As much as I like the glitz and glamour of the Academy or Grammy Awards, there’s nothing that gets my heart racing quite like finding out which authors will go home with a coveted Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award. While working toward my 2023 reading goal (150 books will totally be a piece of cake, right??), I’ve come across several masterpieces with exquisite literary prose and powerful themes that always seem to subvert expectations—as any great, prize-winning book should. Narrowing down my list of favorites was tricky, but I’ve put together the top six books I’m championing for awards season. Give them a read when you can and fall in love with these stories before they become winners.
TEMPLE FOLK portrays life in America for Black Muslims, woven seamlessly throughout ten short stories. In each beautifully written story, characters must navigate their own struggles and questions about religion, love, family, and the country they call home. From a daughter haunted by the father she’s grieving to a federal agent spying on a member of the Nation of Islam, Bilal explores contradictions between beliefs and actions. Flawed-yet-lovable, the characters are a nuanced look at humanity—errors and all. This is a debut collection certainly worthy of critical acclaim and award season buzz.
A groundbreaking debut collection portraying the lived experiences of Black Muslims grappling with faith, family, and freedom in America.
In Temple Folk, Black Muslims contemplate the convictions of their race, religion, economics, politics, and sexuality in America. The ten stories in this collection contribute to the bounty of diverse narratives about Black life by intimately portraying the experiences of a community that resists the mainstream culture to which they are expected to accept and aspire to while functioning within the country in which they are born.
In “Due North,” an obedient daughter struggles to understand why she’s haunted by the spirit of her recently deceased father. In “Who’s Down?” a father, after a brief affair with vegetarianism, conspires with his daughter to order him a double cheeseburger. In “Candy for Hanif” a mother’s routine trip to the store for her disabled son takes an unlikely turn when she reflects on a near-death experience. In “Woman in Niqab,” a daughter’s suspicion of her father’s infidelity prompts her to wear her hair in public. In “New Mexico,” a federal agent tasked with spying on a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam grapples with his responsibilities closer to home.
With an unflinching eye for the contradictions between what these characters profess to believe and what they do, Temple Folk accomplishes the rare feat of presenting moral failures with compassion, nuance and humor to remind us that while perfection is what many of us strive for, it’s the errors that make us human.
Taking us back in time, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Paul Harding transports readers to Malaga Island. In this novel inspired by a true story, we meet the descendants of formerly enslaved Benjamin Honey and his wife, Patience, on the island the couple discovered off the coast of Maine. A century after the initial discovery, the island is home to a delightful mix of eccentric characters until “civilization” breaches their shores. State officials and missionary schoolteachers have come to cleanse the island by institutionalizing them, saving only one light-skinned child. A beautiful story of resilience in the face of an often cruel and brutal world, THIS OTHER EDEN is sure to earn Harding another prestigious award.
Jesmyn Ward, the youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, is back with another mesmerizing book coming out this October that’s sure to be an award-winning classic. In LET US DESCEND, Ward reimagines American slavery, following Annis, sold by her father and enslaver, as she marches through the American South. During this journey, Annis turns inward and finds strength from the memories of her maternal ancestors. With each step, she faces spirits beyond this world and ultimately descends into her own rebirth and reclamation. This novel is both an award-worthy masterpiece and one that will touch the very depths of your soul.
From Jesmyn Ward—the two-time National Book Award winner, youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, and MacArthur Fellow—comes a haunting masterpiece, sure to be an instant classic, about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War.
“‘Let us descend,’ the poet now began, ‘and enter this blind world.’” —Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide through this hellscape. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.
From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land—the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward’s most magnificent novel yet, a masterwork for the ages.
Now Brando Skyhorse might already have a few awards under his belt, but he might just add another one this year with MY NAME IS IRIS. In the not-too-distant future, Iris Prince is relieved her divorce is going smoothly, and she’s settling into a happy life in a new neighborhood with her daughter Melanie. Life is finally as it should be—until she wakes up to find a wall erected in her front yard that just keeps growing. To make matters worse, Silicon Valley has launched “the Band” to replace regular IDs, but it requires proven paternal citizenship. As a second-generation Mexican American, Iris is considered to have an “unverifiable origin” and is treated like a second-class citizen. If you want to find out how she navigates the fear and hate, make sure you pick up a copy of MY NAME IS IRIS once it releases on August 1.
Brando Skyhorse, the PEN/Hemingway Award–winning author of The Madonnas of Echo Park, returns with a riveting literary dystopian novel set in a near-future America where mandatory identification wristbands make second-generation immigrants into second-class citizens—a powerful family saga for readers of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.
Iris Prince is starting over. After years of drifting apart, she and her husband are going through a surprisingly drama-free divorce. She's moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, and has plans for gardening, coffee clubs, and spending more time with her nine-year-old daughter Melanie. It feels like her life is finally exactly what she wants it to be.
Then, one beautiful morning, she looks outside her kitchen window—and sees that a wall has appeared in her front yard overnight. Where did it come from? What does it mean? And why does it seem to keep growing?
Meanwhile, a Silicon Valley startup has launched a high-tech wrist wearable called "the Band." Pitched as a convenient, eco-friendly tool to help track local utilities and replace driver's licenses and IDs, the Band is available only to those who can prove parental citizenship. Suddenly, Iris, a proud second-generation Mexican-American, is now of "unverifiable origin," unable to prove who she is, or where she, and her undocumented loved ones, belong. Amid a climate of fear and hate-fueled violence, Iris must confront how far she'll go to protect what matters to her most.
My Name Is Iris is an all-too-possible story about family, intolerance, and hope, offering a brilliant and timely look at one woman’s journey to discover who she can’t—and can—be.
Another author with previous award-winning titles, Beth Nguyen, returns with her memoir, OWNER OF A LONELY HEART. Nguyen’s story begins just after the Vietnam War when she is eight months old, and her family is torn apart. For over eighteen years, Nguyen was separated from her mother, who was left behind in Saigon as her whole family escaped to America. With beautiful prose, Nguyen takes readers through a handful of visits with her mother, while telling of her own coming-of-age in the Midwest and becoming a mother herself. This masterfully crafted story is an intimate look at our concepts of family and belonging.
From the award-winning author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a powerful memoir of a mother-daughter relationship fragmented by war and resettlement.
At the end of the Vietnam War, when Beth Nguyen was eight months old, she and her father, sister, grandmother, and uncles fled Saigon for America. Beth’s mother stayed—or was left—behind, and they did not meet again until Beth was nineteen. Over the course of her adult life, she and her mother have spent less than twenty-four hours together.
Owner of a Lonely Heart is a memoir about parenthood, absence, and the condition of being a refugee: the story of Beth’s relationship with her mother. Framed by a handful of visits over the course of many years—sometimes brief, sometimes interrupted, sometimes with her mother alone and sometimes with her sister—Beth tells a coming-of-age story that spans her own Midwestern childhood, her first meeting with her mother, and becoming a parent herself. Vivid and illuminating, Owner of a Lonely Heart is a deeply personal story of family, connection, and belonging: as a daughter, a mother, and as a Vietnamese refugee in America.
We head back to Silicon Valley in Sarah Rose Etter’s brilliant, surreal novel following Cassie, a woman who faces a nightmare familiar to many: the corporate workplace with no trace of work-life balance. In her toxic work environment, Cassie’s mental health declines as she sees the juxtaposition of obscene wealth in the conference rooms she works in while unhoused, desperate people barely survive outside the windows. When Cassie becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she faces a crossroads—work for a CEO with unethical demands or reevaluate the hold Silicon Valley has on her life.
From an award-winning writer whose work Roxane Gay calls “utterly unique and remarkable” comes a surreal novel about a woman in Silicon Valley who must decide how much she’s willing to give up for success—for fans of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Her Body and Other Parties.
A year into her dream job at a cutthroat Silicon Valley start-up, Cassie finds herself trapped in a corporate nightmare. Between the long hours, toxic bosses, and unethical projects, she also struggles to reconcile the glittering promise of a city where obscene wealth lives alongside abject poverty and suffering. Ivy League grads complain about the snack selection from a conference room with a view of houseless people bathing in the bay. Start-up burnouts leap into the paths of commuter trains, and men literally set themselves on fire in the streets.
Though isolated, Cassie is never alone. From her earliest memory, a miniature black hole has been her constant companion. It feeds on her depression and anxiety, growing or shrinking in relation to her distress. The black hole watches, but it also waits. Its relentless pull draws Cassie ever closer as the world around her unravels.
When her CEO’s demands cross an illegal threshold and she ends up unexpectedly pregnant, Cassie must decide whether the tempting fruits of Silicon Valley are really worth it. Sharp but vulnerable, funny yet unsettling, Ripe portrays one millennial woman’s journey through our late-capitalist hellscape and offers a brilliantly incisive look at the absurdities of modern life.
Photo credit: iStock / rihard_wolfram