Most opening sentences about Toni Morrison refer to her as a novelist, as in “the Nobel Prize-winning novelist” or “the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist” or “one of the greatest novelists of her generation.” But the author of Sula, Beloved, Jazz, and more did publish one short story in her lifetime (in addition to several plays, kids’ books, and essays). The lone work of short fiction, Recitatif, can be found in the 1983 anthology Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women, edited by Amira and Amina Baraka.

If you’re keeping score at home, Sweetness, published in The New Yorker in 2015, is sometimes called a short story but is better described as an excerpt from Morrison’s last novel, God Help the Child. Of course, some posthumous works may emerge some day — as often happens when great authors are no longer around to hide their notebooks and hard drives — but for now, in the category of Toni Morrison short stories, there’s just the one.

Recitatif — which has just been given the standalone hardcover treatment by Knopf — is ambitious, pointed, and surprisingly playful when it comes to race. Morrison described it as “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”

Twyla and Roberta start out as friends in a children’s shelter then slowly grow apart as the world molds and divides them based on race and privilege. We’re told that one girl is Black and the other is white, but not which is which.

“Although they are perfectly differentiated the one from the other, we will not be able to differentiate them in the one way we really want to,” writes Zadie Smith in the foreword. “Twyla seems to move in a moment from Black to white to Black again, depending on the nature of your perception. Like that dress on the Internet no one could ever agree on the color of.”

Oh, we can make our assumptions and deductions, or try to avoid doing so, as Twyla and Roberta lose touch and reconnect over the span of decades. But we’ll never be certain. So shrewd and economical is Morrison’s storytelling, so tightly controlled is her experiment. Recitatif is brilliant and worthy of space in your brain and bookshelf.

Below, are some other titles up for bookshelf consideration. The Angela Davis autobiography is especially fascinating, as it was written by one of the world’s great radical activists and thinkers when she was not yet 30 and was edited by Toni Morrison before she became a great novelist and singular short-story writer.

» Recitatif by Toni Morrison (Knopf Publishing Group, $14.72, out now) Buy it now on | Borrow it from the Free Library

An Autobiography, by Angela Davis

There are three prefaces to this edition of Angela Davis’ autobiography, one for each major reprint: the new one written in 2021, then 1988 and finally 1974. Arranged this way, they offer an eye-opening journey backward through time, which allows us to marvel at the differences in tone and terminology while noting that the issues — Black rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, etc. — remain a work in progress. The rest of Davis’ “political autobiography,” as opposed to a personal one, is presented exactly as it was in 1974: a bold decision that may send readers on multiple Wikipedia searches but wisely preserves the work’s value as a historical record of a time and a perspective that is slowly escaping popular memory. (Haymarket Books, $28.95, out now)

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The Employees, by Olga Ravn

Already a hit in Denmark, and short-listed for an International Booker Prize last year, Olga Ravn’s satirical sci-fi novel has finally been translated into English (by Martin Aitken) and published in the United States. Does it live up to the hype? It does. Subtitled “A workplace novel of the 22nd century,” The Employees is framed as a collection of increasingly bizarre memos filed by the crew of a deep-space vessel, who seem to be infatuated with the strange cargo they picked up from an alien world. As their obsession turns to mania, things start to go wrong in hilarious, grim, spectacular ways. Only 144 pages long and full of white space, The Employees achieves its macabre, chaotic mission at light speed. (New Directions, $19.95, out now)

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Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson

In this enchanting debut novel, two estranged siblings (buttoned-up scientist brother Byron and artsy free-spirit sister Benny) reunite following the death of their mother. After the funeral, they’d probably part ways forever, but first, a lawyer makes them listen to an audio recording their mom made on her deathbed. What they hear — shocking insights into their family’s complicated history and a decades-old murder mystery — sends B and B on a globe-trotting quest for answers. Warm, tantalizing, and full of surprises, Black Cake stirred up a high-stakes bidding war before Hulu won the right to turn it into a series. (Ballantine, $28, out now)

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Mickey7, by Edward Ashton

In Edward Ashton’s zany, cinematic new sci-fi novel, there’s a fine line between immortality and expendability. To avoid some stupidly incurred gambling debts, Mickey ditches Earth to work on a remote ice planet where he’s assigned only the most dangerous jobs. The upside: If he dies, somebody will upload him (or, at least, a recently backed-up version of him) into a new body. The downside: Dying hurts, and Mickey seems to die a lot. And the one time he miraculously survives certain death, he finds himself sharing a bunk with his clone in secret. Funny but rarely silly, Mickey7 acknowledges the existential dread that comes with Mickey’s situation but moves too fast to wallow in it. Bong Joon Ho’s already working on the movie adaptation. (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, Feb. 15)

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Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World, by Sasha Fletcher

This first novel by Brooklyn poet Sasha Fletcher lives up to its billing as “a love story set in a bad dream about America,” only it’s not as precious or arduous as all that. Yes, it breaks the fourth wall, and sure, it’s told in fraught, disjointed chunks that sometimes concern lovable young couple Sam and Eleanor and at other times skips to vague, dire assertions about the many ways the world is coming undone. Example: “As the city sleeps, the subways begin their slow march toward service failure.” (Cue Phoebe Bridgers’ version of That Funny Feeling.) But stick with Be Here to Love Me at the End of the World and you’ll find it’s the total package: smart, pretty and heartbreaking in big and small ways. This is a strange book, and I’m rooting for it to find its readers. (Melville House, $17.99, Feb. 15)

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More books

The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk

The Nobel-Prize-winning Polish author returns with a comedic epic about a fiery religious leader who builds a loyal following across Europe in the 18th century. Early reviews point to this being one of the year’s best novels. (Riverhead, $35, out now)

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Go Back at Once, by Robert Aickman

In this posthumously published novel by British ghost story master Robert Aickman (1914-1981), two saucy Victorian women move to an upstart utopia governed by “the laws of music.” “His writing here is funny and charming, satirical and playful in a way we get only the briefest glimpses of in his stories,” writes author Brian Evenson in the foreword. (And Other Stories, $17.95, out now)

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Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, by Jennifer Raff

The renowned anthropological geneticist attempts to trace the roots of the Indigenous peoples of North and South America, and the routes they took to get here. In the foreword, Raff promises a science-based and culturally sensitive approach. (Twelve, $30, Feb. 8)

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Black Cloud Rising, by David Wright Faladé

This Civil War novel centers around historical figures whose stories are rarely told, namely Richard Etheridge and the African Brigade of Black Union soldiers. Judging by the excerpt published in The New Yorker two years ago, Black Cloud Rising looks to be a heart-pounding, mind-opening page-turner. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, Feb. 22)

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The Paris Apartment, by Lucy Foley

In this clever whodunit thriller by the author of The Guest List and The Hunting Party, a British woman searches a Paris apartment building in hopes of tracking down her missing brother, but there’s a suspect behind every door. (William Morrow, $28.99, Feb. 22)

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More books to come

Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on and in the Sunday Inquirer.