At the Edge of the Orchard: A Novel

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Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview

Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu  Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In  Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion.  —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How  to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth.  —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld  I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst  When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations.  —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.  —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits  My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]

A Year in Reading: Ed Simon

So. How are we expected to begin these things? How can I write about reading in this year of all years, this Annus Horribilis of American authoritarianism, American division, American plague? There’s no judgement in that question – it’s genuine. Because to not state the obvious would be callous: at the time of this writing there have been a quarter of a million deaths that were largely preventable if there had only been a modicum of concern from both the government and the collective citizenry. At the same time, to wallow in all of that misfortune, the pandemic death count rising, the spate of police murders of Black citizens, the brazen incitements to violence from the thankfully defeated president, could just be more fodder for doomscrolling (the term popularized by the journalist Karen K. Ho). No doubt you’re familiar with this activity, for the correct answer to the question of “What did you read this year?” would be “Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Comment sections. Comment sections. Comment sections.” If anything quite expressed the emotional tenor of this wicked reality for most of us, it was the feeling of being dead-eyed and exhausted, eyeballs vibrating in their sockets and blood straining in our temples, ensconced in the cold glow of the smart-phone screen as you endlessly stared at travesty after travesty. Androids with our Androids. Being who I am, I’ve got an inclination to write about the triumph of reading, the warmth from pages expressing the ineffable separateness of these people whom we happen to share the world with, for a bit. The way in which literature acts as conduit for connection, the building of worlds with words, kingdoms of interiority claimed through the audacious act of writing, and so on. But do you know what I actually did with most of my free time? Doomscrolling. Just like you. How could it be otherwise? Companion to our worry, companion to our fear, companion to our free minutes. To endlessly scroll through our social media newsfeeds fed that demon of acedia nestled in each individual skull, simultaneously giving us the illusion of control, the strange pleasure of anxiety, and the empty calories that filled our bellies but did nothing to finally satiate our hunger. Nothing new in this, what Daniel Defoe described of 1665 in his novel A Journal of the Plague Year, whereby the “apprehension of the people was likewise strangely increased… addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tale than ever they were before or since,” something to keep in mind as I endlessly refreshed Nate Silver. It reminded me of the childhood feeling that I used to have after hours of Nintendo; that shaky, bile-stomached emotion that I imagine senior citizens feeding quarters into Atlantic City slot machines must feel. Easier to pretend that this was a type of reading; knowing facts without reflection, horror without wisdom. Yet I did read books this year. If I’m being honest, I didn’t read terribly widely or terribly deeply, and there is a distinct before and after as regards the plague, but I still forced myself to read even if it was at a glacial speed compared to normal, even if it was sometimes joyless. I did so because I felt that I had to, in the same way you white-knuckle it through flight turbulence by humming to yourself. I did it because I was scared that if I didn’t, I might forget how. And through that, I still had beautiful moments of reading, incandescent ones, transcendent ones. Books were still able to move me when two thousand people had died, or when two hundred thousand people had. Reading may sometimes feel like a frivolity, but it isn’t. All of that stuff I said in the second paragraph, the quasi-mocking tone about how I’m apt to argue that literature is about connection? Well, you knew I was setting that up rhetorically to knock it down. I don’t always feel that sentiment to be true, but you need not feel something to know it’s true (then again, I’ve always been a works instead of faith guy). Don’t fault me for being predictable. This is the third year I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write one of these features for The Millions, and maybe it’s the English teacher in me, but I always have a need to tie together what I’ve read into some sort of cohesive syllabus. Summers past I used to actually theme my beach reading around subjects; one year I read novels according to the very specific criteria that they had to be about tremendous changes which happened in an instant (Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers; Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination); in another season, all of the works on my docket were contemporary novels of manners (Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot; Dean Bakopoulos’s My American Unhappiness). This season of pandemic, it seemed that the dominant subject of the novels which I read was family. In all of their complexities, almost every novel which I pleasure-read in 2020 examined family in its multitudinous complexity. Happy families and broken families; families of fate and families of choice; tragic families and triumphant families. I couldn’t have known it on New Years Day, but there was something appropriate in this, for this year was – in all of its darkness – for many a year of family. In the elemental stillness of quarantine people got to know their families with a new intimacy (for good and bad); some broods found themselves broken, some made new again. Most crucially, and at the risk of being maudlin, the pandemic distilled to an immaculate purity the centrality of family. My family’s own year was divided by the beautiful caesura of welcoming our first child into this world, the miracle of new life deserving of every cliché that can be said about it, a grace and gift that all of the beautiful rhetoric I can muster would scarcely be worthy of. If novels serve any purpose, it’s to act as engines of empathy (whether or not that makes the world a better place is a question for somebody of a higher pay grade), and so I was able to see a bit of myself in Jonathan Safran Foer’s description of being a new father from his door-stopper of a book Here I Am. Jacob Bloch reminisces on moments with his first son, “the smell of the back of his neck; how to collapse an umbrella stroller with one hand… the transparency of new eyelids… my own inability to forgive myself for the moments I looked away and something utter inconsequential happened, but happened.” While Jacob and I share a parents’ love and a District of Columbia mailing address, the Blochs of Cleveland Park live in a slightly different universe from my own, though one marked by similarly tumultuous global crises, a throwback to the great male mid-century novelist canon for our century, set against the backdrop of a potentially apocalyptic war in the Middle East. The Blochs are an unhappy family. Jacob is petty, anxious, and narcissistic; his wife Julia is unfulfilled; his father Irv is opinionated and hypocritical; his grandfather Isaac is a suicidal Holocaust survivor; his children Sam, Max, and Benjy each have their fair share of neuroses for being so young, and his Israeli cousin Tamir is simultaneously boastful and sensitive, flashy and wise. Across the daily travails of the Bloch family, from the threat of a cancelled Bar Mitzvah, the indiscretions and infidelities, and the sufferings of a beloved elderly family dog (which lent itself to one of the most moving scenes I read this year), there is the omnipresent question of Judaism and its relation to Israel, played out in a world where antisemitism is very much not a past phenomenon. Envy has always made it difficult for me to appreciate Foer, but for its occasional indulgences, Here I Am is a novel of profound beauty – especially in its dialogue, though all writers should have some humility. When Jacob gets into a fight with Max about the respective influence of Roth versus Kanye West, his son responds about the former that “First of all, I’ve never even heard of that person.” From Cleveland Park to Harlem, Imbolo Mbue imagines a very different family experience in Behold the Dreamers, though perhaps not such a very different family (for all parents want what is good for their children). Jende Jonga has overstayed his three-month visa, and has brought over from their native Cameroon his wife Neni and their young son. Working as a livery driver, Jenda’s cousin is able to get him a job as a private chauffeur for Clark Edwards, investment banker at Lehman Brothers in 2007. Mbue depicts the ways in which money and legal status effect two radically different groups of people during the last major economic collapse. Fundamentally a novel about the American Dream, which is to say a novel about money and the way it differentiates one man from another, Behold the Dreamers movingly and brilliantly tells the sort of New York story that can be so easy to overlook. Immigration is at the core of Behold the Dreamers – what it means to forever fear deportation, the sort of hard work that puts a pain in the back and feet that require five Tylenol at a time, the crowding of a one-bedroom Uptown apartment with husband, wife, son, and newborn daughter. So triumphant are the dreams of immigrant aspiration, that there is a surreal beauty in a (c.2008) boast that “He will take us to a restaurant in the Trump Hotel… He will hire Donald Trump himself to cook steak for us,” so that the nativist is made to humbly genuflect before the very sort of people whom he has subsequently tortured.  Mbue writes about her characters with a such a humane tenderness that even when they’re cruel, or shortsighted, or fearful, there is still a fundamental love which makes their full humanity apparent, so that by the conclusion a reader will even have some sympathy for the investment banker who is implicated in all that went wrong in 2008. With almost perfect pitch for how people talk to one another, Mbue moves from the kitchens of Harlem where Cameroonians prepare ekwang and ndole, to the gilded living rooms of Park Avenue and the spacious backyards of the Hamptons. “Why did you come to America if your town is so beautiful?” Clark asks his driver. “Jende laughed, a brief uneasy laugh. ‘But sir,’ he said. ‘America is America.’” Both of these books came to me from the neighborhood mainstay of Capitol Hill Books, across the street from the red-bricked environs of the palatial nineteenth-century Eastern Market. The proprietors of the bookstore had an ingenious concept whereby readers would fill out a form about their reading preferences, and an upper limit on how much money they’d be willing to spend, and then they would compile a sealed grab-bag of mystery tomes which would be left in front of the store at an agreed upon time, like some sort of illicit literary handoff. My main method of finding totally new books, not pushed by algorithm or article, was precluded after the libraries closed, and so Capitol Hill Books’ invitation to take a literary leap into the unknown was a welcome diversion. Because the store is an amazing place, only a few blocks from the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court, with creased, underlined paperback volume crammed into every conceivable inch of the converted townhouse (including the bathroom), and because the coronavirus has demolished the economy and small business people received little of the relief which they were due from the federal government, I’m going to feature several other independent bookstores in Washington D.C. who deserve your money more than the website named after a South American rainforest. Please consider buying from them, or from any of the other bookstores I’m featuring – you don’t even have to live in the District (but of course I encourage you to buy from your own local independents – if you’re a fellow Pittsburgher I can attest to the glories of Classic Lines, Amazing Books & Records, and White Wale Bookstore). Maybe save some of your lucre for the funky cool Solid State Books on H Street, in the neighborhood variously called NoMA or the Atlas District, depending on which gentrifying real estate agent you talk to. Solid State Books is the type of simultaneously sleek and cozy storefront that calls for you to wander after a dinner of Ethiopian or Caribbean food, coffee in hand, as you paw through the delicious tables of new novels. It embodies the sleek urbanity of bookstore wandering that’s become all too rare in mid-sized American cities, and though the pandemic makes that singular joy impossible right now, Solid State is available for curbside pickup. Consider purchasing Annie Liontas’s Let Me Explain You or Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes, two novels that share with Behold the Dreamers a sense of immigrant possibility (and failure, pain, and tribulation) in the greater New York metro area. If Mbue had a love for the city from Malcolm X Boulevard down to Washington Square Park, then Liontas looks across the Hudson to the great Jersey Purgatory of Meadowlands strip malls, oil refineries, and diners, all the way down I-95 to New York’s greatest suburb of Philadelphia. It’s there that Stavros Stavros Mavrakis owns the Gala Diner, and where following a series of prophetic intimations concerning his impending death, sends accusatory emails to his three daughters and his ex-wife. “I, Stavros Stavros, have ask God to erase the mistakes of my life; and God has answer, in a matter of speaking, That it is best to Start Over, which requires foremost that We End All that is Stavros Stavros. No, not with suicide. With Mercy.” Liontas’ character is King Lear as filtered through Nikos Kazantzakis, and in her main character’s incorrigibility – his yearning, his toxicity, and his potential for grace – she writes a tragi-comic parable about the American Dream. Let Me Explain You is a fractured fairy tale recounted by Stavros Stavros, and his broken, suffering, and triumphant daughters Stavroula, Litza, and Ruby. The Gala’s proprietor is one of the most distinctive voices since, well, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Ukrainian narrator Alex in Everything Is Illuminated, and Stavros Stavros hilarious and moving exposition marks Liontas as a major talent. Within Let Me Explain You there is an excavation of the layers of pride and woundedness, success and failure, which marks much of the immigrant experience, a digging deep into the strata of its characters’ histories. Liontas goes beyond the smudged and laminated menus of the Gala – the plates of crispy gyro meat smothered in tzatziki; pork roll, egg and cheese sandwiches; the disco fries covered in gravy; and the flimsy blue-and-white cups of cheap coffee with their ersatz meander design – to demonstrate that Shakespearean drama can happen even in Camden County. Keane’s Ask Again, Yes takes place in points farther north, along the section of the Acela corridor immediately north of New York, as the upwardly mobile suburbs of Westchester stretch onward from outside the Bronx to leafy Connecticut, in communities like New Rochelle, Scarsdale, and Gillam. The last place is where two NYPD rookies – Francis Gleason and Brian Stanhope – who worked the same beat together in the 1970s Death Wish era of urban blight, coincidentally find themselves as neighbors, both following a suburban dream of fenced in lawns, Fourth of July grilling, and strip mall supermarkets. Like both Stavros Stavros and Jende, Francis is also an immigrant, this time from the west of Ireland. “One minute he’d been standing in a bog on the other side of the Atlantic,” Kean writes, “and the next thing he knew he was a cop. In America. In the worst neighborhood of the best known city in the world.” A reserved man, Francis isn’t particularly fond of Brian’s American volume, or of the latter’s erratic wife Anne Stanhope, who like Gleason was also Irish-born. Despite Francis’ reservations about the Stanhopes, their children – young Kate Gleason and Peter Stanhope – develop an intense adolescent romance that spans decades and has combustible implications for the families. The story features a single instance of incredible violence, the trauma of which alters both the Gleasons and the Stanhopes, forcing them to ask how life is lived after such a rupture. Keane’s novel is that rare thing in our contemporary era, where the culture industry has for too long been obsessed with anti-heroes and gentle nihilism – it’s a narrative of genuine moral significance, that’s just as concerned with redemption as damnation, that takes contrition as seriously as that which gets you to the point where grace is even necessary. If you still haven’t gotten New York City out of your system, and if pandemic restrictions have you missing colleges and universities (as Zoom instruction is inevitably so much more anemic), then consider picking up a copy of James Gregor’s campus novel Going Dutch from East City Bookshop. A charming Capitol Hill mainstay that’s half descended into a basement right on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the string of restaurants and shops known as Barracks Row, East City Bookshop has excellent sections of history, politics, and contemporary novels, and is the sort of place where you can get twee mugs produced by the Unemployed Philosophers’ Guild. It’s the sort of bookstore that if it were in the Village, could predictably be perused by Gregor’s characters Richard and Anne, two New York University comparative literature grad students who enter into a strange psychosexual affair. Both are working on their dissertations in medieval Italian literature, but only Anne can be said to have any preternatural talent in her scholarship, which Richard is more than happy to exploit in his own research. While Richard unsuccessfully flits through Grindr, he and Anne fall closer and closer together, the two eventually agreeing to a relationship that is equal parts sex and plagiarism. “Part of him found her annoying,” Gregor writes of Richard’s feelings towards Anne, “another part was curious to observe her. There was something both needling and captivating about her that he couldn’t explain… emitting waves of musky, indeterminately foreign glamor… [he] found himself strangely excited by her presence in the classroom. It wasn’t attraction exactly, but he felt the blurred outlines of that category.” Anne is a very particular type of paradoxically worldly ingenue, a spinster with an edge, and Richard and her relationship falls deeper and deeper into pathology and the pathetic. Washington D.C. and Los Angeles are some 2,654 miles apart, but a visit to Dupont Circle’s classic Kramer’s (because of the coffee bar it features it is now officially known as Kramer Books and Afterwords) can bestow upon you sunny California in novel form, with three titles that feature the Golden State in all of its seedy resplendence – Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard, Patrick Coleman’s The Churchgoer, and The Millions’ staff writer Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17. District hullabaloo had it that the storied Kramer’s was potentially going to leave its Dupont Circle location, making the neighborhood infinitely poorer, but luckily the owners opted to continue their lease on the storied storefront where Monica Lewinsky once purchased a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for Bill Clinton. Once our plague year has ended, shoppers will still be able to stop into the Connecticut Avenue location in this neighborhood of embassies and gay bars, and pick up any of the aforementioned California titles (in the meantime, consider ordering them online). For pure folkloric Americana, Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard is an equally beautiful and brutal novel, immaculate in its consummate weirdness. Chevalier recounts tale of Robert Goodenough, son of Ohio apple growers James and Sadie Goodenough, who in the decade before the Civil War searches for tree saplings in northern California on behalf of a British naturalist who sells them to his countrymen that have the unusual desire to grow sequoias and redwoods on the grounds of English country estates. While traipsing through the hills north of San Francisco, humbled by the forest cathedrals of the redwoods, Robert relives the traumas of the unspeakable domestic violence in the frontier country which left him an orphan. “Though grafted at the same time, they had grown up to be different sizes; it always surprised James that the tree could turn out as varied as his children.” Chevalier’s novel examines the ways that human motivations can be unpredictable as the route that branching roots might take, pruning back the exigencies of an individual human life to an elemental, almost folkloric essence, and testing the soil of myth and memory to write a luminescent novel that’s part fairy-tale, part parable, part Greek tragedy, and part Western. A different American myth is explored in Coleman’s The Churchgoer, a brilliant neo-noir that true to that venerable genre’s greatest of conventions places its seedy subject matter of sex and criminality in the estimably pleasant and sunny- forever-75-degrees of southern California. Mark Haines is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, a night watch security guard, a San Diego beach bum, and a former youth pastor who has lost any faith in the God that failed him. He becomes embroiled in the affairs of a mysterious and beautiful young runaway (as one does) named Cindy Liu, a woman who comes from the same world of evangelical platitudes and megachurch hypocrisies as he does, and when she goes missing and his night watch partner is murdered (perhaps connected?) Haines embarks on an investigation every bit worthy of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Reflecting on a former parishioner who may be involved in sundry affairs, Mark notes that “I didn’t like any of this. I didn’t like being questioned… If they wanted to know what he was afraid of when he was seventeen, what he asked for prayers about, how many times a week on average he committed the sin of self-pollution against his better intentions, I could dig all that out from somewhere in my brain… [but] Confession usually pulled up well short of the deeper truth.” The true pleasure of Coleman’s novel isn’t plot (though the speed of pages turned would recommend it for that alone), but rather language, which is always true of the best noir books. The Churchgoer tastes like a gulp of cold black coffee at an AA meeting which a cigarette has been cashed into, it sounds like the static of a television left on until 3a.m. and the hum of a neon light in the bar window of an Oceanside dive, it feels like insomnia and paranoia. Lepucki makes great use of the oppressive sunlight of California in her Hitchcockian domestic tragicomedy Woman No. 17. Her second novel after the excellent post-apocalyptic California, Lepucki explores the sultry side of Hollywood Hills, where wealthy writer Lady Daniels hires a college student as a live-in nanny to care for her young son while the former finishes an experimental memoir, made possible off of alimony from her still-close film producer ex-husband. “It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt… I preferred to stay at home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer,” Lady says. Alternating between Lady and S., the art student whom she hires without a proper vetting, Woman No. 17 explores the intersections of obsession and sexuality, transgression and performance, in recounting how S. becomes increasingly unhinged in an “art project” which involves imitating her alcoholic mother and seducing Lady’s mute, adolescent, older son. As At the Edge of the Orchard explores the traumas of family, and The Churchgoer examines what it means to both be rejected by family and to construct a new family of your own volition, so too does Lepucki interrogate the illusions of intimacy and the way in which the mask we choose to wear can quickly become our face. As the final two novels I’m writing about take as their subject the very soul of the nation, I recommend that you put in an order to buy Nell Zink’s Doxology and Kathleen Alcott’s America was Hard to Find at the District of Columbia literary institution of Politics and Prose. Perhaps the most foundational of bookstores in the D.C. literary ecosystem, Politics and Prose shares a Cleveland Park setting (or at least half-of-one) with Zink’s much anticipated novel, while Alcott’s America Was Hard to Find ranges over the entire continent, and the surface of the moon as well. Drawing its title from a poem by the radical priest and anti-Vietnam War activist Father Daniel Berrigan, Alcott’s novel is a bildungsroman for the American century. Audaciously reimagining the last fifty years of history, America is Hard to Find tells the story of the brief liaison of Air Force pilot Vincent Kahn and bartender Fay Fern, which results in the birth of their illegitimate son Wright. Kahn goes on to become the first man to walk on the moon, and Fay a domestic terrorist in a far-left group similar to the Weather Underground or the Symbionese Liberation Army. Easy to imagine the two as proxies for a type of Manichean struggle in the American spirit – the square astronaut and the radical hippie. Yet Alcott is far too brilliant of an author to pen simple allegory or didactic parable, for America Was Hard to Find is the sort of novel where mystery and the fundamental unknowability of both the national psyche and those of the people condemned to populate it are expressed in shining prose on every page. The moon was everything he had loved about the high desert,” Alcott writes of Kahn’s first sojourn on that celestial body, “where nothing was obscured, available to you as far as you wished to look, but cast in tones that better fit the experience, the grays that ran from sooty to metallic, the pits dark as cellars. Most astonishing was the sky, a black he had never seen before, dynamic and exuberant. With a grin he realized the only apt comparison. It was glossy like a baby girl’s church shoes – like patent leather. Alcott’s prose is so lyrical, so gorgeous, that it can be almost excruciating to read (I mean this as a compliment), a work that is so perfectly poetic that a highlighter would run out of ink before you’re a tenth of the way through the novel. There are scenes of arresting, heart-breaking beauty, none more so than the doomed life of Wright, a gay man who perishes in our country’s last plague. “There is a kind of understanding that occurs just after,” writes Alcott, “If we are lucky, we catch it at the door on our way out, watch it enter the rooms we have left. It is not always possible to tell the exact moment you have separated from the earth. So much of what we know for certain is irrelevant by the time we know it.”   True to its title, there is something almost sacramental in Zink’s Doxology, with its poignant ruminations on both ecology and aesthetics as told througha generation-spanning story focused on Pam and Daniel Svoboda and their precocious daughter Flora. Originally 2/3rds of a Lower East Side 80s and 90s rock band situated somewhere on the spectrum between post-punk and grunge, the final member of their trio is Joe, a gentle musical genius with undiagnosed Williams Syndrome who was the only one to go onto any type of success before overdosing on September 11, 2001. Split between New York City and the Washington D.C. of Pam’s Fugazi-listening-Adams-Morgan-Clubbing youth, Doxology is an ultimately uncategorizable book about the connections of family forged in hardship and the transcendent power of creation. Zink’s narration is refreshingly Victorian, having no problem dwelling in exposition and displaying the full omniscience we require of our third-person narrators (though her Author as God has a sense of humor). Daniel “was an eighties hipster. But that can be forgiven, because he was the child of born-again Christian dairy-farm workers from Racine, Wisconsin” or that Joe’s “father was a professor of American history at Columbia, his mother had been a forever-young party girl in permanent overdrive who could drink all night, sing any song and fake the piano accompaniment, and talk to anybody about anything. In 1976 she died.” Contrary to the order in which I’ve recounted this syllabus, I read Doxology in January, and as with Lauren Groff’s excellent speculative epic Arcadia, Zink’s novel moves into the near future from the time of its publication date in 2019. Recounting the effect that historical events like Desert Storm, 9/11, and the financial collapse of 2008 have on the Sveboldas, not to mention the election of Donald J. Trump, Doxology ends in the summer of 2020, a year after it was written and half a year after I read it. Flora lives in Washington, having been effectively raised by her grandparents, and in our infernal year as imagined by Zink she is a wounded environmental activist living in the Trumpian twilight. “On the last Wednesday in July, Washington was bathed in an acrid mist. The roses and marble facades stood sweating in air that stank of uncertainty. It was a smell that ought to be rising from burning trash, not falling from the sky as fawn-colored haze.” Some sort of ecological catastrophe has befallen the United States – perhaps a meltdown at a nuclear power plant – and the burnt ochre sun struggling through pink overcast skies speaks to the omnipresence of death. The Trump administration, of course, denies any knowledge, telling people that they should simply live their lives, and FOX News runs exposes about noodle thickness rather than the radioactive plume which seems to be spreading over the east coast. With the uncanny prescience that can only be imparted to us by a brilliant writer, I remember finishing Zink’s novel and wondering what awaited us in the months ahead. Unnerving to think of it now, but when I read Doxology I’d yet to have worn a face mask outside, or heard of “social distancing.” I’d yet to have felt the itchy anxiety that compels one to continually use hand-sanitizer, or to flinch from whenever you hear a cough during the few minutes a day when your dog’s bladder compels you to leave your apartment. When I read Doxology, already fearful for the year ahead, not a single American had yet died of this new disease, and I hadn’t yet heard the word coronavirus. More from A Year in Reading 2020 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. 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