Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Cusk, Pham, Silber, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Rachel Cusk, Larissa Pham, Joan Silber, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. ant to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Second Place: “Cusk’s intelligent, sparkling return (after Kudos) centers on a woman in crisis. The narrator, M, is a writer living on an isolated coastal marsh with her second husband, Tony. They have built a guest cabin on their property, which they call the ‘second place.’ Through a mutual friend, M invites a painter, L, to stay in the cabin. L’s art deeply affected M 15 years earlier when she was a young mother and was struck by the work’s ‘freedom’ and how it was ‘elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.’ To her surprise, L accepts, before canceling. M’s daughter, Justine, and her new boyfriend, Kurt, who reminds M of her first husband, move into the cabin just before L shows up with a gorgeous young woman named Brett. The characters enter an uneasy equilibrium on the marsh as allusions of a global financial disaster fill in the backdrop. L paints portraits of everyone except M—which devastates her. Cusk expertly handles the logistics of the crowded setting, building tension as the characters form unexpected, temporary alliances—Kurt and L, Brett and Justine—and M’s isolation increases. There is the erudition of the author’s Outline trilogy here, but with a tightly contained dramatic narrative. It’s a novel that feels timeless, while dealing with ferocious modern questions.”

Pop Song by Larissa Pham

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pop Song: “Pham reinvents the memoir in a stirring debut that explores the power of language, art, and love. As an Asian American woman who felt alienated early on in her life, she poured herself into studying art and poetry to reconcile her need for closeness. In 11 essays, she interrogates desire in all its forms, beginning with an evocative piece about finding solace in the act of running. She aspires to the ‘affable stride’ of fellow runner and novelist Haruki Murakami, but instead she runs ‘as if trying to lose my mind.’ Throughout, Pham examines the emotionality of other artists’ and writers’ work and lives—from Barthes to Georgia O’Keeffe to Louise Bourgeois—as a way to better understand her own. In ‘Blue,’ she reflects on escaping mental burnout in New Mexico, and remembers the painter Agnes Martin’s flight from New York, after a schizophrenic episode: ‘Agnes’s voices and visions didn’t inform her art-making process, but… dictated her actions—where to be, what to eat, what to own.’ Ever-present, too, is the haunting of past lovers and her own sexuality, captured in prose that’s both beautiful and gutting. ‘If I could own it… become a woman with agency. It wouldn’t matter if I still hurt. At least I’d be able to describe it.’ This is a masterpiece.”

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sorrowland: “Solomon’s outstanding third novel (after The Deep) revisits the themes of memory and responsibility through two new lenses: horror and contemporary thriller. Vern, an albino, intersex, Black child raised in a cult known as the Blessed Acres of Cain, flees to the woods as a seven-months-pregnant 15-year-old, giving birth to twins she names Howling and Feral. The new family is pursued by ‘the fiend,’ who appears to the nearly blind Vern as ‘a white blur.’ The fiend scatters animal carcasses throughout the woods (often pointedly targeting animal families to send a message to Vern and her children) and sets dangerous fires. For four years Vern raises her twins without other human contact, until a cataclysmic encounter with the fiend, fearsome changes in her own body, and relentless hauntings drive her to seek answers in the world outside the woods. This plot is the most accessible of Solomon’s work to date, but they use the deceptively simple story to delve deep into Vern’s struggle to forge her own identity without buckling under the weight of history. As in their debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Solomon often packs so much into each image that the result can be overwhelming. They display a maturing control of their craft, employing a breathtaking range of reference that will enable any reader, from horror geek to Derridean academic, to engage with this thrilling tale. This is a tour de force.”

A Lonely Man by Chris Power

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Lonely Man: “In this beguiling literary thriller about the ethics of storytelling, Power (Mothers) examines the plundering tendencies of oligarchs and writers alike. Robert Prowe, an English novelist living in Berlin, strikes up a friendship with fellow writer Patrick Unsworth, who shares an outlandish tale: having been hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of dissident Russian oligarch Sergei Vanyashin and entrusted with compromising information about Putin’s regime, he is now being tracked by Russian agents. Moreover, Vanyashin and various figures in his circle have died under suspicious circumstances. Robert can’t decide if his new acquaintance is lying or ‘playing out some fantasy,’ but decides to use Patrick’s story, without his permission, as the basis for a new novel. Robert’s ‘twenty-four fucking carat’ material comes with a cost, as ominous signs emerge that he and his family could be in danger. For a novel filled with so much trickery, there are some slack sections, for example, when Robert prepares his family’s summer house in Sweden or returns to London for a funeral. Furthermore, the bond between the two men isn’t quite magnetic enough for the reader to feel the sting of the eventual vampiric betrayal. By and large, though, Power maintains an elegant sense of intrigue around the lengths writers will go for a good story.”

The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Parted Earth: “Enjeti documents the impact of India’s Partition on successive generations in her immersive debut novel (after the essay collection Southbound). In 1947, British India is on the brink of being decolonized, with the lives of millions hanging in the balance. Hindu teenager Deepa Khanna’s doctor parents confront escalating hostilities from Hindu Indians because of their willingness to treat Muslims, while Deepa becomes secretly attracted to her Muslim friend Amir. After Deepa’s parents are killed in an attack, she moves to London and Amir leaves for Pakistan. The story then shifts to Deepa’s granddaughter Shan, who, following a miscarriage and subsequent divorce in 2016, begins digging into her past, finally uncovering the reason for her grandmother’s aloofness. Deepa’s experience renders her ‘unknowable’ to Shan, filling Deepa with a grief that ‘seemed to burden generations of Khannas’ with guilt. Meanwhile, other stories emerge of the Partition, from characters such as Shan’s neighbor, Chandani Singh, who supports Shan through her difficulties, and Chandani’s late husband, Harjeet, spinning an increasingly broad set of voices. While no less affecting, these supporting accounts receive an imbalanced, sometimes disproportionate attention that can detract from the novel’s main characters. Still, this intergenerational account of remembering and reconciliation sits comfortably alongside works of its kind.”

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Things We Lost to the Water: “Nguyen’s captivating debut spans three decades to chronicle the lives of a Vietnamese refugee family. In 1978, Hư ơ ng arrives in New Orleans with her two sons, five-year-old Tuấ n and infant Bì nh. They settle in the Versailles Arms project on the eastern outskirts of the city, where the hurricane alarm reminds Hương of the war, and she mails tape recordings to Cô ng, the husband she left behind. Her messages receive no reply until finally, in a terse postcard, Công urges her to forget him. Hương tells her sons their father died, and over the years, the boys grow to follow different paths. In 1991, Tuấn falls in with a Vietnamese gang, the Southern Boyz. The next summer, Bình, who insists everyone call him Ben, takes refuge in books and a romance with an older white boy. A couple years later, Ben finds Hương’s old letters to Công and confronts her, shattering their increasingly fragile bond. As the characters spin away from each other, Nguyen keeps a keen eye on their struggles and triumphs, crafting an expansive portrayal of New Orleans’s Vietnamese community under the ever-present threat of flooding, and the novel builds to a haunting conclusion during Hurricane Katrina. Readers will find this gripping and illuminating.”

Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Secret of Happiness: “A crushing indiscretion comes to light in the sharp latest from National Book Critics Circle Award winner Silber (Improvement). The story is initially narrated by Ethan, a gay Manhattan attorney who discovers his businessman father, Gil, has led a secret double life after Gil is hit with a paternity suit by a Thai woman named Nok. Gil suffers several strokes and decides to recover with his Thai family, and awkward visitations ensue at Nok’s apartment, where Gil calls Nok Abby, Ethan’s mother’s name. The situation’s emotional complexity unfolds and expands through accounts from a diverse range of interconnected narrators, juggled by Silber with uncanny dexterity. In addition to witty and genially confident Ethan, there’s Abby, who now teaches English in Thailand; Ethan’s half brother, Joe, who feels uneasy about the return from Bangkok of his younger brother Jack, whom Joe had recently freed from jail by bribing the police; various characters’ ex-lovers and their exes; a Nepalese film director; and others. These perspectives become an extended family of sorts conjoined by love yet tormented by the past. As more layers peel away across continents, the fallout of Gil’s affair trickles down through Silber’s intricate and emotionally elaborate study of emotional ties. This mesmerizing story of love, lies, and the consequences of betrayal brims with heart and intelligence.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lahiri, Washuta, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jhumpa Lahiri, Elissa Washuta, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Whereabouts: “The latest from Pulitzer winner Lahiri (The Interpreter of Maladies) is a meditative and aching snapshot of a life in suspension. The unnamed narrator, a single, middle-aged woman, lives a quiet life in an unnamed Italian city, ambling between cafes and storefronts, dinner parties with friends, and a leisurely career as a writer and teacher. The tranquil surface of her life belies a deeper unrest: a frayed, distant relationship with her widowed mother, romantic longings projected onto unavailable friends, and constant second-guessing of the paths her life has taken. The novel is told in short vignettes introducing a new scene and characters whose relationships are fertile ground for Lahiri’s impressive powers of observation. In a museum, for instance, sunlight refracted through the glass roof ‘brightens and darkens the room in turns. It’s a panorama that makes me think of the sea, of swimming in a clear blue patch underwater.’ Throughout, Lahiri’s poetic flourishes and spare, conversational prose are on full display. This beautifully written portrait of a life in passage captures the hopes, frustrations, and longings of solitude and remembrance.”

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Folklorn: “Blurring the lines between sci-fi and fantasy, Hur’s sophomore novel (after The Queens of K-Town) offers a complex meditation on intergenerational trauma. While working at the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station, Korean-American physicist Elsa Park suffers sudden tinnitus and sees her imaginary friend from childhood. This sparks memories of the time Elsa’s mother gave her a now lost collection of four Korean folktales and warned her that all the women in their family are doomed to live out their plots. To understand what’s happening to her, Elsa consults Oskar Gantelius, a Swedish Korean adoptee and linguistics professor who specializes in Korean folktales and also serves as Elsa’s love interest, though their relationship is given little development. But before the pair can make sense of Elsa’s episodes, her mother dies, driving Elsa to find the folktales and figure out how to apply them to her own life. The honest look at prickly Elsa’s internalized racism is ambitious but often brutal in its unflinching execution, and the third act twist relies on an outdated take on mental illness. Despite the unconvincing romance between Oskar and Elsa, their conversations on minority life in majority white spaces are painfully accurate. This thought-provoking work will appeal to SFF fans who like their talk of particle physics side by side with fox spirits and fairy tales.”

White Magic by Elissa Washuta

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about White Magic: “Washuta (My Body Is a Book of Rules), a creative writing professor at Ohio State, offers in this collection of tender reckonings ‘a book about how my heart was broken’ and her attempts to heal it. Washuta recounts her struggles with sobriety, relationships, and the ‘tyrannical rule’ of PTSD in her life. In search of healing, Washuta, a Native woman and occult enthusiast, examined the differences between ‘white magic’ and misaligned, ‘malicious’ black magic, and sought out ‘a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder.’ In ‘Little Lies,’ Washuta reflects on a D.A.R.E. drunk-driving ad soundtracked by Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins, and ‘The Spirit Cabinet’ is an episodic collection of ‘synchronicities’ often about her ex-boyfriend, featuring quotes from magician David Blaine. The most eloquent section highlights her grief moving through a world built on violence toward Native peoples: ‘I have lost my land, my language,’ she writes. Her prose is crisp and precise, and the references hit spot-on (such as her fascination with the Sumerian goddess Inanna, who travels through the underworld, and with Twin Peaks, ‘a show about the unexplained, the mystical, and the cycles of violence and neglect to which women find themselves tethered’). Fans of the personal essay are in for a treat.”

Also on shelves this week: My Good Son by Yang Huang.

Bonus Links:
Found in Translation: On Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Whereabouts’
Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages
Another Mask: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Wright, Zauner, Simon, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Richard Wright, Michelle Zauner, our own Ed Simon, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. ant to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Man Who Lived Underground: “The power and pain of Wright’s writing are evident in this wrenching novel, which was rejected by his publisher in 1942, shortly after the release of Native Son. Fred Daniels, a Black man who lives in an unidentified American city, is on his way home after a hard day’s work for the Wootens, a well-to-do white couple. Before he can reunite with his pregnant wife, Rachel, Daniels is unjustly seized by three white cops for the murder of the Wootens’ next-door neighbors. After he’s beaten, Daniels signs a confession, naively hoping that doing so will enable him to see Rachel. The cops take him to see her (‘No one can say we mistreated him if we let ’im see his old lady, hunh?’ one says), and she goes into labor, necessitating a rush to the hospital, which provides an opportunity for Daniels to escape. From that point forward, Daniels hides out in the sewers. Wright makes the impact of racist policing palpable as the story builds to a gut-punch ending, and the inclusion of his essay ‘Memories of My Grandmother’ illuminates his inspiration for the book. This nightmarish tale of racist terror resonates.”

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? by Jenny Diski

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?: “This effortlessly readable posthumous essay collection from Diski (1947–2016) (In Gratitude) shows her at her best. In ‘A Feeling for Ice,’ she writes about her troubled childhood and her longing to visit Antarctica: ‘I wanted white and ice as far as the eye could see.’ ‘It Wasn’t Him, It Was Her’ explores the reputation of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, known primarily for having ‘corrupted Nietzsche’s work.’ ‘He Could Afford It’ investigates Howard Hughes’s obsessive compulsions: ‘What made Hughes remarkable,’ she writes, is that ‘there was no practical reason for him to try to control his madness.’ In ‘I Haven’t Been Nearly Mad Enough,’ she compares writer Barbara Taylor’s memories of mental institutionalization with her own: in the midst of fear, both found a sense of community. Diski’s works are varied and surprising, and she puts a fresh spin on the personal essay with her bracing, singular prose, never veering into self-indulgence: ‘One of the basic beliefs we all have… is that we are who we are because we know that by definition there can be only one of us. I’m Jenny Diski. You therefore aren’t.’ To miss these essays would be a shame.”

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Crying in H Mart: “Musician Zauner debuts with an earnest account of her Korean-American upbringing, musical career, and the aftermath of her mother’s death. She opens with a memory of a visit to an Asian American supermarket, where, among fellow shoppers who were ‘searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves,’ Zauner was able to grieve the death of her mother, Chongmi, with whom she had a difficult relationship. Her white American father met her mother in Seoul in 1983, and Zauner immigrated as an infant to Eugene, Ore. In Zauner’s teenage years in the late 2000s, Chongmi vehemently opposed Zauner’s musical dreams and, in one outburst, admitted to having an abortion after Zauner’s birth ‘because you were such a terrible child!’ The confession caused a rift that lasted almost six years, until Zauner learned of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. After Chongmi’s death in 2014, Zauner’s career took off, and during a sold-out concert in Seoul, Zauner writes, she realized her success ‘revolved around [my mother’s] death, that the songs… memorialized her.’ The prose is lyrical if at times overwrought, but Zauner does a good job capturing the grief of losing a parent with pathos. Fans looking to get a glimpse into the inner life of this megawatt pop star will not be disappointed.”

An Alternative History of Pittsburgh by Ed Simon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about An Alternative History of Pittsburgh: “Pittsburgh native Simon (Furnace of this World), a staff writer at The Millions, explores ‘the major thematic concerns’ of his hometown in this rich and idiosyncratic history. Beginning 300 million years ago, when Allegheny County was the swampy domain of giant amphibians and ‘sun-dappled mangroves,’ the petrified remains of which formed western Pennsylvania’s extensive coal deposits, Simon spotlights ‘representative moments’ from the region’s history, including the founding (c. 1142) of the Iroquois Confederacy by the Great Peacemaker, Deganawidah, and his follower, Hiawatha, and the birth of composer Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1862. Simon also details Andrew Carnegie’s roots in the radical socialist politics of mid-19th-century Europe and sketches the steel baron’s rise from ‘bobbin-boy in a weaver’s shop’ to ‘the richest man who ever lived’; notes the influences of Pittsburgh on famous sons including playwright August Wilson, jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, and artist Andy Warhol; and details how Democratic mayor David Lawrence and Republican financier Richard King Mellon partnered in the late 1940s to ‘completely redesign’ the city’s ‘gritty, decayed, rusting core.’ Though consequential events such as the collapse of the U.S. steel industry get relatively short shrift, Simon marshals his historical snapshots into an incisive survey of the region and its inhabitants. Even Pittsburgh history buffs will learn something new.”

Also on shelves this week: We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane and Permafrost by Eva Baltasar.

Bonus Link:
The Ed Simon Archives

Tuesday New Release Day: Lispector, McCracken, Ozick, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth McCracken, Cynthia Ozick, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Apprenticeship: “Lispector’s dense and singular romance (after The Besieged City), first published in Brazil in 1969, arrives in a rich new translation from Tobler and illuminating afterword by Sheila Heti. Lóri, a primary school teacher leading a solitary existence in Rio de Janeiro and unable to stomach her ‘bourgeois middle class’ milieu, becomes captivated by the elusive Ulisses, a philosophy professor and self-described excellent teacher (‘basically I like to hear myself talk about things that interest me,’ he explains). The two speak on the phone, meet for drinks, and visit a local swimming pool, but Ulisses tells Lóri she’s not ready for the relationship he wants, a claim that drives the bulk of Lori’s stream-of-consciousness analysis (‘she was bound to him because she wanted to be desired’). Ulisses speaks often of his ‘apprenticeship’ to something only aspired to—he’s ‘in the middle’ of it, he says, but Lóri feels he’s ‘infinitely further along’ than she is. The purpose of their apprenticeship is never expressed, though one of Lóri’s goals is to feel ‘alive through pleasure’ instead of pain, and Heti’s revealing afterword leaves the reader with much to chew on. This deep immersion into the vicissitudes of love will delight Lispector devotees.”

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Souvenir Museum: “McCracken’s sly, emotionally complex collection (after Bowlaway) focuses on characters uprooted from their usual surroundings. In ‘The Irish Wedding,’ Jack Valerts brings his new love, Sadie Brody, from Boston to Ireland to meet his family at the wedding of his older sister, where Sadie confronts for the first time the slapstick and sometimes threatening dynamics of the Valerts while holding her own with a quick wit. ‘Miss Mickle All at Sea’ follows the increasingly fraught mental state of an actor known for playing the villain on a children’s show as she travels from Amsterdam, where she’s been celebrating New Year’s Eve, back to England, in the company of an elderly balloon animal artist. In ‘Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark,’ four-year-old Cody’s two fathers take him to a German-themed water park in Galveston, Tex., where older father Bruno’s fear of drowning comically affects his negotiation of a wave pool. McCracken has a gift for surprising similes—’shoes damp as oysters’; ‘bored lifeguards, staring like unemployed goats’—that ignite the reader’s imagination, making great fun out of ordinary settings and scenery. Each story opens to reveal a whole life spent within the web of a family, chosen or not. Full of gems, this collection is a winner.”

Farthest South & Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Farthest South & Other Stories: “Rutherford (The Peripatetic Coffin) grips with evocative detail and subtle rhythms in this accomplished collection, where doubt and danger simmer underneath the surface. Illustrations by Anders Nilsen, often featuring animals or children in stark scenes of nature, reinforce the motif. In ‘Ghost Story,’ a father tells a bedtime story about ‘the seal lady’ to his young sons while waiting for his wife to return home after her nightly swim. The effects of a story being told on its listeners is more explicit in ‘Fable,’ an eerie tale involving a fox and a dead child (‘each scene, familiar and not, had emerged as though from some shrouded, timeless woods, taken physical shape on the table in front of them’). ‘Angus and Annabel’ centers on two young siblings who grieve their dead mother. The younger one, Annabel, makes ‘poppets,’ dolls with sticks and berries like their mother had taught them, an act that unsettles Angus as sparrows circle overhead. In the title story, an Antarctic expedition including children and dogs is stranded in ice near the South Pole, and those who survive are visited nightly by the skulls of those who died. Throughout, Rutherford conveys an organic, insidious creepiness. These fresh and provocative yarns are spun with craft of a high order.”

Nancy by Bruno Lloret (translated by Ellen Jones)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nancy: “Lloret’s crushingly dark English-language debut follows a lonely, recent widow who’s dying from cancer as she reflects on her life in Chile. After her diagnosis, Nancy lost her husband when he was sucked into a tuna processor at work. He was drunk at the time, so she didn’t receive any insurance money. With nothing left, Nancy reminisces about her childhood with a brother who vanished one day, a sad father who turned to Mormonism late in life, and an emotionally and psychologically abusive mother who abandoned them. There is no joy or humor here, but the writing shines with piercing descriptions of pain, drawn up in increasingly fractured minimalist prose. Blocks of heavy Xs appear as forced pauses that dictate the rhythm of Nancy’s consciousness and forge black, angular reminders of death: ‘I slept in snatches full of sad dreams XXXX the kind you never remember after you wake up, but still, when you open your eyes there’s a real ache in your chest.’ Old Testament passages open each chapter (‘Honor thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee’) and often trigger memories with stark brutality, such as Nancy’s mother’s threats to sell her to the Romany as a child. This visually striking fever dream is one worth braving.”

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Antiquities: “Ozick (Foreign Bodies) delivers a beguiling novel of a man living in the past. In 1949, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired lawyer estranged from his friends and his only son, has returned to live at the Temple Academy, the boarding school he attended as a child, which has been converted into a makeshift retirement home for its trustees. There, with his beloved Remington typewriter, he labors over his memoirs. His account revolves around two axes: his childhood fascination with the archaeological adventures in Egypt of his distant cousin Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, which Lloyd’s father impulsively joined, and a school-age infatuation with a mysterious classmate, Ben-Zion Elefantin, who claimed to be from Egypt. Ozick is adept at capturing the vicissitudes of fading memory or flashes of lucid insight, and she unspools the story at a brisk pace. While Petrie’s lively venom and wit are sometimes overdone by Ozick’s overwrought efforts to develop his private-school mannerisms (Ben-Zion Elefantin has a ‘farcical pachyderm name’; Temple retains ‘Oxonian genuflections’), the novel becomes a fascinating portrait of isolation, memory, and loss as Petrie’s health and the state of Temple become more perilous. While it doesn’t reach the heights of her greatest work, this is impressive nonetheless.”

Also on shelves this week: Southbound by Anjali Enjeti.

Bonus Links:
A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: ‘The Complete Stories’ by Clarice Lispector
Evenings with Clarice Lispector’s Newest Translator
My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector
A Story Made Purely of Feeling: The Millions Interviews Cynthia Ozick
The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken
‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2008: Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2018: Elizabeth McCracken

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Murakami, Oyeyemi, Wideman, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Haruki Murakami, Helen Oyeyemi, John Edgar Wideman, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. ant to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about First Person Singular: “Murakami’s engrossing collection (after the novel Killing Commendatore) offers a crash course in his singular style and vision, blending passion for music and baseball and nostalgia for youth with portrayals of young love and moments of magical realism. The one thing shared by the collection’s eight stories is their use of the first-person-singular voice. Murakami’s gift for evocative, opaque magical realism shines in ‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,’ in which a review of a fictional album breathes new life into the ghost of the jazz great, and ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,’ wherein a talking monkey ruminates with a traveler on love and belonging. Murakami finds ample material in young love and sex, showcased in ‘On a Stone Pillow,’ in which a young man’s brief tryst with a coworker, unremarkable in itself, takes on a degree of immortality after she mails him her poetry. In ‘The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,’ the collection’s one nonfiction piece, Murakami recounts how baseball and writing, the twin passions of his youth, grew together in the stadium of his beloved Yakult Swallows. These shimmering stories are testament to Murakami’s talent and enduring creativity.”

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Peaces: “Curious characters, strange events, and mysteries abound in Oyeyemi’s delightfully bonkers latest (after Gingerbread). After hypnotist Otto Shin takes the surname of his boyfriend, Xavier, the couple, both 38, celebrate their ‘non-honeymoon honeymoon’ with a train trip arranged for them by Xavier’s aunt and with help from a young man named Yuri who inexplicably claims to know them. Accompanied by their pet mongoose, Árpád XXX, Otto and Xavier begin their journey to a destination unknown to them and soon meet the train’s operators and its enigmatic owner, Ava Kapoor, who is about to come into a grand inheritance. But Ava’s bequest is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious passenger, one they will all soon recognize as part of their respective pasts, and the trip becomes stressful for the couple as Yuri’s interventions in their lives grow suspicious. Though capped by a somewhat disjointed and confusing finale, the narrative is bolstered by its underlying blend of humor and suspense, as well as Oyeyemi’s ability to skillfully thread together the lives of her characters and show how they’ve been shaped into the people they are today. Despite its problems, this exciting and inventive novel brims with unusual insights.”

Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Subdivision: “In Lennon’s deliriously inventive novel (published simultaneously with the collection Let Me Think), a woman suffers from a bout of amnesia while staying in a strange town known only as the Subdivision. The unnamed narrator doesn’t know how she came to be the houseguest of kind if eccentric retirees Clara and the Judge, and, unable to remember her name or why she is here, she sets out to create a new life, accompanied by her digital assistant, Cylvia. But things in the Subdivision aren’t as they appear. Strangers are alternatively too familiar or too hostile; the ruins of a church feature scenes of biblical pageantry acted out behind stained glass; empty properties host “probability wells” that warp time; and perhaps most distressingly, her steps are haunted by the ‘bakemono,” a shape-shifting, malevolent spirit intent on seducing her. Lennon strikes a delicate balance, and the surreal story is only occasionally weighed down with overwriting. As the narrator dives deeper into the Subdivision, its true nature comes into focus, but with an apocalyptic storm on the horizon, can she complete her journey of self-discovery in time? This is an impressive marriage of a vibrant, tortuous fever dream and an unsentimental meditation on life and death.”

Paradise, Nevada by Dario Diofebi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Paradise, Nevada: “Diofebi’s sprawling, eloquent debut follows four characters whose lives converge in Las Vegas. On the night of Friday, May 1, 2015, a bomb goes off in the Positano Luxury Resort and Casino. Six months earlier, four people separately arrived in Las Vegas: Ray, a professional poker player from one of those ‘rare American households where moneymaking was not considered of value in and of itself’; Mary Ann, a depressed cocktail waitress from Mississippi; Tom, an Italian tourist who came to play poker after letting his tourist visa expire; and Lindsay, a Mormon journalist for whom storytelling has been ‘the one constant in her ever-changing set of ideas about her future.’ All four characters are at the Positano during the explosion, having desperately pursued their hustles to varying degrees of success (Mary Ann learns to count cards; Tom’s fear of U.S. Customs reaches a fever pitch; Ray’s skills plateau). Rather than a central plot, Diofebi pieces together a revealing mosaic of the city. In between he lays bare the cold machinations of casino operators, such as a series of layoffs of nonunion female employees revealed in an exposé by Lindsay, the fallout described by Diofebi with scathing precision. With intelligence and empathy, Diofebi delivers a powerful and unapologetic slice of Americana.”

Astrid Sees All by Natalie Standiford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Astrid Sees All: “Standiford (The Secret Tree) makes her adult fiction debut with an infectious if overwrought tale of obsessive friendship and identity set in the gritty Lower East Side of 1980s New York City. Phoebe Hayes moves to the Upper West Side to be near Carmen Dietz, a girl from her college whose cavalier attitude and cosmopolitan sensibility instantly captivates Baltimore-bred Phoebe. Phoebe becomes enmeshed in Carmen’s life, and they move downtown to be near the nightclub scene. After Phoebe’s father dies of leukemia, she takes a job at the hip club Plutonium as a fortune-teller named Astrid, and her life revolves around partying with Carmen. But then young women from the neighborhood begin to go missing and Phoebe feels like she’s being followed. Carmen’s approval is crucial to Phoebe, though after Phoebe hooks up with Carmen’s artist boyfriend, their friendship fractures. A bizarre plot turn will leave readers scratching their heads, and stilted metaphors don’t help (‘My immune system was fighting off an infection of grief’), but Standiford evokes the setting with spot-on details, including cameos by John F. Kennedy Jr. and Andy Warhol, and she does a good job developing the friendship between the two women. Unfortunately, the missteps undermine Phoebe and Carmen’s engaging dynamics.”

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gold Diggers: “Sathian’s dazzling debut centers on the Indian American community of Hammond Creek, Ga., where the high-achieving children of immigrants compete for top grades and pageant titles. In 2006, 15-year-old Neil Narayan is part of the debate team at school, though he has always been unremarkable compared to his Duke-bound older sister and his best friend, Anita Dayal. But things change when Neil discovers the secret behind Anita’s triumphs: a spellbinding concoction made from gold, which Anita’s mother, Anjali, brews using jewelry swiped from their more successful neighbors’ homes. After Neil drinks the potion, he becomes smarter and sharper, but his newfound ambition soon leads to a tragic event that forever changes the lives of Hammond Creek’s residents. A decade later, an aimless Neil—now a struggling history PhD candidate at Berkeley—is shocked when Anita reappears with a plan that will once again test just how far he is willing to go to create the life he desires. While the stakes feel a bit lower as the final ploy plays out, the sharp characterizations bring humor and contemplation in equal measure, touching on the pressures Neil and Anita face to produce a legacy that honors their parents’ sacrifices. Sathian’s bildungsroman isn’t one to miss.”

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Caul Baby: “Jerkins (Wandering in Strange Lands) makes her fiction debut with the rich if didactic story of the Melancon family and the shadow they cast over present-day Harlem. Dominated by hard-hearted matriarch Maman, the Melancons are female healers notorious for selling fragments of the rare, skinlike caul they were born with to wealthy white buyers looking for protective amulets to ward off disease and misfortune. Indifferent to the woes of ailing Black folks in their own neighborhood, the Melancons have long scorned supplicants like Laila Reserve, who suffered a miscarriage and lost her mind after she was ejected from the Melancon brownstone, a spectacle that has reverberated throughout the community for decades. Now, only the youngest Melancon, Hallow, can uncover the truth behind her origins and the relationship between her family and the Reserves. While Jerkins effectively blends folk legend with contemporary details such as references to the Black Lives Matter movement and gentrification in Harlem, the premise is restricted by occasionally prosaic writing (‘strands of hair roamed throughout her scalp’) and the heavy-handed moral of the story, which implies that Black women who fail to support other Black women will pay a price. Still, it’s vividly conceived, and the strong plot will carry readers to the end.”

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hummingbird Salamander: “Set in a world far along the path to ecological and political breakdown, this striking mix of thriller and biotech speculative fiction from VanderMeer (Dead Astronauts) charts a seemingly mad quest by its anonymous narrator, who suggests the reader call her Jane Smith. One morning at a coffee shop in an unspecified city in the Pacific Northwest, where Jane does somewhat nebulous work at a security firm, a barista hands Jane an envelope with a storage unit address, a key, and a note. In the storage unit, Jane finds a box containing a preserved hummingbird and a note with the words Hummingbird and Salamander, signed Silvina. Thus begins Jane’s quixotic effort to discover the whereabouts and fate of probable ecoterrorist Silvina Vilcapampa, as well as the salamander mate to the hummingbird. Jane’s traveling to New York City in search of Silvina alerts mysterious foes. Attacks on Jane and her work colleagues as well as surveillance of her home prompt her to abandon her husband and teenage daughter and embark on a yearslong, possibly fruitless quest to discover the truth. Exquisite prose pulls the reader deep into the labyrinthine plot. VanderMeer reinforces his place as one of today’s most innovative writers.”

You Made Me Love You by John Edgar Wideman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about You Made Me Love You: “This career-spanning collection of work by Wideman (Brother’s Keeper), with a revelatory foreword by critic and scholar Walton Muyumba, offers a stunning showcase of Wideman’s range. In stories selected from 1981’s Damballah up through 2018’s American Histories, Wideman conveys a mastery of gritty realism, freewheeling blues, erudite autofiction, and African American mysticism, often grounded in a semi-fictional version of the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, the historically Black neighborhood where Wideman grew up. ‘Solitary’ chronicles a mother’s daylong ordeal to visit her son in prison, while in ‘Daddy Garbage,’ an iceball vendor’s dog is hell-bent on eating from garbage cans: ‘Strayhorn knew it was less holding on to puppy ways than it was stone craziness, craziness age nor nothing else ever going to change.’ Wideman shines brightest in pieces that tunnel through history or the narrator’s consciousness as they build to their reveals, such as ‘Maps and Ledgers,’ in which a writing professor ruminates on stories such as that of an ancestor who escaped from slavery. Muyumba convincingly encourages close reading of ‘Damballah,’ about an unnamed enslaved boy who honors the severed head of a man punished for practicing West African rituals: ‘listen to the head,’ Muyumba writes. If there were any doubts Wideman belongs to the American canon, this puts them to bed.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Greenidge, Febos, Antrobus, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Kaitlyn Greenidge, Melissa Febos, Raymond Antrobus, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Libertie: “Greenidge (We Love You, Charlie Freeman) delivers another genius work of radical historical fiction. Libertie Sampson, a freeborn Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, is pushed by her mother, a doctor, to follow in her footsteps. But Libertie, whose day-to-day experience differs from her mother due to her darker skin, is more interested in music and wants to follow her own path. In her poetic narration, she gives testimony to the injustices of white supremacy she witnesses and reflects on colorism, ‘colorstruck’ misogyny, and the potential shackles of marriage, all the while turning over the question of what freedom is. When her mother insists on treating the same white women who recoil at Libertie’s dark skin, she believes her mother ‘gave up co-conspirators for customers.’ Desperate to secure a future for Libertie, her mother sends her off to Cunningham College in Ohio, but Libertie turns away from her studies after she meets fellow students Experience and Louisa: ‘When I sang with them, my whole history fell away. There was no past, no promised future, only the present of one sustained note.’ After Libertie is kicked out of Cunningham, she schemes to bring Experience and Louisa to Brooklyn and sing for the Black community. But her road gets rockier, and a marriage proposal from a Haitian man brings mixed blessings, leading her to continue reflecting on the limits of freedom for a Black woman. This pièce de résistance is so immaculately orchestrated that each character, each setting, and each sentence sings.”

Girlhood by Melissa Febos

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Girlhood: “Febos (Abandon Me) recounts her traumatizing adolescence in eight revealing essays. As she writes in the introduction, ‘I was a happy child. The age of ten or eleven… marked a violent turn’ in which the harsh realities of true ‘girlhood’ began. She then comments on the horrific ways in which women are bent from an early age by the male ego, citing examples from classic literature (‘I recently reread Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and found it almost too painful to finish’), film, and behavioral research. In ‘Kettle Holes,’ she recalls how, at 11, a neighborhood boy repeatedly spat on her for reasons she still cannot comprehend. In ‘Mirror Test,’ at 12, she submitted to the groping of a friend’s brother and his friends as part of a ‘game,’ and it’s moments such as these, she writes, that ‘trained her mind’ to embrace values ‘that do not prioritize [my] safety, happiness, freedom.’ Over time, she adopted false ‘stories about [herself],’ which led to heroin abuse and a harrowing stint in sex work. She closes with ‘Les Calanques,’ in which she describes her recovery in the South of France on a monastic writing retreat. The prose is restrained but lyrical throughout. Raw and unflinching, this dark coming-of-age story impresses at every turn.”

Eat the Mouth that Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eat the Mouth that Feeds You: “Fragoza’s debut collection delivers expertly crafted tales of Latinx people trying to make sense of violent, dark realities. Magical realism and gothic horror make for effective stylistic entryways, as Fragoza seamlessly blurs the lines between the corporeal and the abstract. In ‘Lumberjack Mom,’ the narrator’s father nearly destroys the family’s beloved lime tree, and her distraught mother takes up a ruthless form of landscaping. In ‘Sabado Gigante,’ a young man competes on a variety show in hopes of leaving his family’s past behind him. Fragoza’s characters are earnest while remaining complicated and conflicted. They speak to diverse immigrant experiences, stand up to patriarchal structures, and ground themselves in hope for a better future. In one of the most effective stories, ‘Tortillas Burning,’ the protagonist describes her state of poverty with depth and clarity: ‘There’s a way to make room for hunger, to hold it, embrace it. But this was a lonely hunger, the kind that separates you from others, and that’s what hurts the most.’ With haunting prose and an aptitude for the surreal, Fragoza emerges as a distinctive voice.”

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Perseverance: “‘All good words in sign are said with the thumb,’ a sign language teacher declares in Antrobus’s moving debut. Exploring his early experience of deafness, Antrobus invites the reader to feel the frustration and emotional complexity of navigating through the world: ‘I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter.’ Language and communication become touchstones of the collection; poems like ‘Aunt Beryl Meets Castro’ evoke Jamaican patois (‘Listen listen, you know I/ met Castro in Jamaica in/ ’77 mi work with/ government under Manley’). Equally memorable is Antro-bus’s consideration of his embattled identity: ‘There is such a thing as a key confidently cut/ that accepts the locks it doesn’t fit.’ However, it’s his evocations of his late father, a Jamaican immigrant who battled alcoholism and faced British policemen ‘who didn’t believe he belonged/ unless they heard his English,/ which was smooth as some uptown roads,’ that gives the collection its heart. What might be gimmicky or sentimental—the poem ‘Thinking of Dad’s Dick,’ for instance—becomes moving and memorable: ‘He knew he wouldn’t live/ to see me grown… He had to give,/ while he could, the length of his life to me.’ In these pages, Antrobus’s evocative, musical honesty is unforgettable.”

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: “Walton’s spectacular debut pulls off a polyphonic oral history of a fictional proto-Afro-punk performer and her white musical partner. The novel begins with the sensational origin story of unlikely duo Opal & Nev, described by magazine editor S. Sunny Curtis in 2017 as the ‘progenitors of dissidence and dissonance.’ After Opal Jewel arrives in New York City from Detroit in 1970, where she’d been an outcast for her radical politics, fashion, and musical style, she meets ‘goofy white English boy’ Nev Charles, a songwriter from Birmingham, at an open mic. Nev is impressed by her performance, and the two team up to produce a phenomenally successful sound. Their star quickly rises, but after a photo appears in 1971 showing Opal blanketed in a Confederate flag as Nev carries her away from a gig turned riot, their career flames out in controversy. The novel’s diverse group of voices are cobbled together by Curtis as she searches for the truth behind the iconic ‘picture of chaos.’ The story is also personal for Curtis—her father, a drummer, had been having an affair with Opal, and he was killed in the melee. The novel is bookended by an equally violent reunion that confirms a shocking secret, and Opal proves herself the champion of the ‘marginalized, bullied, discriminated against.’ Walton pumps up the volume with a fresh angle on systemic racism and freedom of expression. This is a firecracker.”

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Of Women and Salt: “Garcia’s dexterous debut chronicles the travails of a Cuban immigrant family. Carmen, a Cuban immigrant living in Miami, is worried about her daughter Jeanette’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. In 2014, during a moment of sobriety, Jeanette watches as her Salvadorian neighbor, Gloria, is detained by ICE while Gloria’s daughter, Ana, is away with a babysitter. After Jeanette takes in Ana, Garcia unfolds the stories of the two families in parallel narratives, shifting between Gloria awaiting deportation in a Texas detention center while Ana stays briefly with Jeanette and episodes set during the Cuban Independence Movement of the late 19th century, when Jeanette’s great-great-grandmother worked in Cuba at a cigar factory, and Carmen’s escape from Cuba 15 years after the revolution. Eventually, Jeanette’s story reveals her addiction may be her way of coping with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted as child. Throughout, Garcia illustrates the hard choices mothers make generation after generation to protect their children: ‘Motherhood: question mark, a constant calculation of what-if,’ muses Gloria. The jumps across time and place can occasionally dampen the various threads’ emotional impact, but by the end they form an impressive, tightly braided whole. This riveting account will please readers of sweeping multigenerational stories.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lee, Tsumura, McCadden, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Andrea Lee, Kikuko Tsumura, Alice Zeniter, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Red Island House by Andrea Lee

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red Island House: “Lee’s seductive novel (her first in 15 years, after Lost Hearts in Italy) chronicles the life of Shay Gilliam, a Black American woman married to an Italian man. Her husband, Senna, builds the couple a vacation property and pension in northwestern Madagascar. It takes a while for Shay to adjust during visits from Italy, where Shay teaches literature, but she befriends head housekeeper Bertine, whom Shay enlists to help her get rid of loud, racist Kristos, the house manager. As the decades pass, the couple raises children and continues to visit. Meanwhile, various episodes in Madagascar occupy Shay, including a feud between a volatile bar owner and an ostentatious business rival who appears to be ‘living out some Happy Valley colonial fantasy.’ (One of the two ends up dead.) Shay also has an unsettling encounter while searching for a ‘sacred tree,’ and develops a ‘strange intimacy’ with the skipper of the couple’s decrepit catamaran. These experiences lead Shay to confront ideas about race, class, and colonialism. If the plotting is episodic, the writing is vivid: ‘the first caress of tropical air’ is ‘like an infant’s hand on the face,’ and Shay’s fond reflections on Bertine are especially moving. Things ebb and flow, but the overall impact is quietly powerful.”
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job: “Tsumura’s sharp English-language debut follows a woman’s search for fulfillment in an all-consuming late-capitalist Japan. The unnamed narrator suffers career burnout at 36 and abandons her job (she’s coy until the end about the details). When her unemployment insurance runs out, she reenters the workforce, seeking a position ‘that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not.’ What follows is a series of increasingly strange and occasionally surreal temporary gigs. In one, she monitors hours of video footage from surveillance cameras placed in an author’s house and begins to find her preferences and identity merging with his; in another, she writes copy for voice advertisements on buses, but the businesses she’s writing for mysteriously appear and disappear. Though she attempts to maintain emotional distance from her work, the narrator is drawn into a consuming series of workplace situations; while working on a maintenance crew for a national park, she encounters a man living in the woods who succumbed to a similar burnout. Tsumura’s rendering of a millennial besieged by anxious overthinking and coping through deadpan humor and sarcasm rings true. As the monotonous and fantastic collide, Tsumura shows that meaning and real intrigue can be found in the unlikeliest of places.”
Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Raft of Stars: “Though set in 1994, the wilderness odyssey that shapes Graff’s rewarding coming-of-age debut has a timeless, archetypal resonance. After the death of Fischer ‘Fish’ Branson’s father, Fish spends summers with his grandfather Teddy in tiny Claypot, Wis. His best friend there is Dale ‘Bread’ Breadwin, whose dad, Jack, is an abusive drunk. After Fish impulsively shoots Jack in an attempt to end Bread’s suffering, the two 10-year-olds mistakenly assume he is dead. They pilfer supplies, leave a note for Teddy, and hide in the dense woods that border the town while they improvise a raft to flee Claypot by river. Teddy and the town sheriff, Cal, a burned-out former cop from Texas, look for them on horseback, while Fish’s fiercely spiritual mom mounts a search by canoe with a young woman who works at a gas station and shares with Cal an unspoken attraction. By the time these six converge at a perilous waterfall, each has come to know more about themselves and each other. Though the resolution yields few surprises, Graff depicts the harsh Northwoods setting and his misfit characters’ inner lives with equal skill. The dynamic quest narrative offers plenty of rich moments.”
My Friend Natalia by Laura Lindstedt (translated by David Hackston)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Friend Natalia: “Lindstedt makes her English-language debut with an uneven transgressive novel chronicling the relationship between an unnamed psychologist—whose gender Lindstedt leaves unspecified—and their patient. The psychologist narrates the story as a dishy, somewhat unhinged case study, beginning with graphic designer Natalia coming to them for help with obsessive sexual thoughts. After the first session, the psychologist realizes Natalia, who makes erudite, provocative digressions on cultural references, is perfect for the psychologist to practice the method they defended for their PhD, designed to let patients ‘bounce and rebound’ through free association. Divided into weekly appointments, the chapters chronicle an intensifying mental and sexual power struggle between psychologist and patient, such as Natalia’s determination to keep time in the sessions with an alarm clock, and to bare her sexual prowess by sharing her sex tapes. Throughout the novel, Natalia riffs on Sartre, Beauvoir, and others, baiting the psychologist with sexually charged critiques of patriarchal philosophy (‘Sartre wrote: The female organ is like all other holes, a plea for existence’). Though often humorous, some of the arch prose falls flat (‘The distance between her mouth and eyes was greater than scientifically proven patterns of beauty would allow’). Still, fans of subversive stories of psychoanalysis may want to take a look.”
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (translated by Frank Wynne)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Art of Losing: “In Zeniter’s ruminative latest (after Take This Man), a French Algerian woman unearths her shrouded family history and reckons with the question of what constitutes a homeland. Ali, a veteran of the WWII French auxiliary, has built a sizable olive oil business in Algeria, but flees for France with his family after Algeria wins its independence. Ali’s eldest son, Hamid, assimilates into French culture and distances himself from his family, while Naima, Hamid’s art historian daughter, who endures bigotry after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other acts of terrorism, delves headlong into research on Algeria in preparation for an art exhibit by expatriate Algerian artist Lalla Fatma N’Soumer. During their interviews, she struggles to grasp the stories Lalla tells her about Algeria while piecing together an understanding of her own identity, given that Hamid had refused to take her to Algeria as a child. A trip to a museum in Tizi Ouzi provides cover for a search for information about Ali, but on the way she worries how she’ll be treated as a descendent of French allies. Zeniter skillfully demonstrates the impact of colonialism on family, country, and the historical archive. With nuance and grace, this meditative novel adds to the understanding of a complex, uncomfortable era of French history.”
Also on shelves this week: Peach State by Adrienne Su and American Wake by Kerrin McCadden.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Oloixarac, AlAmmar, Beard, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Pola Oloixarac, Layla AlAmmar, Jo Ann Beard, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Mona by Pola Oloixarac (translated by Adam Morris)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mona: “Argentinian writer Oloixarac (Dark Constellations) offers a smart, provocative take on contemporary literary culture. At the novel’s opening, Stanford doctoral candidate Mona, a deeply cynical Peruvian, wakes up on a train platform in Palo Alto, Calif., with her body badly bruised and no memory of how she came to be in such a state. She quickly cleans up so she can travel to Sweden for a conference where she’s been nominated for an award. At the event, speakers express anxiety about technology’s impact on literature, but far more interesting are Mona’s exchanges with fellow writers and her theory-infused interior monologues. Aware that being a Latina gives her a ‘chic sort of cultural capital’ with American universities, she reflects on the tendency of writers to play up ‘their own local colors.’ After Mona hooks up with another writer who notices her bruises, her memories of the injuries sustained back at Stanford start to return. While a sudden and not entirely successful swerve into fantasy makes for an abrupt ending, Mona’s spirited opining gives readers much to engage and argue with. The rich inner life of its namesake character propels this vibrant examination of the writing world.”
Silence Is a Sense by Layla AlAmmar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Silence Is a Sense: “Alammar’s evocative second novel (after The Pact We Made) delves into the world of a traumatized, mute, and unnamed journalist who has escaped civil war in Syria for England. There, amid recollections of the violence, she occupies herself with her work as a journalist for an English magazine, and in spying on—and occasionally interacting with—neighbors in her apartment complex. The narrator, whose journalism is published under the pseudonym The Voiceless, muses about religious differences among Muslim people in Syria and her fellow immigrants. However, her editor, Josie, wants her to write more about herself to boost her audience. Though Josie initially understands the narrator’s perspective toward her fellow Muslims, she later insists the narrator is ‘glossing over the very real, unequivocal violence’ committed by extremists. Meanwhile, tensions grow at the narrator’s mosque, and a ‘Unity Feast’ is invaded by white supremacists who are angry at the presence of Muslims in the country. Though the pacing is slow, the conflicts over immigration and racism are brilliantly distilled, and they dovetail seamlessly with the narrator’s lyrical, increasingly defiant narration. Patient readers will find much to ponder.”
Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Body of Stars: “In Walter’s uneven debut novel (after the collection Living Arrangements), she conjures a fabulist world in which female subjugation, gendered oppression, and rape culture are ever present. Celeste Morton is born like any other girl: with markings like constellations all over her body indicating what her future holds. As she reaches puberty, she comes into the so-called ‘changeling periods,’ a weeks-long phase in which young women are irresistible to men. If they’re not careful, they could be kidnapped and raped. Celeste’s brother, Miles, aspires to become a professional interpreter of girls’ markings, a practice forbidden to men, and uses Celeste as training, but over time, Celeste’s adult markings contradict Miles’s prophecies, which foretell Miles will die at 21. Then, Celeste is abducted by two men, and, after waking up in a hospital covered in bruises, she’s forced to enter a rehabilitation program. Meanwhile, Miles’s insistence on becoming an interpreter catches the conservative government’s attention. While the worldbuilding details are impressive, the critique of rape culture feels shallow and cursory, and the overly earnest characterizations don’t help. Readers might want to pass.”
Already Toast by Kate Washington

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Already Toast: “Washington chronicles in her wrenching debut the devastating ordeal of her husband being diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma and the two years she spent, from 2016 to 2018, taking care of him during treatment. Her life became a blur of doctors’ appointments, battles with insurance companies, juggling dozens of prescriptions, and learning to administer IVs. The work was all-consuming and led to a strained marriage that ‘felt less like a ballast keeping me on an even keel and more like a weight so heavy it could sink me.’ After a stem-cell transplant, Washington writes, her husband saw a limited recovery but still lives with a chronically weakened immune system from chemotherapy. Her account ends with a persuasive plea for a federally funded caregiving stimulus plan, citing president-elect Joe Biden’s recent statement: ‘We’re trapped in a caregiving crisis, within an economic crisis, within a healthcare crisis.’ Throughout, Washington notes the gender disparity among caregivers; with three-quarters of caregivers being women, Washington writes, ‘There was an implication that the only point of me, as a human, and especially as a woman, was to care for another person. What about my own life? Didn’t I deserve care?’ Washington’s tale serves as both an evocative memoir and a strident call to action.”
Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Festival Days: “This imaginative and precise collection shows Beard (The Boys of My Youth) at her best. The nine entries vary in scope and subject, but loss and melancholy bridge the collection. ‘Last Night’ captures her final moments with her beloved, terminally ill dog, and ‘Maybe It Happened’ reflects on the unreliability of human memory. The title essay interweaves Beard being left by her partner and her grief after the death of a friend: ‘In less than five minutes, we don’t have her anymore. She’s gone.’ Beard can evoke many emotions in a single stroke: ‘The Lab lived to be fifteen too. The marriage, fourteen,’ she writes of losing both a dog and a relationship. She’s also cunning with surprising metaphors and details, as in ‘Close,’ where she compares writing to sitting on a sled: writing a book is like ‘the snow has melted and there’s just grass and gravel. It takes a lot to get the sled moving, and then it goes only a few inches.’ These sharp essays cement Beard’s reputation as a master of the form.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Winter, Mbue, Nolan, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jessica Winter, Imbolo Mbue, Megan Nolan, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

The Fourth Child by Jessica Winter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Fourth Child: “In Winter’s smart second novel (after Break in Case of Emergency), a Catholic mother of three seeks greater fulfillment, first by volunteering for a pro-life group, then by adopting a new child. Stirred by a segment on 20/20 about the awful conditions of Romanian orphanages, Jane Brennan flies to Europe and adopts three-year-old Mirela, upsetting the dynamics between her; her husband, Pat; and their biological children. As the mischievous, overactive Mirela demands all of Jane’s attention, 15-year-old Lauren, Jane and Pat’s oldest, struggles with boredom like a ‘low-grade illness’ and falls under the sway of her charismatic, manipulative drama teacher, Ted Smith. Meanwhile, Jane begins participating in demonstrations outside an abortion clinic and finds herself in the limelight for her role in an altercation during a blockade—and for her difficulty with Mirela, who wanders off during the pandemonium. Meanwhile, Ted and Lauren become increasingly intimate, and Jane intervenes in surprising ways. Jane’s narration can be a bit slow and tedious, but the novel takes off when it switches to Lauren’s point of view, building tension as Lauren finds her way through a difficult situation. Though the novel feels a bit schematic at times, Winter’s surprisingly complex characters make it worthwhile.”

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How Beautiful We Were: “Mbue follows up her PEN/Faulkner-winning Behold the Dreamers with a stirring, decades-spanning portrait of an African village striking back against environmental exploitation. In the 1980s in the fictional village of Kosawa, children are dying, poisoned by American oil company Pexton’s leaking pipelines. One small act of sabotage—a villager steals a couple of Pexton representatives’ car keys—spurs Kosawa’s residents to kidnap their corrupt village headman and the two oilmen whose keys were stolen, and triggers a chain reaction of tiny revolutions that reverberate for generations through transatlantic radicalization and violence in Kosawa, told through the fortunes and failures of Thula Nangi and her family. Thula’s father, Malabo Nangi, vanished in the capital petitioning for government intervention; her uncle Bongo is spurred to seek foreign aid after Malabo disappears; and Thula becomes a charismatic revolutionary. With a kaleidoscope of perspectives, Mbue lyrically charts a culture in the midst of change, and poses ethical questions about the resisters’ complex set of motives. While a series of repeated reminiscences from various characters and explicit moral lessons stall the momentum, Mbue’s portrayal of Kosawa’s disintegration is nevertheless heartbreaking. This ruminative environmental justice elegy fills a broad canvas, but falls just short of being a masterpiece.”

Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Acts of Desperation: “Vice contributor Nolan deconstructs a young couple’s toxic relationship in her fierce and intelligent debut. Things open with an unnamed young woman catching sight of Ciaran, an art critic and ‘the most beautiful man [she] had ever seen,’ at a Dublin art gallery in 2012. She appreciates how Ciaran seems ‘undeniably whole’ amid a crowd of shallow social climbers. The narrator then describes their subsequent spiral into a torturous, obsessive romance. She’s in her early 20s, a university dropout and aspiring poet who works in a restaurant and parties a lot. Ciaran, meanwhile, is passive-aggressive, insults the narrator’s friends, makes cruel remarks (‘Did you want me to say I’m falling in love with you? Because I’m not’), and carries on an ambiguous relationship with his ex. The narrator and Ciaran eventually break up, only to get back together a few months later and move in together. An idyllic glow surrounds them, until the narrator begins pushing Ciaran’s boundaries, and things devolve. The story is intercut with dispatches from 2019 Athens, where the narrator tries to move toward a future without Ciaran while reflecting on the nature of vulnerability, self-loathing, and her addiction to love with stark frankness. The narrator is remarkable for her complete lack of self-pity and unflinching depictions of her own motives and needs. This mesmerizes from the first page.”

The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seed Keeper: “Wilson’s deeply moving debut novel (after the nonfiction narrative Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life) unfurls the complex story of Rosalie Iron Wing and her search for connection to her family, her people, and the land. The novel opens with the voice of the Dakota people’s seeds, passed down through generations (‘We hold time in this space, we hold a thread to infinity that reaches all the way to the stars’). Rosalie’s sole friend as a teen, Gaby Makepeace, is a strong young woman whose auntie teaches Rosalie about the bonds shared by Dakota women. At 18, pregnant and married to John, a white man, Rosalie tries to make a life for herself on John’s farm, whose family founded it on land stolen from her ancestors, and whose inorganic farming practices alienate Rosalie from anti-GMO activist Gaby. Decades later, after John dies from cancer, Rosalie returns to her father’s cabin where she grew up. While struggling to survive through a brutal winter, Rosalie delves into stories of her family’s painful past, often shaped by dehumanizing interventions from the U.S. government. Wilson offers finely wrought descriptions of the natural world, as the voice of the seeds provides connective threads to the stories of her people. This powerful work achieves a deep resonance often lacking from activist novels, and makes a powerful statement along the way.”

The Arsonist’s City by Hala Alyan

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Arsonist’s City: “Poet and novelist Alyan (Salt Houses) illuminates in this exquisite novel the recent history of Lebanon and Syria through the intimate tragedies and betrayals befalling one family. After Lebanese American heart surgeon Idris Nasr’s father dies, Idris feels compelled to sell the family’s ancestral home in Beirut. His Syrian-born wife, Mazna and their three adult children—Ava, Mimi, and Naj—fear he’s making a mistake, and they gather in Beirut to host a memorial and discuss the sale. All of the children harbor jealousies of various kinds and hide secrets from one another and from their parents, but no secrets are bigger or more potentially devastating than those carried by Mazna, and they gradually emerge in flashbacks of her life before she married Idris. The family conflict plays out over the summer of 2019, and the narrative alternates with scenes from Mazna and Idris’s lives in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and in California during the early years of their marriage. ‘We don’t choose what we belong to,’ Mazna considers near the novel’s end, and in Alyan’s sweeping yet intimate narrative, this thought holds true for the characters’ relationships to family and country alike. Tenderly and compassionately told, and populated with complicated and flawed characters, the Nasrs’ story interrogates nostalgia, memory, and the morality of keeping secrets against the backdrop of a landscape and a people in constant flux. Alyan’s debut was striking, and this one’s even better.”

Last Call by Elon Green

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Last Call: “Journalist Green debuts with an ambitious if flawed look at an obscure serial murder case. In the early 1990s, five men were picked up in gay bars in Manhattan by a man who stabbed them to death and dismembered their corpses. Green provides detailed backstories of the Last Call Killer’s victims, showing how their life paths led them to their fatal encounters with the man who murdered them, Richard Rogers. Rogers was a respected nurse in Mount Sinai’s cardiac surgical intensive care unit until his arrest in 2001 after a technology called vacuum metal deposition, previously unknown to the investigators, enabled them to match Rogers’s fingerprints to unidentified ones recovered from plastic bags used in the disposal of one of the bodies. In 2005, he was convicted of two murders and, the following year, sentenced to 30-years-to-life on each charge. While Green devotes attention to the lives of the five victims, those sections aren’t as memorable as the ones focusing on the investigations of their tragic deaths. Green’s at his best in analyzing how the crimes were handled at the time, when the victims’ sexual orientation led to the murders being treated less seriously. The author did his homework, spending over three years reviewing records and interviewing those who knew the victims, but his methodology can be spotty. At one point, he quotes then NYPD commissioner Bernard Kerik about the handling of Rogers’s case, noting in a footnote, without elaboration, ‘Off the record, Kerik said something different,’ leaving readers to wonder what that was and its significance. Green deserves credit for reviving awareness of the killings, but this won’t stand out amid the current true crime boom.”

Also on shelves this week: The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina (translated by Lucy Rand) and If This is The Age We End Discovery by Rosebud Ben-Oni.

Natural Orders: On Hilary Leichter’s ‘Temporary’

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Every new crisis leads to its own movements, whether it drives people to leave careers they thought would last their whole lives, forces them to abandon one city or country for another, or lines them up against the figures responsible for their pain. An economic downturn plays through a script of collapse in its own peculiar fashion. Nobody knows at the start of a crisis just how bad it will get, but everybody knows the poor will suffer and the rich will find shelter, somehow. I remember, when I saw The New York Times ask the graduating class of 2009 if the 2008 recession had ruined our lives up to that point, wondering how many readers, like me, had gone through a series of flashbacks, after which they answered, simply and finally: “Of course it did! Thank you for asking!”

Back then—of course—there were no jobs, but what really made everyone miserable was the surfeit of fake jobs, gigs that extracted your labor for the promise of “experience,” or less. I remember, in 2010, getting paid $10 an hour to write a newsletter, full-time, until my boss revealed there wasn’t enough money to keep paying me. Could I work 12 hours a week, he asked? I did, making less than $100 a week once you factored in taxes, after which I got hired at a travel company to run their social media “on contract,” which meant working full-time with no sick days, vacation time, or benefits. I worked there until the company shut down my branch a year later. After that, I got interviewed at a publishing company for a job as an editorial assistant, a very prestigious position that involved, I was told, working 12 hours a day—all to be near a prestigious Boomer editor—for a salary of $26,000 a year. (I did not get the job, as it happens.) Over time, what I learned is that jobs don’t grant you security, that our economy itself is built on a series of lies. Your work ethic barely factors in—if anything, it can make you more vulnerable. What matters is whether a rich person thinks you can help. If you’re lucky, you’ll save enough money to survive when they inevitably change their mind.

It’s pretty common for people my age to nurse this sort of cynicism. Raw numerical evidence bears this out. Last year, a Deloitte study found that Americans under 40 hold dim views of corporate motivation, with around two-thirds agreeing that profit is the only real motivator in business. It was also revealed, in this study, that half of younger Americans plan to quit their jobs in the next two years, with low compensation cited as the primary driver. A similar percentage expected to grow poorer than they were at the time in the future. And several years before this, in 2014, a Pew Research study found that Millennials had by far the lowest levels of social trust among the generations, with a measly 19 percent believing “most people can be trusted.” Altogether, these numbers depict a bleak portrait of our age, when a vast majority of young adults feel that success is out of reach.

Naturally, these views coincide with a broader shift to the left. By now there are too many studies to count that reveal that younger Americans are much more progressive than their elders. And while there are lots of ways to interpret or contextualize this fact, I’ve found it helpful to think of this shift in terms of modern regime theory. First developed in the early ‘90s by the scholar Stephen Skowronek, regime theory parcels American history into a number of multi-decade eras, defined by their overarching structures of thought, reaction, and belief. In short, a regime is not a particular administration but instead a set of ideas that govern the country’s elites. What Skowronek called the New Deal regime, for example, governed American life from the ‘30s through the ‘70s, imbuing legitimacy and authority to Keynesian economics. Ever since the Reagan era, we’ve been living through a right-wing regime, in which a supermajority of those with power in this country have believed and acted upon a notably different set of ideas. These ideas and assumptions have driven our leaders, including Democratic ones, to cut public spending, privatize basic goods, and metastasize the carceral state, among other things. Many leftwing inclinations of younger people can be seen as a reaction to this drift. How can anyone, the thinking goes, support things continuing as they have?

Part of what makes this theory attractive is that it has an element of hope. It suggests, after all, that a better regime is poised to overthrow the one we’re living through, and that this period of collapse will lead to a period of renewal. It also provides a diagnosis of the mindset that’s caused our current rot. For more on that mindset, I’ve found immense value in The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, whose articles from the early days of the Trump presidency helped frame our current movement in Skowronekian terms. The book places Trump and his movement in a centuries-old right-wing framework, one that ties stupidity and hatred into a broader ideology. The conservative, in Robin’s formulation, is a feudalist for a democratic age, a person who wants to hold a vaunted place in a rigid and brutal social hierarchy. The cruelty of someone like Trump fits neatly with this hypothesis—by relentlessly demonizing vulnerable groups, Trump reenforces the hierarchy. Here’s how Robin describes the ur-conservative:
The conservative does not defend the Old regime: he speaks on behalf of old regimes – in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of conservatism becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, and descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future. (191)
To put this another way, the conservative wants the freedom to dominate the people in this own life, even if it means being dominated by those higher up on the social hierarchy. Inevitably, this stands in direct opposition to democracy, as the conservative sees equality itself as a threat to his ideal arrangement. He wants, at base, a land of private fiefdoms, where those with power maintain their positions through violence, coercion, and penury. Inequality isn’t a side effect—it’s one of the chief aims of his movement.

Characterizing the right in this way helps illuminate a number of things. In part, it explains why the GOP is hellbent on repealing taxes, no matter how disastrous its short- or long-term effects. It explains why a small group of tech companies have monopolized everyday life. It explains why, for decades, parental wealth and pedigree have grown more important in finding success, why the costs of higher education have risen into the stratosphere. It explains why so many people blame poverty on character and not circumstance. It explains why Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman once declared, infamously, that raising taxes on private equity firms is akin to the Nazis invading Poland. It explains why millions of people feel that our healthcare system is working precisely as intended when it forces immiserating debt on people for the crime of being sick. It explains why “greed is good” was a signifying phrase of the ‘80s. It explains why many rich people interpret the slightest criticism as a form of “punishing success.” It explains why the right is so focused on punishing society’s most vulnerable. And—as younger Americans overwhelmingly align themselves in opposition to these forces—it explains why the left has grown fiercer in its attacks on concentrated power.

Inevitably, these changes have shown up in the fiction of the past 10 years. By now enough books have come out to form a post-Recession canon. Arguably the most prescient of these is Severance, the 2018 novel by Ling Ma, which has gotten more attention in recent months not only for its eerily accurate portrait of a modern pandemic but also for its portrayal of a numbing, dead-end career. Daniel Torday’s 2015 novel Boomer1 takes Millennial resentment to a violent extreme, depicting a nascent movement of terrorists who attack wealthy Boomers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a 2015 novel by Helen Phillips, follows a young woman employed at a shadowy bureaucracy, giving us a comical play-by-play as she keeps getting evicted from apartments. And Halle Butler’s The New Me, a harrowing novel that cuts extraordinarily close to the bone for  somebody with my employment history, is a tale of a destitute, 30-something temp worker, a woman whose opportunities have dried up. All of these novels—in addition to being meticulously crafted and observed—are clear-eyed glimpses of our new, unbearable economy.

Last year, another book took its place within that canon, partly by dealing explicitly with the hardening of social hierarchy. Paradoxically, it’s a fabulist work, entirely whimsical and weird. Yet it provides commentary on the present day that has the weight of the very best parables. For readers who see the outlines of an emerging feudal society in the cruelties of recent years, Temporary by Hilary Leichter is a necessary read.

In brief, the plot of Temporary is this: a young woman works through a series of fantastical, short-lived jobs, none of which give her a clear path to long-term stability. In her world, pirates and witches are employers with their own staffs and jargon, and people known as temporaries are given the status of permanent temp workers at birth. Our protagonist, who goes unnamed, is attempting to gain her “steadiness,” a euphemistic term for having a stable career. The fundamental question hanging over the plot is: will she attain it in her lifetime? This is a poignant question for her, because her mother, a temp worker herself, died without gaining her steadiness, and she raised her daughter to know exactly what it means to be a temporary.

“We work,” she tells her daughter, repeatedly, “but then we leave.” From this, a number of rules follow. It’s a bad idea to make friends at work, because you may have to say goodbye to them—forever—at any time, for any reason. It’s also a bad idea to ask your manager for a raise, or for anything, really, because doing so will likely get you fired. After all, the role of the temp is to do the work without complaint and leave—why should any of them hope to earn money or respect? It’s also the case that you can ask, sometimes, what you need to do to gain your steadiness, aware that nobody will give you the real answer, thanks to a kind of noblesse oblige. You’ll get your steadiness when a wealthy person decides you should have it, and that’s that. Everything you’re striving for depends on their caprice.

Not coincidentally, caprice is also why temporaries most often get fired. No matter your innocence, your boss can blame you for any little thing that goes wrong, or you could simply be the victim of one of their transient bad moods. Even if they like you, bosses can go bankrupt or get arrested, or they could come to the conclusion one day that they don’t like working anymore. The only person with no choice in the matter is you, the unfortunate temporary, who needs your boss to speak well of you so your agency can find you new jobs. This locks the temp into endless cycles of sucking up to their superiors, trapping them in a hierarchy in which their bosses are glorified nobles, the temporaries are serfs in nicer clothes, and the best the temporaries can hope for an act of mercy, as in a fairy tale.

Not all the jobs the narrator holds are patently absurd, but most are, and it’s a testament to this novel how eerily her struggles echo real-world conditions. On a pirate ship, the narrator ends up being forced to walk the plank, not because she did anything wrong but because, instead, the woman she’s replacing decided to return a month early. A rich man dies and wills the narrator to carry his ashes in a necklace, all so he can continue to be a “man about town.” In her role as apprentice to a murderer, the narrator takes pride in evil work, an Arendtian dynamic familiar to anyone who’s worked for bad people. Her jobs are impossible creations, in other words, but her struggles are real, and mundane.

While she gets exploited, of course, she also gets treacly advice. Her contact at the temp agency tells her, falsely, that she’s in “high demand,” and that her care in filling out time sheets means she’s “bound” for the steadiness. The phrase “just doing my job” appears, as it does in real life, so often it becomes hypnotic, and means (depending on context) some combination of “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” and “I’m being forced to do this unconscionable thing.” When her murderous boss “goes public,” he says, the narrator will surely get rich, and he might be able to give her a raise when crime spikes in “the busy season.” The act of handing out pamphlets is called “disseminating information.” And when the narrator, meeting an old friend, learns that her friend has not only gained her steadiness but has done so well for herself that she can afford to hire a woman to clean her house, the old friend says, defending herself: “We need to treat ourselves kindly!”

There’s another hypnotic phrase that appears throughout the book. In the prologue, we get a short abstract for the story that follows, alongside a hodgepodge of objects, conditions, jobs. And this: “What happened exactly, specifically, in detail, While You Were Out.” The narrator hears this phrase as a child, tucked into her mother’s bedtime stories, often as part of a laundry list of items in an unnamed office. (Later on, the narrator informs us that she makes sure to write things down so that she can tell her mother, now dead, what happened while she was out.) A passage near the end of the book gives a prophecy of the last temp in history, who is also (conveniently) the last person on Earth. Why does this Last Temp record what’s happening? “It’s the least I can do while you are out.” No matter what happens in the world around her, the temp is a kind of placeholder, dutifully recording the calls and emails and notifications intended for their superiors, who (of course) remain superior to the temp eternally, long after their deaths. “While you are out” is a qualifier, a phrase that reduces the temp’s work to something irreducibly less-than. a substitute for a person with real and lasting power. Even as the world ends, the temp answers calls that she knows are never meant for her.

To be a temp, in other words, is to be an interim human being. It means having almost no rights and begging for scraps to survive. It means hearing, from comfortable superiors, that the world is reasonable and fair, that all you have to do to earn your grace is work hard, always work hard. It means understanding that you can’t have a full identity, not even when it comes to basic things. (As is customary, temps don’t have their own birthdays—instead, they adopt them from people they’re required to fill in for.) Temps don’t have stable housing, they can barely hold on to their possessions, and they can’t depend on anyone in their lives, for anything, as they all discover. Their one hope lies in being rescued.

In true medieval fashion, the hierarchy that rules this world stretches all the way to gods. The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break. This woman, this Eve of the Temporaries, is told what her role entails, that she was created not to ask for more but to be grateful, hard-working. Obedient.

She lived in the space between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.

For a couple of months in 2009, I was a temp myself, though my agency managed to place me in two full-time positions, total. (Each one lasted a week.) Eventually, I got an unpaid, part-time internship at a fledgling literary agency, which ended abruptly four months in when the agency shut down its office. I moved on to the newsletter job, and then from there to the travel company, where I hoped to settle in for a while, build up “experience.” A year later, I was back to applying to 10 jobs a day. A month or so into this, I got an interview at a “content producer,” a murky place with a legal theme.

Inside their office, 50 or so people typed furiously at bare, spotless desks. There were no personal items in sight, no pictures of family, no coffee mugs. Everybody seemed to be wearing nice clothes and they all looked supremely unhappy. My interviewer, in contrast, worked comfortably in a sunlit office.

Without looking over at me, she went through a checklist of anodyne questions, asking me about my past jobs and what I hoped to achieve. At some point, she got to what mattered. This role, she told me, required writing 10 pieces a day, all of which had to be fact-checked and had to run at least 1,500 words. These were summaries of on-the-books laws, and writers had to be their own fact-checkers. They paid $11 an hour. Did I think I had what it takes?

With embarrassing slowness, I did the math. That’s 15,000 words a day.

“No,” I answered. I hadn’t planned this. I’d never sabotaged an interview. But sitting in that office, I saw immediately that I couldn’t do what she wanted. I’m not that fast a writer. I knew I’d be fired within a week if I accepted the job.

Puzzled, my interviewer stared at me. I don’t think she’d ever heard that answer. Nevertheless, she knew what to say. “Everyone else here is doing it.”