This spring, let your mind and heart wander where your feet might not take you—to far-off lands, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and to the whiskey-making mountains of Appalachia—without ever leaving your bedroom. Here are our favorite picks for this season’s latest reads.
Troy Ball and Bret Witter
Dey Street Books
I came across this memoir unexpectedly while researching the American history of female moonshiners, and I was surprised to discover that only recently did the first woman in the United States receive a legal license to distill moonshine. Her name is Troy Ball, and Pure Heart isn’t just the story of the journey from making backwoods whiskey to legalizing it and erecting her empire. It’s also the story of fighting for family, and how far the idea of “women’s work” truly stretches.
Ball is no stranger to building a business. Her father taught her the principles of closing a deal when she was young, and she and her husband Charlie ran a successful real estate development business first in Texas, and then in North Carolina when her family relocated for a climate better suited to her two disabled sons. What struck me most about her story wasn’t just her resilience through the economic downturn of 2008, the hundreds of bureaucratic and often sexist hoops she jumped through to legalize her whiskey operation, or the round-the-clock care she’s provided for her children for almost thirty years, but the way all three of these spheres combine into what we commonly label women’s work. So often women are tasked with the impossible, and they rise to the occasion, even as the goal line is continually moved. Ball is an entrepreneur, a land developer, and a constant advocate for her children—and she’s written a page-turner about the difficulty, the loneliness, and the redemption of pioneering the white whiskey trade.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist author Mohsin Hamid writes in his latest novel that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives the ones we leave behind.” Exit West examines the fallout of this kind of death, one that pushes a griever forward even as he’s tempted to look back. This is a book about that tender touch point between leaving and staying—the gaps between native and refugee, lover and stranger, romance and violence.
Nadia and Saeed fall in love in the middle of a nightmare as the city around them crumbles at the hands of angry militants ready to wage a civil war. Their homes are no longer safe—their offices have closed, their grocery stores are empty, their government is compromised. When rumors surface of secret doors that lead to safer, far-off places, Nadia and Saeed find they have no choice but to step through them and hope they can hold on to each other.
This story is as timeless as it is timely, as brutal as it is compassionate. Hamid is a master at binding the personal to the political, and the global to the intimate. Exit West is a book for today as much as it’s a book of our shared history: one that begs us to heed its warnings.
Henry Holt and Company
In her debut novel, Julie Buntin writes that “a best friend is a magic thing,” a magic that is just as immortally potent as a curse. A story about the depths of friendships that both rescue and abandon us, Marlena recasts the well-worn coming-of-age story into a haunting and heart-splitting story of coming undone.
When fifteen-year-old Cathy moves to the forsaken winterlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after her parents’ divorce, she shortens her name to Cat and befriends the bewitching young woman who lives in the barn next door. Marlena is as open as she is secretive, as loving and carefree as she is melancholy. What sparks between these two young women bucks convention; they are each other’s anchor, each other’s mirror, and each other’s antagonist. After a quixotic, drug-spangled year together, one friend is found dead in the river and the other will spend the rest of her life trying to piece together the shards of a tragedy.
Loss is a slippery thief, and Buntin stares it down with moonlit prose and a fearless eye. Never has nostalgia been so wickedly intoxicating and wise.
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky
Lesley Nneka Arimah
Each time I finished a story in Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection, I had to close the book and remind myself to breathe. She cast that spell on me twelve times over, each story breaking the boundary of the one that came before it. Arimah’s tales defy categorization—they feature gods and myths and volcanoes and floods. They examine ordinary families with extraordinary devotion, and they expose liars and cheats and babies made of yarn.
In “Light,” a father struggles to hold onto his daughter when his wife leaves Nigeria in pursuit of her MBA, and a dead woman reappears from a photograph in “Second Chances.” A mother and daughter learn to turn “Windfalls” into cash, to dangerous effect. In “Who Will Greet You at Home,” a young woman longing for a child fashions one out of hair. And in the book’s titular story set in the future, a mathematical calculation for grief allows people to fly—and one to fall.
Reading Arimah’s work is its own kind of flight. If you want to know what’s happening on the new frontiers of fiction, this is the book you need to read.