial disparities exist in the outcomes of ovarian cancer. Notably, white women are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but Black women are more likely to die from it. This reality has been attributed to several factors. Some studies have shown that the increased likelihood of comorbidities among Black women — such as with renal disease, cardiovascular disease and hypertension — contribute to the increased death rate. Other studies have highlighted the socioeconomic factors that can interact with these comorbidities or contribute independently — including lack of access to affordable, reliable and equal healthcare, as well as discrimination linked to delay in diagnosis. One study reports that Black women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are less likely to receive standard guideline-recommended care by comparison to Caucasian women.

Despite the strides made in ovarian cancer treatment in recent decades, Black women have as a whole not obtained the benefits of treatment progress over the years. Between 1975 and 2016, the five-year survival rate for non-Hispanic white women with ovarian cancer rose from 33% to 48%, while for African American women it fell from 44% to 41%.

Regardless of race, ovarian cancer is often only diagnosed in its later stages. Most people do not receive an accurate diagnosis until the cancer has progressed to a stage that makes treatment and survival difficult. Because of this, it is important to maintain regular gynecological visits, and to know the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Some of the most common symptoms include bloating, pelvic pain, abdominal pain, back pain, pain during sex, feeling full quickly after eating or otherwise having trouble eating, fatigue, stomach upset, urinary urgency or frequency, constipation, changes in menstrual period, abdominal swelling and weight loss. However, it is crucial to remember that these symptoms can also indicate many benign disorders and any condition should be properly diagnosed by a medical professional.

A 3-D model with ovarian cancer cells. Source: NIH

The Book of MotherClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Violaine Huisman

Summary

A prizewinning tour de force when it was published in France, Violaine Huisman's remarkable debut novel is about a daughter's inextinguishable love for her magnetic, mercurial mother. Beautiful and charismatic, Catherine, a.k.a. "Maman," smokes too much, drives too fast, laughs too hard, and loves too extravagantly. During a joyful and chaotic childhood in Paris, her daughter Violaine wouldn't have it any other way.

But when Maman is hospitalized after a third divorce and a breakdown, everything changes. Even as Violaine and her sister long for their mother's return, once she's back Maman's violent mood swings and flagrant disregard for personal boundaries soon turn their home into an emotional landmine. As the story of Catherine's own traumatic childhood and adolescence unfolds, the pieces come together to form an indelible portrait of a mother as irresistible as she is impossible, as triumphant as she is transgressive.

With spectacular ferocity of language, a streak of dark humor, and stunning emotional bravery, The Book of Mother is an exquisitely wrought story of a mother's dizzying heights and devastating lows, and a daughter who must hold her memory close in order to let go.

BookBrowse Review

Fictionalizing the life of author Violaine Huisman's own mother, this debut novel is split into three distinct sections. The first is arguably the strongest, opening with matriarch Catherine's hospitalization following a nervous breakdown. Narrated from the perspective of her youngest daughter (a representation of Huisman herself), we see a series of anecdotal snapshots detailing Catherine's erratic behavior throughout her daughters' childhood and her gradual descent into the grips of bipolar depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. The non-linear timeline in this section reflects the meandering nature of memory, as Catherine's daughter paints a portrait of a mother as enigmatic and passionate as she is chaotic and careless.

The second section takes us back to Catherine's own childhood, walking us through the chronology of her life up to the point of her breakdown. Though the gut-punch of the book's focus on a complex mother-daughter dynamic takes something of a backseat here, it does poignantly add context for Catherine's fractured mental state, a succession of betrayals and losses – particularly at the hands of men – gradually wearing her down. In the third and final section, the book jumps to Catherine's later years. Here, her daughters attempt to make peace with the repercussions of their mother's turbulent identity and lifestyle; to reconcile the strange mix of love, reverence and resentment they hold for the woman who shaped so many aspects of their lives.

Huisman's prose is very strong, her poetic flair remaining intact thanks to Leslie Camhi's skillful translation from the original French. It feels befitting of the subject's captivating aura, the author clearly eager to pay tribute to Catherine's charms despite the brutally honest portrayal of her flaws. Indeed, Huisman is candid about the reality of her mother's self-destructive substance abuse, and her propensity for physically and emotionally damaging behavior during her deepest bouts of depression.

Though the relationship between Catherine and her daughters is undeniably toxic at times, it becomes clear that amidst all the chaos of their lives, they remain each other's one constant. With their love serving as a vital anchor, their mutual reliance on one another's presence despite the ways they hurt each other takes on new significance. One of the book's other greatest strengths is its subtle yet powerful look at the idea of inheritance, and the fight to break cycles that repeat themselves across generations. Despite the upsetting subject matter, there are unexpected moments of comedy woven throughout. This does well to add some levity and to comment on the often vital role humor can play in helping us navigate life's darkest moments. Our narrator – and by extension, Huisman herself – displays an admirable if hard-won resilience.

At once a purge of years' worth of pain and a celebration of a life lived at the extremes, Huisman's blend of fact and fiction feels like the ideal narrative style to immortalize a woman whose bittersweet story consistently blurred the lines between sorrow and joy, heartache and passion, savagery and love.

Book reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

Beyond the Book:
What Is Autofiction?

Covers of My Struggle, Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAs a concept, autofiction can seem like an oxymoron. Short for autobiographical fiction, the term was coined in the 1970s by French writer Serge Dubrovsky, and it quickly became something of a buzzword in the publishing world. This blend of two seemingly disparate forms is best described as a fictionalized account of real-life events, heavily influenced by the author's own experiences.

While most of us are familiar with the notion of "writing about what you know," it may seem strange to some readers that an author would choose to frame their own life story as fiction, rather than simply pen a more recognizable memoir. Some have suggested that autofiction exists on a spectrum, from the heavily fictionalized to almost entirely true. This would go some way toward explaining why, despite the form's long history, it retains an air of mystique; its very definition and boundary lines continuing to blur and cause debate. Recognized examples of more specific types of autofiction include the following:

  • Author surrogate: Here, the narrative itself is almost entirely fictional but one of the characters acts as a mouthpiece for the author's own perspective and opinions on the themes being explored. One example of this type of autofiction is Stephen King's Misery, which uses the fictional scenario of a kidnapped writer to explore issues King was dealing with in real life, including addiction and pushback from fans about his work.
  • Self-insertion: This is similar to the above style, but is a more overt way for the author to place themselves within the story. Here, a character typically has the same name and backstory as the author, making it clear they are blending fact with fiction. In The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine, the protagonist Mina meets a writer who is strongly implied to be the author himself while she is helping Syrian refugees in Greece.
  • Semi-autobiographical: Perhaps the best-known and most commonly observed form of autofiction, this approach sees an author exploring specific events from their life, fleshing out or tweaking details to form a more cohesive and satisfying narrative arc. Examples include Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain and Violaine Huisman's The Book of Mother.
  • Fully-autobiographical: This is in essence a more exaggerated example of the above style. Minute details such as names and dates may have been changed out of respect for others' anonymity, but the narrative follows the author's life more or less to the letter. Karl Ove Knausgård's six-part series My Struggle would be an example of this type. The books are a direct reflection of the author's life and relationships, and he has been sued by family members over depictions and revelations therein.

In short, autofiction presents the perfect solution for many authors who want their work to exist without the restraints of a more traditional novel or memoir. While the former may deny them the opportunity to comment explicitly on their own experiences, the latter may stifle creative flair. After all, few of us have lived a life that would adhere neatly to the structure and chronology that most readers expect from a book.

Violaine Huisman spoke eloquently of these freedoms when discussing the origins of her novel The Book of Mother with Vogue magazine. Though initially penning her mother's life story in a more straightforward manner, she revisited the manuscript with the concept of autofiction in mind: "I realized then that I had to distance myself from facts in order to give shape to my mother's story, to create a coherent narrative." She explained further: "… fiction is the imaginative power to give form to the real, to make sense of the chaotic nature of living … [It] has the ability to create logic where there is none, to give coherence and stability to the story in a way that feels very powerful and personal."

People from My NeighborhoodClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Hiromi Kawakami

Summary

A bossy child who lives under a white cloth near a tree; a schoolgirl who keeps doll's brains in a desk drawer; an old man with two shadows, one docile and one rebellious; a diplomat no one has ever seen who goes fishing at an artificial lake no one has ever heard of. These are some of the inhabitants of People from My Neighborhood.

In their lives, details of the local and everyday—the lunch menu at a tiny drinking place called the Love, the color and shape of the roof of the tax office—slip into accounts of duels, prophetic dreams, revolutions, and visitations from ghosts and gods. In twenty-six "palm of the hand" stories—fictions small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand and brief enough to allow for dipping in and out—Hiromi Kawakami creates a universe ruled by mystery and transformation.

BookBrowse Review

People from My Neighborhood is exactly what it sounds like — an unnamed narrator recounts a litany of odd characters and anecdotes she remembers from the Japanese neighborhood where she grew up. This motley crew of residents includes a man named Grandpa Shadows and another called Uncle Red Shoes; Love, local tavern owner and karaoke enthusiast; and the greeting squad, a group of people who stop time as they accost passersby with painstaking and nonsensical small talk.

The book is a hodgepodge, but it is anything but random. There are recurring characters, most notably the narrator's friend Kanae and Kanae's unnamed sister. The latter is one of the collection's most intriguing personages. In one story she shows the narrator "a white, squishy substance" that she reveals to be "Doll brains." In another, Kanae's sister finds a "thing" — a "malodorous whatever" — that gradually evolves into a boy, and then a man, whom she marries. She then becomes a medium helping the grief-stricken communicate with their loved ones on Japan's famed Mount Osore (see Beyond the Book).

In "The Hachirō Lottery," Hachirō is the eighth boy in a family of 15 (his name means "number eight"), passed around from neighbor to neighbor because his parents have their hands full. Whoever loses the Hachirō lottery takes the boy home for three months. Slightly odd but quotidian details like these keep the book grounded amid some of the wilder flights of fancy.

Stories often begin abruptly, as though you were in the middle of a conversation with the narrator and briefly spaced out — you feel you have to accept whatever is being said to catch up. "There's a hell, the old man said, for people who are mean to chickens." Of course there is, tell me more. Kawakami skirts the line between realism and the fantastical with precision. Many of the stories are bizarre, but they are neither too cute nor weird for the sake of being weird. Her language, translated with grace by Ted Goossen, is imminently quotable. In "The Tenement," a taxi driver lives in a tenement building that is haunted by the ghosts of the women who once lived there. The driver remarks at the local tavern that he has been out "driving with the girls." "[W]omen are women," he explains, "They're still fun to have around, even if they look sort of blurry and don't have legs." Needless to say, this book is very funny.

"The Rivals" features two girls named Yōko who hate each other so much that "people in the neighborhood took turns making sure the two girls stayed away from each other, for they had once actually started a fire in the stationery shop near the train station." In adulthood, one Yōko steals the other Yōko's husband, then unleashes a death curse on her. However, the god responsible for fulfilling the curse mistakes one Yōko for another and kills the spellcaster Yōko instead of the target. The remaining Yōko sues her husband for alimony and starts an organic vegetable company with the money.

There is little symbolism or profound meaning to interpret in these stories. The characters are given little depth. Instead, Kawakami offers a series of impressions — fragments of lives that are just slightly off-kilter from the everyday. Anyone who has lived in a close-knit neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else's business will recognize familiar situations, the fabric of which have been stretched like an old sweater over the bulky build of a strange and angular animal, limbs jutting out the neck-hole, fabric pulled taut over horns and scales and crooked teeth. The pleasure of reading People from My Neighborhood lies in the uncanny, the feeling of recognizing something familiar that isn't quite right, or something that could be real (such as chicken hell) but isn't (as far as we know).

Book reviewed by Lisa Butts

Beyond the Book:
Mount Osorezan

Bodaiji Temple at Mount Osore Mount Osorezan, or Mount Osore, is located on the northern end of Honshu, the largest of the four main islands of Japan. An active volcano, its name translates to "Fear Mountain." It's a popular pilgrimage site because of its Buddhist temple and because of the occasional presence of the itako — female mediums believed to be able to contact a visitor's deceased loved ones. In People from My Neighborhood, the narrator's best friend's sister becomes one of these mediums. The itako are usually blind (a tradition that dates back to the medieval period, when such an occupation was one of the few avenues for the blind to pursue) and undergo extensive spiritual training. They are sought out in particular by attendees of the Bodaiji festival on the mountain, held each year in July. The itako are, according to the New York Times, "among the last remaining adherents to ancient shamanistic beliefs that predate Buddhism." In 2009, when a Times journalist visited Osorezan, there were only a handful of itako present, and those who wished to speak to the dead waited in lines for six hours to see one.

The mountain is associated with the afterlife because it has topographical features similar to descriptions of hell and paradise in Buddhist texts, including eight surrounding mountains and Lake Usori, a stream from which represents the river Sanzu no Kawa. In Buddhism, this river is crossed by the dead, much like the River Styx in Greek mythology. There is also a spring on Mount Osore that visitors often drink from that is compared to the Fountain of Youth. According to one guide, "It is said that drinking one cup of the water will make you 10 years younger, drinking 2 cups will make you 20 years younger and after the third cup you will get younger and younger – until you die."

The mountain's Bodaiji Temple is believed to have been founded in 862 AD by a Buddhist priest named Ennin, who studied Buddhism at length in China and brought spiritual knowledge back to Japan. It sits beside the acidic Lake Usori, so poisonous that only one species of fish can survive in its waters, the Japanese dace. There is a statue outside of the temple in the likeness of Jizō Bosatsu, a bodhisattva (enlightened being) who is the patron deity of dead children. It is believed that Jizō Bosatsu protects the souls of the dead attempting to cross the river Sanzu no Kawa into the afterlife.

In her book Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan, anthropologist Marilyn Ivy writes that one reason many visit Mount Osore is "to see and experience a vanishing Japanese mode of encountering death." It is a "powerful site for the enactment of allegories of loss," a place where it is deemed natural and appropriate to grieve outwardly, and to speak to the dead through the itako. There is a long folkloric and spiritual history associating death with mountains in Japan, so Mount Osore serves as a grieving place and a window into the country's past.

And many simply visit because of the mountain's atmosphere. As another travel guide humorously notes, "the area offers visitor accommodations for those who don't mind sleeping on an active volcano in the land of the dead."

Bodaiji Temple at Mount Osore. Photo by Daderot

Win Me SomethingClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Kyle Lucia Wu

Summary

Willa Chen has never quite fit in. Growing up as a biracial Chinese American girl in New Jersey, Willa felt both hypervisible and unseen, too Asian to fit in at her mostly white school, and too white to speak to the few Asian kids around. After her parents' early divorce, they both remarried and started new families, and Willa grew up feeling outside of their new lives, too.

For years, Willa does her best to stifle her feelings of loneliness, drifting through high school and then college as she tries to quiet the unease inside her. But when she begins working for the Adriens―a wealthy white family in Tribeca―as a nanny for their daughter, Bijou, Willa is confronted with all of the things she never had. As she draws closer to the family and eventually moves in with them, Willa finds herself questioning who she is, and revisiting a childhood where she never felt fully at home. Self-examining and fraught with the emotions of a family who fails and loves in equal measure, Win Me Something is a nuanced coming-of-age debut about the irreparable fissures between people, and a young woman who asks what it really means to belong, and how she might begin to define her own life.

Paperback original.

BookBrowse Review

Kyle Lucia Wu's Win Me Something opens with a young woman named Willa explaining that she did not feel cared for in the family environment in which she was raised. Yet she has applied to care for someone else. She is interviewing with Nathalie Adrien, who lives in the affluent Tribeca neighborhood of New York City with her husband Gabe and is seeking a nanny for their nine-year-old daughter, Bijou. In response to Nathalie's questions, Willa glosses over her work and life experience. At one point, Nathalie asks if Willa has always liked children, implying that the position she wants should be a logical extension of who she is. "I didn't like children," Willa tells the reader. But she finds that she does like Bijou, a precocious aspiring chef, and Bijou likes her. And so Willa, directionless in a way not uncommon for someone in her mid-20s, allows herself to imagine that direction is something the seemingly grounded Adriens can give her.

After Willa is hired, we are given more specifics of her life. She is second-generation Chinese American on her father's side, and grew up with her white mother; each of her divorced parents now has a second spouse and family. We learn of how she dealt with racist comments from her classmates as a child, and are presented with scenes showing the curious and absurd position in which working for the wealthy, white Adriens puts her, some of which revolve around Bijou's study of Mandarin, which is Willa's father's first language but which she herself does not speak.

As someone who shares considerable background with Wu's character, including that of being a biracial Asian woman with divorced parents, I found the details of her struggles eminently relatable. In fact, the number of textbook (if entirely realistic) microaggressions Willa recounts enduring, and the matter-of-fact way in which she explains her reactions to them, had me at first uncomfortable and involuntarily wondering, will this book, with its emphasized moments of racial suffering, be seen as endeavoring to educate white people, appeal to their sympathy? Questions like these are frankly useless for author and reader alike. They form part of the reading experience for me and many others nevertheless. I was ultimately able to appreciate Wu's novel more because of these concerns, as Willa struggles with her own feelings about the white gaze but is given space to be and do much more. As much as Win Me Something may be legitimately about the experience of being biracial, readers shouldn't pick it up expecting a lesson in empathy for the other, or a comeuppance for the Adriens and their ilk, but rather to appreciate Wu's unhurried, organic character development and skillful, nuanced storytelling.

Willa is at an age where one is still living the direct consequences of childhood, where it feels perversely like everything is happening over and over while also still happening for the first time. That tedium and helplessness is reflected in her early narration. But Win Me Something isn't about Willa's suffering or lack of power. It isn't about her taking back power, either. It's a subtly rendered and satisfying story of someone on the verge of beginning to know herself — gentle and confident in its shifts of direction, blossoming in complexity like a fine wine as it opens into the reader's mind. The novel is first mysterious and loaded with possibility, then flooded with a sense of Willa's limitations, and finally about her autonomy and choices. Her time with the Adriens represents yet another period of her life in which she is between worlds, drifting on the edge of things, but unlike with her family circumstances, she has placed herself there.

When Willa meets Ethan, Nathalie's brother, his disruptive nature suggests that she may be fated to fall for him. He's obnoxious, but shows an interest in her that at times seems genuine. In a different kind of story, the two would bicker and eventually fall in love, landing Willa in the family she idealizes and solving all of her problems. But it's difficult for the reader to know what to make of Ethan, just as it's difficult for Willa to know what to make of him. While she sometimes feels drawn to him, she also objectifies him, albeit in a different way than he may be objectifying her.

Rife with social and internal tensions as well as the fraught mentality of late adolescence, Win Me Something is nevertheless a quiet, reflective read with a long, delicate finish. Willa's time with the Adriens serves as a stepping stone for her, but in a much less dramatic way than she hopes or expects. The reader is left with the feeling that she has not proven anything and will not prove anything, to herself or to those who have misunderstood her. Having moved through her life in a series of performances, she is ultimately spared the burden of another performance for the reader. She exists in the space where she has landed, self-evident as the Adriens, as anyone.

Book reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Beyond the Book:
Willa Cather and the American Outsider Experience

Black and white photograph of Willa CatherWilla Chen, the main character in Kyle Lucia Wu's Win Me Something, mentions that her mother named her after the writer Willa Cather. This connection is significant in that Willa expects to be asked about her name in the context of her Chinese heritage, and is surprised when her employer's brother asks about the origin of her first name instead of her last. It is also significant in that Cather, now considered a quintessentially American writer, wrote stories about immigrants and characters who feel like outsiders in American society, as Willa often feels. As author David Burr Gerrard says in a blurb for the book, "Like a latter-day Willa Cather, after whom her protagonist is named, Kyle Lucia Wu has written a beautiful novel about a fiercely American young woman whose Americanness is constantly questioned by those around her."

Cather, who was born in 1873 in Virginia, moved to Nebraska with her family when she was nine years old. Her subsequent experiences growing up in the Great Plains brought her into contact with immigrant communities, and this would have a notable influence on her writing later on. After studying at the University of Nebraska and beginning a career in journalism, Cather began to establish herself as a poet and fiction writer. She published a short story collection, The Troll Garden, in 1905. The collection came to the attention of S.S. McClure of McClure's Magazine, who later invited her to work for the publication in New York City. Her editorial position at McClure's allowed her to establish connections there, and the magazine serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912.

Her next three novels, O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918), are known as her "Prairie Trilogy." These works, which were generally well-received, depict the type of American frontier life that Cather experienced as a child. She moved away from the settings of these books with later novels such as One of Ours (1922) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), but she is remembered for her depictions of prairie living, and celebrated for centering women and immigrants in her work.

Criticism has been leveled at Cather for the nostalgic, romantic style of her fiction, and she has also been accused of sexism and racism. Nevertheless, her writing earned her international fame, and continues to hold appeal for many marginalized people in America. Cather existed outside of societal norms herself: Despite being an intensely private person who never identified herself in terms of sexuality, her closest relationships were with women, and she lived with a female companion, Edith Lewis, from the early 1900s until her death in 1947. Cather's experience of not conforming to heterosexual expectations likely influenced her work; for example, scholars have suggested that in her short story about a restless and disturbed young man, "Paul's Case," the protagonist is implied to be gay.

"Paul's Case" has something in common with Wu's novel, as it depicts a dissatisfied young person existing as an outsider in New York City. In Cather's story, Paul endeavors to escape the confines of his dreary middle-class existence by stealing money to fund a stay in the city that ends in disillusionment and destruction. Willa's situation is different in that she is much less impulsive and eventually develops a more stable sense of herself through her contact with upper-class New Yorkers, but she still suffers from feelings of desperation and of not belonging in the life she has been born into.

Interestingly, Win Me Something is not the only example of a creative work by an Asian American that has drawn a significant link to Cather. Director Lee Isaac Chung based his Oscar-nominated film Minari, about a Korean American family farming in the Ozarks, on Cather's My Ántonia after the writer's name came to him in a flash of spontaneous, inexplicable inspiration that he describes to the Los Angeles Times "[a]t the risk of sounding like a mystic or a fool." In an essay for Electric Lit, Alyssa Songsiridej points out the racism in how Chung's narrative has been depicted as foreign from an American perspective, while Cather's white Bohemian immigrants are not othered in the same way.

Willa Cather, courtesy of poets.org

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