It’s March—not the cruelest month, but close. For one, is there anything anyone needs more right now than the warmth of spring, longer, sunnier days, the promise of the new? After a full year of COVID, quarantine and political divisions as deep as the Grand Canyon, we can at least be grateful for the solace to be found in a good book—or twenty! We our favorite books of March 2021 to you as an early rite of spring, as good for the heart and soul as the sight of flowers blooming, or birds returning from their winter homes.
And this March is especially abundant, with new novels from some bonafide literary heavyweights, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro, and Oprah’s Book Club alum Imbolo Mbue. We also have a plethora of debuts from future big names: a rock-and-roll epic by Dawnie Walton, an idiosyncratic short story collection by Sam Cohen, engrossing family sagas by Thomas Grattan and Gabriela Garcia. If nonfiction’s more your jam, we’ve got a trio of books about trailblazing women: Sharon Stone’s intimate memoir, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Nobel-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, and a portrait of painter Helen Frankenthaler.
From Madagascar to France, from Cuba to East Germany, let some of the best books of spring take you away.
1 The Beauty of Living Twice by Sharon Stone
Stone’s memoir opens with a scene in a hospital bed, where the iconic actress is battling a brain bleed. That near-death experience and its aftermath is a jumping off point, an opportunity to reflect on the jagged, unlikely path that led her from a small town in Pennsylvania to becoming one of America’s hottest stars. But this is not your typical Hollywood autobiography. Brutally honest, restless and questing, Stone bravely grapples with her own imperfections with courage and candor.
2 The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson
In his first intellectual canvas to showcase a woman, the doyen of American journalism and best-selling author of Leonardo da Vinci masterfully plots the groundbreaking career of Jennifer Doudna, the charismatic biochemist whose lab unlocked CRISPR, a transformative genetic therapy that would net her the 2020 Nobel prize. Isaacson’s vivid account is a page-turning detective story and an indelible portrait of a revolutionary thinker who, as an adolescent in Hawai’i, was told that girls don’t do science. Nevertheless, she persisted.
3 The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
In a sumptuous sequel to The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s eponymous protagonist and his confrère Bon plunge into the drug-dealing netherworld of decadent Parisian elites and Vietnamese ex-patriates. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist captures, with grace and restraint, the foibles of two young men caught in a showdown between East and West.
4 Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott
Aging, faith, marriage, self-forgiveness, sobriety, graciousness in the face of airline delays—these are the subjects of the bestselling author of Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions‘s latest guide to navigating the “third third” of one’s life, with all its “mess and redemption.” If you too need to “roll your eyes a little more softly” at yourself, read on.
5 Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson
During her boozy bachelorette weekend, bride-to-be Abigail decides to make one last pre-nuptial mistake when she hooks up with a stranger. Yet this last grasp at freedom yields the opposite, as the man she slept with becomes her stalker. Hitchcockian chills and thrills abound in Swanson’s latest mystery, a twisty tale of survival and deception.
6 Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov
The cliché “starving artist” may actually apply to many young, hungry painters; but in 1950s Manhattan Helen Frankenthaler carried herself like an aristocrat: beautiful, privileged, confident, and determined to shape what she’d learned from Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg to her own ends. Nemerov picks one date from each year throughout the decade, creating a collage-like narrative that conjures the glamor and bustle of postwar New York City, when high art met downtown renegades. Gifted and business-savvy, Frankenthaler here finds her own thrilling visual style “over highballs amid the plucking of cello strings.”
7 The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Opal is an Afro-Punk performer whose radical politics, idiosyncratic garb, and musical style make her feel like an outcast in her hometown of Detroit, but she finds an outlet for her talents in New York City, where she pairs up with British folkie Nev, and the two become music legends. Walton’s fabulous debut novel, which takes the form of an oral history, is an utterly fresh take on finding one’s voice, on systemic racism and sexism, and on freedom of expression. That these heavy subjects don’t weigh down this hugely entertaining novel are testament to Walton’s deftness and skill.
8 Girlhood by Melissa Febos
Febos is one of our most passionate and profound essayists, and in this follow-up to 2017’s Abandon Me, she crafts an assemblage of memoir-cum-cultural-criticism that dissembles many of the myths women are told throughout their lives: that we ourselves are not masters of our own domains, that we exist for the pleasure of others and so our own pleasure is secondary and negligible. Girlhood, then, lays bare the process of unlearning this most deeply ingrained lesson of female adolescence, and offers us exquisite, ferocious language for embracing self-pleasure and self-love. It’s a book that women will wish they had when they were younger and that they’ll rejoice in having now.
9 How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
The second novel by the author of Behold the Dreamers, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, takes readers inside an African village whose very existence is being threatened by the machinations of an American oil company. It’s a David and Goliath story for our times, a riveting tale of how people coming together to make change can topple even the fiercest, best-financed foe.
10 Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
From the Nobel laureate and master of the hyperreal comes a gorgeously written novel that poses a question as old as Greek myths: What does it mean to be human? Klara, an Artificial Friend, smiles and nods to customers in Manager’s store while tracking each day by the sun’s arc. When a mother and daughter adopt Klara, a Pandora’s box of repressed emotion springs open, fleshing out Ishiguro’s themes of resilience and vulnerability in our mad, mad world.
11 Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
The Whiting Award-winning author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman and an indispensable cultural critic returns with a sweeping, engrossing new novel based, in part, on Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first Black woman to become a doctor in New York State. Set in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Greenridge’s fictionalized tale follows the doctor’s young daughter—the titular Libertie—as she grapples with what freedom really means for Black women.
12 A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
From Josephine Baker to Soul Train to “Sixteen Ways of Looking at Blackface,” Abdurraqib takes us on a wild ride through the history of Black performances, artists who crushed boundaries and carved out spaces for vigorous forms of African American expression. His is an intimate, conspiratorial voice, musically inflected, blending scholarship with anecdote, a “waltz in a circular chamber of your homies and not-homies, shouting chants of excitement.”
13 My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim
An eminent South Korean talent makes her American début in this poignant watercolor of a novel about a valiant, poetic teenager grappling with love and early mortality. Born with progeria, a genetic disorder, Areum is living on borrowed time, a sixteen-year-old caged in the body of a withered old man. He’s devoted to his best friend, Little Grandpa Jang, and his parents, who conceived him as teenagers; his last wish is to write a tribute. Wheelchairs, nightmares, on-line predators: nothing dissuades Areum from his dream, a “persimmon tree…sleek and its branches curved elegantly into the sky.” Kim is a writer on the move.
14 The Performance by Claire Thomas
As wildfires rage outside Melbourne, three women, all on the cusp of new lives, treat themselves to a night at the theater, entranced by Beckett and seeking finales to their own dramas. An acclaimed Australian writer spins an alluring play within a play, probing the ways we perform for each other, how our best selves are mere costumes we shed before curtain call.
15 The Recent East by Thomas Grattan
An arresting and resplendent family saga, Grattan’s first novel is about a woman who sees her chance to flee her humdrum life in upstate New York when she inherits her parents’ old mansion in East Germany after the Berlin Wall has fallen. She relocates with her two teenagers in tow (who begin referring to their mother as “The German Lady”), and this peculiar trio, like their new home, undergoes a series of profound transformations, “beautiful and scary all at once.”
16 Red Island House by Andrea Lee
By the acclaimed author of Interesting Women and Sarah Phillips comes a mesmerizing novel of a Black woman professor—Shay—whose rich Italian husband builds her a spectacular vacation house in Madagascar, where the family settles each summer. The lush natural habitat and privileged ex-pat existence contrast starkly with the island’s poverty and traditions, and Lee makes magic of this to deliver a singularly intriguing and mysterious saga that casts an enduring spell.
17 Sarahland by Sam Cohen
Each of the stories in this eccentrically inventive, loosely linked collection centers on different women named Sarah: a premed student, a sex worker, a Midwestern fanfiction writer, a polyamorous trans woman in Biblical times. But apart from the heroines’ shared name, what really unites these wondrous pieces is Cohen’s prose, as vibrant and unruly as lipstick smeared after a wild night out. Read an excerpt here.
18 Second Nature: Scenes from a World Remade by Nathaniel Rich
Rich’s elegy to a planet he likens to a critical care patient is lyrical, erudite, and devastating. From our earliest days on Earth, we humans have wrestled with who’s in charge: us, or Mother Nature. That uneasy dance continues—no plant, animal, insect, grain of sand—has escaped the “clumsy human signature.” Rich’s investigation of “crimes against nature” and the people who are trying to stop them is alarming, enlightening, and necessary.
19 We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
When his childhood friend is paroled from prison after a 30-year sentence, Walk, the sheriff of the coastal California town where he grew up, must confront a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: What happened all those years ago and why? He’s aided in his quest by Duchess, a savvy 13-year-old with the moxie of Harriet the Spy and the fearlessness of Scout Finch. Whitaker’s ravishing, pulse-raising suspense novel illuminates how we fall prey to our own fierce desires for connection.
20 Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia
Garcia’s debut novel is a meditation on motherhood, displacement, and cultural identity as protagonist Jeanette journeys to Cuba to reckon with her family’s legacy. From a 19th-century Cuban cigar factory to a detention center in Mexico, this stunningly accomplished first novel is both epic and intimate.
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