What it’s about: The opioid crisis in America, how it started, and why it is only going to get worse.
What made me pick it up: I was having yet another bitch session with a friend about not-even-Appalachia-adjacent author J.D. Vance and how his only solution for the opioid crisis is an offhand “it’s the addict’s own fault” and they should “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. Then my friend said if I want to read an actual good book about actual Appalachia, I should pick up Dopesick.
My favorite parts: This book is nothing but heartbreaking from start to finish. I cried a LOT. After everything that has been done to Appalachia by Big Coal to then have them taken advantage of by Big Pharma was too much. The reporting here is excellent. The unlayering of the onion is well done by the author and I couldn’t put it down. But what she’s describing is horrific and worsening and its epicenter is just a couple hours from where I live in my beloved adopted state. As someone who was employed in a public library for years as this epidemic built, and saw the adoption of library staff-administered Narcan treatment, I know something needs to change. I have humanities degrees. I should not be the front line against this drug problem. And addicts should not need me to be. What confounded me most was the stubborn adherence to abstinence-only addiction treatment that science says fails with this type of addiction. Other countries know it fails is why there are methadone clinics everywhere else but rarely here. The author doesn’t have a lot of suggestions for battling the drug’s presence, but does have recommendations to be made about treatment. And we should listen. If we do, maybe we can lose fewer lives. This book will leave you feeling grateful for all the recovering addicts you still have in your life and heartbroken for all those lives missing due to heroin. Because we all know at least one.
What’s it about: An exploration of identity, community, and meaning-making in contemporary Native life. Told through multiple perspectives, there is a focus on what it means to be, as Orange describes, an Urban Indian when the rest of the world believes the American Indian story exists only on reservations and in history books.
What made me pick it up: I read a few promising blurbs. It also has a page count under 300 and my attention span is short right now.
My favorite things: I tend to love stories told from multiple perspectives, and Orange does an incredible job of tying all of his varied characters’ lives together. He also brings in his own identity as an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma to inform his characters’ experiences.
Who it’s great for: People interested in contemporary Native American voices and experiences and readers of stories that complicate our understanding of identity and the world.
What’s it about: A former hockey player struggling to keep it together find his life interrupted when his younger sister comes home years after disappearing. The siblings wrestle with violence and addiction, family and identity, and a constant sense of alienation.
What made me pick it up: I love Jeff Lemire.
My favorite things: I can’t remember where I read it, but someone described this as Fargo but in Canada and I can’t think of a better way to describe the cold, bleak tone. As always, Lemire’s art is stunning and perfectly fits the mood of the dark story and complex characters.
Who it’s great for: Fans of Lemire’s other work, particularly Essex County. Graphic novel readers looking for a family drama.
What it’s about: A sweet Christmas tale about a recovering heroin addict getting his life back together with the help of his feline pal. James let’s you see him struggle through the holiday season to find meaning and realize how great his life really is.
My favorite things: I enjoyed the reminder that it’s not how much you have but who you have in your life that makes it great, especially during the holiday season. It also has a strong thread of giving is better than getting, which I appreciated. Mostly, James has a way of telling his story so you root for him to keep holding it together after all he has overcome, and hope the same for other addicts and recovering addicts everywhere.
Who it’s great for: Readers interested in a heart warming tale. Cat fans. Anyone who has ever had a pet that chose them.
My favorite things: While this doesn’t dip into the supernatural they way that Sing did, it still traces similar themes that I was hoping to find. Each character experiences specific manifestations of systemic racism unique to their era but undeniably tied to those of the other generations. The lines between each are clear, with the desperation escalating in younger characters. The people missing from each character’s life have almost as much of an impact on their stories as do those who are present.
Who it’s great for: Fans of family histories that trace multiple generations. Readers looking for writers telling complex stories of the African-American family; fans of Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, and Angela Flournoy.
What’s it about: The story of two friends, partners in art and life, creating animated works that bring them a sort of fame while also forcing them to confront difficult truths and traumas in their lives that other people would like to leave in the past.
What made me pick it up: I needed an audiobook to listen to and this one was available, has gotten a lot of good press, and has a cover that makes me want to read it.
My favorite things: Whitaker treats characters suffering addictions almost without judgment in a way that is refreshingly humane. She takes the time to develop every character’s layers and the complexity of their relationships.
Who it’s great for: Readers looking for complex relationships between characters or an exploration of identity.
What it’s about: A modern southern gothic story set in a contemporary rural Mississippi Gulf Coast community chronicling a family’s struggles with poverty, addiction, incarceration, and the ghosts of past injustices.
What made me pick it up: I read Ward’s early novel Salvage the Bones last year and was excited to pick up her newest work.
My favorite things: Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautifully written and almost painful to read from the first page. The climax, however inevitable, left me stunned and heartbroken – but I’m here for it. The saddest parts of Ward’s stories don’t feel like cheap shots or emotional manipulation the way writing sometimes comes across. Instead, it feels honest and necessary. I love the way she seamlessly incorporates ghosts and spirits into the fabric of this family’s life.
Who it’s great for: Southern gothic readers; fans of Beloved.
What it’s about: Fifteen-year-old Cat is uprooted from her middle-class suburban life and finds herself a member of the rural poor. She fills her days with Marlena, the neighbor with whom she develops a teenage friendship defined by wildness, loss, and addiction.
What made me pick it up: I heard a review of this on a podcast and was immediately intrigued.
My favorite things: The story is told through both reflections by an adult Cat still struggling to make sense of her time with Marlena, and by teenage Cat as she experiences the life-defining friendship. Cat’s two voices weave together to seamlessly to illustrate the desperation and urgency of her friendship with Marlena. Bonus: the whole time I was reading I had that one Wallflowers song playing in my head.
Who it’s great for: This is a good choice for fans of Elena Ferrante or readers looking for something with a similar feel to Winter’s Bone, The Lovely Bones, or History of Wolves.
What it’s about: A memoir by Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace that explores her experiences with gender dysphoria and transition while tracing her life has a musician.
What made me pick it up: Oh man, I pre-ordered this the moment I heard it was going to be published. Grace has been a longtime hero of mine, her music was the backing track to my later teen years, and so I was thrilled to see she’d be penning something longer than a few verses.
My favorite things: The inclusion of journal entries within the narrative is well done and offers a more intimate understanding of Grace’s experiences, making it all more real and easier for the reader to empathize. I also appreciated them because I got a little bit of thrill each time I spotted a line in one of her entries that became a lyric or song title. The way she considers difficult questions that follow her coming out is eye-opening. How does her identity impact her wife’s understanding of her own sexuality? Will she still be Daddy to her young daughter? Grace is brutally honest about herself and her band and it is in turns infuriating and heartbreaking. She has no trouble opening up about all of her experiences and emotions, from depression and self-loathing to anger and entitlement.
Who it’s great for: Memoir readers seeking drama and dirt. Fans of Against Me! who don’t mind reading harsh words about the rest of the band. Anyone looking for a painfully honest story of transition and redemption.
Pick up a copy of Tranny at Amazon (affiliate link) or your local library.