Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Bennett, Bertino, and More

June 2, 2020 | 7 books mentioned 7 min read

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Brit Bennett, Wayétu MooreAlexandra Petri, Marie-Helene Bertino, David Mitchell, and more—that are publishing this week.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Vanishing Half: “Bennett (The Mothers) explores a Louisiana family’s navigation of race, from the Jim Crow era through the 1980s, in this impressive work. The Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, were born and raised in Mallard, La., the slave-born founder of which imagined a town with ‘each generation lighter than the one before.’ In the early 1940s, when the twins are little, they witness their father’s lynching, and as they come of age, they harbor ambitions to get out. Desiree, the more headstrong sister, leads Stella to New Orleans when they are 16, and after a few months, the quiet, studious Stella, who once dreamt of enrolling in an HBCU, disappears one night. In 1968, 14 years later, still with no word from Stella, Desiree is back in Mallard with her eight-year-old daughter, Jude, having left her abusive ex-husband. When Jude is older, she makes her own escape from Mallard to attend college in Los Angeles. At a party, Jude glimpses a woman who looks exactly like Desiree—except she couldn’t be, because this woman is white. Eventually, the Vignes twins reunite, reckoning with the decisions that have shaped their lives. Effortlessly switching between the voices of Desiree, Stella, and their daughters, Bennett renders her characters and their struggles with great compassion, and explores the complicated state of mind that Stella finds herself in while passing as white. This prodigious follow-up surpasses Bennett’s formidable debut.”

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Parakeet: “Bertino (2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas) impresses with this dreamlike, sardonic novel about a woman questioning her impending marriage while processing the trauma of a terrorist attack. Holed up in a Long Island inn during the week leading up to her wedding, a 36-year-old woman, known only as the bride, is visited by her dead grandmother, a first-generation American, in the form of a parakeet. The bird commands her to find her estranged sibling, Tom, a successful and reclusive playwright. The bride attends Tom’s play, titled Parakeet, which depicts a fictionalized version of an anti-immigrant attack on a coffee shop she worked in when she was 18 (the bride describes herself as appearing ‘ethnically ambiguous’; she is of Basque and Romany descent). Later, the bride is startled to see her mother in the mirror, and continues to be unsettled by her pending transition into the role of ‘wife’ (‘I get the sense that the number of people who are married is not equal to the number of people that give the institution much thought’). These thoughts lead to an affecting description of the bride’s memory of being wounded in the coffee shop rampage. The bride’s conflicted emotions come to a head as the novel builds to a satisfying end. Fans of Rivka Galchen will delight in Bertino’s subtly fantastical tale.”

Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why by Alexandra Petri

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why: “Washington Post columnist Petri (A Field Guide to Awkward Silences) takes on the Trump presidency and related issues with this superb and stinging collection of new and previously published pieces. She skewers triumphal accounts of Trump’s inauguration (sarcastically writing that ‘Bono, and Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John, and the Rolling Stones, and Beyoncé, and all the top artists were there’), mocks conspiracy theories by recasting the ‘deep state’ as a regional college (‘Does Deep State have a football team? No, but it controls the outcomes of all football games’), and analyzes the Mueller Report with a pitch-perfect parody of a middle-school book report (‘One way in which this book did not succeed was its lack of female characters’). Also included is Petri’s Post column ‘Trump’s Budget Makes Perfect Sense and Will Fix America, and I Will Tell You Why,’ which the White House, mistaking it for sincere praise, publicized in its ‘1600 Daily’ e-newsletter in 2017. But the best essays are those in which she is dead serious, including 2018 pieces on families separated at the Mexican border and Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to reveal her past with now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Acidic and spot-on, Petri’s work captures the surreal quality of Trump’s tenure as perhaps no other book has.”

The Dragons, the Giant, the Women by Wayétu Moore

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dragons, the Giant, the Women: “In this beautiful memoir of dislocation, a young girl flees war-torn Liberia with her family to America. Moore (She Would Be King) begins with herself as a five-year-old living with her sisters, grandparents, and father in Monrovia. When the 1990 civil war erupts with terrifying massacres by rebels overthrowing president Samuel Doe (who Moore imagines as ‘the Hawa Undu dragon, the monster in my dreams, the sum of stories I was too young to hear’), the family heads for Sierra Leone, hoping to get to America. Moore describes this desperate trek in the lyrical voice of her younger self, a dreamy girl who filters the danger through a folktale lens. The middle section tracks her childhood after her family resettles in Texas, then her trauma-plagued young adulthood in Brooklyn (‘nightmares were old friends’), and racially fraught romances (‘I never feared my blackness, until the men,’ referring to the black men she first dated in college). The book’s final section holds a mirror to the first, describing in her mother’s voice her mother’s journey from New York back to Africa to rescue her lost family. Building to a thrumming crescendo, the pages almost fly past. Readers will be both enraptured and heartbroken by Moore’s intimate yet epic story of love for family and home.”

The Lightness by Emily Temple

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lightness: “Temple’s engrossing debut, by turns smart thriller and nuanced coming-of-age story, is set in a high-altitude spiritual retreat known as the Levitation Center, rumored to occupy the only American land where levitation is possible. Olivia Ellis is 15 when her long-unreliable Buddhist father, John, who separated from her mother several years before, disappears from her life after attending a Center retreat. The following summer, Olivia signs up for the retreat’s residential program for teenage girls, hoping to find some clues as to John’s whereabouts. When the enigmatic resident Serena, whose friends Janet and Laurel sneak out nightly to visit her private tent on the mountainside, invites Olivia to join their group and announces that they will learn to levitate, Olivia is eager to belong and to master her father’s religion. Serena plies the girls with alcohol and coaxes guidance from Luke, the Center’s seductive young gardener, who she says has levitated before. By the time Olivia begins doubting Serena’s motives for encouraging dangerous methods, such as fasting and choking, events are spiraling beyond her control. While the frequent asides on fairy tales, etymology, and various intellectual concepts can feel distracting and distancing, the lush, intelligent prose perfectly captures the narrator’s adolescent yearning. Temple’s exploration of the power young women have over each other will appeal to fans of Susan Choi and Emma Cline.”

Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ornamental: “A powerfully intoxicating drug is at the center of Cárdenas’s atmospheric, nightmarish English-language debut. Somewhere in Colombia, on an estate near a major city, a doctor observes the drug’s effects on four women ‘from the inferior classes.’ In the process, he grows fascinated with a woman known as number 4, who is unique in her response to the drug—while numbers 1, 2, and 3 sleep or become sexually aroused, 4 speaks in ‘fantastically deformed discourses,’ including an apparent memory of her mother, disfigured by plastic surgery, and a political speech involving ‘the Ministry of Destitution.’ Meanwhile, the doctor’s relationship with his wife, a cocaine-addicted artist, stagnates while she prepares for a new show of her work. In spare and economical prose, Cárdenas sketches a highly stratified world, where drugs link high society and neighborhoods that are ‘a single crush of old houses and ruins.’ Cárdenas is less interested in plot than juxtaposing the contradictory philosophies of the wealthy, elitist doctor; his artist wife, who believes in ‘the mysticism of grace’; and the intelligent and damaged Number 4, who insists on ‘the authentic grace of people like me, who outfit themselves in everyone else’s debris.’ Still, the overall effect offers both thrills and chills.”

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Exciting Times: “In Dolan’s wry, tender debut, a young Dubliner navigates her love life and sexuality. Ava, 22, has a murky friendship with London-born and Oxford-educated banker Julian, in his late 20s, whom she’d met at a bar during her first month in Hong Kong, where she teaches English. They treat each other with ironic regard, speaking mostly in quips about his privilege and their mutual maybe-attraction. Ava moves into his flat, and they soon start sleeping together. The novel picks up speed after Julian travels to London for work and Ava meets Edith Zhang, who is both different from Julian in many ways—stylish, female, a Hong Kong local—and similar—boarding school, Cambridge, a well-off family. On Ava’s 23rd birthday, Edith kisses her, and they fall headlong into an earnest, garrulous, and secret love, as Edith isn’t out to her family. When Julian writes to say he will be returning in a month, Ava, who hasn’t disclosed the true nature of her and Julian’s relationship to Edith, must decide what she really wants. Dolan starts slowly, but gradually the ironic distancing of Ava’s narration is pierced by questions from Ava’s students and her transformative relationship with Edith. Dolan’s smart, brisk debut works as charming comedy of manners, though it packs less of a punch when it comes to class consciousness.”

The Fallen by Carlos Manuel Álvarez

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Fallen: “Four members of a Havana family tell the story of its collapse a generation after the Cuban Revolution in Álvarez’s elegant debut. The revolving cast of narrators includes Diego, a young man with violent tendencies serving compulsory military duty; Mariana, his bewildered epileptic mother; Maria, Mariana’s secretive daughter; and Armando, the father of the family. As the family receives harassing phone calls (‘Your husband is a communist informant… Your daughter is a pervert’), the fabric of their lives and their minds begins to fray. Armando, authoritarian and rigidly adherent to the communist party, is plagued by nightmares and alcoholism. (While drunk, he is a mournful prophet: ‘The future came and went, war never came, and no one noticed.’) The family remembers the starvation and terror during ‘the difficult years’ of the revolution in a series of fable-like anecdotes—these fragments are especially potent displays of Álvarez’s eye for detail. Occasionally, verbal slippage occurs between Álvarez’s poetic vantage and the voices of the characters, though Wynne’s translation gracefully honors the four voices of the family in startling and sharp language. Álvarez’s fittingly surreal gloss of insight on her characters’ generational divide gives the book real power.”

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

coverHere’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Burning: “In Majumdar’s audacious debut, a politically conscious English tutor who works with an aspiring film actor is wrongfully accused of terrorism. After an ill-advised Facebook post criticizing the police’s response to a train bombing in Bengal, Jivan, a Muslim, is charged with the attack. Jivan has an alibi; she was on her way to tutor Lovely, whose testimony might be able to save Jivan from execution. A right-wing party luminary, hoping to gain political mileage from the case, bribes one of Jivan’s former teachers from grammar school in exchange for his false testimony about Jivan, and his lies in court lead to Jivan being jailed. A large portion of the chapters devoted to Jivan, told in the first person, come in the form of expository monologues to Purnendu, a reporter. Lovely’s dialect-heavy passages speak to her difficult life as a hijra (a third gender in India), and her desire to become a star despite being marginalized. Majumdar expertly weaves the book’s various points of view and plotlines in ways that are both unexpected and inevitable. This is a memorable, impactful work.”

is a staff writer for The Millions. He lives in New York.

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