Powerful women writers dominate the 10 best books of January

Get 2020 off to a roaring start with the 10 best new books out in January. Classic authors like Zora Neale Hurston pair well with dazzling debuts.

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick” by Zora Neale Hurston, Amistad, 304 pp.; and “Virginia Woolf: And the Women Who Shaped Her World” by Gillian Gill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 432 pp.

1. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Eight lost stories by Zora Neale Hurston? Sign me up. The iconic Harlem Renaissance writer (“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “Barracoon”) cast her insightful eye on race, class, love, and gender in these stories while she was the lone black student at Barnard College in 1925. Edited by Genevieve West, the book offers a chronological trove of a classic writer finding her stride, including these lost eight, which have been rescued from obscurity from periodicals of the day.

2. Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict

Marie Benedict has written a fascinating historical novel about Clementine, Winston Churchill’s wife, keen political partner, and trusted confidant. She and her formidable husband inspired the people of Britain during the dark years of World War II. 

3. The Blaze by Chad Dundas

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Blaze” by Chad Dundas, Putnam, 384 pp.

An Iraq War veteran returns to his hometown. The trouble is, he was injured in an explosion and has lost much of his memory. His news reporter ex-girlfriend helps him piece together his past amid arson and murder that may relate to his boyhood. “The Blaze” is a gripping and suspenseful thriller.

4. Little Gods by Meng Jin

Su Lan launches herself from poverty into a physics career in 1980s China; things disintegrate after her daughter is born at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre. A chorus of narrators caught in Su Lan’s orbit teases out the slow unraveling of her psyche. The acute insights of Meng Jin’s debut novel linger long after its close.

5. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

A young mother and her son flee north after a Mexican cartel kills her journalist husband. Jeanine Cummins’ contemporary thriller juxtaposes the tenderness of a young family against the terror of the cartel and illuminates the humanity of those seeking entry at America’s southern border.

6. Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao

Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
“Stories of the Sahara” by Sanmao, translated from the Chinese by Mike Fu, Bloomsbury, 416 pp.

As a Chinese woman born in 1943, the peripatetic polyglot author Sanmao was a pioneering global citizen. These 20 essays about living in one of the harshest areas of the world in the 1970s are testimony to her audacity, courage, and utter charm.

7. Virginia Woolf by Gillian Gill

Virginia Woolf is a cipher, lurking at the margins of this book, which is subtitled “And the Women Who Shaped Her World.” Gillian Gill’s research turns up fascinating details of her maternal lineage, but the book drifts off course in attempting to psychoanalyze the Bloomsbury years. The author makes the case that Woolf, and likely her sisters, was sexually abused as a young child by her half brother. The experience affected Woolf’s relationships and exacerbated her mental illness, but fortunately failed to extinguish her brilliance as a writer.

8. Fight of the Century edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Contributors including Ann Patchett, Yaa Gyasi, and Marlon James offer riveting takes on a century of landmark ACLU cases. The essays offer rich affirmation that the ACLU’s defense of “marginalized people and unpopular causes” represents “the very best our country has to offer.”

9. The Bomb by Fred Kaplan

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fred Kaplan tells the fascinating, often surreal story of America’s nuclear arsenal, the efforts by some U.S. presidents to de-escalate the arms race, and the gambles by others that brought us to the brink of nuclear war. “The Bomb” is a compelling work of history.

10. Sovietistan by Erika Fatland

In this absorbing travelogue, Erika Fatland picks her way through five former Soviet satellite states, witnessing the social, economic, and environmental damage they’ve sustained. She talks with people who live, strive, and dream in these new countries.

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