Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Madeleine L’Engle, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Sue Monk Kidd, Sebastian Barry, Sopan Deb, and more—that are publishing this week.
The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Moment of Tenderness: “While L’Engle (1918–2007) is best known for her 1963 Newbery Award winner A Wrinkle in Time, her work stretched across genres, as seen with this illuminating collection of mostly previously unpublished material. Organized chronologically by her granddaughter and literary executor Charlotte Jones Voiklis, the book traces L’Engle’s progression as a writer of short stories for adults. Beginning with autobiographical works, some of them college assignments featuring young female narrators struggling with murky emotions, the collection moves toward more plotted narratives, closing with several ambitious tales that occasionally lead into supernatural or speculative territory, such as ‘The Fact of the Matter,’ ‘Poor Little Saturday,’ and ‘A Sign for a Sparrow,’ about a cryptologist in the 22nd century, which is rooted in the intersection of science and religion that distinguished much of L’Engle’s work. Unswerving throughout is L’Engle’s mastery of mood-setting language and her depiction of the complexity of human relationships. Voiklis’s illuminating introduction places many of the stories in the context of L’Engle’s life and points out those that were reworked and integrated into her later novels. The book will obviously attract L’Engle aficionados, but the thoughtful selection and organization recommends the volume to anyone curious about a writer’s evolution.”
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Pronounce Knife: “Poet Thammavongsa (Cluster) makes her fiction debut with this sharp and elegant collection that focuses on the hopes, desires, and struggles of Lao immigrants and refugees in an unnamed English-speaking city. In one of the best stories, ‘Slingshot,’ a 70-year-old woman experiences a sexual reawakening with her 32-year-old neighbor, Richard: ‘It was the start of summer and I wanted something to happen to me.’ In ‘Randy Travis,’ a seven-year-old daughter is made to write hundreds of letters to country singer Randy Travis after her mother—who can’t write in English—becomes obsessed with him, and watches her father wear cowboy boots and flannel in an attempt to draw his wife’s attention. In ‘Mani Pedi,’ a former boxer begins working at his sister’s nail salon (‘It amazed him to see clients transformed. It was like what happened in the ring, but in reverse.’) and pines after a wealthy white client. In ‘A Far Distant Thing,’ two 12-year-old girls have a short but meaningful friendship before they lose touch and their lives take different paths. Thammavongsa’s brief stories pack a punch, punctuated by direct prose that’s full of acute observations: in the final story, about a mother and her 14-year-old daughter picking worms at a hog farm, those laboring in the field ‘looked like some rich woman had lost a diamond ring and everyone had been ordered to find it.’ This is a potent collection.”
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Book of Longings: “The latest from Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) proposes an audacious premise: Jesus of Nazareth was married, and his wife was a writer. In a richly imagined first-person narrative, Ana, the only daughter of Herod’s chief scribe, Matthias, tells of her origins as a writer and her life with Jesus. As a child in Sepphoris, Ana recounts, Matthias allowed her to pursue scholarly interests, and she was drawn toward documenting the stories of Biblical matriarchs (‘Listening to the rabbis, one would’ve thought the only figures worth mentioning… were [men]. When I was finally able to read the Scriptures for myself, I discovered (behold!) there were women’). Once Ana turns 15, however, she is forced to hide away her parchments and scrolls and, despite her protests, her parents arrange for her betrothal to the much older Nathaniel ben Hananiah. Overcome with despair while meeting Nathaniel for the first time in a marketplace, she grows faint and falls. A young bearded man helps her up, causing her to feel an ‘odd smelting’ in her thighs.
After Nathaniel suddenly dies from an illness, Ana meets Jesus, the man from the marketplace, and the two bond over their status as outcasts—Ana as a ‘widow’ and Jesus as a child of dubious parentage. In a particularly tender section filled with domestic details of their early marriage, Kidd imagines the young couple’s mutually supportive partnership even as Jesus’s call to ministry grows stronger.
Kidd deemphasizes the New Testament’s telling of Jesus’s miraculous deeds and divinity, instead positioning his early faithfulness and ministry—not to mention events that will ultimately take his life—as essentially political in nature. Jesus’s grassroots gospel of radical acceptance and love is contrasted with the violent revolution espoused by Ana’s adopted brother, Judas, with the two resistance movements presented as competing alternatives to the repressive Roman power over Israel. Historic and biblical details are balanced by lively dialogue and debates between characters about matters of faith and action.
Ana’s ambition and strong sense of justice make her a sympathetic character for modern readers, even if her rebellion against her parents may seem somewhat anachronistic for a woman of her time. Throughout the joys of her marriage and the trials of this long separation and its aftermath, Ana returns repeatedly to the hopeful words of her aunt and mentor, Yaltha: ‘Return to your longing. It will teach you everything.’ In an afterword, Kidd offers insights into her research and makes the argument that Jesus’s marriage—despite later church assumptions and teachings—was not only possible but likely.
In addition to providing a woman-centered version of New Testament events, Kidd’s novel is also a vibrant portrait of a woman striving to preserve and celebrate women’s stories—her own and countless others.”
A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Thousand Moons: “Barry’s mournful sequel to Days Without End focuses on Winona Cole as she navigates the dangers of Reconstruction-era Tennessee and carries the memory of her dead Lakota family. Surrounded by ex-rebels too disgruntled by the Union victory and abolition to “breathe the air of peace,” Winona has a hard time telling criminals from law enforcement in formerly-Confederate West Tennessee, as rebels regain the right to vote and black men freed from slavery find their newfound rights attacked. After Winona and former slave Tennyson Bouguereau are inexplicably beaten, she thinks back on her warrior mother and wonders what bravery and justice mean to an impoverished, Native woman that the local whites see as ‘closer to a wolf than a woman.’ As Winona rides out with the Freedmen militia to avenge the attacks, she narrowly cheats death, leading her to a spiritual experience that connects her with ancestors. In Winona, who sees both the beauty and the piercing loss of her world, Barry has created a vivid if didactic heroine (‘Whitemen in the main just see slaves and Indians. They don’t see the single souls’). This earnest tale will stay with readers.”
Deluge by Leila Chatti
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Deluge: “Chatti turns fear and shame into empowerment in her unflinching debut as she relays her tumultuous journey as a young Tunisian American battling an illness that resulted in continuous uterine bleeding. Chatti explores the cognitive dissonance of maintaining faith despite inherent religious misogyny. These poems are confessional, proverbial, and fatalistic, yet still maintain humility and agency over her story and pain. An example of her stylistic finesse and metaphorical mastery can be seen in her poem ‘Tumor,’ in which she laments her illness by wrapping her words into a spiral ‘nimbus,’ the text waning as it curls to the centerfold: ‘it requires… to speak on its behalf, to determine its name… it resembles too, I think, a fruit if fruit were buried, a chthonic pomegranate, a Pompeian fig cocooned, or else the dark concentrate of the moon, one of its seas, or the orphan planet of the dead, motherless stone, God of No and Never.’ Chatti translates a gritty, traumatizing experience into a hypnotic, transcendental topography of the human spirit.”