Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Thing Around Your Neck (Knopf)
Adichie writes gripping stories that balance beauty and brutality on the sharp spur of human impulse. That the balance tips so easily in either direction makes for compelling reading. Winner of a 2008 MacArthur "genius" grant, Adichie grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Columbia. As a result, it might be tempting to see these 12 stories as cultural collisions, but that would miss something much more profound, because Adichie deals in connections, not collisions. With wit and empathy, she cuts across cultural barriers to wed the familiar to the foreign, so that life during an African civil war becomes unsettlingly recognizable. Her characters, whether in Africa or the U.S., confront personal issues that are framed by social devastation, but not defined by it. They grapple with mundane issues, with disaster looming just out of sight, and tension pulsing between the lines. Because Adichie never sacrifices their nuanced humanity for some bold narrative stroke that would break the spell, the results are devastating, not explosive, which makes for perceptive storytelling and reflective reading.
Alison Kahn & Peggy Fox
Patapsco: Life Along Maryland's Historic River Valley (University of Virginia Press)
This documentary look at the Patapsco flows Fox's revealing and evocative photographs through oral histories collected by Kahn from area elders. The photos and text dovetail nicely, as people reflect on the place and vice versa. The old textile mill at Oella, for instance, is subject to the same sort of natural deterioration that's etched into the faces of its former workers. Kahn and Fox, like Walker Evans and James Agee before them, capture the sturdy dignity and arching humanity at their core, and the past gushes off these pages toward inevitable change and an uncertain future.