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Jenna Bush Hager says her May 2023 pick 'pushed' her — in a good way

“I have to say, it’s not like anything I’ve read before," Jenna tells

Jenna Bush Hager says that her May 2023 book pushed her — in a good way. “I have to say, it’s not like anything I’ve read before,” she says.

Her selection? “Chain Gang All Stars,” a novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. Adjei-Brenyah’s short story collection, “Friday Black,” was lauded; this is his debut novel.

"Chain-Gang All Stars" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Jenna says the premise is both shocking and conversation-starting.

”It’s about female gladiators in a future world where there’s a sport unlike any we’ve seen. Prisoners are meant to fight each other in order to get their freedom,” she says. While violent, Jenna says there’s a “love story at its heart.”

“It’s about where we find entertainment. How violence has become so much part of who we are as a culture. It’ll make you have conversations about the prison industrial complex. It pushed me, for sure — but that’s the incredible thing about reading,” she says.

Speaking to, author Adjei-Brenyah says feeling challenged is the point of his book. He hopes to incite awakenings about the nature of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. and imagine other possibilities.

As difficult as you may find some passages to read, the author said they were tough to write. Specifically, the beginning of the book features a series of violent encounters between prisoners as part of the Chain-Gang All-Stars game.

“There’s a lot of harshness in my work. But I think it's because I'm actually pretty sensitive and sort of queasy myself. I don’t like horror. Because of that, I'm really sensitive to all the ways that humans still do that,” he says.

If you find it to be too much, Adjei-Brenyah says he understands, and encourages you to investigate that feeling.

“I don't want someone to traumatize themselves or hurt themselves to read my work. If you can't do it, It's OK. Because I am using some hyperbole to make a point. If you can't deal with this, I would say, "I hope that energy of outrage can motivate you to do something, because there are real people being subjected to this type of thing in real life.”

“Chain Gang All Stars” alternates perspectives between fighters themselves, like Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker, and an array of side characters, including spectators in the stadium. The book raises points about the way that the public views entertainers, he says.

“I think there's a really nasty edge to spectator consumer culture where we kind of view these human beings who make art or athletes or performers as something to be consumed. There’s a particular nature in which that consumption happens when the person is a woman — and even more particular when it’s a woman of color.”

Adjei-Brenyah says he always knew the book would center on women of color. “It became a love story in a lot of ways,” he says. He envisioned Staxx as the only character who could understand Thurwar “100 percent.”

While reading the book, Adjei-Brenyah hopes to leave readers with a few questions.

“Number one: Are you OK with this? Do you think this is humane? Do you think that our current system is not cruel? Do you think it has efficacy or utility? Do you think it's fair? Can we do something better? Are you willing to imagine something better?”

In that thread, Adjei-Brenyah works with the public schools in his hometown of Spring Valley, Rockland County, and volunteers with the Coalition to End the New Jim Crow. There, he works with formerly incarcerated people. “That’s just a human being just like me,” he says of his fellow volunteers. “These are human beings who have been subject to great suffering.”

“The book is not enough. In my real life I try to engage in spaces that help address our carceral system and our systems at large. Violence is the rule in America. A big part of my artistic project is to make compassion the rule.”