AWM Staff Picks: January 2023

Reading Recommendations from the staff of the American Writers Museum.

We can’t recommend these books highly enough! Check back every month for more reading recommendations, from classics that we reread over and over to new favorites. If you’re looking for your next book, you came to the right place.

Our December staff picks are also available on, which benefits independent bookstores. We also strongly encourage you to support your local bookstore by visiting them in person or ordering online through them directly.

Check Please! Book One: #HOCKEY by Ngozi Ukazu

Check, Please!: Book 1: Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu

I’m pretty sure several other staff members have recommended this one over time, but I’m late to the party. This graphic novel is sweet and light with characters that are easy to fall in love with. Ukazu is also a master of using the graphic format to convey more than the dialogue is saying, making it delightful to look at as well as read.

You can also learn more about Ukazu’s life and approach to writing in our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, in which she is featured.

—Ari, Assistant Director, Operations & Exhibits

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison book cover

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

From the publisher: “Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain―real and imagined, her own and others’―Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory―from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration―in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.”

—Kaleena, Development Manager

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien book cover

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings was always something that my dad and I shared a love for. The anniversary of his passing was recently, followed a few days later by my apartment building catching on fire. It’s silly, but being able to come home a few hours after they got the fire out, knowing my family was safe, and being able to pick up my copy of The Lord of the Rings was strangely comforting. I think starting the new year off with a book that feels like a friend is the best way to head into 2023, so while this is mine, my real recommendation is to try rereading something you love.

—Ari, Assistant Director, Operations & Exhibits

Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by D.T. Max book cover

Finale: Late Conversations with Stephen Sondheim by D.T. Max

Growing up, I watched the PBS Great Performances edition of Into the Woods on a monthly basis. It is seared in my memory. The beautiful, haunting words and music of this incredible poet follow me to this day. I was heartbroken when I learned that Stephen Sondheim passed last year, and have since looked for any chance to grow my connection with Sondheim. This book is a collection of interviews between Sondheim and journalist D.T. Max and reveals just a small portion of who the man behind the musical really is.

—Matt, Social Media Coordinator

Gather Together In My Name by Maya Angelou book cover

Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou

From the publisher: “Gather Together in My Name continues Maya Angelou’s personal story, begun so unforgettably in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The time is the end of World War II and there is a sense of optimism everywhere. Maya Angelou, still in her teens, has given birth to a son. But the next few years are difficult ones as she tries to find a place in the world for herself and her child. She goes from job to job―and from man to man. She tries to return home―back to Stamps, Arkansas―but discovers that she is no longer part of that world. Then Maya’s life takes a dramatic turn, and she faces new challenges and temptations.”

—Kaleena, Development Manager

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley book cover

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley

From the publisher: “‘One of the premier novelists of her generation, possessed of a mastery of craft and an uncompromising vision that grow more powerful with each book…Racing’s eclectic mix of classes and personalities provides Smiley with fertile soil…Expertly juggling storylines, she investigates the sexual, social, psychological, and spiritual problems of wealthy owners, working-class bettors, trainers on the edge of financial ruin, and, in a typically bold move, horses.’ ―The Washington Post

—Sam, Storyteller

The Language Archive by Julia Cho book cover

The Language Archive by Julia Cho

Julia Cho loves language, or at the very least, she has made me fall in love with it. This play is beautiful and deeply profound. Can’t wait to read it again.

From the publisher: “George is a man consumed with preserving and documenting the dying languages of far-flung cultures. Closer to home, though, language is failing him. He doesn’t know what to say to his wife, Mary, to keep her from leaving him, and he doesn’t recognize the deep feelings that his lab assistant, Emma, has for him.”

—Matt, Social Media Coordinator

Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers by Suzanne Vega album cover

Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers by Suzanne Vega

This is the ninth studio album by the American singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega. The album is based on the play Carson McCullers Talks About Love about the life of the writer Carson McCullers, written and performed by Vega.

—Christopher, Director of Operations

The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick book cover

The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

From the publisher: “In the future, most of humanity lives in massive underground bunkers, producing weapons for the nuclear war they’ve fled. Constantly bombarded by patriotic propaganda, the citizens of these industrial anthills believe they are waiting for the day when the war will be over and they can return aboveground. But when Nick St. James, president of one anthill, makes an unauthorized trip to the surface, what he finds is more shocking than anything he could imagine.”

—Cassidy, Storyteller

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness by Rachel Pollack book cover

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Tarot Journey to Self-Awareness by Rachel Pollack

From the publisher: “When it was first published nearly 40 years ago, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom was an instant classic and inspired generations of tarot students. Often referred to as the ‘bible of tarot books’ it has now helped to launch the ‘tarot renaissance’ we’re seeing today. Drawing on mythology and esoteric traditions and delving deeply into the symbolism and ideas of each card, the book offers a modern psychological interpretation of the tarot archetypes rather than a system of esoteric symbolism.

—Karie, Director of Marketing

The Short Writings of Nelson Algren: A Study of the Stories, Essays, Articles, Reviews, Poems and Other Literature by Richard F. Bales book cover

The Short Writings of Nelson Algren: A Study of the Stories, Essays, Articles, Reviews, Poems and Other Literature by Richard F. Bales

From the publisher: “A comprehensive analysis and discussion of Algren’s lost literature, including everything but his novels. One of the pieces covered is a masterpiece of race relations written in 1950, more than 60 years before the galvanization of the Black Lives Matter movement. Another is a scathing poem about Algren’s transatlantic love affair with Simone de Beauvoir. Both items are reprinted in the book courtesy of the Algren estate. This book also includes references to Algren’s works that have yet to be studied by Algren scholars.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bales for the latest episode of our podcast Nation of Writers. The episode about Algren airs later this month, so be sure to subscribe to the podcast!

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

Swag by Elmore Leonard book cover

Swag by Elmore Leonard

From the publisher: “This ‘brilliant caper’ (New York Times) from bestselling author Elmore Leonard is a rollicking tale of modern urban crime featuring a cast of small-time criminals with big-time dreams. Ernest Stickley Jr. figures his luck’s about to change when Detroit used-car salesman Frank Ryan catches him trying to boost a ride from Ryan’s lot. Frank’s got some surefire schemes for getting rich quick—all of them involving guns—and all Stickley has to do is follow ‘Ryan’s Rules’ to share the wealth. But sometimes rules need to be bent, maybe even broken to succeed in the world of crime, especially when the ‘brains’ of the operation knows less than nothing.”

—Linda, Director of Development

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford book cover

Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer by Richard Bradford

From the publisher: “Tough Guy: The Life of Norman Mailer is the first biography to examine Mailer’s life as a twisted lens, offering a unique insight into the history of America from the end of World War II to the election of Barack Obama…Norman Mailer’s life comes as close as is possible to being the Great American Novel: beyond reason, inexplicable, wonderfully grotesque and addictive…Richard Bradford strikes again with a merciless biography in which diary entries, journal extracts and newspaper columns set the tone of this study of a controversial figure.”

Join us online January 22 to hear Bradford discuss his biography and Mailer’s complicated, yet significant, legacy. Learn more and register for the virtual author program here.

—Nate, Digital Content Associate

When You Call My Name by Tucker Shaw book cover

When You Call My Name by Tucker Shaw

From the publisher: “In the spirit of the author’s massively popular Twitter thread, Tucker Shaw’s When You Call My Name is a heartrending novel about two gay teens coming of age in New York City in 1990 at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic…A love letter to New York and the liberating power of queer friendship, When You Call My Name is a hopeful novel about the pivotal moments of our youth that break our hearts and the people who help us put them back together.”

—Matt, Social Media Coordinator

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews book cover

Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

From the publisher: “Florence Darrow has always felt she was destined for greatness, but after a disastrous affair with her married boss, she starts to doubt herself. All that changes when she sets off for Morocco with her new boss, the celebrated but reclusive author Maud Dixon. Amidst the colorful streets of Marrakesh and the wind-swept beaches of the coast, Florence begins to feel she’s leading the sort of interesting, cosmopolitan life she deserves. But when she wakes up in the hospital after a terrible car accident, with no memory of the previous night—and no sign of Maud—a dangerous idea begins to take form…”

—Christopher, Director of Operations

Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller book cover

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life by Lulu Miller

From the publisher: “When NPR reporter Lulu Miller first heard this anecdote in passing, she took [taxonomist David Starr Jordan] for a fool—a cautionary tale in hubris, or denial. But as her own life slowly unraveled, she began to wonder about him. Perhaps instead he was a model for how to go on when all seemed lost. What she would unearth about his life would transform her understanding of history, morality, and the world beneath her feet. Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist is a wondrous fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.”

—Noelle, Education Program Coordinator

Visit our Reading Recommendations page for more book lists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to content