The year has gotten off to a rocky start worldwide, but we hope this semi-annual Millions tradition will be a bright spot. We seem to say this every year, but at 140-something books, this is truly our most gratuitously enormous Preview to date. And yet there are even more books to be read in the first half of this year! As usual, we will continue with our monthly previews, beginning in February. Hop into the comments to let us know what we missed, and look out for the second-half Preview in July!
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Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener: When the history of what went wrong in the first two decades of the 21st century is written, the rampant fragmentation of our attention, the proliferation of propaganda, the inanities and barbarities of social media, New Yorker staff writer Wiener’s memoir, Uncanny Valley, will be instrumental in the forensics. An optimistic millennial who absconded from the moribund publishing industry of New York to the supposedly sunny, utopian environs of Silicon Valley, Wiener quickly learns that the counter-cultural promise once embodied by the tech industry has been abandoned in favor of adopting an ethos that’s as at home with any 19th-century robber baron as any of the more conventionally predatory business that dominate American economic life. “But we see now that we’ve been swimming in the Kool Aid,” Wiener writes, “and we’re coming up for air.” Something to think about when you share a (rightfully glowing) recommendation for Uncanny Valley on social media. (Ed S.)
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu: No one writes like Yu: he’s at once sincere and funny, his father-son narratives make me tear up, his work is science-fiction-but-not, and he’s always formally inventive. His new novel isn’t like anything else, either: it’s a novel that’s also a screenplay…or a screenplay that busts out of its form to be a novel. In it, actor Willis Wu longs to play more than “generic Asian man” on various TV shows, but the industry—and the world, the culture—won’t let him. This is a book about race and the roles we play, both among strangers and our family. Emily St. John Mandel calls it “Wrenching, hilarious, sharp, surreal, and, above all, original.” (Edan)
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey: Beginning in Italy and ending in San Joaquin Valley, Popkey’s understated and gorgeous debut follows conversations between an unnamed narrator and other women over two decades. Exploring gender, desire, and violence, the slim novel captures the intimacy of female friendships, and the ways women create narratives for themselves and others. A must-read for fans of Jenny Offill. (Carolyn)
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston: This collection of eight lesser-known stories written during Hurston’s time as a student at Barnard in New York City showcase the author’s range. While many know Hurston best for her fiction depicting rural life, these stories brim with the vibrancy and madcap liveliness of the Harlem Renaissance. (Nick M.)
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell: Cleanness is the work of a writer so absolutely attuned to the world: our paradoxes of love, bodies, desires, regrets. In the morning, a man looks at his lover: “his face bearded and dark, smoothed out by sleep.” There, and elsewhere in Greenwell’s imagery, the material world joins the metaphysical, the rare ability to give shape and texture to the mystical. I wanted to linger on these sentences, but also to follow the routes of these narratives—Greenwell knows the subtle suspense created by careful syntax. “Harbor,” one section in the second half of the book, is a stirring classic unto itself. (Nick R.)
All the Days Past, All the Days to Come by Mildred D. Taylor: Readers have grown up with the Logan Family saga, told in the classic young adult novels Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis. The new book, the first since prequel The Land in 2001, follows Cassie across the country to college and law school, and then back to Mississippi in the 1960s to the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. A major event in young adult fiction. (Lydia)
Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon: I’ll read anything by Yoon. A 2014 Young Lions Award winner, Yoon displays uncanny range, imagination, and originality; every novel is so different and surprising. Run Me to Earth, his fourth novel, is also one of the most beautiful galleys I’ve ever seen (yes, I can be shallow that way). Early reviews suggest it is also exceptional inside the covers, Library Journal in a starred review calls this book set in 1960s Laos “essential reading.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick: A fluid, beautifully written story about professional wrestling, intergenerational trauma, genocide, and history, jumping through Armenia to America and from one generation to another. John Williams of the New York Times said of the book, “With a minimum amount of soapiness, he keeps the pages turning on his love triangles and nostalgic wrestlers and brothers at peace and war. And he allows his larger themes to resonate without pushing them on us too hard.” (Lydia)
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende: The author of iconic novels like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna returns with her 20th work of fiction, a novel of refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War for Chile. Of the new work Colum McCann says “What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time. She knows that all stories are love stories, and the greatest love stories are told by time.” (Lydia)
Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra (translated by Daniel Hahn): A epistolary thriller from the award-winning Brazilian novelist, Blue Flowers is a case of obsession and mistaken identity told in part through letters sent to the wrong man. Catherine Lacey calls it “an elegant and unnerving meditation on the aftermath of love and the lasting power of desire.” (Lydia)
Little Gods by Meng Jin: Jin’s brilliant debut novel centers on Su Lan, a woman who gives birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of Tiananmen Crackdown. By immersing the readers in various personal narratives, Jin raises difficult questions about history, life, and self. For example, are the young protesters on Tiananmen Square driven by their pursuit of a righteous cause or their desire for expansive attention? What does self-erasure lead to? Cultural assimilation or loss of identity or both? What is the relationship between memory and self? Little Gods is elegantly written, emotionally compelling, and thought provoking on every page. (Jianan Qian)
Track Changes by Sayed Kashua: Track Changes is the fourth novel of internationally lauded author, screenwriter, and journalist Kashua. The book’s protagonist, an Arab-Israeli memoirist, receives a note one day that his father is dying. Immediately, he leaves his wife and children in the United States and boards a plane back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. However, his homecoming is coldly received, and an increasing tension between him and his family suggests a long-standing estrangement. Sitting by his father’s sickbed, the protagonist begins to recall the causes of his isolation. But he has meanwhile found himself fabricating memories. On a broad level, Track Changes traces the process of which stories get told and forgot in Palestine and Israel. On each page, it is also a fierce and intelligent exploration of identity, class, relationship, and truth. (Jianan Qian)
The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg: Blending memoir and true crime, Eisenberg’s book recounts the 1980 murders of two young women in rural West Virginia—known as the “Rainbow Murders”—and her time living and working in Pocahontas County. Exploring the intersection of gender, class, and violence, Eisenberg reveals the way the murders inflicted trauma onto generations of Appalachians. Carmen Maria Machado calls the book “a staggering achievement of reportage, memoir, and sociological reckoning.” (Carolyn)
The Longing for Less by Kyle Chayka: Culture critic Chayka’s nonfiction book explores the origins of minimalism and where our current obsession stems from. From architects and philosophers to museums and Zen gardens, he reveals that “less is more” is not just about material goods. Jenny Odell says the book “peels back the commodified husk of minimalism to reveal something surprising and thoroughly alive.” (Carolyn)
We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan: In Zancan’s second novel, a group of students at a low-residence MFA program band together to take revenge on a professor who has wronged one of their own. Zancan does a wonderful job of describing the characters who populate this program, with excellent pacing and a momentum that turns the MFA life into a gripping story of professional and personal revenge. (Lydia)
The Black Cathedral by Marcial Gala: In this English-language debut by the Cuban novelist Gala and translated by Anna Kushner, a newcomer to the small town of Cienfuegos embarks upon a radical project: to construct “the first cathedral for and by the meek.” But the strange, massive project is also seen as a hubristic shrine for “those with darkness in their hearts.” Told by a series of characters—poets, murderers, hustlers—this is an energetic, soaring novel of Gaudi-esque proportions. (Matt)
Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallet: Hughes-Hallet has written several nonfiction works, including a biography (The Pike) of the priapic daredevil Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio. At age 65, Hughes-Hallet published her first novel, Peculiar Ground, which described an English estate in the 16th and 20th centuries; Publishers Weekly called the novel a “sprawling epic debut about an enclosed paradise.” Her second work of fiction is a collection of modern-day retellings of myths. In one, for example, an opera singer’s wife, Eurydice, suffers a fall and descends into a coma. Hughes-Hallet is an erudite chronicler well suited to reviving old tales. (Matt)
Heart of Junk by Luke Geddes: “There were antiques and then there were collectibles,” says Margaret, one of the more pedantic dealers of the Heart of America Antique Mall, the fertile comic setting for Geddes’s first novel. Geddes, who has written a short story collection, taxonomizes the stuff accumulated by a society as well as the peculiar souls for whom collecting that stuff constitutes a kind of religion. The struggling merchants hope that being featured on an American Pickers-like show will reverse their fortunes, if a scandal involving a kidnapped toddler doesn’t torpedo the mall first. (Matt)
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: A memoir from the prize-winning poet about crossing the border with his family and living as an undocumented person in the United States. Of the book, Sandra Cisneros writes, “This moving memoir is the document of a life without documents, of belonging to two countries yet belonging to neither. Hernandez Castillo has created his own papers fashioned from memory and poetry. His motherland is la madre tierra, his life a history lesson for our times.” (Lydia)
The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao: “Blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all,” we read early on in Tsao’s The Majesties, whose narrator is the sole survivor when her sister poisons 300 people. (Shark-fin soup is the deadly delivery mechanism.) The sisters are scions of an Indonesian textile clan, one of the nation’s richest 50 families. Tsao, who has written two novels in a fantasy series and translated several books of Indonesian poetry and prose, explores the hidden motives behind the Borgia-fication of this hyper-wealthy family. (Matt)
Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: A collection of witty stories from the Irish writer. Kirkus writes, “Flattery’s prose-absurd, painfully funny, and bracingly original-slingshots the stories forward. These female characters never say what you’re expecting, and their insights are always incisive…Nervy, audacious stories in which women finally get to speak their minds.” (Lydia)
Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi: A woman leaves the United States and her failed marriage to return to Pondicherry, only to discover a relative she never knew she had. The novel documents the new life they start together. Gary Shteyngart writes, “Tishani Doshi brings all her skills as one of the world’s best poets to this lovely, beguiling, brilliant novel.” (Lydia)
The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson: “Hard to explain but easy to enjoy” is one way to attempt to define poet-cum-novelist Robertson’s uncategorizable work (per Stephanie Burt). Robertson’s process is one of collecting, assembling, and collapsing sentences into extended forms, such as with her book-length poem, Cinema of the Present. Consider The Baudelaire Fractal, her first novel, an extension of this—in which poet Hazel Smith awakens to find she’s authored the complete works of Charles Baudelaire. According to Bookforum’s Jennifer Krasinski, part of the book’s delight is “wrestling with how exactly to apprehend and define this Escher-like interiority that Robertson and Hazel Brown cohabit—kind of—with him.” (Anne)
An Apartment on Uranus by Paul B. Preciado: In Testo Junkie, Preciado’s pivotal memoir/”body essay,” he wrote of his experiments with testosterone, its effects on body and mind, and in doing so described the reproductive and social control imposed by the pharmaceutical and porn industries during late capitalism. Preciado’s newly translated An Apartment on Uranus—with a forward by Virginie Despentes—could be considered its sequel. Within, Preciado recounts his transformation from Beatriz to Paul B., while attempting to define a third space beyond existing power, gender, and racial strictures: “My trans condition is a new form of uranism,” he declares. (Anne)
Creatures by Crissy Van Meter: A family story set on the coast of southern California, this debut garnered a starred review of Kirkus: “Some of the most heartbreaking moments in this novel are the most simply told, and there are scenes of beauty and magic and dry humor amid the chaos…A quietly captivating debut.” (Lydia)
A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary: An anthology of essays about migration and belonging, this collection includes work by writers like Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, Jennifer S. Cheng, Nadia Owusu, and Lauren Alwan. Publishers Weekly writes, “this collection is a vital corrective to discussions of global migration that fail to acknowledge the humanity of migrants themselves.” (Lydia)
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano: One Story associate editor Napolitano’s Dear Edward opens with a commercial airline crash, and as Ron Charles in the Washington Post Book Review put it, “Don’t read this book on a plane. Or if you ever hope to fly again.” Hyperbolic, maybe, but the book follows Edward, the sole survivor and “world’s most famous orphan,” and in alternating chapters returns to the final minutes of the crash. Based on a real crash, that of Air France Flight 447, this book should keep readers on the edge of their seats. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
The Resisters by Gish Jen: In Jen’s dystopian future of America, AutoAmerica, people are divided into two different social classes: the Netted, who monopolize the access to technology and wealth and political rights, and the Surplus, who are forced to live on Basic Income and are denied any human rights. Gwen, the novel’s protagonist, receives an express ticket to rise from the Surplus that she was born into the Netted to which she aspires. But that promising future also means betraying from the people she loves. The Resisters is more serious than Jen’s previous works, which glisten with humor. But the probing and calibrated narrative that Jen deliberately chooses for the novel captures a comprehensive yet disturbing picture of how totalitarianism speeds back to the center stage of human history. (Jianan Qian)
Weather by Jenny Offill: Offill’s new novel, Weather, tells the story of Lizzie Benson, a librarian enlisted by famous podcaster Sylvia Liller to answer the mail she receives, from climate-change worriers on the left and rightwingers fearing the downfall of Western civilization. As Lizzie becomes increasingly doomsday-obsessed, she tries to save her troubled mother and brother, all the while managing the political chaos of Sylvia’s world. In a starred review, Kirkus says, “Weather is clever and seductive…the ‘weather’ of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill’s brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor. Offill is good company for the end of the world.” (Adam P.)
Real Life by Brandon Taylor: Taylor has been a prolific member of the literary community via Electric Lit, LitHub, Kimbilio, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, et alia; Real Life is his debut novel. Bits of autobiography form the scaffolding of this story about a group of friends, a summer weekend in the midwest, and an introverted black man from Alabama working toward a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Writes Roxane Gay: “[Taylor] writes so powerfully about so many things—the perils of graduate education, blackness in a predominantly white setting, loneliness, desire, trauma, need. Wallace, the man at the center of this novel, is written with such nuance and tenderness and complexity.” (Sonya)
Apeirogon by Colum McCann: Drawing upon real-life details and experiences, McCann’s seventh novel examines how friendship and mutual understanding between Palestinian and Israeli fathers can be stitched around grief’s void. Ambitious in scope and kaleidoscopic in form, the novel at once explodes and atomizes one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Its title is fitting: an apeirogon is a shape with an infinite number of sides and angles. (Nick M.)
Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch: In her new short story collection, Verge, Lidia Yuknavitch displays the same gift for exploring the borderland between art, sex, and trauma that readers have come to expect from the author of The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children. Whether it’s an 8-year-old transporting frozen organs through the streets of Eastern Europe, a child fighting off schoolyard bullies with invented religion, or a young janitor creating a miniature city from refuse, Yuknavitch turns her powers toward life on the margins in a collection Vogue describes as “brutal and beautiful,” and no less than Kelly Link calls “vertiginous and revelatory.” (Adam P.)
Indelicacy by Amina Cain: Inhabiting Cain’s novel Indelicacy “is a bit like standing in a painting, a masterful study of light and dark, inside and out, freedom and desire,” writes Danielle Dutton. I’d concur. As I wrote in my 2019 Year in Reading, I developed a kind of synesthesia when considering Cain’s writing, imagining Cain like Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe standing before a canvas, painting her book with lush but controlled strokes, the painting itself airy, allowing ample room to move within. Needless to say—like its swift, keen title, Indelicacy is graceful and incisive. (Anne)
trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi: This debut novel is set in the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election, when a woman goes looking for the statues that are disappearing from Tehran’s public places. As she scours the city’s teahouses, galleries and hookah bars, her search leads her to actual victims of state violence. This blurring leads the narrator to note that in Persian “both ‘testimony’ and ‘martyrdom’ are expressed with one word.” Missaghi, a writer, translator, editor and teacher, uses a fragmented style, veering from journalism to magical realism, to tell a fragmented story that produces no answers, only questions: “Will the trauma ever stop being inherited? Will humans ever change?” (Bill)
The Lucky Star by William Vollmann: Vollmann takes us back to the San Francisco of his early fiction, to the haunts of those who will live and die on the city’s margins. The story centers on Neva, “a woman everybody loves,” who spends a lot of time at a certain bar in the city’s Tenderloin District. For all the contemporaneity in the telling, there is (as always) a certain moral quality to Vollmann’s work. In this one: there is no one on earth, no one, who would not benefit from a little more love and a lot less contempt. (Il’ja)
Little Constructions by Anna Burns: In 2018, Burns’s third book, Milkman, a novel about the Troubles that never mentions the Troubles, in which no one is named and everything is both familiar and out of a dream, won the Man Booker Prize. But before Milkman there was Little Constructions, the Northern Irish author’s second novel. Here everyone has not one name but several—Jesse Judges and JanineJuliaJoshuatine Doe, I mean—and a woman steals a Kalashnikov before terrorizing the town of Tiptoe Floorboard. There are gun shops and gun shop owners, calculated killers and victims caught in long cycles of violence, and throughout it all runs Burns’s surrealist prose and pitch black humor. (Kaulie)
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong: As an acclaimed poet, Hong is constantly creating new language and interrogating existing narratives, particularly in Dance, Dance Revolution (Norton 2017), and here strikes out on a different vector with this memoir/essay collection that’s hard to define with its intimate looks at micro-moments, sweeping narrative arcs, and deep-dives into philosophy and cultural criticism. The title hints at the way Asian-American narratives have often been dismissed or marginalized in mainstream culture. Publishers Weekly calls it a “blistering essay collection.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump: Claude McKay Love starts this fantastic debut with this: “‘If there’s one thing wrong with people,’ Paul always said, ‘it’s that no one remembers the shit that they should, and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.'” And we’re off and running in this spirited novel of a kid just trying to be a kid and how difficult that is in our present moment. “An instant American classic for the post-Ferguson/Trump era,” writes Jeff Parker (Ovenman). Library Journal in a starred review says it’s laugh-out-loud funny and “delivers a singular sense of growing up black that will resonate with readers.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Apartment by Teddy Wayne: In his fourth novel, Wayne returns to the theme of male loneliness he explored in two earlier novels, Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This time, his unnamed narrator, a young writer studying in the Columbia University MFA program in the 1990s, offers to let a fellow student stay for free in his rent-stabilized apartment, gaining a rare friend, and then, slowly, losing him. “Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power,” says an early review in Publishers Weekly. (Michael)
And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks: A rangy yarn-spinner, Sparks is capable of real surprise and real sentiment. There are ghosts here, and women who have been buried in history. In “Our Mutual (Theater) Friend,” a woman “explodes every now and then in the most embarrassing fashion, usually at children’s birthday parties,” waxing “about the vulgarity of modern pizza parlors, upstaging Elmo and Abby and Cookie Monster—not to mention the pirate-themed face painters.” In lists, fables, dreams, and nightmares, Sparks’s characters make noise. A whimsical collection in the tradition of Donald Barthelme, delivered with Sparks’s unique touch. (Nick R.)
The Cactus League by Emily Nemens: “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else,” says the narrator in this novel’s first chapter, “everything changes.” Nemens delivers an engaging, eccentric cast of players, coaches, families, and others who inhabit the world of baseball—including a wise, witty, and somewhat omniscient sportswriter-narrator. From start to finish, Nemens captures the spirit of the game—both on the field and off, all meanings double-played: “Spring is a sensitive time for the ballplayers, working out the kinks of their winters, proving themselves into pitching rotations or fighting to keep themselves in starting lineups, competing against younger knees, quicker bats, unmarried men.” (Nick R.)
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata: If you’re a fan of the art-within-art genre, Zapata’s debut novel may be for you. There’s a lot going on here—a jam-packed elevator pitch if ever there was one: “The mesmerizing story of a Latin-American science fiction writer and the lives her lost manuscript unites decades later in post-Katrina New Orleans.” The eponymous science fiction writer was a Dominican immigrant, her novel is called Lost City, her son Maxwell is a theoretical physicist living in New Orleans, and Moreau’s manuscript is discovered by a Jewish immigrant in Chicago. Novelist Laura van den Berg writes: “A stunner—equal parts epic and intimate, thrilling and elegiac.” (Sonya)
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga: The Booker Prize-winning author’s new novel depicts the plight of an illegal immigrant and refugee in Australia. The protagonist, Danny (short for Dhananjaya), flees his native Sri Lanka for Sydney, where he takes up residence in a grocery stockroom and works as a cleaner to support himself. He gets by and saves up money, inching himself closer to a stable life. But then one of his clients is murdered, and Danny is forced to make a choice: stay silent and let the killer go free, or say what he knows and put himself at risk of deportation? (Thom)
I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert: Kispert’s debut story collection weaves through the lives of people whose deceptions have complicated their lives. In one piece, a man hires an actor to pretend to be his friend, in hopes of seeming less lonely and pathetic to a lover he’s worried will leave him. In another, a man’s lie that he’s an avid hunter makes his life difficult when he runs across a deer carcass. Another story features a theater producer who forces death row inmates to stage New Testament crucifixions. Throughout, the author tackles questions of identity and performance, as well as the difficulties of navigating a queer identity. (Thom)
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: Celebrated novelist Erdrich, author of Love Medicine, The Plague of Doves, and The Round House, returns to the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in The Night Watchman. One of the most powerful voices in contemporary Native-American literature, Erdrich provides a fictionalization of her own uncle’s story, when he journeyed from North Dakota to Washington DC in 1953 to testify on a congressional hearing about the Termination Act, which would once again abrogate the United States’ treaties with a Native-American nation. The Night Watchmen, as with all of Erdrich’s writing, reminds us that Native-American culture is not hidden in history books and museums, but an identity that is current, or as she writes in The Plague of Doves, “History works itself out in the living.” (Ed S.)
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel: The Millions’ own Mandel is back with The Glass Hotel, the long-awaited sequel to her much-beloved first novel, Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist. Where Station Eleven explored a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a super-plague, The Glass Hotel explores what Mandel calls “the kingdom of money,” locales as disparate as a South Carolina prison and a container ship in international waters, and the messily intertwined lives of half-siblings Vincent and Paul. In a starred review of The Glass Hotel, Publishers Weekly says, “This ingenious, enthralling novel probes the tenuous yet unbreakable bonds between people and the lasting effects of momentary carelessness.” (Adam P.)
Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction by Nick Ripatrazone: The Millions’ own Ripatrazone has proven himself over the past decade to be one of our most adept critics at explicating the faith of poetry and the poetics of faith. Now in Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, Ripatrazone asks in what sense Roman Catholicism informs the writings of some of our most crucial writers, from Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, to more surprising authors like Toni Morrison (who converted) and Cormac McCarthy. For Ripatrazone, there is a fruitful tension between those who joined the Church, those who left it, and those who stayed. “Writers long for God,” Ripatrazone argues, “and their longing creates a beautiful and melancholy story.” (Ed S.)
Deacon King Kong by James McBride: The National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water returns with a novel set in 1969 in Brooklyn, addressing a murder through the various members of a bustling neighborhood. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says, “This generous, achingly funny novel will delight and move readers.” (Lydia)
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel: THE FINAL VOLUME IS UPON US. Mantel dazzled readers with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and now she completes her stunningly good account of the life of Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. One of the literary events of the young millennium. (Lydia)
New Waves by Kevin Nguyen: In this debut novel, friends Margo and Lucas’s plan to get revenge on the start-up where they work is upended when Margo dies in a car accident. Tommy Orange says it’s “a brilliant meditation on death and grief in the age of the Internet,” and in its starred review, Publishers Weekly hailed it as a “stellar debut,” calling it “a piercing assessment of young adulthood, the tech industry, and racism.” (Edan)
Actress by Anne Enright: The acclaimed Irish writer’s latest novel is a mother-daughter story about an aging theater actress, Katherine O’Dell, and her daughter Norah. For years, Norah admired her mother’s bohemian and unconventional path, but when Katherine commits a bizarre crime late in life, Norah has to reconsider her mother’s legacy and confront some long-buried secrets, including her father’s identity. Norah’s investigations into the past are combined with her own search for meaningful work and a life partner. (Hannah)
Lakewood by Megan Giddings: After Lena Johnson’s grandmother dies and her family falls on hard times, she drops out of college and applies to participate in a secretive research project. The pay is good, there’s health insurance, but something’s off. Lena, a black millennial, joins a pool of subjects who are all black, Indian, or Latinx; all the researchers are white. Experimental eye drops change brown eyes blue, subjects are given mysterious medication, and it soon becomes clear that Lena’s participation may require more sacrifices than she’s willing to make. Giddings’s debut novel, Lakewood takes a long and horrified look at the costs levied on people of color in the name of science. (Kaulie)
Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera: This novel is the coming-of-age-while-coming-out story of 15-year-old Francisca, who is dragged against her will from Bogotá to Miami, where she is subjected to feverish religious services in a stinky room at the Hyatt, among other indignities of “Yanquiland.” But Francisca finds herself falling in love with the pastor’s daughter, and the novel becomes a layered portrait of exile, sexual awakening, and family bonds. As wise young Francisca puts it: “Women in my family possessed a sixth sense…from the close policing of our sadness: Your tristeza wasn’t yours, it was part of the larger collective female sadness to which we all contributed.” (Bill)
It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan: As its uplifting title implies, McMillan’s new novel is about women of a certain age refusing to see the late stage of life as a dreary slide toward death. At the center of a reunited group of high school classmates is 68-year-old Loretha Curry, head of a beauty-supply empire, whose world is turned upside down by an unexpected loss. “It’s about living in the here and now,” 68-year-old McMillan tells O magazine, “even being willing to fall in love and live happily ever after in these late chapters of our lives.” Like McMillan’s earlier hits, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale, this novel looks destined for the bestseller lists. (Bill)
Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit: The prolific cultural critic and author of Men Explain Things to Me returns with a memoir of her development as an artist as a young woman in San Francisco in the 1980s and the violence against women that undergirds American life. In a starred review, Kirkus calls the book “Absorbing…A perceptive, radiant portrait of a writer of indelible consequence.” (Lydia)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell: At 15, Vanessa Wye enters into an affair with Jacob Strane, her 42-year-old English teacher. Seventeen years later, Vanessa must reckon with their relationship when Jacob is accused of sexually abusing another student. Author Janet Fitch says: “It’s breathtakingly suspenseful, like downing a flaming drink without blowing it out.” Compulsive, complicated, and timely, Russell’s debut explores ideas of memory, trauma, abuse, and complicity. (Carolyn)
Later by Paul Lisicky: In his newest memoir, Lisicky explores his coming-of-age as a gay man living in Provincetown, Mass., in the early 1990s. As the AIDS epidemic rages on, Lisicky searches for love and community in the face of grief, illness, and uncertainty. About the radiant memoir, Rebecca Makkai writes: “Both telescopic and microscopic, this story challenges and illuminates—and, as only the best books do, leaves the reader fundamentally transformed.” (Carolyn)
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn: The author was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of the Big Island and this is the novel that will help many of us realize we need to read more fiction from Hawai‘i. In 1995, 7-year-old Nainoa Flores falls over the side of a cruise ship, but is rescued by a shark—a divine favor. When fortunes turn, his family are forced to confront their bonds, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival. Marlon James calls it, “a ferocious debut.” (Claire)
Wow No Thank You by Samantha Irby: A collection of essays on life, love, and work by the piercingly funny and trenchant writer, to follow the best-selling We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. The new collection documents bad dates with new friends, weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with “tv executives slash amateur astrologers,” while being a “cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person,” “with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees,” who still hides past due bills under her pillow. Read Irby’s latest piece on settling down, for The Cut. (Lydia)
Trust Me by Richard Z. Santos: A thriller of political and familial intrigue set against the public relations campaign for a New Mexico airport by the NBCC board member. Tim O’Brien calls the book “a suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable novel that explores the themes of betrayal, deceit, redemption, and cultural collision in modern-day New Mexico.” (Lydia)
August by Callan Wink: The author’s debut novel follows his 2016 short story collection, Dog, Run, Moon—a set so good that I hoped Wink could distract himself from fly-fishing long enough to range further and give us a novel. And now he has: this testament of the obstacles encountered by a Michigan boy battling his way toward manhood. Told with all the economy, clarity of character, and lively prose that mark Wink’s short stories, this is writing that would tell just as well around the campfire as it does on the page. (Il’ja)
Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang: In what Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah has described as an “immaculate debut novel” and “a wholly engaging joy to read,” Chang follows a 24-year-old Asian-American woman as she leaves a prestigious tech reporting job in Silicon Valley to move with her boyfriend to upstate New York. The move, precipitated by her boyfriend’s entrance into graduate school, is more of an excuse than a reason. The narrator has been searching for a way out. But once there, she finds herself captivated by stories of Asian Americans in history, and forced to think more deeply than she ever has about her role in an interracial relationship. In this tender, funny coming-of-adulthood story, Chang asks what it means to live in a society that does not notice or understand you. (Jacqueline)
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: In a starred review, Kirkus called the latest novel from science fiction luminary Jemisin “fierce, poetic, uncompromising.” Set in Jemisin’s hometown of New York City, this work of speculative fiction features five New Yorkers who must come together to defend their city against the Enemy, which Jemisin described, in an interview with EW, as “a dangerous otherwordly tourist…trying to supernaturally gentrify the city to death.” Toilet stalls attack, backyard pools become portals, and FDR traffic “becomes a literal, tentacled killer.” So, your standard work of social realism. I can’t wait for this one. (Jacqueline)
So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith: Forty-two stories, some short, some not, some in email and one in the form of a recipe, make up Cross-Smith’s So We Can Glow. Different as they are, all the stories focus on the strange hearts of women and girls—brave and broken, longing and loving—and weave together to create this structurally playful and lyrically rich second collection. (Kaulie)
You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South: A collection of razor-sharp stories on technology, pathology, and humanity from a hugely talented writer. (Lydia)
Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth: The author’s sixth book has a nigh-unforgettable premise: Two auditors for the American egg industry hatch an improbable plot to steal a thousand chickens from a farm in the dead of night. They assemble a team, gather their supplies, and head to the farm in question, where (predictably) a chain of disasters ensues. The author employs a wide range of voices—including, at one point, a chicken explaining what she thinks will happen when she dies—to furnish a heist story that’s unlike anything else. (Thom)
We Ride upon Sticks by Quan Barry: From the author of the acclaimed novel She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, We Ride upon Sticks is a wickedly funny and moving story that is set in the 1980s in Danvers, Mass., where the 1692 witch trials took place. The novel focuses on members of the Danvers High School girls’ field hockey team who will do anything to win—even witchcraft. A Kirkus starred review says “readers will cheer them on because what they’re really doing is learning to be fully and authentically themselves.” Maris Kreizman says the novel is “A perfect blend of aesthetic and narrative pleasure…It’s very funny and a little angry and a lot of fun.” (Zoë)
Sansei and Sensibility by Karen Tei Yamashita: Yamashita blends Jane Austen’s characters with stories of Japanese Americans in this dynamic collection. In merging these characters, she reconsiders canonical works, questions cultural inheritance, and experiments with genre and form. Julie Otsuka says “whether she is riffing on Jane Austen, channeling Jorge Luis Borges, or meditating on Marie Kondo, Yamashita is a brilliant and often subversive storyteller in superb command of her craft.” (Zoë)
Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian: Arian’s first English novel follows Iranian bus driver Yunus Turabi who leads a simple life until he’s arrested during a strike. Kirkus’s starred review says calls the novel “a distressing, smartly interior tale of the horrors sown by oppressive politics.” (Carolyn)
Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman: Zigman (Piece of Work) chronicles the downward spiral of a once-successful children’s book author whose life in midlife starts to erode—and so she does what? Inexplicably starts wearing the family dog in a BabyBjörn. Kirkus calls it “adept at Where’d You Go Bernadette–style snarkery.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: Following the success of Hua’s wonderful novel A River of Stars, Counterpoint is reissuing her debut collection of stories with new, never-published work. (Lydia)
Ordinary Insanity by Sarah Menkedick: A work of nonfiction and reportage on the crisis of maternal anxiety that is still treated as a taboo in American society. (Lydia)
I Don’t Want to Die Poor by Michael Arceneaux: A new collection of essays by the New York Times-bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus. In his new collection, Arceneaux explores how debt and a fear of personal economic collapse affect his decisions from dating to seeking medical care. (Lydia)
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang: Zhang’s debut novel is a smart, beautiful, and intimate legend, not only of an immigrant family, but also of an expanding empire. One day, a pair of teenage siblings wake up to the sudden death of their father, a former prospector and coal miner. In the afterglow of the American gold rush, the two girls find themselves orphaned and vulnerable, and their very existence as immigrants is denied by this seemingly promising land. Carrying a stolen horse, their father’s body, and a pistol, they set off on their journey to give their father a proper burial. In their adventure, they witness the extermination of giant buffalos, encounter the ghosts of ruined nature, and discover family memories. How Much of These Hills Is Gold ambitiously examines the nation’s long neglected racialized past and, more importantly, brings those individuals to life again on the page, with their desire and anger, longing and frustration. (Jianan Qian)
Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell: With his Wellcome-Prize winning To Be a Machine, The Millions’ own Mark O’Connell established himself as a poet laureate of human frailty, quixoticism, and creativity as they manifest in the technologic age. Now, O’Connell travels across the world to tour bunkers and silos and interview all manner of people who are living as though the end of the world is upon us. Kirkus called it “A contribution to the doom-and-gloom genre that might actually cheer you up.” Long-time McConnell fans know it will be gloriously funny, incredibly alarming, empathetic, insightful, and beautifully written. (Lydia)
Mothers Before by Edan Lepucki, ed.: Who was your mother before she became a mother? Lepucki, the New York Times-bestselling novelist of California and Woman No. 17 and indispensable contributing editor at The Millions, asks this question. She and her contributors offer answers in more than 60 essays and photographs, including work by Brit Bennett, Jennifer Egan, Jia Tolentino, Lisa See, and many others. The book builds on the popular Instagram account @mothersbefore. (Claire)
Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould: In her second novel, Gould tells the story of Laura, who comes to New York City in the early 2000s, fresh from Columbus, Ohio, with big plans to record an album and live out her dreams. Things don’t go as planned: Love (or lust) gets in the way. In this “sharply observant” (Publishers Weekly) novel by the author of Friendship, we get not only a bygone New York, but also: music, sex, motherhood, and ambition. Stephanie Danler says it’s an “intoxicating blend of music, love, and family from one of the essential writers of the internet generation.” P.S. there’s a great description of a penis. (Edan)
The House of Deep Water by Jeni McFarland: River Bend, Mich., is a small town much like any other, except that it’s the hometown the three women at the core of McFarland’s debut novel couldn’t wait to leave. Years later, Linda, Paula, and Beth reluctantly return and soon find themselves living together at Beth’s father’s house. A May-December relationship, the arrest of one woman’s abuser, a confrontation over the town’s quiet racism, and all a small town’s secrets and scandals confront the women, who find it difficult to keep as quiet as they used to do. Recommended for readers who loved Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. (Kaulie)
Passage West by Rishi Reddi: It’s 1913 in California and Ram Singh has just arrived, anxious to make his fortune so he can return to his wife and infant son in India. He takes work on a friend’s cantaloupe farm, forcing fruit out of the desert of the Imperial Valley, while many others from the world over work farms up and down the valley. But anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in both support and violence, and a rift between friends threatens to finally uproot everything Singh has built. (Kaulie)
The Dominant Animal by Kathryn Scanlan: If there were an ancestry of influences in writing, Scanlan’s would be charted as the love child of (Gary) Lutz and (Diane) Williams. She shares their linguistic obsessions, including an “outrageous attention to sound and structure that approaches the devotional.” Scanlan’s first book was the unexpected and heralded Aug 9—Fog, which she developed from a found text, a journal written by an elderly woman, which Scanlan then edited and rearranged into its current state. Of her forthcoming book of short stories, The Dominant Animal, Gary Lutz says, “Kathryn Scanlan comes to us as an oracle when we have never before been so desperately in need.” (Anne)
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker: Bieker’s debut novel, Godshot, takes her readers to the fertile fields of California, where divinities are seemingly as much of a bumper crop as avocados, except for adolescent Lacey May there’s lots of the former and little of the later (or any other crop for that matter). The California of Godshot is in the midst of a brutal drought, and for the cult that Lacey May lives with, the faith of the indoctrinated turns towards their leader Pastor Vern who claims that he can once again make the rain come. What Lacey May brutally learns are the depths to which men can sink, the pain that they’re willing to inflict on women, and the promise of solidarity that can be approached as she goes on a road trip to find her exiled mother. A gothic phantasmagoria, Bieker’s book explores the ways in which cultish devotion in times of ecological catastrophe can seemingly push groups of people towards a social apocalypse—a novel eerily pertinent in 2020. (Ed S.)
The Moment of Tenderness by Madeleine L’Engle: Few fantasy writers had as indelible an influence on a certain tribe of bookish, introverted, curious children during the 20th century as the great L’Engle. Her classic A Wrinkle in Time, and the series of books that she wrote about the Wallace siblings and their journeys through time and space, remain not just classics of children’s literature, but an indelible exploration of authoritarianism as well. Now, like one of her characters who are able to transcend the fourth dimension, a collection of previously unpublished work written between her time in college and the publication from her first novel is being posthumously published as The Moment of Tenderness after its rediscovery by her granddaughter. Some stories are clear drafts of later writing, and others are completely original, but for fans of L’Engle, they allow us a window into her process of writing fantasy, which she called the “one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.” (Ed S.)
What Is Grass by Mark Doty: In the visionary 1855 poem “Song of Myself” from Walt Whitman’s prophetic collection Leaves of Grass, the good, grey poet imagines a child approaching the narrator of the verse (a variable “I” often conflated with the author) and asking “What is the Grass?” That line has been borrowed for the title of poet Mark Doty’s new reflection What Is Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life. Whitman is simultaneously the most singular and the most universal of poets, the most subjective and most objective, both “Walt” and a very “Kosmos.” It’s been said that no American poet can entirely ignore Whitman, and Doty is a reverential penitent before the greatest American poet, giving an account of how his own subjective experience intersects with that of the singer of “Song of Myself.” Both men are lovers of men; both men are New Yorkers; both men are poets. What Doty most shares with Whitman, however, is a heretic’s faith in language, both its promise and its failures. As Doty wrote of “he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it, /so enchanted by what had first compelled him/ – for him the word settled nothing at all.” (Ed S.)
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami: Haruki Murakami has called Kawakami his favorite new writer—which was enough to pique my interest! Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd, this two-part novel tells the story of two sisters, one unmarried and childless, the other married with a daughter. In the first part of the book, the daughter is 12 and nervous about growing up; meanwhile her mother is looking into breast enhancement surgery. The second part of the novel takes place 10 years later, when the younger sister is contemplating artificial insemination. (Hannah)
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh: When it comes to evoking the jagged edge of contemporary anxiety there might not be a more insightful writer working today than Moshfegh. That is, if the boundless dark potential of the human psyche is your thing. If it’s not, this atmospheric, darkly comic tale of a pathologically lonely widow and the thrills lurking in her sylvan retreat might not be for you. But, sophisticated reader that you are, you’re not afraid of the dark. Right? (Il’ja)
How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: In poet Thammavongsa’s fiction debut, Lao immigrants and refugees write letters, experience new desires, and struggle to build lives in unfamiliar territory. Described by Publishers Weekly as “sharp and elegant,” the collection is a visceral and tender exploration of what it means to make a living. David Chariandy calls How to Pronounce Knife “a book of rarest beauty and power…one of the great story collections of our time.” (Jacqueline)
Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima: After a failed suicide attempt, salaryman Hanio Yamada places an ad in a Tokyo newspaper offering to sell his life. Soon, he is contacted by a few interested buyers: an old man who wants to punish his adulterous wife, a librarian looking for a guinea pig for a drug testing, and a son in need of a volunteer for his vampiric mother. Different from Mishima’s other works, Life for Sale is a wildly funny pulp fiction. The novel grapples with the grave topic of humanity’s instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, but you’ll find yourself laughing through instead of agonizing over it. (Jianan Qian)
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe: The third novel from Thorpe, The Knockout Queen follows Bunny Lambert, a beautiful, desperate 6’3″ blonde, and Michael, the boy next door who’s trying to understand his sexuality, as they become strange friends. All too soon, though, that friendship is marked by a dangerous mix of first love, brutal gossip, and violence. Our own Edan Lepucki says Thorpe’s “one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I’ve read before. This book’s got guts and heart, and wisdom for days.” (Kaulie)
A Luminous Republic by Andres Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman): In his Year in Reading, Omar El Akkad wrote called this “The book I’ve thought about the most this year.” In this novel by the Spanish writer, 32 seemingly feral children arrive unannounced in an Argentine town. Edmund White, in his introduction, called it “One of the best books I’ve ever read.” (Lydia)
Kept Animals by Kate Milliken: Milliken, who won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection If I’d Known You Were Coming, explores the fissures that undergird a ranch, a stable, and a community in Topanga Canyon, Calif., just before a catastrophic fire. With themes of class, race, migration, work, land, and ownership, this is a beautifully written novel. (Lydia)
Take Me Apart by Sara Sligar: It’s rare to find a gripping archival mystery, which is unfortunate because archival mysteries are some of the best ones. In this novel of the gorgeous California coast, Sligar invents a troubled, tragic artist whose fate is pieced together through the clues in her archive, which a young journalist at loose ends is hired to put in order. A literary thriller that is also an exploration of art, women’s ambition, violence, and mental health. (Lydia)
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: A horror story about four men from the Blackfeet Nation who are being hunted for something they did in the past. Paul Tremblay calls this novel “a masterpiece. Intimate, devastating, brutal, terrifying, yet warm and heartbreaking in the best way, Stephen Graham Jones has written a horror novel about injustice and, ultimately, about hope. Not a false, sentimental hope, but the real one, the one that some of us survive and keeps the rest of us going.”” (Lydia)
The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah: A novel that explores the aftermath of a school shooting told from the perspective of a Palestinian-American girl living in Chicago. Rebecca Makkai calls this “a striking and stirring debut, one that reaches its hands straight into the fire. Sahar Mustafah writes with wisdom and grace about the unthinkable, the unspeakable, and the unspoken.” (Lydia)
St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon: Hershon’s last novel, A Dual Inheritance, published seven years ago, was a riveting intergenerational saga covering decades in the lives of two families. In St. Ivo, Hershon narrows the aperture to focus on two couples over the course of a long weekend spent together upstate. “Hershon explores with moving simplicity the complexities friendships and a marriage that has frayed but not yet died,” says Publishers Weekly in an early review. (Michael)
Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud: Trinidad-born Persaud hit the scene with a splash in 2017-2018 when she won both the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and BBC National Story Award. Love after Love, her second novel, is a story of complicated, messy families and uncovered secrets, set primarily in Trinidad and New York City. André Aciman describes the novel as “Restless, heartbreaking, and intensely spellbinding.” (Sonya)
American Harvest by Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Novelist Mockett turns to nonfiction with this terribly relevant memoir about the time she spent with the conservative evangelicals who work the harvest on her paternal family’s 7,000-acre Nebraska wheat farm. Mockett, who grew up in northern California with her Japanese mother and a Nebraskan father who put the Midwest and farming behind him, gives herself over for a time to a way of life and ingrained beliefs that others in her milieu might never know from the inside out. Writes Susan Cheever: “Mockett’s account of the harvest is riveting, and the way she navigates her own plural identity as she travels with the combines is brilliant.” Fans of Kathleen Norris’s Dakota may especially want to check this one out. (Sonya)
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez: The bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents returns with a novel focused on Antonia Vega, a recently retired English professor and writer whose husband unexpectedly dies and whose sister disappears. Soon after these losses, an undocumented and pregnant teen arrives at her door. Luis Alberto Urrea says that Afterlife is “the exact novel we need in this fraught era. A powerful testament of witness and written with audacity and authority.” (Zoë)
Man of My Time by Dalia Sofer: An Iranian man who has spent his life as a government interrogator travels to New York on a diplomatic mission and agrees to fulfill his deceased father’s wish of being buried in Iran, carrying his ashes back and reflecting on his own life on the way. (Lydia)
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha: A story of four women in Seoul and the way that economic and social realities determine the paths available to them. Helen Oyeyemi writes, “Each voice in this quartet cuts through the pages so cleanly and clearly that the overall effect is one of dangerously glittering harmony. The tale told here is as engrossing as a war chant, or a mosaic formed with blades, every piece a memento sharpened on those unyielding barriers between us and our ideal lives.” (Lydia)
Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro: Forget eyes as the window to the soul: It’s really one’s pets who animate one’s intimate desires and projections. Case in point: Both my brother and partner’s brother recently have been transformed into baby-talking, cat-and-dog toting men (respectively) because of their fierce attachments. Pets: An Anthology, edited by Jordan Castro, is a collection of original writing and art by fiction writers, poets, and academics, including Christine Schutt, Blake Butler, Scott McLanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, and Sarah Manguso. The menagerie accounted for includes a killer chihuahua, a catatonic toy poodle, and a backyard full of endangered desert tortoises. (Anne)
The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi: A story of tales told through generations, and the odd twists and turns of a man’s life, culminating in the Iranian Revolution. (Lydia)
Pew by Catherine Lacey: To some degree all of Lacey’s fiction focuses on ontology and states of being, conveying the intimacy of relationships, as well as their built-in claustrophobia and desire to flee. Lacey has a way of articulating this in a way that’s both beautiful and delightfully jarring. It seems this counterbalance of delightful and jarring will also hold true in her third novel, Pew (what a name, even), which depicts the itinerancy of a person shuffled between homes during a Forgiveness Festival, and who is nicknamed such for having been found sleeping in a church pew. (Anne)
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin: Schweblin’s Little Eyes is her second novel to be translated into English (her first was the frenzied Fever Dream). In Spanish the novel’s title is Kentukis, which is also the name for the cutesy device, described as a “creepier Furby,” that acts as a portal between lives of the owner and the person who has purchased essentially a voyeur’s right to its camera feed. Embedded within this novel of international interconnectivity are questions of the exhibitionism and voyeurism tied up in our use of technology. Expect echoes of the Wachowskis’ Sense8, except told with what has been characterized as Schweblin’s “neurotic unease.” (Anne)
Brown Album by Porochista Khakpour: A collection of linked essays reflecting on Khakpour’s experience growing up in a family who fled Iran for Los Angeles and finding her way through intersecting communities during the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobia in the United States. (Lydia)
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride: A woman walks into a hotel room. Then another, and another. Hotels in Austin, Avignon, Auckland, others, and each room reflects back something of herself. Sometimes she meets a man, sometimes she fights with her memories, and sometimes she thinks about what it would mean to go home. An avid McBride fan ever since A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, I eagerly await the arrival of what’s sure to be a darkly brilliant work. (Kaulie)
These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card: A family story that travels from Jamaica to Harlem unveiling its secrets along the way. Victor LaValle says of the novel, “This book is painful and shocking but it can be funny as hell, too. What a talented writer. Maisy Card has written one of the best debut novels I’ve read in many years.” (Lydia)
Drifts by Kate Zambreno: Drifts is Zambreno’s first novel since Green Girl, and is first in a series that continues to explore and reify her obsessions with artistic ambition and the possibilities and failures of literature. Her narrator spends long days alone, corresponding with writers, and taking photos of residents and strays in her neighborhood alike—with nods to the likes of Rilke, Dürer, and Chantal Ackerman, among others. “Zambreno’s books have a way of getting under your skin,” writes Paris Review staffer Rhian Sasseen, as does “her willingness to write ugly, to approach the banal and the cliché as just another tool and subvert it into works of rage and oftentimes real beauty.” (Anne)
The Narcissism of Small Differences by Michael Zadoorian: Set in his native Detroit in the grim year of 2009, Zadoorian’s new novel, The Narcissism of Small Differences, is a comedy of the compromises Joe Keen, a failed fiction writer, and Ana Urbanek, an advertising copy writer, have made over the course of their long relationship. Their compromises come in many flavors—financial, moral, professional—and as these two creative types near their dreaded 40s, they’re forced to confront the people they have become because of those compromises. Like Zadoorian’s earlier novels—The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, The Leisure Seeker and Beautiful Music—this new novel brims with wit, passion and soul. (Bill)
The Book of V. by Anna Solomon: This novel intertwines the lives of three women across centuries: Lily, a mother in Brooklyn in 2016 who is grappling with her sexual and intellectual desires; Vivian, a political wife in Watergate-era Washington, D.C., who refuses to obey her ambitious husband; and Esther, an independent young woman in ancient Persia who is offered up as a sacrifice to please the king. Solomon, the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride, explores how things have both changed and stayed the same. Mary Beth Keane says it’s “searingly inventive, humane, and honest.” (Claire)
Death of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: The capstone of Coetzee’s Jesus Trilogy, this latest novel returns to the life of the boy David, the protagonist of the first two books in the series. But this time it’s David—in perhaps the story’s sole clear analogy to the life of Christ—dying too young. And was his life, stripped of every cursory marker of identity, worth anything? Is everything, as the sages have told us, meaningless? Coetzee, via David, leaves us with better template by which to ask—if never answer—these questions. (Il’ja)
All Adults Here by Emma Straub: I keep hearing online chatter that this is Straub’s best novel yet. When Astrid Strick witnesses an accident, a suppressed memory causes her to question the legacy of her parenting to her now-grown children. Elizabeth Strout says it’s, “totally engaging and smart book about the absolutely marvelous messiness of what makes up family.” Ann Patchett says it’s “brimming with kindness, forgiveness, humor.” Straub is a New York Times-bestselling author and co-owner of the vibrant Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic. (Claire)
Sorry for Your Trouble by Richard Ford: Pulitzer-Prize winner Ford’s latest is a short story collection that explores themes of love and loss, taking readers to his native Mississippi, as well as New Orleans and Canada. The volume includes a novella, The Run of Yourself, which depicts a New Orleans widower learning to cope without his Irish wife. (Hannah)
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet: A new novel from the Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one takes place at a family vacation, where 12 children break off from their parents’ revelries and find themselves in apocalyptic circumstances. Karen Russell calls Millet “A writer without limits.” (Lydia)
Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron: A memoir on love and addiction in the early days of motherhood. (Lydia)
Shiner by Amy Jo Burns: Burns’s memoir, Cinderland, powerfully evoked the post-industrial ruins, both physical and psychic, of her childhood home in Mercury, Penn. In Shiner, she returns with a book similarly rooted in geography, the story of 15-year-old Wren Bird, who lives in isolation on a West Virginia mountain with her mother and father, an itinerant preacher and snake-handler. When tragedy strikes at one of her father’s sermons, Wren is forced to discover the truth about her family and imagine a life outside of her cloistered West Virginia existence. The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State, calls Shiner “a lush, gripping novel that explores love, grief, rage, and regeneration in a small Appalachian community,” and says, “I won’t forget the haunting mood, place, and characters that Burns brings to life.” (Adam P.)
Beauty by Christina Chiu: Amy Wong is an up-and-coming designer in New York, navigating a largely chauvinistic and cutthroat world and trying to see just where her ambition takes her. Novelist Michael Cunningham calls it “beautiful in the way of a scalpel blade.” (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Quotients by Tracy O’Neill: National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree O’Neill’s (The Hopeful) sophomore effort follows a young couple attempting to make a seemingly conventional home together—but this story turns into a heady brew of fractured identities, aliases, big data, and what it means to live in this age of terrorism and global surveillance. Fiona Maazel (A Little More Human) describes it as “a love story rendered in galloping prose that takes you all over the map.” Looking forward to this timely and intriguing work. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar: By the author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a novel about three generations of Syrians linked by a particular species of bird. R.O. Kwon says of the book, “Zeyn Joukhadar’s new book is a vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat.” (Lydia)
Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Chris Beha: Beha’s novel begins in 2009, with two prophets: a street preacher who promises an apocalyptic “Great Unveiling,” and Sam Waxworth, a religious skeptic and software engineer whose “political projection system” predicted every result of the 2008 election. Now a writer, Waxworth has been assigned a piece on Frank Doyle, a legendary, infamous commentator of baseball and politics. The assignment turns out to be more than Waxworth expected, widening and revealing his own faults. Beha’s earlier work has been rightfully compared to the work of Graham Greene, and in this new novel Beha does what only Greene and a handful of other novelists have been able to accomplish: make God, belief, and doubt the stuff of serious fiction—even down to the probing dialogue of his characters. (Nick R.)
Life Events by Karolina Waclawiak: Evelyn is in her late 30s struggling with an existential crisis, driving Californian freeways and avoiding her maybe soon-to-be ex-husband. As the novel unfolds, she decides to work with terminally ill patients, and the work allows her to grapple with her grief and pushes her to confront her past. Lydia Kiesling says, “Life Events is a hypnotic novel that beautifully grapples with fundamental questions about how to die and how to live. Karolina Waclawiak transports the reader into the streets of Los Angeles, the deserts of the southwest, the apartments of the dying, and a woman’s life at a moment of profound change.” (Zoë)
This Is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah: A collection of linked essays explores her experience of Americanness as the child of Gujarati immigrants in western New York and elsewhere. Kiran Desai says of the book, “While this memoir is frequently heartbreaking, it also dazzles with incandescent humor. One of the most nuanced, wise, and tender portraits of immigration I have ever read.” (Lydia)
Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma: Francis-Sharma’s prose shines in this epic and propulsive historical novel that is set in Trinidad and the American West, and follows the life of Rosa Rendón, who is talented, bright, and fierce. Laila Lalami writes that the novel “recreates the hybrid history of Native and African peoples during the era of American exploration and expansion,” and Peter Ho Davies says that it “adds (or better say restores) another strand to our national narrative. We’re all the richer for Book of the Little Axe.” (Zoë)
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami: A personal account of her own immigration story and a probing assessment of how nationality is conceived of in America by the author of The Other Americans and The Moor’s Account. Viet Thanh Nguyen says of the book “Laila Lalami has given us a clear-eyed, even-handed assessment of this country’s potential—and its limits—through her insightful notion of conditional citizenship. Her book is a gift to all Americans—if they are willing to receive it.” (Lydia)
A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth by Daniel Mason: From the author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of stories that go from Regency England to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (Lydia)
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad: Critic and fiction writer Masad’s debut novel follows 27-year-old Maggie Krause, whose mother has just died in a car crash. On her return home, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes from her mother, each addressed to a man Maggie doesn’t know. Maggie sets out on a road trip to discover the truth about her mother’s hidden life, and her own difficulties with intimacy. Described by Kristen Arnett as a “queer tour de force.” (Jacqueline)
F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton: A debut collection of stories taking place in post-coal Appalachia, featuring dead humans, dead honeybees, told with humor and heart. Rachel Heng writes, “These stories take you apart slowly, piece by piece, and by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s already too late. The stories are in your blood now. They live in you, with all their strangeness and decay, isolation and comfort, hellscapes and moments of grace.” (Lydia)
Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Following her acclaimed debut Harmless Like You, Buchanan’s second novel follows Mina and Oscar, a married couple who relocate to London after a foiled tragedy. Suffering from mental health issues, Mina finds comfort—and something more— in a woman named Phoebe. (Carolyn)
Latitudes of Longing by Shubangi Shwarup: Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020, this novel brings together characters as disparate as a geologist and a yeti. Nilanjana S. Roy writes, “Astonishing and completely original, Shubhangi Swarup’s magical novel will change the way you see people—and landscapes, forests, the oceans, snow deserts. She stirs your curiosity about the earth, takes you from sadness and heartbreak to rich, unexpected surprises, and finds hope in the cracks of broken lives.” (Lydia)
My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir: A Haitian family who settles in New York and falls on hard times has the house itself to contend with in this literary thriller that Carolina De Robertis says “is poised to blow the roof off.” (Lydia)
Fairest by Meredith Talusan: A memoir about migration, transition, difference, and growing up by an award-winning journalist and editor of them. Garrard Conley calls this “a truly brilliant memoir with sparkling sentences, navigating incredibly complex questions of privilege with ease and candor.” (Lydia)
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: I loved The Mothers, Bennett’s bestselling first novel, so I can’t wait for her second, about identical twin sisters who run away from their small Southern town at age 16. Ten years later, one of the sisters is passing as white, and not even her white husband knows the truth. The book moves back and forth in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and, according to the jacket copy, “considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations.” (Edan)
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein): A long-awaited novel from elusive genius Ferrante, another work set in Naples. According to Il Libraio, “As you read, a vast panorama of characters slowly unfolds…a diverse and dynamic tableau of humanity. Once again, Elena Ferrante has not created a mere story but an entire world.” (Lydia)
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue: By the author of Behold the Dreamers, Mbue’s new novel describes the struggle of a fictional village in Africa to combat a rapacious American oil company. Sigrid Nunez says “Mbue has given us a book with the richness and power of a great contemporary fable, and a heroine for our time.” (Lydia)
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg: You might be tempted to race through all 11 stories in Van Den Berg’s new collection, her first since Isle of Youth in 2013. This would be unwise, because haste and haunting are incompatible, and you really need to live with these ghosts, to slow your eyes over their uncanny weirdness until you’re both unsettled and seen—the hallmark quality of van den Berg’s writing. (Nick M.)
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: A new novel from the literary superstar follows the career of a fictional British psychedelic rock band. Mitchell described the book in the Guardian: “Songs (mostly) use language, but music plugs directly into something below or above language. Can a novel made of words (and not fitted with built-in speakers or Bluetooth) explore the wordless mysteries of music, and music’s impact on people and the world? How?” Mitchell asked. “Is it possible to dance about architecture after all? Utopia Avenue is my rather hefty stab at an answer.” (Lydia)
A Burning by Megha Majumdar: The hotly anticipated debut novel from the editor of Catapult, A Burning takes place in contemporary India and follows three characters from different circumstances as they are thrown together after a bombing. Colum McCann says “This is a novel of now: a beautifully constructed literary thriller from a rare and powerful new voice.” (Lydia)
The Last Great Road Bum by Héctor Tobar: In the 1960s, Joe Sanderson left the Midwest to globe-trot and live a life worth writing about. By 1979, he had joined a leftist band of guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, fighting against the U.S.-backed military junta. Not long after, Sanderson was dead, becoming one of only two known Americans to have fought and died for this cause. In the late aughts, Tobar acquired a trove of Sanderson’s writings, and has since used them as an outline for this fictionalized account of Sanderson’s life—which turned out to be worth writing about, after all. (Nick M.)
Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino: The week of her wedding, a woman known only as The Bride is visited by the spirit of her dead grandmother, who appears in the form of a parakeet. Her grandmother tells her: Don’t get married. Seek out your brother. As the novel follows The Bride in the increasingly hectic few days between this encounter and her wedding, Bertino tells a complex story about family, responsibility and the need to become our best selves. (Thom)
Imperfect Women by Araminta Hall: From the author of Our Kind of Cruelty, a book the Washington Post called “strange, sexy,” comes a new mystery about death, grief, and secrets. The book opens with the murder of Nancy Hennessy, a woman whose life looks perfect from the outside (money, loving family, etc.). But wait! This may surprise you, but Nancy’s life is not perfect. When the investigators fail to come up with answers, Nancy’s two best friends must take it upon themselves to learn what really happened to her. Out come secrets galore, plus a nuanced depiction of complex female friendships. For fans of Patricia Highsmith and Paula Hawkins. (Jacqueline)
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoun Frazier: A kind of sibling/cousin to Convenience Store Woman, Frazier’s Pizza Girl follows the picaresque adventures of an 18-year-old pregnant pizza delivery girl in suburban L.A. Her life becomes further complicated when she befriends and becomes obsessed with a single mother on her route. (Marie Myung-Ok Lee)
Nine Shiny Objects by Brian Castleberry: Spanning decades, Castleberry’s mysterious debut novel follows The Seekers, a group who wants to create a utopia, and the violence that rises to meet—and squash—them. Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan calls the novel “sharply-tuned, funny, satisfyingly strange, and preternaturally poised.” (Carolyn)
You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat: A novel of self-discovery following a Palestinian-American girl as she navigates queerness, love addiction, and a series of tumultuous relationships. Tony Tulathimutte says of the book, “Zaina Arafat speaks for the persistently hungry.” (Lydia)
Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman: Wendy Doe, found on a bus to Philadelphia, has no money, ID, or memory. Suffering from dissociative fugue, she becomes a body to be experimented on to some, a source of fascination and wonder for others. But who is Wendy Doe, really? Untethered from obligations and history, who can she become? The novel follows on the success of Wasserman’s first book, Girls on Fire. Leslie Jamison praises it as “not only an investigation of how female intimacy plays out across landscapes shaped by male power and desire, but an exploration of identity itself.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightness by Emily Temple: The first novel from LitHub senior editor Temple, The Lightness is “psychologically wise and totally wise-assed, all while being both cynical and spiritual,” according to one Mary Karr. After Olivia runs away to a place known as the Levitation Center, she joins the camp’s summer program for troubled teens and falls into a close-knit group of girls determined to learn to levitate. Of course, it’s not that easy, could even be dangerous, but Olivia’s search for true lightness pushes her towards the edge of what’s possible in this novel that blends religious belief, fairy tales and physics. (Kaulie)
A Short Move by Katherine Hill: By the author of the novel The Violet Hour and co-author of The Ferrante Letters, this novel follows a young man from Virginia through his rise to the NFL, and takes the microscope to the disintegration of his life as an adult. (Lydia)
I’ve been thinking a lot about pettiness lately. I live in the U.S. and right now, the American media landscape is all blah blah incivility blah anger blah blah hate. But it feels to me like the great fever of rage-mourning prompted by the 2016 election has now settled down into a less intense, more pervasive atmosphere of snark and slights, subtweets and sarcasm. SNL spoofs rapists. Twitter memes hate crimes. And then there’s the hilarious string of alliterative names for white people losing their minds over black people existing. We’re squarely in an era of pettiness, the Age of the Drag.
Petty comes from petit, the French for small: Think small-minded, mean, snide. Pettiness might seem to trivialize social issues, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, at least no more than bad-faith grandstanding does. Plus, intense emotions like love and hate can get you killed. You might lose money or pride off of petty, but nobody’s dying from a subtweet. To mock hateful things like racism, misogyny, and elitism lets us think about them with some distance, without getting caught up in self-seriousness, fury, or despair. If nothing else, it makes them survivable. I’d say “y’all trifling” and strut off with a fluttering hand, but I kinda love pettiness: It’s witty and clever and often contagious.
For example: I’ve wanted for a while to teach a graduate course on everything Roland Barthes ever wrote, as an excuse to read it. (Most professors are just perennial students: We teach the courses we wish we could take.) So I mocked up a syllabus. I titled it, “Everybody Loves Roland.” I was inordinately excited. But then I was asked to teach another course I’d proposed as a second choice, “American Genres,” because it would help students fulfill a program requirement. Well. OK. Fine. I scrapped my syllabus of American Genre-ish fiction by high literary authors—Toni Morrison and Hannah Crafts as “Gothic,” Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler as “sci-fi,” Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley as “noir.” And I went full bestseller: Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Stephen King’s Carrie, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Danielle Steel’s The Gift. It was a petty move over a set of novels that are themselves often considered trifling—the fast food of fiction.
And so, given my usual reading habits, and the black sci-fi class that I taught again last year, this was My Year of Reading Genre Fiction. I wasn’t alone. Genre is all the rage—this is especially clear in television and film—though it sometimes feels less like a key ingredient and more like a spice that contemporary artists have started shaking over their works (to say nothing of the disavowals). The thing is, it has always struck me as bizarre that professors mostly teach students how to read (and imitate) the “literary canon”—essentially the same one I was tasked to ruminate over as a student. You’d think this recycling project would be less tenable now that some of our greatest living writers (Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) have publicly embraced genre fiction. Haven’t we diversified the syllabus, if not decolonized it, by now? Maybe, but let’s be real: Even the non-white, non-male, non-rich writers on our reading lists are still mostly “literary”; as Du Bois might have put it, they “sit with Shakespeare and wince not.” Our anti-elitism is still elitist.
The question of how and what we (ought to) read is political for me in this sense: If we believe in democracy and equality, why are our aesthetic priorities shaped by an elite minority? Why do we dismiss our engagement with genre works as “love-hate,” “hate-watching,” and “guilty pleasure” when we spend so much time doing it? Why do we refer to these works as “low” or “lite” when they are read by millions more people than the classics? In short, why don’t the numbers matter? Maybe these texts aren’t read much in academia because they don’t require scholars to explain or analyze them: The story we tell ourselves is that they aren’t difficult or ambiguous; they’re self-evident, simplistic even. But maybe that’s just some petty nonsense to justify the need for literary critics?
As it turns out, many of the novels I read this year, while they fit the “formula” of genres like crime fiction, the Western, fantasy, romance, the spy thriller, and science fiction, are actually really weird and interesting and worthy of analysis. In fact, I’ve been developing a theory that the most recognizable of these non-canonical texts—the highest of the lowbrow, so to speak—are all deeply interested in their own form. That is to say, they are metafictional—they are self-aware about these genre categories we use to dismiss them. Now, a text’s self-investigation of its own condition is one of the marks of sophistication, of high literary value: Think Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage.” But I found it all over formulaic novels. It’s like they’re formally petty: They draw attention to and even drag the qualities we’re so used to valuing automatically. Let me give you three examples:
James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice ends with the main character in prison saying this of psychology: “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his father, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up…. To hell with the subconscious!” This is a hilarious send-up of the psychological depth of high literature, whether or not it embraces Freud. As it turns out, Albert Camus’s L’Étranger was strongly influenced by Cain’s novel. Why is the absence of conscience, a refusal of psychological complexity, and an action-based philosophy valued in the existentialist classic but dismissed as “brutality” in the crime novel? The very existence of Cain’s novel calls portentous, intellectual fictions into question.
Madeleine L’Engle’s “science fantasy” A Wrinkle in Time dwells on the way time, space, and feeling get enmeshed in the literary setting. Tessering is explained in diagrams—famously an ant crawling along a string—and the setting is strangely book-like: when the characters tesser through a two-dimensional space, they become “flat,” as if they are literally made of the paper on which we’re reading about them. The novel seems to me to spoof the narrative questions familiar to us from Journalism 101 with characters like Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium, a jolly clairvoyant with a crystal ball, whose name puns on the equanimity to which Meg aspires while offering an apt description of L’Engle’s bizarro religious novel itself. In this way, the novel offers a metafictional meditation on the use of the objective correlative—using the setting to convey emotion—in the high literary novel. It even begins: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is a (long-winded) spy novel about, yes, identity, but also about the literary category of the character. The amnesiac protagonist is a blank slate—who happens to have the default unmarked identity of a straight, white male—trying to figure out who he is. But he never really does and neither do we. Instead, the novel gives us a paradoxical refrain that seems to connect his code names with the names of his targets: “Caine is for Charlie and Delta is for Caine.” This odd phrase doesn’t make sense, though—is the character “for” as in substituting for or as in created for? “Spy,” whether it functions as a noun or a verb, comes to invoke metafictional questions about the visibility and identification of characters: Whom are we as readers asked to slip into and why? How “blank” or “recognizable” should characters be? This page-turner suggests the fascinating possibility that character—and perhaps identity itself—might be a matter of interchangeability.
Maybe I’m overreading—this is congenital for me, I admit. But it seems to me that even on their own terms, these genre fictions explore a set of formal questions that take us beyond the usual truisms about the satisfactions of “psychology,” “emotion,” and “the human condition” in literary fiction—which comes more and more to look like just another genre. So what happens if we take this truth to be self-evident: that all genres are created equal? I believe each genre offers its own specific value and way to think through literature, by which I mean both to think about literature and to use literature to think. My own fiction writing has become increasingly informed by this sensibility. My debut novel, The Old Drift (Hogarth 2019) embraces “low” genres even as it ironizes them. Regardless of how my publishers and reviewers see it, for me, genre is a lens—a mode of seeing the world—not a label.
I adore those contemporary fictions, like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, that sing genre with their whole chests, that don’t pull punches or bleed it of its fun, color, and momentum, and respect it enough to engage with it. I read two books this year that fit this description. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties reimagines fairy tales and surrealism, and one of its standout stories, “Especially Heinous,” is a set of evolving synopses of episodes of Law and Order: SVU, a genre show if ever there was one. I love the unaccountable weirdness of that story—the girls with bells for eyes, the ubiquitous dun dun—and how it imitates the longueur of watching crime shows: the running jokes, the strange entanglement of voyeurism and misogyny in “hate-watching,” and that thrumming desire for release, however implausible.
After a casual exchange with Victor LaValle on Twitter about the creepy eugenical subtext of one of the animated movies I love-hate, The Incredibles, I plucked his novel The Changeling from the middle of my stack and opened it. Twelve hours later, I closed it, cheeks streaked with tears, throat sore from laughter. A beautiful, moving Gothic/fantasy/fairy tale, The Changeling is a masterful novel that doesn’t try to smooth away any of the dark, rough edges of its genres. It doesn’t shy from realism either, though—as when it literalizes the internet “troll” as a pale gross dude who sits in front of screens and gets paid for webcam views. This is clearly dragging fantasy and its fans, but LaValle has mad love for the genre, too. His novel The Ballad of Black Tom is essentially a love-hate letter to the virulently racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s next on my list, along with a growing set of recent Afro-fantasy novels. Pettiness is not just a trifling game, it can be immensely generative. After all, we pay close attention to what we “haterate,” and sometimes that attention can yield glorious acts of creation.
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I’d known Monica 20 years when her sister was killed in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident. We spent our childhoods in a tiny Bay Area town that I left at 14. I only went back to visit twice.
In the years between, Monica and I sent each other videos, talking into our phones’ cameras for the three-minute limit. She told me about moving back into her parents’ house, the engagement of a friend from our previous life, earning a master’s degree from her sister’s alma mater. I told her of New York, my job in publishing, how it exhausted me to the point of revisiting the books of our childhood—Anne of Green Gables, A Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth.
What is it? What is it? What is it? I chanted as she began to cry. She told me her sister was dead. I remember watching myself from somewhere up above, wondering if she said my sister and not Marie because she was also dissociating, or if this was an act of precaution in case I’d forgotten Marie’s name.
I bought a plane ticket for the day of Marie’s service. In the interim, I told Monica I would send her a video every morning, with no obligation to reply. Three minutes of consistent comfort seemed all I could offer from the opposite coast. Dispatches from Brooklyn, I called them, recounting various scenes—at 2 a.m. I woke up to “Crazy in Love” outside my window; there goes a firetruck—that I imagined were different from her suburban California life, the one I used to share. I’m also rereading the Harry Potter series, I said.
I’m reading that to the kids I babysit, she sent back.
Monica and I were introduced to the Harry Potter books in the same way: Our second-grade teacher read the first installment aloud to us at lunch. She was forced to stop when the cranky nun assigned to our Catholic school banned the series, citing heresy.
Now, 18 years later, we were reintroduced to the infant with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead abandoned on a stoop in Surrey, England. We knew who he was, but the pages couldn’t tell the difference between us and those who didn’t. Marie was dead, Monica and I on opposite coasts, but this story was the same.
We spent our videos debating plot points that Monica believed Rowling planted early in the series. I disagreed. The narrative was too intricate; Rowling must have referred back to the first three books while writing the last four. I cited how Harry’s best friend Ron is often described holding his pet rat, which by the third book is revealed to be a man disguised as a rat. In the first book, Harry wonders if a dour-looking professor can read his mind. By book five, Monica reminded me, this same professor will teach Harry the art of Occlumency—accessing the minds of others while also blocking yours from intruders.
Monica choked up for the first time during the introduction of a character who will die in the final book. She stopped reading altogether after Harry finds the magical mirror—the Mirror of Erised—that reflects the viewer’s deepest desire back to them. Harry sees his dead parents. Monica knew she would see Marie.
Perhaps because this world felt as familiar to us as each other, we didn’t notice Harry had in fact changed: He left the realm of our shared childhood and took up the form of Monica’s solitary grief.
Though best friends, Harry and Ron are quite different. Ron has both parents and many siblings; he struggles with common teen issues like fear of inadequacy and failure. So when Harry drags Ron out of bed and to the mirror, Ron doesn’t see Harry’s dead parents. In fact, Ron doesn’t see anything he’s lost, but instead goals he hopes to achieve—winning a wizard sport, becoming a leader at the school.
For a long time, Monica and I saw reflections similar to Ron’s—milestones we wanted but hadn’t yet reached. As high school dissolved into college and college dissolved into adult life, our paths remained aspirational: degrees, jobs, life partners.
But when Marie died, Monica’s unachieved goals became secondary. Instead, what she desired most was what she’d lost. This shift in her life’s longing was so obviously different from mine that we could no longer avoid the fact of our 12-year separation; three-minute videos weren’t enough to close the gap between the different people we became. I was just Ron—best friends with a person who knew death in a way I didn’t. I could only stand next to her in the darkness.
After Marie’s service, I drove by my old house. The small cul-de-sac yielded snapshots of the childhood books where I’d recently found refuge: the crabapple tree I crawled up holding my hefty library copy of Anne of Green Gables (all eight volumes in one); the mailbox where I dropped a letter addressed to Madeleine L’Engle (she wrote back); sitting on my mother’s lap as she carefully pronounced “dodecahedron” from a hardcover of Phantom Tollbooth; sobbing alone in my living room over the death of Harry Potter’s headmaster.
I spent 12 years believing this home was a part of my history that was gone in the way a person is gone in death: absolute. Only when I went back as an adult to attend a funeral did I realize I could buy plane tickets and book Airbnbs there just as I did other places. Monica and I needed the familiar world of Harry Potter to close the distance between our deepest wants, different in object of desire—or loss—but similar in their unachievable nature. What is gone—my childhood home, our childhood friendship, her sister—is gone forever. In their place are memories, towns, where we cannot stay for long.
A few months later, Monica comes to New York. One night we have dinner with my friend who tells Monica she’s from Ohio, followed by a quip about how New York is more exciting than the Midwest. Monica says, “Yeah, but it’s your home. That’s what makes it good.”
What we’ve lost is taking up a new form; it’s changing, as all stories—and lives—do. Childhood books and childhood friends are the same in this way: homes we can always visit, companions we drag out of bed to stand next to us in the darkness as we wait for the light.
Throughout her life, Madeleine L’Engle, most famously known for her 1962 classic, A Wrinkle in Time, wrote 60 books. Penned by L’Engle’s granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters chronicles her life and illustrious career. The biography offers an intimate look at the late author’s upbringing by fusing together excerpts from her journal entries, family photos and letters, and the memories she shared with her children and grandchildren. Similar to many of L’Engle’s novels, the book skews toward a younger audience, yet contains treasures for older readers as well.
Charlotte Jones Voiklis holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and manages L’Engle’s literary business. Her sister, Léna Roy is the author of the novel Edges.
The Millions: Is it fair to compare a book to a movie?
Léna Roy: Not really. Books and movies are two completely different mediums: a book unfolds a narrative through characters and relationships with description and metaphor, while a movie tells a story in terms of visual scenes. I am in love with books. I love how reading is an intimate act, how I get to use my imagination and co-create along with the author. And I can take my time digesting it! A movie is magical because it tells a story in under two hours, and shows you another vision of the world, so it also has the power to deepen our understanding of it. And Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time was definitely magical in that way.
TM: Having said that, what one word would you use to describe the book, and what one word would you use to describe the movie?
LR: The word for the book is transformative. The word for the movie is visionary.
TM: Why do you love the story so much?
Charlotte Jones Voiklis: It just gives me great hope. And inspiration. It’s the story of Meg, this sort of underestimated and misunderstood girl who travels the universe in search of her missing father, thinking that when she finds him, he’s going to make everything better. And he doesn’t make everything better. She has to make things better. And she learns to trust herself, her skills, and her faults, and discovers that she has the ability to save her brother, save the universe, “be a warrior” is the phrase the movie is using. So it just leaves you with this sense of inspiration that individuals matter.
But I also think what’s so wonderful about it is that it’s not a simple story of self-empowerment. It’s not just about “I can do this.” She does it because she loves her family. She does it because she wants to save her brother, and she wants to find her father. It’s not just a selfish kind of sense of, you know, I’m going to work out and then kick some butt. It’s in relationships that we discover our calling. And it’s in doing for others that we fight the darkness.
TM: Tell me a little bit about your parents.
CJV: So our mother, Josephine, is our grandmother’s first child, but we really don’t talk about our parents in the biography. Because we were reading sort of family letters and journals, we wanted to be careful and respectful of other people’s experience and telling other people’s stories so we focused on our grandmother as a writer, and her development as a writer. We end the biography before we’re born, with the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.
TM: Léna, how long did it take you to write your first novel, Edges, and how long did it take for the two of you to write Becoming Madeleine?
LR: Well with my first novel, once I decided “I’m gonna do this,” the first draft took about three months because I just wrote it beginning to end. I just pushed through it. And then I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it a lot of times. I think it took a lot of time to be published. I kept rewriting it after every rejection, and workshopping it and rewriting it.
So writing Becoming Madeleine was a very different experience, very lucky too because I was working on it with my sister. I had always wanted to write something about my grandmother, but I also knew that I didn’t want to be the only one telling the story. So I was waiting for my sister to be ready, or for our relationship to be ready. So once she was convinced that it was the right thing to do, we started working together, and I think all in all, it took about a year and a half. We were lucky because of who our grandmother is. People are interested. Charlotte, as the executor of the estate, was already in contact with Gran’s publisher, and the publisher was already interested. They just didn’t necessarily have the confidence that we could write it, that maybe we were too close. But then we worked something up and it was awesome, and they were very happy and very excited. So we started working on it.
TM: What did you learn about the craft of writing by writing this book, specifically writing a biography?
LR: Well, when we started, I started fictionalizing because I wanted to hear her voice. Charlotte and I had started brainstorming and we thought, Oh, you start in medias res, you start in the middle of a dramatic scene. So when she was 11, she got abandoned, dumped at a boarding school. We thought, Whoa, that’s horrifying. That really shaped her, so I just started fictionalizing that and imagining dialogue: the way their house looked, and them getting in the car and going off for a picnic, and her having no idea. So I wrote a bunch and I gave it to Charlotte and she said, “Great! But I don’t think this is the way to write a biography, I don’t think we can do this, but keep going.” So then we did it more chronologically and included her in it. She’s infused in it. So by using her journal entries, her voice is really a part of the book, and our forward and afterword—it’s interesting because we built upon stories she had told us and then the journal entries added to it, and then us being older—we felt a deeper connection to her and to her life, the shape of her life. And it was super fun working with Charlotte because I have, even though I am terrified of the blank page, I’ve trained myself to just write that shitty first draft, you know, to just write through the voices in your head telling you you suck, and then so I would write and she would edit and she would write some more and edit. It was just seamless. All of it is the two of us together. I can’t think of a page or a sentence that’s just one of us—that’s all Charlotte or that’s all Léna. It was really beautiful. So it was a different kind of writing, because whenever one of us was stuck, we could lean on the other. And I think when I’m doing my own writing, especially if I’m writing a novel, and I’m stuck—oh boy! I just need to put it away for awhile, and I go back to it with fresh eyes, or I need to have somebody else read it, pick on some poor soul to help me. It’s just a different process.
TM: What fears, if any, did you experience when writing the book?
LR: I had no fears. I knew it was a challenge I wanted to explore.
CJV: We really wanted to be truthful, interesting, respectful, and make her proud. It’s hard to carry all those things when you’re writing.
TM: Charlotte, what did it take for you to be “ready” to write the biography?
CJV: Time! I needed some distance, and then I needed to think about what it would be like for someone else to tell her story. I knew that they’d need my help with primary materials, photos, etc., and I thought if it’s going to be my labor anyway, why not tell the story ourselves?
TM: How did you know when the book was “ready?”
CJV: I still don’t know it’s ready. I always want to rewrite. We just had to trust it, and the editor.
TM: In Becoming Madeleine, your grandmother became your protagonist, so to speak. In what ways did writing about her life change you?
LR: It deepened our connection to her, to each other, and to our ancestors. Being able to incorporate her own voice into her story was very powerful.
TM: Léna, you work with youth, and Edges has a young protagonist. Did your grandmother’s affinity for writing for and about young adults impact your work?
LR: She impacted me in so, so many ways. I too am definitely “every age I’ve ever been.” I’ve always been interested in turning points in people’s lives, and my grandmother helped me appreciate how every moment can be a turning point. I love how kids and teens are constantly having them, so it’s really something to be able to explore the inner life of a character who is growing and changing so fast. And I am so lucky that I get to witness these changes with my students every day at Writopia Lab.
TM: Are there moments where you are tempted to compare yourself to your grandma?
LR: I work on NOT doing that! She was fond of saying: “comparisons are odious” because she too was always working on not doing that herself. We are alike in so many ways, but I am definitely not as prolific, ambitious, or disciplined as she was. I have to believe that she would approve of the person she helped me become.
TM: I have a book-specific question. On page 79 you write, “It gave her her first inkling that her writing knew more than she did.” And I wanted just a little bit of an explanation as to what that meant.
CJV: Yeah, well, she said her books knew more than she did and that, you know, she was a disciplined, skilled writer. She wrote every day. She wasn’t sort of like, “Oh, the spirit will move me.” But she also felt that she needed to listen and the story would come to her. She needed to listen to the story that was being given to her and so, didn’t force things. Like she would say that she didn’t realize until she was finished writing A Wrinkle In Time that part of what the message behind the disembodied brain is that, you know, the intellect without heart is terrifying. But she didn’t consciously set out to write that message. She didn’t sort of plot it out and say, ‘This is gonna be one of the themes of the book,” right? She didn’t do outlines of her work. She sat down to write and she listened to the story that was coming to her.
Another example of that is in a book called The Arm of the Starfish, which was written just couple of years after A Wrinkle in Time but actually features Meg and Calvin as married grown-ups with children of their own. There’s a main character in that book that dies and her children were reading it in draft form and said, “Change it! You can’t let Joshua [the character] die.” And she had to explain to them that, “Well, I can’t change it. That’s what happened.” She wasn’t in control. She didn’t force her characters. They were already living for her and she was, you know, I hate to say, and she wouldn’t use this phrase and this isn’t quite right, she wasn’t just simply a scribe. You know? But she definitely had a sense that she was listening to what was given to her and was available to it. And that because of her discipline of journal writing, and practicing writing every day, the tools were there so that when a book came or a character came, she was able to serve it.
The literary world has been waiting for a Carmen Maria Machado collection for several years, and in October, Graywolf Press will oblige with the release of Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of Machado’s haunting, graceful speculative stories that has been longlisted for a National Book Award. The Internet became aware of Machado in 2014 when her story “The Husband Stitch” was published by Granta. “The Husband Stitch” was something new altogether, and went on to be nominated for a Shirley Jackson Aware and a Nebula Award, among other honors. Every new story by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad has further stoked anticipation.
Machado’s stories take place in a version of our real world that has been subtly distorted. Identities blur, women become invisible (literally), and lonely individuals seek intimacy at the end of the world. But these events don’t occur in some alternate science fiction reality; Machado’s spaces are recognizably our own, forcing us into the emotional upheavals of their protagonists. Machado’s writing is both vulnerable and fearless, in complete control even as her characters lose control entirely, and she wields her unique voice to explore identity, marginalization, mental health, and what intimacy looks like in the light and shadow of all three.
We recently had the chance to talk over email about benevolent sexism, urban legends, and her writing process.
The Millions: “The Husband Stitch,” first published in 2014, seemed to be the story that made the Internet perk up and really pay attention to the name Carmen Maria Machado. It’s the story that opens Her Body and Other Parties. What has been the significance of that story and the response to it on your career as a writer and the formation of this collection?
Carmen Maria Machado: I always tell people that they should write the stories they want to see in the world, and that’s advice I try to take as well. I was nursing “The Husband Stitch” in my heart for a very long time—not that structure or narrative specifically, but the emotional arc. I thought a lot about benevolent sexism as a powerful and damaging force, and realized it was a critical note I needed to strike in Her Body and Other Parties. And then, one day, I had the story structure to tell it in a way that felt faithful to my own musings.
Of course, the explosion of interest around that story, and the persistent love of it, is really encouraging to me. I never imagined when I was writing it that it would have that kind of power and longevity. I’m not sure there’s anything more exciting or rewarding as a writer. But I don’t think it has much to do with me as an artist, particularly—rather, I think it was a note that needed to be struck. I think people were hungry for it.
TM: Your comment about benevolent sexism brings up a powerful piece of writing that was one of the first things I ever read by you: your essay “A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity” for L.A. Review of Books. My wife and I both grew up in the Evangelical purity culture (and have since left the faith), and the essay spoke to a lot in our own pasts. While Christian purity culture is never mentioned in “The Husband Stitch” (the story takes place well before the emergence of that late-20th-century movement), it grows from the same soil from which that movement would later mushroom. Was that connection on your mind during the writing of this story? How does your background in the Christian purity culture impact your writing?
CMM: I think it serves as a constant reminder to me of what happens when people are not vigilant about the narratives young women absorb about themselves and their bodies and sex and sexuality—how catastrophically damaging they can be. I don’t think I can solve that problem single-handedly or anything, but I can provide an alternate narrative for those who need it.
TM: There’s this fascinating way you intertwine innocence and betrayal in that story without obscuring either. They are separate threads, braided together here—desire that is beautiful and desire that is toxic—and the reader can trace both throughout. Your use of so many old folk tales and urban legends—stories we all passed around among our friends as spooked kids and teenagers—takes the reader back to a more open, unprotected age, and then they’re confronted with the ugliness of patriarchal entitlement. Can you tell me a little about how that story came about? What ties those old legends together, and what made you flip them on their heads here?
CMM: I was a Girl Scout for almost my entire childhood, and when we went camping I really loved the part where we told scary, theatrical stories around the campfire. I enjoyed hearing them, and I was really good at telling them. The version of “The Green Ribbon” I heard at that age—which is the one famously retold by Alvin Schwartz—has stuck with me ever since; I don’t know why. (I’ve been trying to explore this very question in an essay.) It’s possible that I was fascinated by the question of the ribbon itself—how did it get there? How did she go her entire life without disturbing it?—but there was something about the ending that really distressed me. Alfred asking and asking and asking, and Jenny relenting on her deathbed. Was she trying to fuck Alfred up as her final act on this earth? Was she just tired of saying “no?” Why did she give him what he wanted? Like the best folktales, the story was spare enough that a reader could project all sorts of things into it; the flatness serves as a kind of scrying pool for whoever is looking inside.
And, so years later, when I was at a residency in New Hampshire, I sat down and found myself combining several ideas: a sex-loving, midcentury housewife, the story’s title—which I’d learned about from my OB-GYN nurse aunt—and the woman with the green ribbon. I revisited all of those questions, to try and find my own answers.
The secondary urban legends and stage directions didn’t come until later drafts. When I went to go add those secondary stories, I consulted Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy. I flipped through the pages until certain stories spoke to me as ones that could stand one of her retellings. I think urban legends (and folktales, and fairy tales) have this way of showing us what we already know to be true, and I wanted these narratives to reflect that fact.
TM: For you, the speculative elements in your fiction seem to be a way to subtly tug and pluck at the strings of reality on a very personal level. How did you get started writing speculative stories, and how do these elements play in your imagination as a writer?
CMM: I get “into” stories in a number of ways, but a lot of my ideas come from observing what’s around me and pushing into it a little. My wife and I play this game where we’ll see something and I’ll lean over and suggest a fantastic alteration to it. For example, we’ll see a little kid playing with her reflection in a large window, and I’ll say to my wife, “What would happen if the reflection stopped following her?” I do this in my own head, too, and sometimes I’ll stop talking mid-sentence and my wife will say to me, “Are you getting an idea right now?” as I run for paper and pen. (Or, if I’m driving, I’ll say, “I’m about to say some weird sentences to you, please text them to me.”)
When I teach, I talk to students a lot about “play,” and how that critical part of your young imagination can be snuffed out if you don’t feed it and take care of it. There’s been a lot of good and interesting writing about this idea of nursing one’s creative subconscious—I’m particularly fond of this essay by Kelly Link—and I think it’s an element of craft that doesn’t get touched on enough. Before plot or dialogue or even character, the mind needs to be observant, nimble, playful, and curious around the world around it. Without that, fiction is DOA.
TM: I’ve found Kelly Link’s thoughts (the essay you linked to) about writing from our obsessions, no matter how trivial they seem, to be tremendously helpful. Do you similarly maintain a list of these obsessions for yourself, as Link does?
CMM: I do! I make lists of obsessions, of fears, of images that strike me, of phrases that might make good titles, of potential formal constraints, of stories only I think I can tell, of memories, of sentences that come to me, of settings that give me a thrill…list-making is so satisfying, and such a useful way of cataloguing what’s going on inside my head.
TM: A number of your stories are only one degree separated from our present reality. A plague is wiping out humanity, or women are becoming incorporeal for no discernible reason, but otherwise the characters and settings are, for lack of a better word, normal. They’re what we’re all living every day, and then this awful warping occurs. What does that method open for you when you’re writing a story?
CMM: As a young woman, I did read some secondary world and/or portal fantasy (Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books), but my absolute favorite work presented a familiar world with tweaked fantasy, science fiction, and/or horror elements: A Wrinkle in Time, the work of Lois Duncan, Behind the Attic Wall, all of Louis Sachar’s books, John Bellairs. I was not leaving for another world; instead, I was being shown potential avenues of perception in my own world. I don’t think this is, like, aesthetically superior or anything, it’s just what tickled my own imagination. I think it created in me an acute sense that magic could be just around the corner. And quite frankly, so much of our world is just straight-up surreal—look at the current political climate, for example—that this kind of worldbuilding often feels very natural to me.
TM: Who are some writers, past or present, who inspire you creatively?
CMM: I’m particularly indebted to a certain generation of 20th-century writers: Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Jane Bowles, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Lois Duncan, Ray Bradbury, Gabriel García Márquez. But there is also an incredible line-up of contemporary folks who have shaped me into the writer I am: Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Alice Sola Kim, Kevin Brockmeier, Nicholson Baker, Bennett Sims, Sofia Samatar, Alissa Nutting. And I’m discovering more every day: I recently finished Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door and Kathryn Davis’s Duplex—the first novels of those writers I’ve ever read—and I feel like my imagination is firing on every cylinder.
TM: Your book’s title directly reveals a theme that weaves through every story in the collection: women’s bodies, the ways they both serve and betray these women (or are used by others to do the same), the ways they are both pleasured and violated. Can you tell me a bit about that theme and how is defines so much of this collection?
CMM: I am singularly obsessed with the body; even my interest in the mind is rooted in the body, since the two are inseparable from each other. I’d be lying if I said this interest didn’t stem from my relationship with my own body: with moving through the world as a fat, queer, not-quite-white woman, experiencing physical ailments and struggling with mental illness. My mind is housed in my body; my body is flawed and also falls outside of specific culturally-acceptable parameters and is also actively oppressed. It experiences pleasure and brings me joy and it suffers; I fight against it and love it and accept it and loathe it. How better to grapple with these contradictions than write a book about it?
TM: Full disclosure: I have never seen a single episode of Law & Order: SVU. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into your story “Especially Heinous,” which creates a fictional episode listing for the show’s entire run. I found it absolutely fascinating. What was the inception of that novella, and why did you choose such an unusual structure?
CMM: I often tell people that its root was years before, when I’d spent a severe bout of swine flu in front of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, and drifted in and out of feverish consciousness in front of my computer. Whether or not that’s the actual place where it began, during my second year at grad school, I had the idea of writing a story using a television show as its anchor. I initially toyed with idea of taking existing episode capsules from IMDB and simply altering them toward fantasy, but I realized pretty quickly that this format was far too limiting. I did, however, notice that Law & Order: SVU only had single-word titles, which seemed to be as good a jumping-off place as any. The story came together pretty quickly after that—the titles provided a kind of mental springboard, and I bounced between plotlines and pulled everything together. Up until that time it was the longest singular project I’d ever written. (I should add that I intend the story to be readable to folks who haven’t seen Law & Order: SVU; but if you have, there might be some small Easter Eggs you can enjoy.)
I think the structure works for this story for a few reasons. First, we’re very accustomed to marathoning TV nowadays, what with Netflix and other online streaming services, and so in some ways this is like a Netflix marathon from hell. The format also allows the pleasure of cutting one-off “episodes” with continuing storylines, which taps into the reason people enjoy shows with formulas like Law & Order to begin with. This structure doesn’t work for everyone—I received the meanest workshop letter in my entire MFA from a student who very much disliked every element of this story, and derisively referred to it as “fanfiction”—but obviously some folks respond to it very strongly. I don’t mind writing aesthetically divisive work; on the contrary, it’s a real pleasure.
TM: In “The Resident,” you toy with the trope of the misunderstood madwoman forced together with other, “saner” folks (Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House came to mind), but in this case you redeem her from that relegation to insanity. That story seemed to come from a very personal place?
CMM: When I workshopped a very early version of this story, a reader said, reluctantly, “I tire of ‘madwoman in the attic’ stories.” I felt bowled over by this note, because I, too, dislike sexist tropes about mad women, particularly mad lesbians, and here I’d created a story that centered around them. So I asked her, “What happens if you want to write a first-person story about a woman with mental illness? What do you do then?” She just shrugged.
So I had this massive, sprawling story that felt important to me but ran up against this trope, and I didn’t know what to do about it. As someone who has mental illness—acute, debilitating anxiety—I’ve always been very interested in trying to snatch back narratives that have seemingly been taken away from me. So I decided during my many rewrites—and there were many!—to try and address this idea more forcefully. I reasoned, as long as the story took on these tropes, and she had agency and intelligence and context, she could be as mad as she needed to be. (I should add that I don’t begrudge the note that led me down this path—it was, in fact, critical to the story’s development.)
It also helped that I did a ton of editing for this story under my editor Ethan Nosowsky’s guidance. Many of the other stories in the collection were functionally finished by the time Graywolf bought the collection—they’d been published elsewhere, and had already received thorough edits—but “The Resident” had never seen anything except that very early workshop. Ethan gently told me he thought this story would need the most work out of the entire book, and he was right—we went back and forth on it for ages. There was even a period of time I didn’t think it would appear in the collection at all. Ethan is brilliant, and also not prescriptive—he simply looked at each draft and suggested to me where he thought my subconscious was leading me. And then one day, it all snapped into place.
TM: What’s next for you after the release of Her Body and Other Parties?
CMM: I recently sold a memoir to Graywolf—House in Indiana—which will be coming out in 2019, so next year I’ll be revising that. I’m also at work at a ton of other projects—a new story collection, an essay collection, and a few different novels, though whether or not those take is yet to be determined.
Recommended reading: a piece for The Toast “In Which Three Adults Discuss A Wrinkle in Time Seriously and At Length.” Related: A Wrinkle in Time may finally become a (good) movie.
If you like Fall, you like October. It’s the height of the season, the fieriest in its orange, the briskest in its breezes. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” exclaims the irrepressible Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. “It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” October at Green Gables is “when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson” and “the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths;” it’s a “beautiful month.”
Katherine Mansfield would have disagreed. October, she wrote in her journal, “is my unfortunate month. I dislike it exceedingly to have to pass through it — each day fills me with terror.” (It was the month of her birthday.) And Gabriel García Márquez’s biographer notes that October, the month of the greatest disaster in his family history, when his grandfather killed a man in 1908, “would always be the gloomiest month, the time of evil augury” in his novels.
Some people, of course, seek out evil augury in October. It’s the month in which we domesticate horror as best we can, into costumes, candy, and slasher films. Frankenstein’s monster may not have been animated until the full gloom of November, but it’s in early October that Count Dracula visits Mina Harker in the night and forces her to drink his blood, making her flesh of his flesh. It’s in October that the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the season, leaving Jack Torrance alone for the winter with his family and his typewriter in The Shining, and it’s in October that his son, Danny, starts saying, “Redrum.”
Can you domesticate horror by telling scary tales? Just as the camp counselor frightening the kids around the fire is likely the first one to get picked off when the murders begin, the four elderly members of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, who have dealt with the disturbing death of one of their own the previous October by telling each other ghost stories, prove anything but immune to sudden terror themselves until they trace their curse to a horrible secret they shared during an October 50 years before — just after, as it happens, another kind of modern horror, the stock market crash of 1929. In the odd patterns that human irrationality often follows, those financial terrors, the Black Thursdays and Black Mondays, tend to arrive in October too.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the month of harvests and horror.
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1867)
Those planning to celebrate National Novel Writing Month next month can take heart — or heed — from Dostoyevsky, who, having promised a publisher the year before that he’d deliver a novel by November 1866 or lose the rights to his works for nine years, didn’t begin writing until October 4. He handed in this appropriately themed novel with hours to spare.
Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878)
Scholars may argue whether Keats wrote the sonnet that begins, “Bright star! would that I were steadfast as thou art” in October, or even whether it was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne, but there is no doubt that on October 13, 1819, in a letter that wasn’t published until nearly 60 years later, he wrote to Miss Brawne, “I could be martyr’d for my Religion — Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you.”
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James (1904)
James had modest aims for the wittily unsettling tales, often set among the libraries and ancient archives that were his professional haunts, that he wrote to entertain his students at Eton and Cambridge. But their skillful manipulation of disgust has made them perennial favorites for connoisseurs of the macabre.
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919)
Oddly, one effect of Russia’s October Revolution was to modernize the calendar so that, in retrospect, it took place in November. But wherever you place those 10 days, Reed, the young partisan American reporter, was there, moving through Petrograd — soon renamed Leningrad — as history was made around him.
The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz (1950-52, 2004)
October is of course the month of the Great Pumpkin (whose arrival Linus didn’t anticipate until 1959), but it was also on October 2, 1950, when Shermy said to Patty in the very first Peanuts strip, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! How I hate him!”
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
The leaves are turning red, brown, and yellow in the small New England town, while the sky is blue and the days are unseasonably warm: it must be Indian summer. But let’s hear Metalious tell it: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle.”
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
It’s a dark and stormy October night when Meg comes downstairs to find Charles Wallace waiting precociously for her with milk warming on the stove. Soon after, blown in by the storm, arrives their strange new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, “her mouth puckered like an autumn apple.”
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
The October wedding in Jamaica of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason, which plays a peripheral role in Jane Eyre, takes center stage in Rhys’s novel, in which Rochester greets his doomed marriage with the words, “So it was all over.”
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
“Gentlemen,” New York screenwriter Helene Hanff wrote to the London bookshop Marks & Co. in October 1949, “Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books,” the first note in a cross-Atlantic correspondence that has charmed lovers of books, and of bookselling, ever since it was published two decades later.
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975)
The first day of October is the date of Mr. Victor Hazell’s grand shooting party, which means that it’s also the day on which Danny and his “marvelous and exciting father” conspire to ruin that piggy-eyed snob’s plans with the aid of a hundred or so tranquilized pheasants.
The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (1979)
There’s no particular reason to read The Dog of the South in October except that it begins in that month, when the leaves in Texas have gone straight from green to dead, and Ray Midge’s wife, Norma, has run off with his credit cards, his Ford Torino, and his ex-friend Guy Dupree. Any month is a good month to read Charles Portis.
“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer (2002)
Packer’s short story uses 1995’s Million Man March as the backdrop for Roy Bivens Jr. and his son Spurgeon — “nerdy ol’ Spurgeon” — who, on an ill-fated mission to sell some black men some birds at the march, work out a more elemental drama of fatherhood and ambition.
Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (2004)
On a fall night in Harlem, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Brown recorded a show that turned him from a chitlin’-circuit headliner into a nationwide star, an event whose abrupt intensity was put brilliantly in context in Wolk’s little book, one of the standout entries in the marvelous 33 1/3 series.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
The landscape McCarthy’s father and son travel has been razed of all civilization, calendars included, but as their story begins, the man thinks it might be October. All he knows is that they won’t last another winter without finding their way south.
Image Credit: Pixabay
“You should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children,” Ruth Graham wrote in Slate last week, stirring the proverbial pot of new adult fans of Young Adult bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park. A host of YA-defenders rose up to shout her down. “You should never be embarrassed by any book you enjoy,” Hillary Kelly responds in The New Republic, unrealistically (we’re embarrassed by quite a lot). For the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg cites examples of worthwhile, complex YA fiction we can certainly support: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Pushcart War, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Westing Game.