‘Children of the Land’: Featured Fiction from Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

In our latest edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Children of the Land by poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, out now from Harper.

Publishers Weekly, in its starred review, called the book an “impressionistic memoir of growing up as an undocumented immigrant,” adding that “Castillo writes with disturbing candor, depicting the all-too-common plight of undocumented immigrants to the U.S.”
[Fourth Movement as Language] 
I got used to the roaches, I got used to the milk crates we used as chairs as we ate a pot of boiled beans and washed them down with black coffee for dinner. I was five, and we had just moved into our first apartment in the U.S., and though it was small, it still felt larger than our house back in Mexico. It certainly felt larger than the room we all crammed into at our uncle’s house when we first arrived, care- ful not to be too much of a burden, though it was hard not to be when a family of seven suddenly moves in. Amá’s belly was large, and she was due to give birth any day. Although our new apartment wasn’t much to look at, we could scream, we could jump, and no one could say anything to us because it was ours. 

We had one spoon. Or maybe it was one spoon for each person, so it still felt like one spoon. Amá rubbed her large belly and spread her legs as she crouched down to eat off an old bedside table. Everyone argued over what the new baby would be named. “It’s my baby, I’m going to name him whatever I want,” said Amá. Apá had named ev- ery child up until then, but Amá knew this would be her last, and she was determined to name him herself. When she gave birth, she kept the onesie the hospital put on the baby even though she was supposed to give it back because she didn’t have a lot of clothes for him yet. She had a joke that the baby was made in Mexico but shipped, assembled, and delivered in the U.S. She came home with her baby in her arms and told us his name was Gilberto.

Every night was the same. I didn’t like the taste of coffee, but Amá held the cup to my mouth and said to drink, that it would help. Help with what? We each cleaned our respective bowl, cup, and spoon.  I took the drying cloth and made small circles with my hand until my bowl was dry and shiny. We were poor, but we were clean. The dishes were placed upside down over a towel so “nothing” would touch them at night. 

“Beans again?” I said to Amá as we gathered around our bed- side table, sitting on our milk crates in the middle of our small living room. 

“Yes, now, don’t complain,” she said. She wasn’t speaking in En- glish, and although I didn’t know English at the time, my memories of those days are peppered in English now. My mother handed me a taza, not a cup; she poured café, not “coffee.” Amá’s loud call to come in from playing outside was Ya vente, not “Come in now.” But in my head, I see a “cup,” I see her handing me a “cup,” and the “cup” is now in English even though no one is speaking. 

I have to work to put the Spanish words inside my memories— I have to think hard about each syllable inside them. To this day my mother still does not know English, though she is trying to learn it. Apá understands a little but can’t speak it. 

It was around this time, in kindergarten, when I first became aware of another language, a language I didn’t know. There was something twisting in someone’s mouth, not the kinds of words I was familiar with. A distance started to grow between me and the world, and I gladly walked toward the torpid shores of its strangeness. As we sat crisscross apple sauce, the music teacher at my first American school sat on a chair in front of us, rattling a steady rhythm with two spoons between his fingers. I understood the music because I clapped, we were all clapping along to his beat, some of us singing, others not. 

The spoons vibrated like a rattlesnake’s tail in front of me. I knew what music was and I liked it, bobbing the small frame of my body from side to side. But the strangest and most arresting sound of all was coming out of his mouth, which was nothing that I had ever heard before. I knew the sounds, I knew the rhythms, and even the gestures on his face that accompanied them as he nodded his head up and down. I could tell all of those things together were meant to produce some kind of happiness. I could make those sounds, but not in that order. I thought he sounded funny, so I let out a small giggle in the middle of his song, which prompted a stern look from the teacher keeping watch over us on the side. She must have thought I was mocking the song or the teacher, but I loved them both be- cause despite not understanding them, I understood them differently. I liked the way that rattler kept shaking right above me, saying what most rattlers say with their thrashing tails, “Don’t come near me, I am dangerous, I will bite you.” 

Maybe one day English would be dangerous for me, but not in that moment, tapping my small palms on my lap, looking at the song behind the children’s song, the flurry of sounds looming above the spoons saying something that must have been happy, given the ex- pressions on the teacher’s face, a kind of joy that felt like home to me, a kind of joy that made sense, that reminded me of home. 

I ran home elated, carrying that small pocket of joy like a wild mongoose whose belly was full of snake, whose teeth were smeared with blood. 

“Amá, I want to be a musician when I grow up,” I said. “That’s wonderful, mijo, now go take off your shirt so I can cut your hair,” she said. I wondered if she had heard me. She cut our hair often because she said her children would not go around looking ragged. 

“Amá, I said I want to be a musician when I grow up.” I said again, that time louder. Still, she didn’t seem to pay much attention. Maybe I shouldn’t have stressed the music but what carried the music— I should have said I wanted to build violins. 

I stood on a chair near the window, watching the neighborhood kids playing outside without me as Amá moved the clipper up and down my head. I started rambling to them through the open window in what I thought was my newly acquired English. I wanted to repeat what I had just heard in music class, but I wanted to do it without the music— without the spoons. It wasn’t really anything coherent, but Amá says it had the effect of being discursive, as if I was standing at a podium addressing a throng of people below me. I waved my hands in the air, gesticulating, giving them instructions in this new language that I was certain they could understand but that they most certainly couldn’t. 

They laughed and I laughed with them because we were children and because that was what children did. We took refuge in our mis- understanding. I rambled on, trying to make any kind of sound that wasn’t a word that I recognized because anything that wasn’t Span- ish automatically meant that it was English. English was the “other.” Amá finished cutting my hair, not without protest that I was moving too much for her to steady her hand, and I finished my long speech, even though my friends had long since stopped paying attention. I felt like I had done something good. 

I bowed politely in my chair and went out to the yard again. 

In my head, I knew what I was saying, there was meaning be- hind my squawk. It was in that very short window of time, when I could speak in that primal language between languages, that I could understand things better— clearer. Perhaps I never really left and was always moving back and forth between languages, reaching for something I would never fully attain. 

The afternoon was warm, and the sun wouldn’t start making its eventual retreat over the mountains for another few hours. Amá went to the kitchen to put another pot of beans on to boil. Beans were still beans, there was nothing new about that, there was nothing that needed translation, I could move back and forth with relative ease. 

With time, that innocent wonder at my nonlanguage would slowly start to fade and be replaced by English, which would soon mostly replace Spanish. In no time I would find myself sitting crisscross apple sauce just like the other children, bored at yet another music lesson, sedated, singing along to words that were reduced to one thing and one thing only. Music would again just be music and words just words. I would never again reach that wandering calamity of sound, that cacophonous revelry. I’m sure that wasn’t the first time I ever heard English being spoken, but it was the first time I remember being aware of it in any meaningful way. 

I loved being bilingual, but there was something special in that moment of utter confusion. The short journey from Spanish to English was a revelry, a reverie that deflated like balloons shortly after the party has ended. It was a path on which I moved, another migration. My body had already reached the U.S., but my tongue was a bit slower getting there, taking its time, hopping from rock to rock like a small mountain cat. I stuck out my skinny tongue and hissed at everyone around me. 

The path to learning English wasn’t like a pig being taken to slaughter. Pigs know what’s at the other end of that long walk to the slaughterhouse, and they fight tooth and nail to escape. Their long and deep howls seem to come from somewhere beyond their body, from the very earth itself— almost demonic. I didn’t fight; I didn’t know what was at the other end, but I ran toward it with open arms nonetheless. 

Amá stirred the pot of beans one more time and announced that they were ready. We grabbed our spoon, and our bowl, and our coffee. How unbearably boring the world would soon be. In that moment, though, I was an oracle, I was enchanted, I was enchanting. The bean broth was hot as it slowly went down my throat, as it touched that part of me that had no name yet. 

From Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Used with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

February Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—if you want even more to look forward to in 2020, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus into the Netted. But that promising future also means betraying the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen chooses for this novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)

Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and right-wingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)

trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)

Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Too Much by Rachel Vorona Cote: Cote, a former Victorian scholar, laces together cultural criticism, history, memoir, and theory in her debut work of nonfiction. Spanning everything from Jane Eyre to Britney Spears, the book explores the ways women’s excesses (whether physical, mental, or emotional) can both bind and potentially liberate them. Author Esmé Weijun Wang says the book “spills over: with intellect, with sparkling prose, and with the brainy arguments of Vorona Cote, who posits that women are all, in some way or another, still susceptible to being called too much.” (Carolyn)

Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: In his debut novel, Stuart follows the life of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain and his family in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Agnes—his extremely flawed, well-meaning, and beautiful mother—struggles to stay sober while caring for Shuggie, who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality. A portrait of a working class family dealing with poverty, infidelity, addition, and violence during the Thatcher era. Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo says the novel “will knock you sideways.” (Carolyn)

Home Making by Lee Matalone: Matalone’s debut novel laces together the lives of three people: Cybil, an adopted woman who journeys into motherhood; Chole, Cybil’s daughter who attempts to make her house a home; and Chole’s best friend Beau, a gay man in love with a man on the internet. The woven narrative explores mothering, grief, loneliness, and the idea of home. Weike Wang calls the novel “An intricate exploration of family and home, of mother and child, of friends, of women and written with both precision and style.” (Carolyn)

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams: Set in 1870s Massachusetts, Beam’s debut novel follows Samuel Hood, a widowed essayist, and his daughter Caroline open a progressive school for young women. After a flock of red birds touches down in town, the girls begin to experience mysterious illnesses. When Caroline begins to experience the same symptoms, she must step out of her father’s shadow and trust herself—in order to save everyone. A starred review from Kirkus calls it “A satisfyingly strange novel from the one-of-a-kind Beams.” (Carolyn)

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: In 1979 Baja California, 18-year-old Viridiana feels like she’s wasting away in her seaside hometown. While watching fisherman pull dead sharks from their nets, she dreams of a bigger, better, and more glamourous life—until she meets three American strangers. After one of the tourists dies, Viridiana becomes a suspect and her life is upended. Author Gabino Iglesias says Moreno-Garcia’s first thriller “moves forward with the power and grace of a shark.” (Carolyn)

The Regrets by Amy Bonnaffons: It’s the classic “girl falls in love with boy” story except for one little thing: The boy is dead. Stuck on Earth for 90 days due to a clerical error, Thomas ignores the rules that say he cannot interact with the living and begins an intense relationship with Rachel, a reference librarian, during his final weeks. With starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, Bonnaffon’s erotic and strange debut chronicles a sexy, somber, and ghostly love affair. (Carolyn)

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson: Larson, the author of bestsellers Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City, has a penchant for making history feel immediate, gripping, and vivid. His newest book offers a portrait of Winston Churchill, his officials, and his family during the Blitz, and the ways the personal informed the political during London’s most destructive and turbulent time. Kirkus’s starred review calls it a “captivating history of Churchill’s heroic year.” (Carolyn)

Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit by Malcom Harris: Taking its title from the sign of an Occupy Wall Street protestor, Harris’ (Kids These Days) essay collection contains 30 pieces about our current political, cultural, and economic landscape and what it means for the future. About the collection, writer Jenny Odell says “The provocations in these essays add up to something we sorely need: a diagnosis of the present that hasn’t given up on the future.”(Carolyn)

Unfinished Business by Vivian Gornick: Acclaimed writer and critic Gornick’s newest collection features nine slim essays about her love of reading and rereading. While writing about books she repeatedly returns to (like Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and Colette’s The Vagabond), she explores the ways literature informs her life and how her relationships with certain books change and grow throughout the years. (Carolyn)

Where You’re All Going by Joan Frank: Winner of the 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Frank’s quartet of novellas follow ordinary people who are dealing with love, loss, loneliness, and the intimacies—small and large—that connect us all. Writer Aimee Bender says “every paragraph begs to be read aloud, to be heard” and that “the stories are, line after line, brimming with a brisk freshness.” (Carolyn)

Something that May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery:  An essay collection from Lavery, The Toast cofounder and Slate’s “Dear Prudence” columnist, that upends genre to create something wholly new and unique. Honest, vulnerable, and hilarious, Kirkus’s starred review says: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, often both at once. Everyone should read this extraordinary book.” (Carolyn)

Your Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe: Historian Coe breaks with tradition of previous George Washington biographers (mostly male) to present a uniquely humanizing portrait of America’s first president, a man of mythic proportions. “A bewitching combination of erudition and cheek, You Never Forget Your First is a playful, disruptive work of history,” says Jennifer Egan. (Carolyn)

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland: While interning at the Harry Ransom Center, Shapland discovers love letters between McCullers and a woman—and takes it upon herself to give McCullers (and herself) the story they deserve. R.O. Kwon writes, “Captivating and trenchant and moving, Shapland’s genre-mixing debut will stay with me a long time.” (Carolyn)

Most Anticipated: The Great First-Half 2020 Book Preview

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The year has gotten off to a rocky start worldwide, but we hope this semi-annual Millions tradition will be a bright spot. We seem to say this every year, but at 140-something books, this is truly our most gratuitously enormous Preview to date. And yet there are even more books to be read in the first half of this year! As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Hop into the comments to let us know what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!

Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

January

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener: When the history of what went wrong in the first two decades of the 21st century is written, the rampant fragmentation of our attention, the proliferation of propaganda, the inanities and barbarities of social media, New Yorker staff writer Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, will be instrumental in the forensics. An optimistic millennial who absconded from the moribund publishing industry of New York to the supposedly sunny, utopian environs of Silicon Valley, Wiener quickly learns that the counter-cultural promise once embodied by the tech industry has been abandoned in favor of adopting an ethos that’s as at home with any 19th-century robber baron as any of the more conventionally predatory business that dominate American economic life. “But we see now that we’ve been swimming in the Kool Aid,” Wiener writes, “and we’re coming up for air.” Something to think about when you share a (rightfully glowing) recommendation for Uncanny Valley on social media. (Ed S.)

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: No one writes like Yu: he’s at once sincere and funny, his father-son narratives make me tear up, his work is science-fiction-but-not, and he’s always formally inventive. His new novel isn’t like anything else, either: it’s a novel that’s also a screenplay…or a screenplay that busts out of its form to be a novel. In it, actor Willis Wu longs to play more than “generic Asian man” on various TV shows, but the industry—and the world, the culture—won’t let him. This is a book about race and the roles we play, both among strangers and our family. Emily St. John Mandel calls it “Wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original.” (Edan)

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey: Beginning in Italy and ending in San Joaquin Valley, Popkey’s understated and gorgeous debut follows conversations between an unnamed narrator and other women over two decades. Exploring gender, desire, and violence, the slim novel captures the intimacy of female friendships, and the ways women create narratives for themselves and others. A must-read for fans of Jenny Offill. (Carolyn)

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston: This collection of eight lesser-known stories written during Hurston’s time as a student at Barnard in New York City showcase the author’s range. While many know Hurston best for her fiction depicting rural life, these stories brim with the vibrancy and madcap liveliness of the Harlem Renaissance. (Nick M.)

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Cleanness is the work of a writer so absolutely attuned to the world: our paradoxes of love, bodies, desires, regrets. In the morning, a man looks at his lover: “his face bearded and dark, smoothed out by sleep.” There, and elsewhere in Greenwell’s imagery, the material world joins the metaphysical, the rare ability to give shape and texture to the mystical. I wanted to linger on these sentences, but also to follow the routes of these narratives—Greenwell knows the subtle suspense created by careful syntax. “Harbor,” one section in the second half of the book, is a stirring classic unto itself.  (Nick R.)

All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred D. Taylor: Readers have grown up with the Logan Family saga, told in the classic young adult novels Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis. The new book, the first since prequel The Land in 2001, follows Cassie across the country to college and law school, and then back to Mississippi in the 1960s to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. A major event in young adult fiction. (Lydia)

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: I’ll read anything by Yoon. A 2014 Young Lions Award winner, Yoon displays uncanny range, imagination, and originality; every novel is so different and surprising. Run Me to Earth, his fourth novel, is also one of the most beautiful galleys I’ve ever seen (yes, I can be shallow that way). Early reviews suggest it is also exceptional inside the covers, Library Journal in a starred review calls this book set in 1960s Laos “essential reading.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick: A fluid, beautifully written story about professional wrestling, intergenerational trauma, genocide, and history, jumping through Armenia to America and from one generation to another. John Williams of the New York Times said of the book, “With a minimum amount of soapiness, he keeps the pages turning on his love triangles and nostalgic wrestlers and brothers at peace and war. And he allows his larger themes to resonate without pushing them on us too hard.” (Lydia)

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: The author of iconic novels like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna returns with her 20th work of fiction, a novel of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War for Chile. Of the new work Colum McCann says “What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time. She knows that all stories are love stories, and the greatest love stories are told by time.” (Lydia)

Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra (translated by Daniel Hahn): A epistolary thriller from the award-winning Brazilian novelist, Blue Flowers is a case of obsession and mistaken identity told in part through letters sent to the wrong man. Catherine Lacey calls it “an elegant and unnerving meditation on the aftermath of love and the lasting power of desire.” (Lydia)

Little Gods by Meng Jin: Jin’s brilliant debut novel centers on Su Lan, a woman who gives birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of Tiananmen Crackdown. By immersing the readers in various personal narratives, Jin raises difficult questions about history, life, and self. For example, are the young protesters on Tiananmen Square driven by their pursuit of a righteous cause or their desire for expansive attention? What does self-erasure lead to? Cultural assimilation or loss of identity or both? What is the relationship between memory and self? Little Gods is elegantly written, emotionally compelling, and thought provoking on every page. (Jianan Qian)

Track Changes by Sayed Kashua: Track Changes is the fourth novel of internationally lauded author, screenwriter, and journalist Kashua. The book’s protagonist, an Arab-Israeli memoirist, receives a note one day that his father is dying. Immediately, he leaves his wife and children in the United States and boards a plane back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. However, his homecoming is coldly received, and an increasing tension between him and his family suggests a long-standing estrangement. Sitting by his father’s sickbed, the protagonist begins to recall the causes of his isolation. But he has meanwhile found himself fabricating memories. On a broad level, Track Changes traces the process of which stories get told and forgot in Palestine and Israel. On each page, it is also a fierce and intelligent exploration of identity, class, relationship, and truth. (Jianan Qian)

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg: Blending memoir and true crime, Eisenberg’s book recounts the 1980 murders of two young women in rural West Virginia—known as the “Rainbow Murders”—and her time living and working in Pocahontas County. Exploring the intersection of gender, class, and violence, Eisenberg reveals the way the murders inflicted trauma onto generations of Appalachians. Carmen Maria Machado calls the book “a staggering achievement of reportage, memoir, and sociological reckoning.” (Carolyn)

The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka: Culture critic Chayka’s nonfiction book explores the origins of minimalism and where our current obsession stems from. From architects and philosophers to museums and Zen gardens, he reveals that “less is more” is not just about material goods. Jenny Odell says the book “peels back the commodified husk of minimalism to reveal something surprising and thoroughly alive.” (Carolyn)

We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan: In Zancan’s second novel, a group of students at a low-residence MFA program band together to take revenge on a professor who has wronged one of their own. Zancan does a wonderful job of describing the characters who populate this program, with excellent pacing and a momentum that turns the MFA life into a gripping story of professional and personal revenge. (Lydia)

The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala: In this English-language debut by the Cuban novelist Gala and translated by Anna Kushner, a newcomer to the small town of Cienfuegos embarks upon a radical project: to construct “the first cathedral for and by the meek.” But the strange, massive project is also seen as a hubristic shrine for “those with darkness in their hearts.” Told by a series of characters—poets, murderers, hustlers—this is an energetic, soaring novel of Gaudi-esque proportions. (Matt)

Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallet: Hughes-Hallet has written several nonfiction works, including a biography (The Pike) of the priapic daredevil Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. At age 65, Hughes-Hallet published her first novel, Peculiar Ground, which described an English estate in the 16th and 20th centuries; Publishers Weekly called the novel a “sprawling epic debut about an enclosed paradise.” Her second work of fiction is a collection of modern-day retellings of myths. In one, for example, an opera singer’s wife, Eurydice, suffers a fall and descends into a coma. Hughes-Hallet is an erudite chronicler well suited to reviving old tales. (Matt)

Heart of Junk by Luke Geddes: “There were antiques and then there were collectibles,” says Margaret, one of the more pedantic dealers of the Heart of America Antique Mall, the fertile comic setting for Geddes’s first novel. Geddes, who has written a short story collection, taxonomizes the stuff accumulated by a society as well as the peculiar souls for whom collecting that stuff constitutes a kind of religion. The struggling merchants hope that being featured on an American Pickers-like show will reverse their fortunes, if a scandal involving a kidnapped toddler doesn’t torpedo the mall first. (Matt)

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: A memoir from the prize-winning poet about crossing the border with his family and living as an undocumented person in the United States. Of the book, Sandra Cisneros writes, “This moving memoir is the document of a life without documents, of belonging to two countries yet belonging to neither. Hernandez Castillo has created his own papers fashioned from memory and poetry. His motherland is la madre tierra, his life a history lesson for our times.” (Lydia)

The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao: “Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all,” we read early on in Tsao’s The Majesties, whose narrator is the sole survivor when her sister poisons 300 people. (Shark-fin soup is the deadly delivery mechanism.) The sisters are scions of an Indonesian textile clan, one of the nation’s richest 50 families. Tsao, who has written two novels in a fantasy series and translated several books of Indonesian poetry and prose, explores the hidden motives behind the Borgia-fication of this hyper-wealthy family. (Matt)

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: A collection of witty stories from the Irish writer. Kirkus writes, “Flattery’s prose-absurd, painfully funny, and bracingly original-slingshots the stories forward. These female characters never say what you’re expecting, and their insights are always incisive…Nervy, audacious stories in which women finally get to speak their minds.” (Lydia)

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi: A woman leaves the United States and her failed marriage to return to Pondicherry, only to discover a relative she never knew she had. The novel documents the new life they start together. Gary Shteyngart writes, “Tishani Doshi brings all her skills as one of the world’s best poets to this lovely, beguiling, brilliant novel.” (Lydia)

The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson: “Hard to explain but easy to enjoy” is one way to attempt to define poet-cum-novelist Robertson’s uncategorizable work (per Stephanie Burt). Robertson’s process is one of collecting, assembling, and collapsing sentences into extended forms, such as with her book-length poem, Cinema of the Present. Consider The Baudelaire Fractal, her first novel, an extension of this—in which poet Hazel Smith awakens to find she’s authored the complete works of Charles Baudelaire. According to Bookforum’s Jennifer Krasinski, part of the book’s delight is “wrestling with how exactly to apprehend and define this Escher-like interiority that Robertson and Hazel Brown cohabit—kind of—with him.” (Anne)

An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado: In Testo Junkie, Preciado’s pivotal memoir/”body essay,” he wrote of his experiments with testosterone, its effects on body and mind, and in doing so described the reproductive and social control imposed by the pharmaceutical and porn industries during late capitalism. Preciado’s newly translated An Apartment on Uranus—with a forward by Virginie Despentes—could be considered its sequel. Within, Preciado recounts his transformation from Beatriz to Paul B., while attempting to define a third space beyond existing power, gender, and racial strictures: “My trans condition is a new form of uranism,” he declares. (Anne)

Creatures by Crissy Van Meter: A family story set on the coast of southern California, this debut garnered a starred review of Kirkus: “Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos…A quietly captivating debut.” (Lydia)

A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary: An anthology of essays about migration and belonging, this collection includes work by writers like Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, Jennifer S. Cheng, Nadia Owusu, and Lauren Alwan. Publishers Weekly writes, “this collection is a vital corrective to discussions of global migration that fail to acknowledge the humanity of migrants themselves.” (Lydia)

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: One Story associate editor Napolitano’s Dear Edward opens with a commercial airline crash, and as Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book Review put it, “Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but the book follows Edward, the sole survivor and “world’s most famous orphan,” and in alternating chapters returns to the final minutes of the crash. Based on a real crash, that of Air France Flight 447, this book should keep readers on the edge of their seats. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

February

The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus that she was born into the Netted to which she aspires. But that promising future also means betraying from the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen deliberately chooses for the novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)

Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and rightwingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)

Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)

Apeirogon by Colum McCann: Drawing upon real-life details and experiences, McCann’s seventh novel examines how friendship and mutual understanding between Palestinian and Israeli fathers can be stitched around grief’s void. Ambitious in scope and kaleidoscopic in form, the novel at once explodes and atomizes one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Its title is fitting: an apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of sides and angles. (Nick M.)

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)

Indelicacy by Amina Cain: Inhabiting Cain’s novel Indelicacy “is a bit like standing in a painting, a masterful study of light and dark, inside and out, freedom and desire,” writes Danielle Dutton. I’d concur. As I wrote in my 2019 Year in Reading, I developed a kind of synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing, imagining Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within. Needless to say—like its swift, keen title, Indelicacy is graceful and incisive. (Anne)

trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)

The Lucky Star by William Vollmann: Vollmann takes us back to the San Francisco of his early fiction, to the haunts of those who will live and die on the city’s margins. The story centers on Neva, “a woman everybody loves,” who spends a lot of time at a certain bar in the city’s Tenderloin District. For all the contemporaneity in the telling, there is (as always) a certain moral quality to Vollmann’s work. In this one: there is no one on earth, no one, who would not benefit from a little more love and a lot less contempt. (Il’ja)

Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump: Claude McKay Love starts this fantastic debut with this: “‘If there’s one thing wrong with people,’ Paul always said, ‘it’s that no one remembers the shit that they should, and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.'” And we’re off and running in this spirited novel of a kid just trying to be a kid and how difficult that is in our present moment. “An instant American classic for the post-Ferguson/Trump era,” writes Jeff Parker (Ovenman). Library Journal in a starred review says it’s laugh-out-loud funny and “delivers a singular sense of growing up black that will resonate with readers.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: A rangy yarn-spinner, Sparks is capable of real surprise and real sentiment. There are ghosts here, and women who have been buried in history. In “Our Mutual (Theater) Friend,” a woman “explodes every now and then in the most embarrassing fashion, usually at children’s birthday parties,” waxing “about the vulgarity of modern pizza parlors, upstaging Elmo and Abby and Cookie Monster—not to mention the pirate-themed face painters.” In lists, fables, dreams, and nightmares, Sparks’s characters make noise. A whimsical collection in the tradition of Donald Barthelme, delivered with Sparks’s unique touch. (Nick R.)

The Cactus League by Emily Nemens: “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else,” says the narrator in this novel’s first chapter, “everything changes.” Nemens delivers an engaging, eccentric cast of players, coaches, families, and others who inhabit the world of baseball—including a wise, witty, and somewhat omniscient sportswriter-narrator. From start to finish, Nemens captures the spirit of the game—both on the field and off, all meanings double-played: “Spring is a sensitive time for the ballplayers, working out the kinks of their winters, proving themselves into pitching rotations or fighting to keep themselves in starting lineups, competing against younger knees, quicker bats, unmarried men.” (Nick R.)

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)

I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert: Kispert’s debut story collection weaves through the lives of people whose deceptions have complicated their lives. In one piece, a man hires an actor to pretend to be his friend, in hopes of seeming less lonely and pathetic to a lover he’s worried will leave him. In another, a man’s lie that he’s an avid hunter makes his life difficult when he runs across a deer carcass. Another story features a theater producer who forces death row inmates to stage New Testament crucifixions. Throughout, the author tackles questions of identity and performance, as well as the difficulties of navigating a queer identity. (Thom)

March

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Celebrated novelist Erdrich, author of Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House, returns to the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in The Night Watchman. One of the most powerful voices in contemporary Native-American literature, Erdrich provides a fictionalization of her own uncle’s story, when he journeyed from North Dakota to Washington DC in 1953 to testify on a congressional hearing about the Termination Act, which would once again abrogate the United States’ treaties with a Native-American nation. The Night Watchmen, as with all of Erdrich’s writing, reminds us that Native-American culture is not hidden in history books and museums, but an identity that is current, or as she writes in The Plague of Doves, “History works itself out in the living.” (Ed S.)

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Millions’ own Mandel is back with The Glass Hotel, the long-awaited sequel to her much-beloved first novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist. Where Station Eleven explored a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a super-plague, The Glass Hotel explores what Mandel calls “the kingdom of money,” locales as disparate as a South Carolina prison and a container ship in international waters, and the messily intertwined lives of half-siblings Vincent and Paul. In a starred review of The Glass Hotel, Publishers Weekly says, “This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.” (Adam P.)

Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction by Nick Ripatrazone: The Millions’ own Ripatrazone has proven himself over the past decade to be one of our most adept critics at explicating the faith of poetry and the poetics of faith. Now in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, Ripatrazone asks in what sense Roman Catholicism informs the writings of some of our most crucial writers, from Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to more surprising authors like Toni Morrison (who converted) and Cormac McCarthy. For Ripatrazone, there is a fruitful tension between those who joined the Church, those who left it, and those who stayed. “Writers long for God,” Ripatrazone argues, “and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” (Ed S.)

Deacon King Kong by James McBride: The National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water returns with a novel set in 1969 in Brooklyn, addressing a murder through the various members of a bustling neighborhood. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.” (Lydia)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: THE FINAL VOLUME IS UPON US. Mantel dazzled readers with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and now she completes her stunningly good account of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. One of the literary events of the young millennium. (Lydia)

New Waves by Kevin Nguyen: In this debut novel, friends Margo and Lucas’s plan to get revenge on the start-up where they work is upended when Margo dies in a car accident. Tommy Orange says it’s “a brilliant meditation on death and grief in the age of the Internet,” and in its starred review, Publishers Weekly hailed it as a “stellar debut,” calling it “a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism.” (Edan)

Actress by Anne Enright: The acclaimed Irish writer’s latest novel is a mother-daughter story about an aging theater actress, Katherine O’Dell, and her daughter Norah. For years, Norah admired her mother’s bohemian and unconventional path, but when Katherine commits a bizarre crime late in life, Norah has to reconsider her mother’s legacy and confront some long-buried secrets, including her father’s identity. Norah’s investigations into the past are combined with her own search for meaningful work and a life partner. (Hannah)

Lakewood by Megan Giddings: After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies and her family falls on hard times, she drops out of college and applies to participate in a secretive research project. The pay is good, there’s health insurance, but something’s off. Lena, a black millennial, joins a pool of subjects who are all black, Indian, or Latinx; all the researchers are white. Experimental eye drops change brown eyes blue, subjects are given mysterious medication, and it soon becomes clear that Lena’s participation may require more sacrifices than she’s willing to make. Giddings’s debut novel, Lakewood takes a long and horrified look at the costs levied on people of color in the name of science. (Kaulie)

Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera: This novel is the coming-of-age-while-coming-out story of 15-year-old Francisca, who is dragged against her will from Bogotá to Miami, where she is subjected to feverish religious services in a stinky room at the Hyatt, among other indignities of “Yanquiland.” But Francisca finds herself falling in love with the pastor’s daughter, and the novel becomes a layered portrait of exile, sexual awakening, and family bonds. As wise young Francisca puts it: “Women in my family possessed a sixth sense…from the close policing of our sadness: Your tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective female sadness to which we all contributed.” (Bill)

It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan: As its uplifting title implies, McMillan’s new novel is about women of a certain age refusing to see the late stage of life as a dreary slide toward death. At the center of a reunited group of high school classmates is 68-year-old Loretha Curry, head of a beauty-supply empire, whose world is turned upside down by an unexpected loss. “It’s about living in the here and now,” 68-year-old McMillan tells O magazine, “even being willing to fall in love and live happily ever after in these late chapters of our lives.” Like McMillan’s earlier hits, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, this novel looks destined for the bestseller lists. (Bill)

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: The prolific cultural critic and author of Men Explain Things to Me returns with a memoir of her development as an artist as a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s and the violence against women that undergirds American life. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Absorbing…A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.” (Lydia)

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: At 15, Vanessa Wye enters into an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, Vanessa must reckon with their relationship when Jacob is accused of sexually abusing another student. Author Janet Fitch says: “It’s breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.” Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity. (Carolyn)

Later by Paul Lisicky: In his newest memoir, Lisicky explores his coming-of-age as a gay man living in Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1990s. As the AIDS epidemic rages on, Lisicky searches for love and community in the face of grief, illness, and uncertainty. About the radiant memoir, Rebecca Makkai writes: “Both telescopic and microscopic, this story challenges and illuminates—and, as only the best books do, leaves the reader fundamentally transformed.” (Carolyn)

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn: The author was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island and this is the novel that will help many of us realize we need to read more fiction from Hawai‘i. In 1995, 7-year-old Nainoa Flores falls over the side of a cruise ship, but is rescued by a shark—a divine favor. When fortunes turn, his family are forced to confront their bonds, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. Marlon James calls it, “a ferocious debut.” (Claire)

Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby: A collection of essays on life, love, and work by the piercingly funny and trenchant writer, to follow the best-selling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The new collection documents bad dates with new friends, weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers,” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Read Irby’s latest piece on settling down, for The Cut. (Lydia)

Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos: A thriller of political and familial intrigue set against the public relations campaign for a New Mexico airport by the NBCC board member. Tim O’Brien calls the book “a suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable novel that explores the themes of betrayal, deceit, redemption, and cultural collision in modern-day New Mexico.” (Lydia)

August by Callan Wink: The author’s debut novel follows his 2016 short story collection, Dog, Run, Moon—a set so good that I hoped Wink could distract himself from fly-fishing long enough to range further and give us a novel. And now he has: this testament of the obstacles encountered by a Michigan boy battling his way toward manhood. Told with all the economy, clarity of character, and lively prose that mark Wink’s short stories, this is writing that would tell just as well around the campfire as it does on the page. (Il’ja)

Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang: In what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has described as an “immaculate debut novel” and “a wholly engaging joy to read,” Chang follows a 24-year-old Asian-American woman as she leaves a prestigious tech reporting job in Silicon Valley to move with her boyfriend to upstate New York. The move, precipitated by her boyfriend’s entrance into graduate school, is more of an excuse than a reason. The narrator has been searching for a way out. But once there, she finds herself captivated by stories of Asian Americans in history, and forced to think more deeply than she ever has about her role in an interracial relationship. In this tender, funny coming-of-adulthood story, Chang asks what it means to live in a society that does not notice or understand you. (Jacqueline)

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: In a starred review, Kirkus called the latest novel from science fiction luminary Jemisin “fierce, poetic, uncompromising.” Set in Jemisin’s hometown of New York City, this work of speculative fiction features five New Yorkers who must come together to defend their city against the Enemy, which Jemisin described, in an interview with EW, as “a dangerous otherwordly tourist…trying to supernaturally gentrify the city to death.” Toilet stalls attack, backyard pools become portals, and FDR traffic “becomes a literal, tentacled killer.” So, your standard work of social realism. I can’t wait for this one. (Jacqueline)

So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith: Forty-two stories, some short, some not, some in email and one in the form of a recipe, make up Cross-Smith’s So We Can Glow. Different as they are, all the stories focus on the strange hearts of women and girls—brave and broken, longing and loving—and weave together to create this structurally playful and lyrically rich second collection. (Kaulie)


You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: A collection of razor-sharp stories on technology, pathology, and humanity from a hugely talented writer. (Lydia)

Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth: The author’s sixth book has a nigh-unforgettable premise: Two auditors for the American egg industry hatch an improbable plot to steal a thousand chickens from a farm in the dead of night. They assemble a team, gather their supplies, and head to the farm in question, where (predictably) a chain of disasters ensues. The author employs a wide range of voices—including, at one point, a chicken explaining what she thinks will happen when she dies—to furnish a heist story that’s unlike anything else. (Thom)

We Ride upon Sticks by Quan Barry: From the author of the acclaimed novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, We Ride upon Sticks is a wickedly funny and moving story that is set in the 1980s in Danvers, Mass., where the 1692 witch trials took place. The novel focuses on members of the Danvers High School girls’ field hockey team who will do anything to win—even witchcraft. A Kirkus starred review says “readers will cheer them on because what they’re really doing is learning to be fully and authentically themselves.” Maris Kreizman says the novel is “A perfect blend of aesthetic and narrative pleasure…It’s very funny and a little angry and a lot of fun.” (Zoë)

Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita: Yamashita blends Jane Austen’s characters with stories of Japanese Americans in this dynamic collection. In merging these characters, she reconsiders canonical works, questions cultural inheritance, and experiments with genre and form. Julie Otsuka says “whether she is riffing on Jane Austen, channeling Jorge Luis Borges, or meditating on Marie Kondo, Yamashita is a brilliant and often subversive storyteller in superb command of her craft.” (Zoë)

Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian: Arian’s first English novel follows Iranian bus driver Yunus Turabi who leads a simple life until he’s arrested during a strike. Kirkus’s starred review says calls the novel “a distressing, smartly interior tale of the horrors sown by oppressive politics.” (Carolyn)

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman: Zigman (Piece of Work) chronicles the downward spiral of a once-successful children’s book author whose life in midlife starts to erode—and so she does what? Inexplicably starts wearing the family dog in a BabyBjörn. Kirkus calls it “adept at Where’d You Go Bernadette–style snarkery.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: Following the success of Hua’s wonderful novel A River of Stars, Counterpoint is reissuing her debut collection of stories with new, never-published work. (Lydia)

Ordinary Insanity by Sarah Menkedick: A work of nonfiction and reportage on the crisis of maternal anxiety that is still treated as a taboo in American society. (Lydia)

I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux: A new collection of essays by the New York Times-bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus. In his new collection, Arceneaux explores how debt and a fear of personal economic collapse affect his decisions from dating to seeking medical care. (Lydia)

April

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)

Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixoticism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)

Mothers Before​ by ​Edan Lepucki, ed.​: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)

Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)

The House of Deep Water by Jeni McFarland: River Bend, Mich., is a small town much like any other, except that it’s the hometown the three women at the core of McFarland’s debut novel couldn’t wait to leave. Years later, Linda, Paula, and Beth reluctantly return and soon find themselves living together at Beth’s father’s house. A May-December relationship, the arrest of one woman’s abuser, a confrontation over the town’s quiet racism, and all a small town’s secrets and scandals confront the women, who find it difficult to keep as quiet as they used to do. Recommended for readers who loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. (Kaulie)

Passage West by Rishi Reddi: It’s 1913 in California and Ram Singh has just arrived, anxious to make his fortune so he can return to his wife and infant son in India. He takes work on a friend’s cantaloupe farm, forcing fruit out of the desert of the Imperial Valley, while many others from the world over work farms up and down the valley. But anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in both support and violence, and a rift between friends threatens to finally uproot everything Singh has built. (Kaulie)

The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of (Gary) Lutz and (Diane) Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)

Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the later (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)

The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who are able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)

What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Haruki Murakami has called Kawakami his favorite new writer—which was enough to pique my interest! Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, this two-part novel tells the story of two sisters, one unmarried and childless, the other married with a daughter. In the first part of the book, the daughter is 12 and nervous about growing up; meanwhile her mother is looking into breast enhancement surgery. The second part of the novel takes place 10 years later, when the younger sister is contemplating artificial insemination. (Hannah)

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: When it comes to evoking the jagged edge of contemporary anxiety there might not be a more insightful writer working today than Moshfegh. That is, if the boundless dark potential of the human psyche is your thing. If it’s not, this atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat might not be for you. But, sophisticated reader that you are, you’re not afraid of the dark. Right? (Il’ja)

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)

Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)

The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)

A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman): In his Year in Reading, Omar El Akkad wrote called this “The book I’ve thought about the most this year.” In this novel by the Spanish writer, 32 seemingly feral children arrive unannounced in an Argentine town. Edmund White, in his introduction, called it “One of the best books I’ve ever read.” (Lydia)

Kept Animals by Kate Milliken: Milliken, who won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, explores the fissures that undergird a ranch, a stable, and a community in Topanga Canyon, Calif., just before a catastrophic fire. With themes of class, race, migration, work, land, and ownership, this is a beautifully written novel. (Lydia)

Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar: It’s rare to find a gripping archival mystery, which is unfortunate because archival mysteries are some of the best ones. In this novel of the gorgeous California coast, Sligar invents a troubled, tragic artist whose fate is pieced together through the clues in her archive, which a young journalist at loose ends is hired to put in order. A literary thriller that is also an exploration of art, women’s ambition, violence, and mental health. (Lydia)

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.”” (Lydia)

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah: A novel that explores the aftermath of a school shooting told from the perspective of a Palestinian-American girl living in Chicago. Rebecca Makkai calls this “a striking and stirring debut, one that reaches its hands straight into the fire. Sahar Mustafah writes with wisdom and grace about the unthinkable, the unspeakable, and the unspoken.” (Lydia)

St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)

Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud: Trinidad-born Persaud hit the scene with a splash in 2017-2018 when she won both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and BBC National Story Award. Love after Love, her second novel, is a story of complicated, messy families and uncovered secrets, set primarily in Trinidad and New York City. André Aciman describes the novel as “Restless, heartbreaking, and intensely spellbinding.” (Sonya)

American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Novelist Mockett turns to nonfiction with this terribly relevant memoir about the time she spent with the conservative evangelicals who work the harvest on her paternal family’s 7,000-acre Nebraska wheat farm. Mockett, who grew up in northern California with her Japanese mother and a Nebraskan father who put the Midwest and farming behind him, gives herself over for a time to a way of life and ingrained beliefs that others in her milieu might never know from the inside out. Writes Susan Cheever: “Mockett’s account of the harvest is riveting, and the way she navigates her own plural identity as she travels with the combines is brilliant.” Fans of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota may especially want to check this one out. (Sonya)

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)

Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer: An Iranian man who has spent his life as a government interrogator travels to New York on a diplomatic mission and agrees to fulfill his deceased father’s wish of being buried in Iran, carrying his ashes back and reflecting on his own life on the way. (Lydia)

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: A story of four women in Seoul and the way that economic and social realities determine the paths available to them. Helen Oyeyemi writes, “Each voice in this quartet cuts through the pages so cleanly and clearly that the overall effect is one of dangerously glittering harmony. The tale told here is as engrossing as a war chant, or a mosaic formed with blades, every piece a memento sharpened on those unyielding barriers between us and our ideal lives.” (Lydia)

Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro: Forget eyes as the window to the soul: It’s really one’s pets who animate one’s intimate desires and projections. Case in point: Both my brother and partner’s brother recently have been transformed into baby-talking, cat-and-dog toting men (respectively) because of their fierce attachments. Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro, is a collection of original writing and art by fiction writers, poets, and academics, including Christine Schutt, Blake Butler, Scott McLanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, and Sarah Manguso. The menagerie accounted for includes a killer chihuahua, a catatonic toy poodle, and a backyard full of endangered desert tortoises. (Anne)

The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi: A story of tales told through generations, and the odd twists and turns of a man’s life, culminating in the Iranian Revolution. (Lydia)

May

Pew by Catherine Lacey: To some degree all of Lacey’s fiction focuses on ontology and states of being, conveying the intimacy of relationships, as well as their built-in claustrophobia and desire to flee. Lacey has a way of articulating this in a way that’s both beautiful and delightfully jarring. It seems this counterbalance of delightful and jarring will also hold true in her third novel, Pew (what a name, even), which depicts the itinerancy of a person shuffled between homes during a Forgiveness Festival, and who is nicknamed such for having been found sleeping in a church pew. (Anne)

Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Little Eyes is her second novel to be translated into English (her first was the frenzied Fever Dream). In Spanish the novel’s title is Kentukis, which is also the name for the cutesy device, described as a “creepier Furby,” that acts as a portal between lives of the owner and the person who has purchased essentially a voyeur’s right to its camera feed. Embedded within this novel of international interconnectivity are questions of the exhibitionism and voyeurism tied up in our use of technology. Expect echoes of the Wachowskis’ Sense8, except told with what has been characterized as Schweblin’s “neurotic unease.” (Anne)

Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour: A collection of linked essays reflecting on Khakpour’s experience growing up in a family who fled Iran for Los Angeles and finding her way through intersecting communities during the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States. (Lydia)

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride: A woman walks into a hotel room. Then another, and another. Hotels in Austin, Avignon, Auckland, others, and each room reflects back something of herself. Sometimes she meets a man, sometimes she fights with her memories, and sometimes she thinks about what it would mean to go home. An avid McBride fan ever since A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I eagerly await the arrival of what’s sure to be a darkly brilliant work. (Kaulie)

These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card: A family story that travels from Jamaica to Harlem unveiling its secrets along the way. Victor LaValle says of the novel, “This book is painful and shocking but it can be funny as hell, too. What a talented writer. Maisy Card has written one of the best debut novels I’ve read in many years.” (Lydia)

Drifts by Kate Zambreno: Drifts is Zambreno’s first novel since Green Girl, and is first in a series that continues to explore and reify her obsessions with artistic ambition and the possibilities and failures of literature. Her narrator spends long days alone, corresponding with writers, and taking photos of residents and strays in her neighborhood alike—with nods to the likes of Rilke, Dürer, and Chantal Ackerman, among others. “Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin,” writes Paris Review staffer Rhian Sasseen, as does “her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty.” (Anne)

The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian: Set in his native Detroit in the grim year of 2009, Zadoorian’s new novel, The Narcissism of Small Differences, is a comedy of the compromises Joe Keen, a failed fiction writer, and Ana Urbanek, an advertising copy writer, have made over the course of their long relationship. Their compromises come in many flavors—financial, moral, professional—and as these two creative types near their dreaded 40s, they’re forced to confront the people they have become because of those compromises. Like Zadoorian’s earlier novels—The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, The Leisure Seeker and Beautiful Music—this new novel brims with wit, passion and soul. (Bill)

The Book of V.​ by ​Anna Solomon: This novel intertwines the lives of three women across centuries: Lily, a mother in Brooklyn in 2016 who is grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires; Vivian, a political wife in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., who refuses to obey her ambitious husband; and Esther, an independent young woman in ancient Persia who is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king. Solomon, the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride, explores how things have both changed and stayed the same. Mary Beth Keane says it’s “searingly inventive, humane, and honest.” (Claire)

Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: The capstone of Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy, this latest novel returns to the life of the boy David, the protagonist of the first two books in the series. But this time it’s David—in perhaps the story’s sole clear analogy to the life of Christ—dying too young. And was his life, stripped of every cursory marker of identity, worth anything? Is everything, as the sages have told us, meaningless? Coetzee, via David, leaves us with better template by which to ask—if never answer—these questions. (Il’ja)

All Adults Here​ by ​Emma Straub​: I keep hearing online chatter that this is Straub’s best novel yet. When Astrid Strick witnesses an accident, a suppressed memory causes her to question the legacy of her parenting to her now-grown children. Elizabeth Strout says it’s, “totally engaging and smart book about the absolutely marvelous messiness of what makes up family.” Ann Patchett says it’s “brimming with kindness, forgiveness, humor.” Straub is a New York Times-bestselling author and co-owner of the vibrant Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic. (Claire)

Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford: Pulitzer-Prize winner Ford’s latest is a short story collection that explores themes of love and loss, taking readers to his native Mississippi, as well as New Orleans and Canada. The volume includes a novella, The Run of Yourself, which depicts a New Orleans widower learning to cope without his Irish wife. (Hannah)

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet: A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one takes place at a family vacation, where 12 children break off from their parents’ revelries and find themselves in apocalyptic circumstances. Karen Russell calls Millet “A writer without limits.” (Lydia)

Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron: A memoir on love and addiction in the early days of motherhood. (Lydia)

Shiner by Amy Jo Burns: Burns’s memoir, Cinderland, powerfully evoked the post-industrial ruins, both physical and psychic, of her childhood home in Mercury, Penn. In Shiner, she returns with a book similarly rooted in geography, the story of 15-year-old Wren Bird, who lives in isolation on a West Virginia mountain with her mother and father, an itinerant preacher and snake-handler. When tragedy strikes at one of her father’s sermons, Wren is forced to discover the truth about her family and imagine a life outside of her cloistered West Virginia existence. The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State, calls Shiner “a lush, gripping novel that explores love, grief, rage, and regeneration in a small Appalachian community,” and says, “I won’t forget the haunting mood, place, and characters that Burns brings to life.” (Adam P.)


Beauty by Christina Chiu: Amy Wong is an up-and-coming designer in New York, navigating a largely chauvinistic and cutthroat world and trying to see just where her ambition takes her. Novelist Michael Cunningham calls it “beautiful in the way of a scalpel blade.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Quotients by Tracy O’Neill: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree O’Neill’s (The Hopeful) sophomore effort follows a young couple attempting to make a seemingly conventional home together—but this story turns into a heady brew of fractured identities, aliases, big data, and what it means to live in this age of terrorism and global surveillance. Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human) describes it as “a love story rendered in galloping prose that takes you all over the map.” Looking forward to this timely and intriguing work. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)

Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha: Beha’s novel begins in 2009, with two prophets: a street preacher who promises an apocalyptic “Great Unveiling,” and Sam Waxworth, a religious skeptic and software engineer whose “political projection system” predicted every result of the 2008 election. Now a writer, Waxworth has been assigned a piece on Frank Doyle, a legendary, infamous commentator of baseball and politics. The assignment turns out to be more than Waxworth expected, widening and revealing his own faults. Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction—even down to the probing dialogue of his characters. (Nick R.)

Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak: Evelyn is in her late 30s struggling with an existential crisis, driving Californian freeways and avoiding her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband. As the novel unfolds, she decides to work with terminally ill patients, and the work allows her to grapple with her grief and pushes her to confront her past. Lydia Kiesling says, “Life Events is a hypnotic novel that beautifully grapples with fundamental questions about how to die and how to live. Karolina Waclawiak transports the reader into the streets of Los Angeles, the deserts of the southwest, the apartments of the dying, and a woman’s life at a moment of profound change.” (Zoë)

This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah: A collection of linked essays explores her experience of Americanness as the child of Gujarati immigrants in western New York and elsewhere. Kiran Desai says of the book, “While this memoir is frequently heartbreaking, it also dazzles with incandescent humor. One of the most nuanced, wise, and tender portraits of immigration I have ever read.” (Lydia)

Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma: Francis-Sharma’s prose shines in this epic and propulsive historical novel that is set in Trinidad and the American West, and follows the life of Rosa Rendón, who is talented, bright, and fierce. Laila Lalami writes that the novel “recreates the hybrid history of Native and African peoples during the era of American exploration and expansion,” and Peter Ho Davies says that it “adds (or better say restores) another strand to our national narrative. We’re all the richer for Book of the Little Axe.” (Zoë)

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: A personal account of her own immigration story and a probing assessment of how nationality is conceived of in America by the author of The Other Americans and The Moor’s Account. Viet Thanh Nguyen says of the book “Laila Lalami has given us a clear-eyed, even-handed assessment of this country’s potential—and its limits—through her insightful notion of conditional citizenship. Her book is a gift to all Americans—if they are willing to receive it.” (Lydia)

A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: From the author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of stories that go from Regency England to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (Lydia)

All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: Critic and fiction writer Masad’s debut novel follows 27-year-old Maggie Krause, whose mother has just died in a car crash. On her return home, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes from her mother, each addressed to a man Maggie doesn’t know. Maggie sets out on a road trip to discover the truth about her mother’s hidden life, and her own difficulties with intimacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as a “queer tour de force.” (Jacqueline)


F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton: A debut collection of stories taking place in post-coal Appalachia, featuring dead humans, dead honeybees, told with humor and heart. Rachel Heng writes, “These stories take you apart slowly, piece by piece, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late. The stories are in your blood now. They live in you, with all their strangeness and decay, isolation and comfort, hellscapes and moments of grace.” (Lydia)

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more— in a woman named Phoebe. (Carolyn)

Latitudes of Longing by Shubangi Shwarup: Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020, this novel brings together characters as disparate as a geologist and a yeti. Nilanjana S. Roy writes, “Astonishing and completely original, Shubhangi Swarup’s magical novel will change the way you see people—and landscapes, forests, the oceans, snow deserts. She stirs your curiosity about the earth, takes you from sadness and heartbreak to rich, unexpected surprises, and finds hope in the cracks of broken lives.” (Lydia)

My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir: A Haitian family who settles in New York and falls on hard times has the house itself to contend with in this literary thriller that Carolina De Robertis says “is poised to blow the roof off.” (Lydia)

Fairest by Meredith Talusan: A memoir about migration, transition, difference, and growing up by an award-winning journalist and editor of them. Garrard Conley calls this “a truly brilliant memoir with sparkling sentences, navigating incredibly complex questions of privilege with ease and candor.” (Lydia)

June

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s bestselling first novel, so I can’t wait for her second, about identical twin sisters who run away from their small Southern town at age 16. Ten years later, one of the sisters is passing as white, and not even her white husband knows the truth. The book moves back and forth in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and, according to the jacket copy, “considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations.” (Edan)

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): A long-awaited novel from elusive genius Ferrante, another work set in Naples. According to Il Libraio, “As you read, a vast panorama of characters slowly unfolds…a diverse and dynamic tableau of humanity. Once again, Elena Ferrante has not created a mere story but an entire world.” (Lydia)

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: By the author of Behold the Dreamers, Mbue’s new novel describes the struggle of a fictional village in Africa to combat a rapacious American oil company. Sigrid Nunez says “Mbue has given us a book with the richness and power of a great contemporary fable, and a heroine for our time.” (Lydia)

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg: You might be tempted to race through all 11 stories in Van Den Berg’s new collection, her first since Isle of Youth in 2013. This would be unwise, because haste and haunting are incompatible, and you really need to live with these ghosts, to slow your eyes over their uncanny weirdness until you’re both unsettled and seen—the hallmark quality of van den Berg’s writing. (Nick M.)

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: A new novel from the literary superstar follows the career of a fictional British psychedelic rock band. Mitchell described the book in the Guardian: “Songs (mostly) use language, but music plugs directly into something below or above language. Can a novel made of words (and not fitted with built-in speakers or Bluetooth) explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Mitchell asked. “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? Utopia Avenue is my rather hefty stab at an answer.” (Lydia)

A Burning by Megha Majumdar: The hotly anticipated debut novel from the editor of Catapult, A Burning takes place in contemporary India and follows three characters from different circumstances as they are thrown together after a bombing. Colum McCann says “This is a novel of now: a beautifully constructed literary thriller from a rare and powerful new voice.” (Lydia)

The Last Great Road Bum by Héctor Tobar: In the 1960s, Joe Sanderson left the Midwest to globe-trot and live a life worth writing about. By 1979, he had joined a leftist band of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, fighting against the U.S.-backed military junta. Not long after, Sanderson was dead, becoming one of only two known Americans to have fought and died for this cause. In the late aughts, Tobar acquired a trove of Sanderson’s writings, and has since used them as an outline for this fictionalized account of Sanderson’s life—which turned out to be worth writing about, after all. (Nick M.)

Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino: The week of her wedding, a woman known only as The Bride is visited by the spirit of her dead grandmother, who appears in the form of a parakeet. Her grandmother tells her: Don’t get married. Seek out your brother. As the novel follows The Bride in the increasingly hectic few days between this encounter and her wedding, Bertino tells a complex story about family, responsibility and the need to become our best selves. (Thom)

Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall: From the author of Our Kind of Cruelty, a book the Washington Post called “strange, sexy,” comes a new mystery about death, grief, and secrets. The book opens with the murder of Nancy Hennessy, a woman whose life looks perfect from the outside (money, loving family, etc.). But wait! This may surprise you, but Nancy’s life is not perfect. When the investigators fail to come up with answers, Nancy’s two best friends must take it upon themselves to learn what really happened to her. Out come secrets galore, plus a nuanced depiction of complex female friendships. For fans of Patricia Highsmith and Paula Hawkins. (Jacqueline)

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoun Frazier: A kind of sibling/cousin to Convenience Store Woman, Frazier’s Pizza Girl follows the picaresque adventures of an 18-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl in suburban L.A. Her life becomes further complicated when she befriends and becomes obsessed with a single mother on her route. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)

Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry: Spanning decades, Castleberry’s mysterious debut novel follows The Seekers, a group who wants to create a utopia, and the violence that rises to meet—and squash—them. Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan calls the novel “sharply-tuned, funny, satisfyingly strange, and preternaturally poised.” (Carolyn)

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: A novel of self-discovery following a Palestinian-American girl as she navigates queerness, love addiction, and a series of tumultuous relationships. Tony Tulathimutte says of the book, “Zaina Arafat speaks for the persistently hungry.” (Lydia)

Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman: Wendy Doe, found on a bus to Philadelphia, has no money, ID, or memory. Suffering from dissociative fugue, she becomes a body to be experimented on to some, a source of fascination and wonder for others. But who is Wendy Doe, really? Untethered from obligations and history, who can she become? The novel follows on the success of Wasserman’s first book, Girls on Fire. Leslie Jamison praises it as “not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself.” (Jacqueline)

The Lightness by Emily Temple: The first novel from LitHub senior editor Temple, The Lightness is “psychologically wise and totally wise-assed, all while being both cynical and spiritual,” according to one Mary Karr. After Olivia runs away to a place known as the Levitation Center, she joins the camp’s summer program for troubled teens and falls into a close-knit group of girls determined to learn to levitate. Of course, it’s not that easy, could even be dangerous, but Olivia’s search for true lightness pushes her towards the edge of what’s possible in this novel that blends religious belief, fairy tales and physics. (Kaulie)

A Short Move by Katherine Hill: By the author of the novel The Violet Hour and co-author of The Ferrante Letters, this novel follows a young man from Virginia through his rise to the NFL, and takes the microscope to the disintegration of his life as an adult. (Lydia)

‘Africaville’: Featured Fiction from Jeffrey Colvin

In today edition of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Jeffrey Colvin’s debut novel, Africaville, out today from Amistad.

The novel—named one of the Best Books to Read This Winter by Vogue—earned praise for Victor LaValle, who said: “Africaville turns history into an engaging family story, one that begins in Nova Scotia and then travels across North America. It’s a gripping and moving book. Jeffrey Colvin writes with such affection and authority. I thought of the fine work of Esi Edugyan and Edward P. Jones and E.L. Doctorow, too. He deserves to be counted in their number and this is an excellent debut.”

Dogtrot Fever
Nova Scotia, 1918 

Newborns are never afflicted with the malady. The swollen tongue, the reddish throat, the raw cough seem to afflict only babies older than six months. By the spring, in the village situated on a small knuckle-shaped peninsula just north of Halifax, all five of the stricken babies have now developed a high fever.

Having no luck with sweet milk and lemon bitter, worried mothers administer castor oil mixed with camphor, then a tea of beer’s root steeped with beech ash and clover. When desperate, they even place a few charms under the mattresses of the beds where the stricken babies lie crying.

Nothing works.

In mid-April, with three more babies now suffering from the malady, health department nurses visit the village, their faces frozen even before they have examined a single new case. Why our children? several mothers standing in the yard of one house want to know. Hadn’t Halifax already given enough babies in the fire that leveled ten square blocks of the city months before, when the munitions ship exploded in the harbor? Then again, those had been white babies. No colored babies had died in that explosion. Was it now Woods Bluff’s turn to lose infants? And if so, how many—five, ten, all twenty-two?

The following week, after two of the feverish babies die, the mothers turn to the grandmothers, though many are leery of this option. Already several grandmothers have suggested that since the home remedies haven’t worked, and since neither nurse nor doctor has useful medicines, the afflicted infants must be bad-luck babies.

It is an expression the mothers haven’t heard since they were children, though the fear of having a bad-luck baby has terrorized mothers on the bluff as far back as 1790. That was the year the first groups of cabins sprang up across the bluff, displacing the foxes, hare, and moose that ran through the thick Christmas ferns and sheep laurel. Back when no medicine could reinvigorate a baby whose body had begun to show the outline of bones, smothering was sometimes recommended. Take no action, and bad luck might infect the entire village. Best to end the child’s suffering midday, when injurious spirits would likely be bedside, feeding on the moisture of a weak baby’s last breaths.

Yet several mothers are unconvinced the deceased infants are bad-luck babies.

And even if the now-suffering babies are saddled with bad luck, who’s to say those old tales of smothering are true? Had anyone actually seen a mother place a blanket or pillow over a child’s face? And most important for these new cases: by what evidence will we make the diagnosis?

The grandmothers have ready answers. For several descendants of the Virginian who came up to Nova Scotia in 1772 as a messenger in the British army, a feverish baby had to be put to sleep if its father had recently had a limb severed above the knee or elbow. Death was also imminent if the baby’s fever came during the same month as the mother’s birthday. For the granddaughter of the Congolese woman who, in 1785, dressed as a man, sailed into Halifax Harbour on a ship out of Lisbon, Portugal, a feverish baby had to be smothered if the newborn was smaller than a man’s hand.

And for the largest group of grandmothers, those descended from the nearly two hundred Jamaicans who landed in Halifax Harbour in 1788 after being expelled by British soldiers from their island villages for fomenting rebellion, a feverish baby’s fate was sealed if the child coughed up blood during the same month a traveling man arrived on your stoop selling quill turpentine, goat leather, or gunpowder. Hadn’t such a vendor made the rounds in Woods Bluff the month before? Why continue to nurse such a child? Death already had a square toe on the baby’s throat. It was only a matter of days, a week maybe, if the baby were a girl.

The mothers nod as they listen to the explanations, but over the next weeks only one baby is smothered, although Lovee Mills denies doing it. Near the beginning of May, however, another mother on the bluff seriously considers taking the grandmothers’ advice about ending her baby’s suffering. Her afflicted child is the cousin of the first baby that developed the fever. Adding to the mother’s exasperation are the noisy groups of neighbors that have been gathering outside her home each day at sunset, a few of them knocking on the door and asking outright if the bad-luck baby had been relieved of its worldly suffering.

By now the malady has a name. It refers to the style of cabin where the woman and her extended family live. A dogtrot cabin’s construction— two rooms connected by a short breezeway in the middle—had confounded the villagers for years. Some suspected the man who built the cabin wanted a reminder of his home in Virginia. But a breezeway in a dwelling in Nova Scotia? Pure stupidity.

And now living in the cabin has caused two babies to get sick. Many blame the parents and the other members of the large extended family that lives there. Tight living made sense in 1782, they say, but this is 1918. If parents, grown children, and grandchildren are going to continue to jungle up in quarters that tight, what was the use of leaving prison? Even in the best families, sleeping foot to head too long breeds animosity. And if lies, jealousy, and ill will erupt easily in close quarters, why not a virulent fever?

“Will she do it?” someone in the crowd that has arrived at the dogtrot cabin this evening asks.

“If you mean smother the child, she had better,” another replies. “Or else one of us will.”

The cabin’s odd construction had also puzzled several of the rebellious Jamaicans who arrived in Halifax Harbour in 1788. Of course, by the time they first saw the odd dwelling, their minds had been addled by two years of confinement in the military prison on the western edge of Halifax. It took that long before Canadian military commanders believed they had sorted out which of the prisoners were combatants or abettors, and which were mere residents of the Jamaican villages torched by British soldiers.

The wait had been a horror in the cramped underground magazine and provisions spaces.

Eighty-two prisoners were moved to cells aboveground. From this group, squads of men were conscripted to repair damaged sections of the Citadel, help guard the city against French soldiers raiding its perimeter, and do road repair. One warm October day, a group of men on a road detail snuck off to walk the foot trails of Woods Bluff.

Most of the men had heard by then that the money being sent from London and Jamaica to house the prisoners had slowed to a trickle. With no firm offer yet from the government of Sierra Leone to accept them and their families, the men walked the trails looking for the cabin where military officials said a few families would soon be offered housing.

The first two families released from prison and driven by mule wagon out to the bluff never learned what happened to the family from Virginia that had lived there. But with the almanac predicting a heavy snowstorm within the week, they set about gathering dried grass and mud and fieldstones to repair the roof, chink the gaps in the logs, and mend the chimney. The men and women had their freedom. But they were facing a winter on their own in a cold, unfamiliar place. To them, this oddly built cabin seemed a present from God.

With the fever threatening another baby, villagers in 1918 have a different view of the dogtrot cabin. After hearing that the infant suffering inside the dwelling was not smothered but died on its own, they want nothing more to do with the cabin. Fearful that it is harboring bad air that might kill another baby, they chase out the families living there and set the cabin ablaze.

But what had their actions accomplished, the villagers wonder one afternoon in June, when word spreads that little Kath Ella Sebolt, who lives at 68 Dempsey Road, has developed the fever.

By now seven babies have died.

Fearing her daughter might be the eighth child to die of the fever, Kath Ella Sebolt’s mother, Shirley, goes in search of the handmade dolls she had purchased the previous winter. All ten of the dolls made by the neighborhood leatherworker were imitations of the Lucky Beatrice doll that had been fought over by a platoon of fathers in a pistol-shooting contest at the most recent Pictou County Exposition. What can it hurt, Shirley Sebolt figures, to slide her daughter’s doll under the bed where her daughter suffers?

That evening Kath Ella’s fever breaks. The next morning Shirley carries the doll to a house down the road. The next afternoon, similar dolls are slipped under other beds all across the village.

“Could be the fever just tired itself out,” George Sebolt tells a neighbor visiting with the news that his previously ailing infant has sucked down a full bottle of milk. “And maybe the nurses are bringing better medicine.”

“No,” Shirley insists. “That lucky doll under the bed did the trick.”

© Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin Amistad Books/HarperOne

December Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—if you need more reading inspiration to close out 2019, check out our Second-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan (translated by N. Kalyan Raman): National Book Award nominee Murugan returns with an allegorical novel from the perspective of Poonachi, a helpless and rare black goat. When taken in by a poor farming family, Poonachi discovers the world is far more precious, uncertain, and dangerous than she could have ever dreamed. Kirkus’ starred review calls the novel “an affecting modern fable reflecting Murugan’s enchanting capacity to make a simple story resonate on many levels.” (Carolyn)

Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)

Migrating to Prison by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández: García Hernández, a University of Denver law professor and immigration lawyer, offers a powerful critique of immigration dentention. In exploring the intersection of the immigration system and criminal justice, historian Aviva Chomsky says: “García Hernández brings a sharp legal eye to showing how our immigration system has become so twisted that we take for granted the outrageous.” (Carolyn)

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe): García Robayo’s first English translation is comprised of two novellas—Waiting for a Hurricane and Sexual Education—and Worse Things, her Casa de las Américas Prize award-winning short story collection. Publishers Weekly’s starred review calls the collection a “gorgeous, blackly humorous” glimpse into the lives of Colombians home and abroad. (Carolyn)

Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin: In his long-awaited debut, Colvin’s triptych debut follows three generations of the Sebolt family from the 1930s through the 1980s. In a small Novia Scotia town settled by their freed ancestors, the Sebolts must contend with family history, racial discrimination, identity and the idea of home. Publishers Weekly called the debut “a penetrating, fresh look at the indomitable spirit of black pioneers and their descendants.” (Carolyn)

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid: Reid’s debut novel follows the complicated relationship between Emira, a 25-year-old black babysitter, and Alix, her white employer. When Emira is accused of stealing the boy she nannies by a grocery store security guard, their lives are thrown into turmoil stoked by secrets, racism, and obsession. Kirkus’ starred review calls the novel “charming, challenging, and so interesting you can hardly put it down.” (Carolyn)

The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast by John L’Heureux: Compiled in the twilight of his life, the late writer’s posthumous collection features both new and previously published stories exploring tragedy, joy, doubt, and faith. Kirkus’ starred review calls the stories “moral tales full of love and irony written by a master.” (Carolyn)

A Year in Reading: 2019

Welcome to the 15th annual Year in Reading series at The Millions. When site founder C. Max Magee first put together his year-end reading reflections in the early 2000s, no one suspected that a blog post would eventually grow into a series that has featured hundreds of writers and readers: librarians, critics, bloggers, journalists, essayists, poets, and fiction writers ranging from just-starting-out to just-won-a-Pulitzer-Prize. What the participants have in common is that they are loving, devoted readers.
To celebrate its 15th year, this December’s series is, at 90-something contributors, the most crowded yet. As in every year, entries turn out not to be mere lists of books, but records of time passing–there were births and deaths, moves and separations and career changes. As in every year, some books pop up again and again in contributors’ collections of memorable reading experiences. And as in every year, we guarantee you will conclude the month with at least one book to add to your TBR pile. 
The names of our 2019 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main pagesubscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run at least three per day for the next three weeks.
Stephen Dodson, proprietor of Languagehat.Ayşe Papatya Bucak, author of The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories.Shea Serrano, author of Movies (And Other Things)Dantiel W. Moniz, author of the forthcoming collection Milk Blood Heat.Andrea Long Chu, author of Females.De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of In West Mills.Omar El Akkad, author of American War.Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina: StoriesAlexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine.Isabella Hammad, author of The Parisian.Nayomi Munaweera, author of  What Lies Between Us.Marcos Gonsalez, author of the forthcoming memoir Pedro’s Theory.Max Porter, author of Lanny.Yan Lianke, author of The Explosion Chronicles.Lauren Michele Jackson, author of  White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.Catherine Lacey, author of the forthcoming novel Pew.Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Loved Ones.Carolyn Quimby, associate editor for The Millions.Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Longing for an Absent God.Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of  City on Fire.Jianan Qian, staff writer for The Millions.Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.Kate Gavino, social media editor for The Millions, author of Last Night’s Reading and Sanpaku.Adam O’Fallon Price, staff writer for The Millions, author of  The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink.Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers.Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You.Devi S. Laskar, author of The Atlas of Reds and Blues.Jason R Jimenez, author of The Wolves.Iva Dixit, associate editor at The New York Times Magazine.Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick.Venita Blackburn, author of  Black Jesus and Other Superheroes.C Pam Zhang, author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold.Jedediah Britton-Purdy, author of This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.Julia Phillips, author of  Disappearing Earth.Osita Nwanevu, staff writer at The New Republic.Jennine Capó Crucet, author of My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.Kate Zambreno, author of Appendix Project (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents) and Screen Tests.Chanelle Benz, author of  The Gone Dead.John Lingan, author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-TopBeatrice Kilat, a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif.T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls.Grace Loh Prasad, a contributor to the anthology Six Words Fresh Off the Boat: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Coming to America.Kaulie Lewis, staff writer for The Millions.Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer for The Millions.Zoë Ruiz, staff writer for The Millions.Ed Simon, staff writer for The Millions.Edan Lepucki, staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions, author of California.Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field.Matt Seidel staff writer for The Millions.Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.Rene Denfeld, author of The Butterfly Girl.Bridgett M. Davis, author of The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers.Anita Felicelli, author of Love Songs for a Lost Continent.Oscar Villalon, managing editor of ZYZZYVA.Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir.Jenny Offill, author of Last Things and Dept. of Speculation.Joseph Cassara, author of novel The House of Impossible Beauties.Daniel Levin Becker, senior editor at McSweeney’s.Nishant Batsha, a writer whose work has appeared in Narrative, TriQuarterly, and The Believer.Mike Isaac, author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.Andrew Martin, author of Early Work.Kate Petersen, a writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, New England Review, Kenyon Review, and Paris Review Daily.Anne Serre, author of The Fool & Other Moral Tales.Tanaïs, author of Bright Lines and creator of independent beauty and fragrance house Hi Wildflower.Sophia Shalmiyev, author of Mother Winter.Grace Talusan, author of The Body Papers.Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.Marie Myung-Ok Lee, staff writer for The Millions.Lydia Kiesling, contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State.Thomas Beckwith, staff writer for The Millions.Roberto Lovato, teacher, journalist and writer based at the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, California.Dustin Kurtz, Social Media Manager for Catapult, Counterpoint, and Soft Skull.Kevin Barry, author of novel Night Boat to Tangier.Susan Straight, author of In the Country of Women.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Support The Millions Today

Dear Millions Readers:

It has been a year of change and growth for The Millions, but one thing that remains constant is the challenge of running and maintaining a culture-focused online magazine.

Today, we’re asking our readers to support the site, not because we’re in financial trouble but because—to quote Millions founder Max Magee—“it is time for you and us to take our destiny into our own hands as much as is possible.”

To that end, please visit our Membership Page and consider supporting the site by becoming a Millions Member.

The process is secure, simple, and speedy—and we have a number of tiers that make membership manageable for any budget.

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As a member, you’ll also receive access to exclusive book giveaways and a monthly newsletter in which our staffers recommend books—new and old and sometimes very, very old—that they’re particularly excited about.

More than ever, the way to secure the future of our favorite magazines and websites is to pay for them. It’s because of our members that The Millions is able to remain a vital and unique destination for bookish readers everywhere.

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‘In the Country of Women’: Featured Nonfiction from Susan Straight

In our latest edition of featured nonfiction, we present an excerpt from National Book Award finalist Susan Straight’s new novel, In the Country of Women, out now from Catapult.

The book—which is part social history, part personal narrative—earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, with Kristal Brent Zook saying: “In the end, Straight’s book is about far more than a country of women. It’s an ode to the entire multiracial, transnational tribe she claims as her own…In fact, her words are for all those who now call her mother, aunt, cousin and sister, in the neighborhood where she has lived her entire life. And for all those who survived, so these women could live.”

                         Daisy Belle: Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1915

You so fine I might just have to kill you. Some other fool is gonna take you away, and I can’t have that. Family legend: This is what Daisy’s first husband said to her, holding the gun he kept on the small table beside their bed.

Alberta, my mother-in-law, told me the story of her own mother, Daisy, only once, and it was not until after I had my first daughter. Alberta was Daisy’s third daughter, named for Daisy’s sister. We were sitting knee to knee by the massive ochre-brick fireplace in the fall, when Gaila was four months old. In the living room that was never empty, we were alone that day at lunchtime, on my break from work, while I nursed the baby. Alberta was watching the damp black curls of my daughter, glistening with heat from the flames, her head lolling back and a drop of milk near the corner of her mouth as she fought sleep. Gaila, the fourth generation of descendants from Mary Thomas Ford, killed for secrets.

“My mother never had a home when she was little. Not after her mother died.”

She paused. My mother-in-law’s hands were elegant, her nails strong and oval and painted, her eyebrows vivid with pencil, her lips always defined with liner and lipstick. We were sitting in maroon leather club chairs whose arms were rolled and graceful, with brass rivets. Alberta said softly, “They were walking down a road. Her and her mother. Mary. She was holding her mother’s hand. My grandmother saw the car coming. She threw my mother out of the way, threw her up where no one could see her, and then the car ran her over.”

The driver was a young white man with another young white male passenger; the car plowed into Mary Thomas at great speed and then the driver swerved back onto the road and left her behind. Mary had three children – Daisy, 5, Arthur, 2, and Alberta, 1. It makes sense that only Daisy was walking with her, because the others were so young, but no one can say for certain. The three children had been given the surname of their father: Ford. But no one ever mentions him again, either.

This part stays the same, no matter who tells the story: it was dusk, and suddenly a car was speeding down the narrow dirt lane, raising dust, careening toward them, and Mary knew what was coming, and why, and she threw Daisy up onto the roadbank into the trees, or in the ditch into the weeds.

That day by the fire, Alberta said sadly, “My mother was so little. And after that, she went from pillar to post. Yes, she did. Pillar to post.”

Alberta held out her arms for the baby. I had to go back to work, and Alberta would hold her for hours while a procession of women came to visit and watch soap operas and share food and stories and rock this grandchild who was so loved that her cheeks would be red with kisses and lipstick when I came to retrieve her at 5.

I didn’t understand the phrase – pillar to post. Alberta watched my daughter relax back into sleep against her elbow, eyelids sliding shut. She said, “My mother never had a home. Not ’til she got here.”

Pillar to post: when someone has gone from a wealthy home, with pillars at the front, as grand embellishment, to a poorer house, with porch held up by simple wooden posts. But in Sunflower County, Daisy went from farmhouse to sharecropper cabin, wherever relatives would take care of her for a time. Alberta went to Mary’s sister Margaret, and Arthur went to an uncle. Daisy attended school until the fifth grade, as did Arthur.

That night, I lay awake thinking of the car speeding straight toward Daisy’s mother while her small daughter lay on the roadbank. I remember the Country Squire passing over me like a large animal. I remember the smell of damp asphalt against my cheek. I shivered, wondering what Daisy’s mother felt. She lay in soft Mississippi dirt. Did she die there, with her daughter afraid to come out from where she’d been thrown for safekeeping? Did Mary hear her child crying?

Did she crawl? Did Daisy see her mother’s eyes?

Years later, at family gatherings, other relatives would offer:

They were drunk and they killed her, but they were rich white boys and no one in that county was gonna prosecute them.

     They were sent to kill her because she knew things. About the rich white men around there. They didn’t want her to tell.

     They killed her because no one wanted her to say who were the fathers of those children. Daisy and Arthur and Alberta. Mary was the prettiest of all the girls. She was beautiful.

     There were only about six cars in the whole county – it was a poor place! The police knew whose car it was. Of course they did.

Imagine Daisy’s memory, of her small body being flung by her mother’s hands to safety, and where she landed, and how it felt. What she saw and heard after that. It’s beyond comprehension: did the men stop and look at Mary Thomas? Was Daisy so scared she knew to keep hidden in the trees or the weeds? Did she breathe? Did she hear her mother’s breath? Did she hear pain or crying? How long did she wait by the roadside, and who drove the next vehicle or wagon that came upon them, and what never left her memory?

Violence like that enters the blood. Changes the DNA. We know this now, from accounts of survivors of genocide, of the Holocaust, of war and torture and imprisonment. Reading historical narratives from the elderly people formerly enslaved in the American South, in places like Sunflower County, Mississippi, reminds us of how injury, rape, and psychological pain were endured, and interred, in the bones and brain.

Some Americans have tried to make slavery a single chapter in the nation’s history, a finite number of years that ceases influence at the end of the Civil War. Tell this to the family of Mary Thomas, and the thousands of other black men and women killed in carefully-planned acts of retribution or for casual sport – from the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was read, through the terrors of Reconstruction, to the countless lynchings between 1900-1950s, to the murders during the civil rights movement, to killings that happen right now. This moment.

By 1989, when Alberta told me that story, her mother, Daisy, had travelled through seven states to make sure Alberta’s childhood was rooted deeply and firmly in a radius of three miles, and we sat in the center of that radius. But Daisy’s odyssey had been long and dangerous, and at the end of it, she had four daughters, and endless secrets.

Daisy Belle Ford Morris Carter remains the mystery woman of our family. We still talk even now about how she never told anyone the identities of the fathers of her daughters. In a time when every pair of high heels chosen for the club, every new hairstyle or cup of coffee is documented in cell phone images with time, date, and exact street location, it seems astonishing that the phrase “she took that knowledge to the grave” could be true. Over six decades, Daisy never told anyone. Maybe those men were so dangerous she knew what she was doing.

And so, so my three daughters, I want to say that these women crossed thousands of miles of hardship so that when I was fourteen and your father was fifteen, he could walk two miles from his house to the end of my street — no one had cars, no one had any money for a date, we met only in parks — where he bounced a basketball in the playground of my elementary school. I walked there to meet him. We sat on the wooden bench against the chainlink fence that separated the playground from the railroad tracks twenty feet away. His shirt: white waffle-weave long underwear with the sleeves cut off for a tank top. I remember the smell of freshly-laundered cotton and Hai Karate even now. My shirt: a halter top I’d sewn from two red bandannas, from a pattern I found in Seventeen magazine. We talked for a long time in the darkness, played a few games of H-O-R-S-E (I wondered why it was always horse and never something more entertaining, like platypus or elephant or anaconda), and returned to the splintery bench. We kissed for the first time.

His arms were the color of palm bark – brown with a glossy red underneath — and his fingers so long and elegant that when he put my palm against his, my whole hand barely came to the middle knuckles. My arms should have been pale, but this was 1975 – girls rubbed Johnson’s baby oil onto their skin and lay at the beach or beside pools to get brown. I had the baby oil – but no beach or pool. I mowed lawns and lay in the bed of my dad’s truck while he drove us to the desert.

Your father pointed to the dark-brown dot on the skin below my collarbone. “What’s that?” he said quietly.

Was I supposed to say mole? Mole sounded terrible. A blind animal nosing out of the earth. I was so near-sighted I could barely see the playground, because I’d left my glasses at home. “Beauty mark?” I said.

He laughed. “That’s if you paint it on your face.”

“Who says?”

“All my aunts.”

I remember too the smell of sulfur in the rocks along the railroad tracks, and the pepper trees nearby with their spicy pink berries.

Thousands of miles of migration – from slave ships arrived to America, from boats leaving Europe after World War II, from indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples, hardened ranchwomen, and fierce mothers. The women moved ever west, fled men, met new men, made silent narrow-eyed decisions in the darkness, got on buses and in cars and walked for miles to survive. West until there was no more west.

We were born here, to more dreamers of the golden dream, the ones you never hear about. We moved through the streets of southern California, still with no money, but we had more than those women did when they were girls. We shared one burrito four ways, we rode eight to a car in a Dodge Dart or Ford pickup, we partied in the orange groves or in a field by the towering cement Lily Cup, where our friends’ parents worked at the plant making paper cups that Americans used to hold at the water cooler.

More than a year later, your father finally picked me up in the Batmobile, a 1961 Cadillac with vintage oxidized brown like faded coffee ground, with huge fins as if sharks would chaperone us down the street. The sound was like a freight train. Sitting in the passenger seat, I saw a dark stain along the inside of the door. It was cold, and I asked your father to roll up the window, but he didn’t want me to see the spiderweb cracks around the bullet hole in the glass. Some guy had been leaning against the car window when he was shot. The stains were reminders of his blood. General Sims II, your grandfather, had bought the car from under a pepper tree where it had sat since the murder, covered in California dust. Your father drove me a mile and a half, to General and Alberta’s house, and in the driveway Alberta held out her hand and said, Come and make you a plate, and my life changed.

That is how you, our three daughters, became California girls. Via the Batmobile. You are the apex of the dream, the future of America, and nearly every day of my life I imagine the women watching you, watching all of us as we raised you, hoping they — the ancestors — won’t be forgotten.

Copyright © 2019 by Susan Straight, from In the Country of Women. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.

November Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

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We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more November titles, check out our Second-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!

Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin-American writers, and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)

The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)

What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books—novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels—and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a 5-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)

White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)

Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)

The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)

Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo: Joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize and first black woman to receive the award, Evaristo’s eighth novel follows the lives of 12 black British people—predominately, thought not entirely, women—from different classes and identities. The Booker judges called the novel “a must-read about modern Britain and womanhood” that “deserves to be read aloud and to be performed and celebrated in all kinds of media.” (Carolyn)

Essays One by Lydia Davis: In the first half of a two-volume collection, Davis gathers a collection of nonfiction writing from the last five decades. The famed short story writer’s essays about reading and writing explore her artistic influences, literary criticism, and even annotations of her own work—which offers a rare deep dive into her craft. Publishers Weekly’s starred review says readers “should take the opportunity to learn from a legend.” (Carolyn)

The Worst Kind of Want by Liska Jacobs: Pricilla (Cilla) Messing has spent her life caring for others so she expects more of the same when she’s called to Rome to babysit her out-of-control teenage niece. Instead, while falling under the spell of scenic Italy and a forbidden flirtation, Cilla’s erratic behavior jeopardizes her future. Publishers Weekly wrote that the “intoxicating” novel is “a love letter to Italy and an evocative study of grief and desire.” (Carolyn)

The Witches are Coming by Lindy West: In a follow-up to her bestselling memoir Shrill, West’s new essay collection—complete with a title playing on the idea of “witch hunt”—explores our current cultural moment. Whether it’s #MeToo, misogyny in the Trump era, or how the media covers serial killers, West’s writing is biting, funny, and whip smart. “Satirical, raw, and unapologetically real, West delivers the bittersweet truths on contemporary living,” says Kirkus. (Carolyn)

On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl: Purahl’s debut novel set in the 1950s follows Muriel, a 21-year-old newlywed who has moved from rural Kansas to San Diego with her husband, Lee. Listless and restless, Muriel sets off to find the brother-in-law she harbors deep affection for. Kirkus’ starred review says, “the book is filled with such rhythmically lovely, splendidly evocative, and masterfully precise descriptions.” (Carolyn)

The Innocents by Michael Crummey: Finalist for the 2019 Giller Prize, Crummey’s latest novel follows two recently-orphaned siblings as they navigate the brutal conditions of 19th-century Newfoundland. About The Innocents, Smith Henderson writes, “what makes this story timeless is Crummey’s rich depiction of the human heart in extremis, the unflagging beat of life in a world that is too much to bear.” (Carolyn)

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern: Eight years after The Night Circus became a literary and book club sensation, Morgenstern returns with her much anticipated sophomore novel, which has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. Steeped in her signature fantastical style, the novel follows a graduate student who stumbles upon a mysterious book that leads him to a subterranean library called the Harbor on the Starless Sea—and that’s just the beginning of the tale. (Carolyn)

All Blood Runs Red by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin: This new biography excavates the fascinating untold and nearly lost story of Eugene Bullard, a globally famous boxer, the first African-American fighter pilot, a WWII French spy, and nearly everything in between. In a starred review which calls the book “dazzling,” Publishers Weekly writes, “This may be a biography, but it reads like a novel.” (Carolyn)

‘Ordinary Girls’: Featured Nonfiction by Jaquira Díaz

In today’s edition of featured nonfiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present an excerpt from Jaquira Díaz’s memoir, Ordinary Girls, out today from Algonquin Books.

Here’s what our own Nick Moran had to say about the book in the Second Half Preview:
In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome.
Beach City 
I.
One August afternoon, the year we started high school, I met Cheito. I was coming back from the beach with Boogie, walking barefoot on the scorching sidewalk because someone had stolen all my shit while I was in the water, including my chancletas. Boogie still had her sandals, her towel, her lipstick half melted in her backpack. But I had nothing except my shorts and bikini top—what I’d been wearing while swimming. I was trying to look cool while tiptoeing my ass all the way home when a blue Datsun stopped across the street. 
“You need a ride?” the driver called out. 

Boogie smiled. “It’s your lucky day, girl.” 

I checked out the car, the Puerto Rican flag hanging from the car’s mirror, counted two boys. I looked down at my burning feet. “Fuck it.” 

We crossed the street, and the boy riding shotgun moved to the back. Before Boogie could slide in and take his place, the driver pointed at me, looked me in the eyes. “Sit up front with me,” he said.

Boogie sat in the back with his friend. I sat up front, checking him out. He had a dark tan, a low fade, hazel eyes that looked almost green in the sunlight. He kept smiling at me, confident—he was fine and he knew it. I was suspicious of his every move. I didn’t smile back. “I’m going to Ninth and West Avenue,” I said. 

“No problem.” He was quiet for a minute, then said, “My name’s Cheito, by the way.” 

“Jaqui,” I said, “and that’s Boogie.” I had already decided that I wouldn’t make conversation with them, but giving them our names didn’t seem like a big deal. 

“Where you from?” he asked. 

“Make a left on Fifth Street,” I said. 

He approached the light on Fifth. I sat back and ignored his question. 

“Why you gotta be so rude, girl?” Boogie said. “She’s Puerto Rican, and I’m Cuban.” 

“I was born in Caguas,” Cheito said to me, “and my mom’s family’s from San Lorenzo. What about you? Were you born on the island?” 

“En Humacao.” 

“Oh! So you like Tito Rojas? He’s from Humacao.” He turned up the volume on his radio, which was playing Tito Rojas’s “Condéname a tu amor.” 

I smiled. “I love him. And Pedro Conga. But not a lot of people know about Pedro.” 

He looked sideways at me. “You dance salsa?” 

“Claro que si. It’s in the contract.” 

Boogie tapped my seat. “What do you mean? What contract?” 

Cheito looked back at her. “You don’t know about that. You’re Cuban.” 

I smiled at him, then turned to her. “The Boricua Contract.” 

She rolled her eyes. “Dumbass.” 

Cheito and I both laughed, and he headed north on West Avenue toward my building, the windows down, the wind slapping at my face and hair. 

When we pulled up to Southgate Towers a minute later, I opened the door, got out of the car quickly. 

“Hold up!” Cheito said. “Can I call you?” 

I shut the door, then leaned down and looked into the car. He seemed friendly enough. He’d given us a ride. He handed me a Taco Bell napkin, and I scribbled my phone number on it. 

He shook his head. “Que mala,” he said. “I can’t believe you were just gonna walk away without giving me your number.” 

I handed it to him. “How do you know it’s not fake?” 

In the backseat, Boogie was still talking to his friend. 

“I’m a call you and find out,” Cheito said. 

He called two days later and we talked for hours. We talked about Puerto Rico, about Puerto Rican food, Puerto Rican music. He told me about growing up in Hialeah and summers in Caguas and San Lorenzo. I told him about Humacao, Fajardo, Luquillo, about Miami Beach. We both raved about our abuelas, who’d raised us. We shared stories about our fathers, both mujeriegos, all the women they’d betrayed. We compared stories about our mothers, both of them hurt by the men they’d married. We played our favorite songs for each other. We listened to each other breathing on the line when we ran out of shit to talk about. At around 3:00 a.m., we started falling asleep on the line, but didn’t get off until the sun rose, then agreed to talk again the next day. 

The next day he picked me up and we went to the beach by the Fontainebleau Hilton. We swam in the ocean together, diving headfirst into the waves, racing each other underwater. He never let me win. When I got tired, he let me hang onto his shoulders. 

In the water, he picked me up, lifted me until he was looking up at me, and I wrapped my legs around his waist. He was strong, I realized, much stronger than I’d thought. From the muscles in his arms, shoulders, and back, I could tell he lifted weights. He was two years older than me, and six feet tall, and didn’t seem like a boy, but he also wasn’t a man. He was funny as hell, and always asked what I wanted, and I liked every single thing about him. In the water, with my legs wrapped around his waist, I kissed him. Just a quick, soft kiss on the lips. 

We’d kiss again when he dropped me off that night. I’d take my time reaching for the door handle, and then he’d lean over, ask, “Can I kiss you good night?” 

I’d ride the elevator all the way up to our apartment on the eighth floor, the taste of his kiss on my lips, and I would know, don’t ask me how, that some day I would marry that boy.

Published courtesy of Algonquin Books.