A History of Present Illness: A Novel

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Ball, Campbell, Barnes, and More


Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jesse Ball, Jane Campbell, Julian Barnes, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Autoportrait by Jesse Ball

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Autoportrait: “Modeled on French writer Édouard Levé’s work of the same title, this slender and innovative work from novelist Ball (Census) reflects on the vagaries of love, loss, and life in a single, unspooling paragraph. As he oscillates from one musing to the next without regard for chronology or resolution, Ball ruminates on having ‘no musical talent’ (‘when I try to play, my dogs howl until I stop’); his two marriages; his brother’s trip to the hospital in 1990 that rendered him quadriplegic; and a falling out with the proprietors of a favorite Chinese restaurant. Readers will not learn much about either wife, how his brother was injured, or the reason Ball and the restaurateurs parted ways. Though his writing implies a stream-of-consciousness approach, it may not be a coincidence that Ball, a self-identified absurdist, often recounts violence or tragedy, then swiftly changes the subject; a typical non sequitur: ‘Once, some years ago I was mean to my mother and she cried. I never wear watches.’ While jarring, such punches mimic the ruthlessness of life. It’s a somewhat depressive affair, but Ball skillfully molds it into a rich self-portrait that evokes wonder at odd passions (cooking with strangely named spices, drawings of dead babies) and delightfully idiosyncratic opinions. Fans of Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too should take note.”

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cat Brushing: “Campbell debuts at 80 with an accomplished collection centering the emotional and psychological lives of the elderly, delivering astute observations and sharp critiques, and restoring agency to characters who are routinely robbed of it. Foregrounding sexuality, ‘Susan and Miffy’ depicts an 86-year-old woman as she develops an attraction to her younger caretaker. (‘The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that,’ goes the opening line.) In the title story, the narrator contemplates the dispossession ‘of rights, of respect, of desire’ while fearing her son is going to take away her beloved cat. Some of the stories take on a sci-fi tinge, as in ‘Schopenhauer and I,’ wherein a character is given a robot to ward off loneliness and help her with daily tasks—and surveil her every move. While the plots are sometimes too heavily reliant on coincidence, as in ‘Lacrimae Rerum,’ when a woman happens upon her long-ago ex-boyfriend’s funeral, and occasionally employ choppy dialogue (‘I am leaving you. Our relationship is over. I am in love with Hils. I thought you knew. Everyone else knows’), Campbell succeeds in portraying the characters’ complex inner lives. Ripe with sensuality, this is full of vivid portraits.”

Paul by Daisy Lafarge

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Paul: “In LaFarge’s timid debut novel (after the poetry collection Life Without Air), a young British student gets entangled with an older man during a summer in the French countryside. Frances Hawthorne, 21, is taking a break from her medieval history research in Paris after an unspecified incident with her toxic supervisor to volunteer at farms in the French countryside in exchange for room and board. At the first farm in Lazeaux, however, she becomes enchanted by Paul, her 40-something host. Over the course of her week on the farm, she and Paul fall into a romance before Frances must reluctantly depart for her next farm and hosts. There, after a death in the host’s family, she’s asked to leave earlier than planned, and she ends up back at Lazeaux, where Paul turns out to be a textbook misogynist. LaFarge confidently evokes the various settings, though often in a way that feels simultaneously heavy-handed and ethereal, such as Frances’s description of a Lazeaux McDonald’s: ‘The shift in light in the shaded interior feels vaguely spiritual, as if I’m approaching something sacred.’ The spiritual motif seems to have something to do with Paul’s initial appeal to Frances (he shares the name of a saint), and there’s more symbolism in descriptions of cathedrals and murals, but the connections don’t fuse to the story of Paul or illuminate Frances. This shows promise, but it doesn’t quite cohere.”

A History of Present Illness by Anna DeForest

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A History of Present Illness: “Palliative care physician DeForest delivers a reflective debut about cadavers, family trauma, and perplexing ailments. During the unnamed narrator’s term as a medical student, she tries to process her experiences as well as her history of abuse and neglect. She spends a lot of time by the bed of Ada, a younger woman with a slow encephalitis. Throughout, the narrator offers arresting reflections on the godlike powers doctors hold over their patients (‘No one even dies until we let them’), on the desensitization that comes with seeing so much pain and death, and the pressure and competitiveness that often pushes residents to self-harming behaviors. Fascinating medical facts abound (for example: during an autopsy, fixative is used on the brain to preserve it), along with disturbing passages about the narrator’s stepfather, who would lock her and her siblings in the basement. The tone remains detached, creating an atmosphere that echoes the narrator’s ‘mechanical existence.’ There’s not much of a story, but DeForest does a great job conveying the impact of the surroundings on her narrator, as well as how she learns the value of honesty with patients’ families, after giving Ada’s husband the unvarnished truth about her fate. This slim volume gives readers much to contemplate.”

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Stories from the Tenants Downstairs: “The residents of a low-income high-rise apartment building in Harlem form the beating heart of Fofana’s dynamic debut collection. The hardscrabble tenants of Banneker Terrace tread water while their greedy landlord imposes evictions. In ‘The Rent Manual,’ Mimi in 14D remarks on how the building houses ‘a little bit of everybody,’ including ‘folks with child-support payments, uncles in jail, aunties on crack, cousins in the Bloods, sisters hoein.’ Besides raising her young son, she desperately cobbles together the rent before late notices land on her doorstep again. In ‘The Okiedoke,’ Swan in 6B nervously awaits his friend’s release from prison, while in ‘Camaraderie,’ Dary in 12H, who is gay, has high hopes for his future while doing sex work to pay the rent. Quanneisha, the former gymnast at the heart of ‘Tumble,’ also sees better things for herself. But the apartment walls are closing in on her and elderly Mr. Murray in 2E, who has been challenging passersby on the street to a game of chess on a plastic crate for decades, until he realizes the time for games is finally up. Fofana delivers the hardy, profane, violent, and passionate narration in Black English Vernacular, and finds the humanity in all his characters as they struggle to get by. These engrossing and gritty stories of tenuous living in a gentrifying America enchant.”

Touch by Olaf Olafsson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Touch: “Olafsson (The Sacrament) imagines how two people confronting the pandemic reconsider their futures in Reykjavik and Japan. After increasing lockdown restrictions, widower Kristófer Hannesson, 74, shutters his restaurant. Then he receives a friend request on Facebook from Miko Nakamura, the one who got away in the late 1960s. Miko had been hospitalized with Covid, and without telling her, Kristófer buys a plane ticket to Japan to see her. While waylaid in London by canceled flights, Kristófer decides ‘to confront a few things [he’s] avoided thinking about.’ He recalls his youth in the city when he dropped out of the London School of Economics and started working at Miko’s father’s Japanese restaurant, where he fell in love with Miko. He also wrestles with his more recent past in Iceland, including misunderstandings with his stepdaughter, how he’s blamed others for his choices, and having to accept his true feelings for his late wife. A languid tone belies the horrifying secret about why Miko and her father suddenly disappeared 50 years earlier, but the gratifying ending is hopeful. It adds up to an affecting story about the sway one’s past can hold on the present.”

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Elizabeth Finch: “Booker Prize winner Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) delivers a tepid, talky meditation on the impact of a professor on a middle-aged man. Former actor Neil, wounded by the end of his marriage, signs up for an adult education course titled ‘Culture and Civilisation’ taught by Elizabeth Finch, an author of two scholarly works. He’s immediately entranced by Finch’s calm, rigorous presence as she lectures on St. Ursula, the abolition of slavery, and Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, causing Neil to feel his ‘brain change gear.’ After the course ends, Neil meets Finch for lunch two or three times a year for two decades, though she never eases her reserved demeanor. One day, Neil learns Elizabeth has died and is astonished that she has left him her books and papers. Scouring her bequest for clues on the private life she kept hidden, he honors her frequent references to Julian the Apostate by writing the essay on the emperor that forms the novel’s central section, which, via Barnes, is reliably intelligent and perceptive. Barely characterized beyond his preoccupation with Finch’s ideas, which Barnes shares in lengthy quotations from her lectures and notebooks, Neil, though, is less character than mouthpiece. ‘You can see, I hope, why I adored her,’ he effuses, but Finch’s appeal remains as mysterious as she does. Even devoted fans may be disappointed.”

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