Like many bookworms, my bookish tendencies began when I visited my local library and signed up for a library card. As foolish as it may seem, as I’ve grown up, I’ve nearly forgotten that if I want to read a book, I can simply check it out from the library instead of buying it. Fortunately for me, I recently moved to New York City and now live within four blocks of my local library! I’ve since checked out several books with my new library card, and have rediscovered my love of libraries. From innovative novellas to compelling nonfiction, here are nine books I’ve recently checked out.
9 Books to Check Out During Library Lover’s Month
Of course, I have to properly break in my new library card by checking out a history book, and THE BARBIZON by Paulina Bren perfectly fits the bill! I love history books that center upon the particular importance of a place, and even more so when they illuminate the history of a previously little-remembered location. THE BARBIZON is the first book written about the fashionable all-women’s residential hotel of the same name. From Sylvia Plath, who immortalized the Barbizon in her novel THE BELL JAR, to Liza Minnelli and Joan Didion, some of the country’s most famous women shaped themselves and their careers during their stay at the Barbizon. Although most women who stayed there weren’t destined for fame, all were given an even greater opportunity—the freedom to express themselves and to achieve something greater.
From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the first history of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there.
WELCOME TO NEW YORK’S LEGENDARY HOTEL FOR WOMEN
Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.
Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was intended as a safe haven for the “Modern Woman” seeking a career in the arts. It became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Phylicia Rashad, and Cybill Shepherd; writers Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and many more. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream.
Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was destined for success—for some it was a story of dashed hopes—but until 1981, when men were finally let in, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations or expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.
Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is both a vivid portrait of the lives of these young women who came to New York looking for something more, and an epic history of women’s ambition.
My favorite library book of the last year happened to be the first one I checked out. I’d had my eye on PEW ever since I read its premise, and from page one I was captivated. PEW follows a nameless, genderless, and racially ambiguous individual who ends up in a small town in the American South and is taken in by its townspeople. Initially generous toward this stranger, whom they nickname Pew, the townspeople’s attitudes soon shift to suspicion and hostility when Pew refuses to speak. After I read this novel, Catherine Lacey became a new favorite author of mine, and I’ve since checked out her short story collection, CERTAIN AMERICAN STATES, from the library.
Novellas are one of my favorite types of books to check out from the library. Given their short length, I feel less pressure around the due date, as I will most likely be able to finish them by then. Keeping this in mind, I scoured my TBR last year for novellas to check out, and SUMMERWATER by Sarah Moss emerged as a top choice. I’d first heard about it from Good Housekeeping’s list of most anticipated 2021 releases, and the premise piqued my interest immediately. I love books set over a specific time line and those that feature multiple perspectives, and SUMMERWATER had both! Set during one rainy summer day at a Scottish national park, the book follows multiple families, their inner worlds, and the tragic intersection of their destinies.
One of my favorite things to do when going to the library is to check out books that are similar to others I’ve recently read. Last year, I borrowed A CHILDREN’S BIBLE by Lydia Millet through the library app Hoopla, and I think about that book on a regular basis. When I read the premise of Jessie Greengrass’s THE HIGH HOUSE, I knew that it was going to take precedence on my TBR. Similar to the biblical storms that plague the protagonists of A CHILDREN’S BIBLE, an environmental disaster sends THE HIGH HOUSE’s cast of characters fleeing to a converted summer house. As Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy attempt to make a home with one another, they must face the fact that their supplies and safety are limited, and that the health of one of their own is failing.
Shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Award
In this powerful, highly anticipated novel from an award-winning author, four people attempt to make a home in the midst of environmental disaster.
Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?
Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive at the High House after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster—but not before they call and urge Caro to leave London. In their new home, a converted summer house cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits to their safety, limits to the supplies, limits to what Grandy—the former village caretaker, a man who knows how to do everything—can teach them as his health fails.
A searing novel that takes on parenthood, sacrifice, love, and survival under the threat of extinction, The High House is a stunning, emotionally precise novel about what can be salvaged at the end of the world.
Anyone who knows me knows I love a good memoir, and Elizabeth Nyamayaro’s I AM A GIRL FROM AFRICA is exemplary within the genre, illuminating Nyamayaro’s incredible life story and the tremendous odds she faced to achieve what she has accomplished. Born in Zimbabwe, Nyamayaro was eight years old when her village faced severe drought. After being given a bowl of warm porridge by a United Nations aid worker, she made it her life’s mission to give back to and uplift communities plagued by inequity. I AM A GIRL FROM AFRICA charts Nyamayaro’s journey from Zimbabwe to her leadership roles with the United Nations, continuously grounded by the African principle of ubuntu, “I am because we are.”
A “profound and soul-nourishing memoir” (Oprah Daily) from an African girl whose near-death experience sparked a lifelong dedication to humanitarian work that helps bring change across the world.
When severe drought hit her village in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, then only eight, had no idea that this moment of utter devastation would come to define her life’s purpose. Unable to move from hunger and malnourishment, she encountered a United Nations aid worker who gave her a bowl of warm porridge and saved her life—a transformative moment that inspired Elizabeth to dedicate herself to giving back to her community, her continent, and the world.
In the decades that have followed, Elizabeth has been instrumental in creating change and uplifting the lives of others: by fighting global inequalities, advancing social justice for vulnerable communities, and challenging the status quo to accelerate women’s rights around the world. She has served as a senior advisor at the United Nations, where she launched HeForShe, one of the world’s largest global solidarity movements for gender equality. In I Am a Girl from Africa, she charts this “journey of perseverance” (Entertainment Weekly) from her small village of Goromonzi to Harare, Zimbabwe; London; New York; and beyond, always grounded by the African concept of ubuntu—“I am because we are”—taught to her by her beloved grandmother.
This “victorious” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir brings to vivid life one extraordinary woman’s story of persevering through incredible odds and finding her true calling—while delivering an important message of hope, empowerment, community support, and interdependence.
I don’t know about you, but one of the most satisfying parts about going to the library is picking up that book that everyone is talking about. Even more exciting is when you put the book on hold and it finally comes in after weeks of waiting. One novel that I’ve seen constant chatter about is AGAINST THE LOVELESS WORLD by Susan Abulhawa, and I can see why. Compared to MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER and HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES, AGAINST THE LOVELESS WORLD is the dark, feminist, subversive life story of an imprisoned Palestinian woman named Nahr. Nahr originally had dreams of beginning a family and opening a beauty salon, but when her marriage abruptly ends, she’s forced into prostitution, and she becomes a refugee when the US invades Iraq. Despite everything, Nahr remains unbroken, and her new commitment to political activism remains intact.
2020 Palestine Book Awards Winner
2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize Finalist
“Susan Abulhawa possesses the heart of a warrior; she looks into the darkest crevices of lives, conflicts, horrendous injustices, and dares to shine light that can illuminate hidden worlds for us.” —Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author
In this “beautiful...urgent” novel (The New York Times), Nahr, a young Palestinian woman, fights for a better life for her family as she travels as a refugee throughout the Middle East.
As Nahr sits, locked away in solitary confinement, she spends her days reflecting on the dramatic events that landed her in prison in a country she barely knows. Born in Kuwait in the 70s to Palestinian refugees, she dreamed of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and possibly opening her own beauty salon. Instead, the man she thinks she loves jilts her after a brief marriage, her family teeters on the brink of poverty, she’s forced to prostitute herself, and the US invasion of Iraq makes her a refugee, as her parents had been. After trekking through another temporary home in Jordan, she lands in Palestine, where she finally makes a home, falls in love, and her destiny unfolds under Israeli occupation. Nahr’s subversive humor and moral ambiguity will resonate with fans of My Sister, The Serial Killer, and her dark, contemporary struggle places her as the perfect sister to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.
Written with Susan Abulhawa’s distinctive “richly detailed, beautiful, and resonant” (Publishers Weekly) prose, this powerful novel presents a searing, darkly funny, and wholly unique portrait of a Palestinian woman who refuses to be a victim.
I have increasingly turned to social media to provide me with book recommendations, regularly frequenting Bookstagram and BookTube accounts to help fill up my TBR. One of my favorite Bookstagram accounts is @bankrupt_bookworm, who consistently delivers well-written book reviews and always manages to make me instantly want to read books that I had previously never heard of. One book in particular that he gushed about on his Bookstagram last year was FATHOMS: THE WORLD IN THE WHALE by Rebecca Giggs. A blend of natural history, philosophy, and science, Giggs’s book centers whales in discussions about the relationship between humans and the Earth, and about how to write about nature in a time of environmental crisis. She takes readers from whaling ships in Japan to the depths of the seas to observe plastic pollution and, ultimately, into whale culture itself to observe its impact on us as a species and on the planet as a whole.
Winner of the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction * Finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction * Finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
A “delving, haunted, and poetic debut” (The New York Times Book Review) about the awe-inspiring lives of whales, revealing what they can teach us about ourselves, our planet, and our relationship with other species.
When writer Rebecca Giggs encountered a humpback whale stranded on her local beachfront in Australia, she began to wonder how the lives of whales reflect the condition of our oceans. Fathoms: The World in the Whale is “a work of bright and careful genius” (Robert Moor, New York Times bestselling author of On Trails), one that blends natural history, philosophy, and science to explore: How do whales experience ecological change? How has whale culture been both understood and changed by human technology? What can observing whales teach us about the complexity, splendor, and fragility of life on earth?
In Fathoms, we learn about whales so rare they have never been named, whale songs that sweep across hemispheres in annual waves of popularity, and whales that have modified the chemical composition of our planet’s atmosphere. We travel to Japan to board the ships that hunt whales and delve into the deepest seas to discover how plastic pollution pervades our earth’s undersea environment.
With the immediacy of Rachel Carson and the lush prose of Annie Dillard, Giggs gives us a “masterly” (The New Yorker) exploration of the natural world even as she addresses what it means to write about nature at a time of environmental crisis. With depth and clarity, she outlines the challenges we face as we attempt to understand the perspectives of other living beings, and our own place on an evolving planet. Evocative and inspiring, Fathoms “immediately earns its place in the pantheon of classics of the new golden age of environmental writing” (Literary Hub).
In addition to putting new reads on my radar, Bookstagrammers and BookTubers also have the power to push a book I’d considered reading up my list if they recommend it highly. Such was the case with NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU by Miranda July. I had originally added this book to my TBR list because I was intrigued by the author’s extensive artistic background, but I made it a higher priority after my favorite BookTuber recommended it in a video.
NO ONE BELONGS HERE MORE THAN YOU is an eclectic, character-driven collection of short stories that focus on what makes us most human. “The Shared Patio” highlights a woman and an elderly couple who share a patio but time it so they’re never there at the same time, while in “The Swim Team,” a woman teaches swimming lessons from her kitchen. Similar to my feelings about novellas, I enjoy checking out short story collections because I tend to read them faster than other types of books, and I’m thoroughly excited to check out this BookTuber-recommended read!
In Broad City’s interview with Sleater-Kinney on NPR Music, Carrie Brownstein recommended Miranda July’s new novel, The First Bad Man. We’d like to draw attention to July’s acclaimed short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. July’s stories and films are known for their whimsy and awkwardness, and Broad City’s colorful, chaotic, absurd version of New York has a degree of that as well.
One of my favorite genres to take out of the library are classics, as copies are nearly guaranteed to be available due to their ubiquity. Thanks to my library card, I’ve started a concerted effort to read more classics. But my goal has a twist—I want to focus my attention on rediscovered and little-known classics, books such as SPEEDBOAT by Renata Adler, ABIGAIL by Magda Szabó, and NOW IN NOVEMBER by Josephine W. Johnson are my main focus.
At the top of the list of these classics is THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R. C. Sherriff, a charming slice-of-life read for anyone seeking an escape. The novel follows the Stevens family as they embark on their annual trip to coastal England and take pleasure in rediscovering the familiar places they visit. Keenly aware that things may not be the same next year, each member of the Stevens family delights in their favorite activities, whether they be a reflective walk or sitting alone with a glass of port.
This charming, timeless classic about a family of five setting out on their annual seaside vacation is “the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of...the beautiful dignity to be found in everyday living has rarely been captured more delicately” (Kazuo Ishiguro).
Meet the Stevens family, as they prepare to embark on their yearly holiday to the coast of England. Mr. and Mrs. Stevens first made the trip to Bognor Regis on their honeymoon, and the tradition has continued ever since. They stay in the same guest house and follow the same carefully honed schedule—now accompanied by their three children, twenty-year-old Mary, seventeen-year-old Dick, and little brother Ernie.
Arriving in Bognor they head to Seaview, the guesthouse where they stay every year. It’s a bit shabbier than it once was—the landlord has died and his wife is struggling as the number of guests dwindles every year. But the family finds bliss in booking a slightly bigger cabana, with a balcony, and in their rediscovery of the familiar places they visit every year.
Mr. Stevens goes on his annual walk across the downs, reflecting on his life, his worries and disappointments, and returns refreshed. Mrs. Stevens treasures an hour spent sitting alone with her medicinal glass of port. Mary has her first small taste of romance. And Dick pulls himself out of the malaise he’s sunk into since graduation, resolving to work towards a new career. The Stevenses savor every moment of their holiday, aware that things may not be the same next year.
Delightfully nostalgic and soothing, The Fortnight in September is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people enjoying life’s simple pleasures.