14 Art Books to Read This Summer

From an occult Renaissance manuscript to the history of eyeliner, we’ve got you covered for books to read this summer. Whether you’ll be lounging on a beach or praying for the arrival of fall, this is a season for slowing down, leaving books half-finished, and following your curiosity. Our staff and contributors have suggestions for wherever it leads you over the next few months, with recommendations for both old and new titles that entertained, moved, and perplexed us. Critic John Yau suggests a poetry collection by V.R. “Bunny” Lang, while Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian reads through the poignant book of watercolors by artist Jess MacCormack, who renders experiences of trauma and painful memories with a tender hand. Read on for Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Asian-American history, and other pageturners and visual delights, and enjoy. —Lakshmi Rivera Amin, Associate Editor

Shame, Shame, Go Away by Jess MacCormack

Shame Shame Go Away book cover

The luscious paintings in this incredibly moving book are enough to warrant a purchase, but artist Jess MacCormack’s story is so powerful that you’ll find yourself finding moments of respite in the glorious imagery. It bleeds in a way only watercolor can, while portraying the blurred realities of trauma and its legacy.

MacCormack is perhaps best known nowadays for their incredible AI videos that feel very fresh and of the moment. But in this graphic novel, dedicated to a dear friend who took their own life, Mia Rose Cameron, you encounter the sheer emotional force of what partially drives them. Here we see the artist sift through the husks of memories, and somehow they’re able to make them feel hopeful even when confronted with extreme injustice. Their skills as a storyteller and disinterest in “happy endings” help the story feel raw and poignant. This book is a window box of wonders, and I encourage you to find a few hours to take in this visual celebration that reminds us that even among the shit of life, beautiful plants can flower and grow. For those of us with histories of childhood abuse or neglect, Shame, Shame, Go Away is a collective scream to highlight what has for too long been ignored and explained away by those who would rather paper over the afterlives of troubled childhoods in which many of us were not kept safe. —Hrag Vartanian

Buy the Book | Canada Council for the Arts, 2020

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder by Salman Rushdie

Knife Meditations After an Attempted Murder

In this achingly personal book, Salman Rushdie recounts — and processes — his close encounter with death, and the daunting recovery journey that followed, after a 24-year-old Shiite zealot from New Jersey attacked him with a knife during a public appearance at the Chautauqua Institution in New York on August 12, 2022. Rushdie miraculously survived 15 stabs in his torso, neck, and face, but surrendered sight in one eye. In this confessional memoir, Rushdie reveals privately kept facets of his life, including his loving relationships with his two sons and his partner, poet and novelist Rachel Eliza Griffiths. In one chapter, Rushdie imagines engaging in a dialogue — or perhaps an interrogation — with his assailant, who’s never named in the book, but instead referred to as “A.” In this dialogue, what Rushdie really does is present his case to the millions who still wish him harm decades after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini ordered a fatwa on his head for writing The Satanic Verses in 1988. It’s a futile attempt, but Rushdie still wins — and there’s no greater proof of his triumph than the release of this book. —Hakim Bishara

Buy on Bookshop | Random House, April 2024

Who’s Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler

Whos Afraid of Gender

Judith Butler’s first book for a general audience, Who’s Afraid of Gender? orbits a question theorists have been tackling for years, many prompted by the philosopher’s pioneering work on the subject: What is gender? Butler wrote the book in response to how the concept of gender has been distorted into everything from a left-wing conspiracy to an attack on religion to a form of child abuse. Butler’s calm, measured prose belies the urgency of the topic at a moment when right-wing, anti-gender rhetoric attempts to control identity and bodies, and hyperbole often eclipses discussion. Taking readers through a range of actors in the onslaught against gender theory, the author reminds us that gender justice is human justice. —Natalie Haddad

Buy on Bookshop | Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2024

Wrong Is Not My Name: Notes on (Black) Art by Erica N. Cardwell

Wrong Is Not My Name Notes on Black Art by Erica N. Cardwell

Critic Erica N. Cardwell’s meandering, refreshingly nonlinear book braids cultural commentary with memoir through a prismatic lens that holds a mirror up to the reader’s mind while remaining distinctively personal. The writer’s confessional tone and poetic sensibility make this a perfect companion to dip into as you please, knowing that each time you’ll come away with a novel idea to contemplate. Cardwell deftly juggles multiple threads throughout, from waves of grief following her mother’s death to coming into her queerness as a young aspiring writer in New York, all contextualized through the visual art and literature that informed her thinking. She considers the work of Kara Walker, Christina Sharpe, Maren Hassinger, Adrienne Rich, and other Black artists as she narrates personal life stories in an organic and intimate arc that reproduces what it feels like to have a constantly flowing human mind. Whether you create, critique, curate, or simply admire art, Cardwell’s chronicling of her journey to becoming a critic is disarmingly honest and comforting, particularly as she reflects on what it means to err, learn, and grow as a Black woman writer in an unjust world. Revisiting an essay she wrote nearly a decade ago, she muses: “When I consider the voice that wrote this text, I find her to be still a part of my body, but like a limb, thorny and overgrown. I no longer need her.” —LA

Buy on Bookshop | The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, March 2024

Eyeliner: A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir

Eyeliner A Cultural History by Zahra Hankir

Eyeliner: A Cultural History scratches the same itch as the podcast genre dedicated to applying high-quality reporting to seemingly mundane aspects of our lives. Lebanese British journalist Zahra Hankir traces the makeup product from Queen Nefertiti to Amy Winehouse to the contemporary drag performer Lucia Fuchsia with many stops in between, and you close the book with your eyes peeled, newly reminded that our world is endlessly fascinating if you just look around. But Hankir’s research-heavy project isn’t only a thoroughly investigated history. Peppered with onsite reports and interview quotes, Hankir also uses eyeliner as a means to reflect on her personal experiences as an Arab woman and those of women of color around the world over the centuries. “It’s about identity and one’s sense of self; power and gender; spirituality and religiosity; sexuality and coming-of-age; rites of passage; rebellion and resistance; and the relationship between mothers and daughters,” Hankir writes in the preface. At the end of the book, she traces the origins of her project back to the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the Beirut explosion in 2020, noting that she initially felt that a “‘trivial’ subject would be a futile endeavor.” Thankfully, her mother convinced her otherwise. —Elaine Velie

Buy on Bookshop | Penguin Books, November 2023

Asian American Abolition Feminisms

45.2front cover

University students and the public alike are mobilizing against Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, dragging the ivory tower into the streets. Asian American Abolition Feminisms makes this coalition manifest. Essays, fiction, and artwork across the new two-volume publication retrace protests against policing, Sikhs mass-murdered in a FedEx facility, the deportation of 20,000 Southeast Asian refugees, and systems of licensing that brutalize migrant workers. All, it argues, are interconnected symptoms of state-sanctioned violence.

Highlights within include Ames Ma and Dri Chiu Tatttersfield’s mapping of the labor and supply chains of that beloved beverage and symbol of Asian-American identity, Yakult. A reprinting of scholar Charlene Tung’s piece from 2000 sheds light on the invisibility of Filipina live-in caregivers, an antidote to amnesia. And Janice Lobo Sapigao’s poem “Photocopy the Flowers” is a poignant meditation on media and “not being able to send anything into these prisons”:

44.3front cover

print the poems that call the boys home.
then find the hardware shattering:

imagine every page & face
finally held.

While the US government “solves” anti-Asian violence by expanding policing and “Stops Asian Hate” by fighting a forever war in Korea, this treatise on the abolition of militarism holds critical mass, in both senses of the term. —Lisa Yin Zhang

Buy the books (print or electronic), and reach out to your local library about viewing and downloading the issues for free. | Frontiers Journal of Women’s Studies, April 2024

The Miraculous Season: Selected Poems by Violet Ranney Lang, edited by Rosa Campbell

The Miraculous Season book cover

I am not alone when I say that The Miraculous Season: Selected Poems by V.R. “Bunny” Lang, edited by Rosa Campbell, is a book that I have been waiting for. Like others who fell in love with Frank O’Hara’s poems, I wondered who Bunny Lang is, especially after reading his declaration that “she is one of our finest poets.” Until now, all we had was a strangely hodge-podge book, V. R. Lang Poems & Plays with a Memoir (1975) by Alison Lurie, who had a love-hate relationship with Lang. As Campbell points out in her introduction, “Lang was, by all accounts, a brilliant and difficult person.” We also learn from Campbell that “she printed a thousand pink labels that read MY NAME IS STANLEY AND I AM A PIG in order to see revenge on a man she briefly dated, who she felt had slighted her.” As interesting, funny, and awful as that anecdote is, the only reason it is worth repeating is because of the poems. Lang’s poetry occupies its own domain. With this publication, the undeniable particularities will become clear. Take this short poem, “Eurydice to Orpheus”: 

I wanted him to look at me.
It meant the end of the world, but I wanted it,
It meant the sky’s drop and the earth’s derision,
Swallowing me from the light forever, but I willed him
To look at me and lose me, lest he forget to mourn me,
Lest he hold me ever less than that moment, a terror,
A desolation, not anything else again ever mattering.

This poem took my breath away, and I can assure you it wasn’t the only one. —John Yau

Buy the Book | Carcanet Press, February 2024

We Who Produce Pearls: An Anthem for Asian America by Joanna Ho and Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

We Who Produce Pearls

Asian Americans of all shades appear in We Who Produce Pearls: An Anthem for Asian America, a gorgeous visual poem-anthem consisting of the words of Joanna Ho and the bold, bright illustrations of Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya. Though labeled for ages four to eight, the entire book is framed around a narrative “we” as a reminder of shared historical experience, providing an entry point to a vital political education for people of all ages. 

In one spread, a child blows a stream of bubbles that become stars, as a hijabi gazes upward into the night sky: “The truths we speak today / pin themselves to the heavens in constellations / that will guide the seekers / of tomorrow.” In another, four figures cross arms and hold hands amidst flowers: “We who stand in solidarity / understand the vines of freedom / must climb arbors of cooperation to bear fruits of liberation.”

A discussion section at the end highlights some of the themes from the book’s core, asking difficult questions about ethnic slurs, the overthrow of the government of Hawai’i, and the victims of the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting. Reading through the book, I was reminded of the rich array of Asian-American histories I didn’t have the opportunity to learn at the age of eight, and the histories I still have to discover as an adult. This visual affirms, as Ho writes, that Asian Americans “come from homes and histories diverse as the gardens … / blanketing our lands in rich tapestries of color.” —AX Mina

Buy on Bookshop | Orchard Books, April 2024

The Art of Remembering: Essays on African American Art and History by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw

TheArt of remembering brightened book cover

Art historian Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s The Art of Remembering: Essays on African American Art and History takes the reader from the 18th century to the contemporary moment. Along the way, DuBois Shaw shares incisive criticism of the aesthetics and politics surrounding pivotal moments in Black art and representation throughout history. Topics range from early Black American portraiture and landscapes to modern sculpture, Mexican muralism, Hurricane Katrina, and contemporary artists including Carrie Mae Weems and Barbara Chase-Riboud. Organized into three parts, “Past as Prelude,” “Modern Blackness,” and “Beginning Again,” each section tackles the multi-faceted historical and political conditions for artistic forms of representation. Interestingly, the book closes with “What Deana Lawson Wants,” which builds on the author’s heavily debated Hyperallergic essay from 2021 and recalls another controversy in Black art history publishing surrounding Lawson from three years earlier, which raises questions about voyeurism, respectability, the White gaze, and the difficulty of when artists and art historians have contrasting views. For those interested in African-American art history and anyone following how this dialogue has unfolded over the years, it is worth grabbing a copy of DuBois Shaw’s latest collection and diving deeper into both the historic and contemporary stakes of Black art and representation.  —Alexandra M. Thomas

Buy on Bookshop | Duke University Press, April 2024

The Book of Miracles

The Book of Miracles

At long last, readers will no longer have to fork over $283 or even $550 to get one of the coveted editions from Tashen’s 2013 print runs of The Book of Miracles. Back in stock by popular demand, the book’s 2017 edition reproduces images from a fantastical illustrated manuscript made between 1545 and 1555. It originates from the highly autonomous Swabian Imperial City of Augsburg, then loosely affiliated with the Holy Roman Empire, nowadays part of Bavaria, Germany, but still proudly maintaining its local idiosyncrasies. The artists who created the manuscript remain an enigma, and Taschen’s book has achieved a cult following for carefully reproducing the original’s riveting portrayals of dragons, sea hydras, mythic beasts, comets, blood rain, volcanic eruptions, and unusual celestial events involving multiple suns. One does not normally see such outlandish imagery in the Northern Renaissance tradition — with Hieronymus Bosch standing out as the exception. The book originally justified its supernatural illustrations as a compendium of signs sent from God in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Antiquity. But this is a mere pretext: The real interest was to cherry-pick the most phantasmagoric episodes from the Bible and ancient history and accentuate their occult elements. Its plausible deniability as an illustrated book of sanctioned Christian stories protected it as the Protestant Reformation gripped Europe. Thus, this manuscript survived the book burnings and the censors, but centuries later, the magical content continues to wink at any reader who can read between the lines. —Daniel Larkin

Buy on Bookshop | Taschen, May 2017

Eugene Richards: Remembrance Garden: A Portrait of Green-Wood Cemetery

Eugene Richards Green Wood Cemetery book cover

When Green-Wood Cemetery opened in 1838, thousands of visitors flocked to its hilly acres seeking an island of peace amid crowded city streets. During the pandemic, it once again served as a place of refuge for people seeking open space. Brooklyn-based artist Eugene Richards began taking photos there in the spring of 2020, capturing a landscape studded with headstones, obelisks, stone angels, and sculptures of the deceased. The color images taken through the seasons reflect a few of the cemetery’s many moods — enchanting, desolate, contemplative, and eerie. Particularly evocative are grave markers that feature weather-worn portraits taken on wedding days or other special occasions. The dead peer out blankly from behind their dirty glass encasements with no news of what is to come. Together the assembled photos in this book constitute a poignant tour of this lush domain where some 600,000 souls now rest and where the living can find solace among their quiet ranks. —Albert Mobilio

Buy on Bookshop | DAP, May 2024

International Departures: Art in India After Independence by Devika Singh

International Departures India Art book cover

I give a little “hurrah!” for the binding of International Departures: Art in India After Independence; the hardcover lies so comfortably on my desk. Wonderfully informative, the book illustrates the frequently overlooked brisk circulation of art, reception, and patronage in and out of India in the decades after the nation-state’s independence from British rule. Included are accounts of individuals in positions of power by virtue of their “foreign” status in a post-Partition Indian art scene, such as critic Clement Greenberg and architect Le Corbusier. Also included are records of many Indian artists, their sojourns, and exhibitions at international art centers. Author Devika Singh coherently structures the book into chapters with plenty of images of artists and critics at work. The late Indian artist and instructor Krishna Reddy’s abstract prints are particularly captivating. —Nageen Shaikh

Buy on Bookshop | Reaktion Books, February 2024

This Country: Searching for Home in (Very) Rural America by Navied Mahdavian

This Country book cover

Navied Mahdavian, known for his New Yorker cartoons, chronicles his move from San Fransisco to very rural Idaho in the fall of 2016 in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election in This Country. He and his wife follow their dream of building a house, living simply, and starting a family. Mahdavian, born in Miami to an Iranian family, finds he must navigate a very White, insular, conservative community that constantly reminds him that he is seen as an outsider. Their new home is a place of remote natural beauty, but also a land of MAGA hats, intolerant signs, and politically conservative billboards. Friendly neighbors are always willing to help but casually express Islamophobia and blatant racism.

A compelling aspect of Mahdavian’s beautifully drawn memoir is the reflections on community and the natural world that run parallel throughout. Alternating between self-deprecating humor and seriousness, he slowly builds narrative tension up to the witnessing of a violent local tradition that makes them question and reevaluate their choices. What is belonging? What makes a place home? When starting a family, what are the parental responsibilities for choosing community, and how could that choice impact a child’s future? —Jesse Lambert

Buy on Bookshop | Princeton Architectural Press, September, 2023

Victim by Andrew Boryga

Victim Andrew Boryga book cover

Andrew Boryga’s debut novel, Victim, dramatizes a question that many have asked but few dare articulate until at least a third glass of wine: What if White liberal elites’ commodification of diversity and hardship encourages minorities to frame our lives, and art, to pander to its tastes? For all its modern parlance, this page-turning picaresque follows a classically tragic arc. Our anti-hero, Javier Perez, learns to capitalize on his identity in order to claw his way, rung by rung, up an ideologized class ladder that rewards his increasingly sophisticated narratives of racialized victimhood and systemic oppression. And it works well, until it doesn’t. Javier’s characterization as a self-admitted “grifter” sometimes borders on the cartoonish; his erstwhile girlfriend Anais and childhood friend Gio add much-needed nuance to a story that sometimes sacrifices complexity for satire. It’s not entirely clear, by the end, whether Javier learns anything from his ordeal. But it’s a hell of an accomplishment on Boryga’s part that we, the readers, do. And especially in light of the end of affirmative action via last year’s Supreme Court decision, Victim is the rare novel that’s both vital political commentary and unputdownable beach read. —Nandini Pandey

Buy on Bookshop | Doubleday Books, March 2024

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