Your May 2024 Reads

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This month’s featured titles include a feminist history of crossword puzzles, a praised literary debut, and a chick lit novel set in Napa

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For more titles by Big Red authors, peruse our previous round-ups.

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The cover of "The Riddles of the Sphinx"

The Riddles of the Sphinx

Anna Shechtman

In addition to being an academic fellow who’ll join the Arts & Sciences faculty in fall 2024, Shechtman is a star in the world of wordplay.

She published her first New York Times crossword at age 19; went on to work for the paper’s famed puzzle editor, Will Shortz; and helped launch the current incarnation of crosswords in the New Yorker.

Now, she has published a general-audience book on crosswords and their feminist history.

In what Kirkus praises as “a forthright self-portrait and perceptive cultural critique,” she interweaves the story of women’s contributions to puzzling—from the 1920s “crossword craze” onward—with a memoir of her own battle with anorexia, during which constructing puzzles offered both a mental respite and a measure of control.

“To write a good crossword clue—a hard clue, one that frequent solvers will recognize because it’s appended with a question mark, signaling its deception—the puzzle-maker has to loosen a word or phrase from its common set of associations,” Shechtman observes.

“She has to unsettle its forms—attending to the chance encounters between synonyms and homonyms, idioms and clichés—before she can set them down again.”


Victim

Andrew Boryga ’13

The New York Times calls Boryga’s debut novel, a literary satire, “energetic and deeply satisfying.” His protagonist is Javi Perez, a Puerto Rican writer from the Bronx who rises from poverty and family tragedy to a prestigious university and professional success—in large part because of his deft manipulation of how others view him as a victim.

That status of victimhood—fueled by Javi’s skill at weaving a convenient and compelling narrative—becomes not only the source of his power, but the crux of a moral quandary and his potential undoing.

The cover of "Victim"

“It’s a thorny and nuanced conversation, but Boryga handles it judiciously,” says the Times.

“His prose is animated and active; his character writing is a crowning achievement. The people who populate the book are, at first glance, so familiar that they could devolve into caricature, but with Boryga’s empathetic prose and startling self-awareness, they come to life with beating hearts and distinct personalities without sacrificing veracity.”

A former English major, Boryga is also a journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and elsewhere.


The cover of "Luigi, the Spider Who Wanted to be a Kitten"

Luigi, the Spider Who Wanted to Be a Kitten

Michelle Knudsen ’95

A prolific author of works for young readers, Knudsen is perhaps best known for her 2006 picture book Library Lion, a New York Times bestseller that Time magazine called one of the 100 best children’s books of all time.

Now, she has re-teamed with its illustrator for the tale of a friendship between an elderly woman and the gentle spider who lives in her house—and desperately wants to be her pet.

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School Library Journal dubs the volume “a welcome addition to picture book shelves,” while Booklist says, “The silly, sweet story is packed with humor and marvelous minutiae,” lauding its “message of unconditional acceptance sure to make an arachnid ally out of any young reader.”


School of Instructions

Ishion Hutchinson

Hutchinson, the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor in the Humanities, was born in Jamaica, and his book-length poem draws on his heritage. It highlights the travails of West Indian soldiers serving with the British in the Middle East during World War I, interwoven with the daily life of a schoolboy, named Godspeed, in rural Jamaica in the 1990s.

The work was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Hutchinson, a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, previously published the collections Far District and House of Lords and Commons.

The cover of "School of Instructions"

As a review of School of Instructions in the Times Literary Supplement observes: “The two narratives repeatedly play out alongside one another, so that they appear to be inter-related: The flag falls and / charcoal burners; shipwrights; tailors; clerks; fishermen; / motor engineers; blacksmiths; cooks; mechanics / whisks away in the grass. / Laughter sweeps across the ranks. The chase earns him / his name: Godspeed.


The cover of The Rise and Fall of the Freedman’s Bank

The Rise and Fall of the Freedman’s Bank

Rodney Brooks ’75

In this non-fiction volume, the veteran financial journalist explores the history of the institution that was created to provide a safe place for formerly enslaved people to deposit their savings.

As he writes, the bank quickly expanded and garnered millions of dollars in deposits. But it ultimately failed, costing many account-holders all or most of their funds—and, as the subtitle observes, having a lasting socio-economic impact on Black America.

“It was a sad and devastating end to something that started out with so much hope and promise,” Brooks writes.

“Today economists and historians point to the failure of the Freedman’s Savings Bank as a contributor to this nation’s racial wealth gap, which remains significant and continues to grow. The median wealth of white American families is nearly seven times that of Black families.”

Brooks, a former deputy managing editor at USA Today, addressed that very issue in his previous book: Fixing the Racial Wealth Gap, a guide for Black families on attaining financial security.


Friends in Napa

Sheila Yasmin Marikar ’05

This chick lit novel comes via the publishing imprint of actor and writer Mindy Kaling, who compares it to “drinking a glass of wine with an endlessly witty, scandalous friend.”

The plot follows a wealthy couple who invite four of their college besties for a reunion weekend at their mansion in California wine country.

The six are ostensibly going to indulge in tastings, gourmet meals, and a luxe winery launch—but inevitably, the gathering reignites old grudges, long-held desires, and even simmering violence.

The cover of "Friends in Napa"

Friends in Napa is the second novel for Marikar, following a coming-of-age tale titled The Goddess Effect.

The former history major is also a journalist whose work has appeared in such venues as the New Yorker, the Economist, and Fortune; a profile she wrote for the New York Times Magazine, headlined “The Fed-Up Chef,” ran in the 2021 edition of Best American Food Writing.

Published May 13, 2024


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