When it seems like the world is changing minute by minute, when you can’t look away from Facebook or Twitter because you need to monitor the madness, when the onslaught of news makes you feel like your head might explode (or is that just me?), it’s good to turn off your phone and sit down with an old-fashioned novel.
Even if you want to immerse yourself in fiction, though, it can be hard to figure out what to read. Escapism is good for a while, but I also want to read books that shed light on what’s happening in our country and the world. For me, right now, that means books by and about immigrants. I just started Min Jin Lee’s first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, about a 20-something Korean immigrant in New York and her family; Kirkus’ (admittedly mixed) review described it as “an epic-scale hybrid of the 19th-century novel…and Bonfire of the Vanities,” which felt like just what I needed. I’m looking forward to March, when I’ll be able to tell people to read Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant and timely Exit West; in the meantime I’ve also been recommending Mira Jacob’s darkly comic The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, about a middle-class family of Indian immigrants in New Mexico; Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile, about a Russian immigrant who’s separated from his family for years after he’s deported in 1920 during a wave of Red Menace paranoia; and Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, about a Cameroonian family in New York and the way its members’ lives intersect with a Wall Street titan’s family in the run-up to the economic meltdown of 2007.
Our review called it “realistic, tragic, and still remarkably kind to all its characters,” and kindness is the key right now: it’s a time for everyone to embrace empathy and kindness toward people whose lives are different from our own, something fiction is uniquely able to help us to do. Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.