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Four Books We Couldn't Put Down Last Month

Some recent must-reads, as recommended by the BuzzFeed Books newsletter.

Posted on February 3, 2020, at 11:13 a.m. ET

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

FSG; Bill Adams

Garth Greenwell’s highly anticipated follow-up to What Belongs To You — longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2016 — once again situates us in Sofia, Bulgaria, where an American teacher is working and living abroad. Told through a series of vignettes unconcerned with identification (characters are referred to by their first initial) or linear convention, our narrator invites us to be a fly on the wall as we observe his treacherous encounters with students and anonymous men on hookup sites. Through this process, we begin to understand (in lockstep with the narrator) the inherited traumas that metastasize from one queer man to another within a deeply anti-LGBTQ country.

Greenwell’s superpower is writing sex scenes that, while at once unsettling and vividly detailed, avoid the feeling of being gratuitous. Instead, each passage serves to interrogate bigger ideas of shame, submission, and self-discovery. We start to feel like we are observing not just the person but also their baggage. A “slow burn” isn’t exactly the right phrase for a work of fiction like Cleanness that wastes no time throwing you right into the flames, but you’ll understand exactly what I mean when I say that the individual parts, as scattered and opaque as they may initially seem, add up to something quite profound. Get your copy now. —Colin Gorenstein

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

G.P. Putnam's Sons; David Goddard

Emira Tucker is a black recent college graduate without much in the way of career ambition or life savings. Alix Chamberlain is a wealthy white thirtysomething lifestyle influencer with two young kids and a looming deadline for a book manuscript. Kelley Copeland, also in his thirties, is a white Penn State graduate with a marketing job who likes Kendrick Lamar and has a thing for black women. When Emira, who babysits Alix’s children, is accused of kidnapping Alix’s oldest daughter by a clueless white security guard in a bougie supermarket, the incident sets off a chain of events that have these three characters colliding in unexpected, uncomfortable ways.

Writing in a breezy, conversational style, Reid has a knack for creating recognizable characters — both Alix and Kelley are particularly devastating send-ups of a certain kind of earnest white liberal. Her portrayal of Emira and her group of girlfriends, who still drink and party like they’re in college, also feels particularly true to that early struggling twentysomething life. Fortunately, the seeming simplicity of the prose doesn’t detract from the complicated morass Reid creates, showing us how race and class become entangled in a way that is refreshingly humorous and compulsively readable. Get your copy now. —Tomi Obaro

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

Grand Central Publishing; Shannon Taggart

Anyone who's been through any kind of psychiatric care has likely also experienced its shortcomings: the subjectivity of diagnoses, the trial and error of treatment, the general dismissal of a person whose symptoms aren't tangible. In The Great Pretender, Susannah Cahalan (who previously delved into her own experience with mental health in her memoir Brain on Fire) puts these failures in context — showing how far we've come but also how wrong we're still getting it — through her investigation of one 1973 groundbreaking experiment. With Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan at the helm, a group of eight adults went undercover as patients in psychiatric wards across the country, each claiming to hear voices. The report of their varied experiences, "On Being Sane in Insane Places,” was a damning exposé and spurred monumental changes in our understanding and treatment of psychiatric disorders and the people who live with them — but Cahalan digs even deeper into the veracity of the study itself. It's a fascinating, potent, and crucial read. Get your copy now. —Arianna Rebolini

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World; Gabriella Demczuk

When I found out Ta-Nehisi Coates was gearing up to debut his first work of fiction, I counted down the days until its release. Well, 400-plus pages later and I'm completely hooked. At its core, The Water Dancer is a coming-of-age story about Hiram — a young man with a photographic memory who was born into slavery — and his personal journey of self-discovery and freedom. He's the son of a white plantation owner and an enslaved black woman, whom his father ultimately sold away. In a community divided into three class systems — the Tasked (black slaves), the Quality (white landowners), and low-class whites — we follow Hiram as he dissects the true meaning of "family" and why kin doesn't always equate to bloodlines.

Through this exploration, Hiram is introduced to water dancing and the power of conduction, which not only brings him closer to his roots but also distances himself from a life he once knew.

While I found myself getting attached to the complicated characters, it's the story that consumed me. With every turn of the page, Coates found a way to beautifully illustrate the vile realities of slavery, the price of freedom, and the valorous measure people will go to to protect the ones they love. Get your copy now.Morgan Murrell

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