Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Janet Malcolm, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Lindsay Stern, Mark Doten and more—that are publishing this week.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bangkok Wakes to Rain: “Sudbanthad’s meditative debut drifts back and forth through time, evoking Bangkok past, present, and future. Loosely woven narratives follow Nee, a girl whose lover is killed during anti-government protests in 1973, as she navigates life in a melancholy city bleeding out its ancient culture. In one story, Nee is estranged from her sister Nok after she discovers Nok’s restaurant in Japan buys its Thai ingredients from a corrupt ex-colonel. In another, Nee goes to work managing a high-rise condo, the lobby of which is a colonial-style Thai house—the heart of this novel—once owned by one of the building’s wealthy elderly residents. When the old woman’s son comes home from abroad, he and Nee begin a disastrous affair. Interspersed among Nee’s stories (which are not presented chronologically) are beautifully wrought tales of a doctor-missionary in old Siam, whose Western faith morphs into enlightenment with the help of witch doctors, cholera, and despair. Occasionally birds will narrate a story—or an aging American jazz musician, another foreigner seduced by Krungthep, the name the Thai people use to describe their city. Though this novel’s ambitious architecture—disparate stories in shifting eras—can sometimes work against its considerable strengths, all of Sudbanthad’s characters live and breathe with authenticity, and his prose is deeply moving, making for an evocative debut.”
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Good Immigrant: “In this revealing follow-up to the 2015 British edition, Shukla (Meatspace) and Suleyman (Outside Looking On) invite 26 artists and scholars, who are immigrants or have ties to multiple countries, to reflect on race, ethnicity, nationality, belonging, and the legacy of colonization, mostly in the context of post-2016 U.S. Written after, and in response to, U.S. President Trump’s Muslim travel bans and references to ‘shithole countries,’ these essays string similar notes—history, memory, pride, and (non)belonging—into many different melodies. Journalist Porochista Khakpour wonders at how she has come to write about nothing but “Iranian-America.” Artists Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas lay out Argentina’s struggle between its indigenous roots and its desire to be Western. Teju Cole and Walé Oyéjidé offer contrasting interpretations of depictions of Africa in the blockbuster film Black Panther. French-British film director Yann Demange gives an extended answer to the question, ‘Where are you from?’ and concludes that he will keep giving the short answer, because ‘the alternative answer can take for-fucking-ever, innit.’ The strength of this collection is in its diversity—of gender, sexuality, privilege, experience, and writing style. A gift for anyone who understands or wants to learn about the breadth of experience among immigrants to the U.S., this collection showcases the joy, empathy, and fierceness needed to adopt the country as one’s own.”
Nobody’s Looking at You by Janet Malcolm
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nobody’s Looking at You: “Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers) assembles an eclectic group of essays, mainly culled from the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, most of them from the past decade, into this outstanding collection. Varied and witty, the book includes profiles of such people as fashion designer Eileen Fisher, with her ‘aesthetic of elegant plainness’ and concert pianist Yuja Wang, ‘whose tiny dresses and spiky heels’ draw attention to the contrast between her petite frame and the ‘forcefulness she achieves at her instrument.’ Several essays are literary critiques, touching on, among other points, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s ability to ‘bend actuality to [his] artistic will’ and how Tolstoy follows the ‘deep structures’ of dream logic in Anna Karenina. Malcolm also explores the differing ways millennials and baby boomers view sexual harassment, email etiquette, and the high-stakes drama of John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, where little was learned about his judicial philosophy, but revelations about character emerged. With no weak selections and several strikingly prescient ones, this collection shows its author as a master of narrative nonfiction.”
Aerialists by Mark Meyer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Aerialists: “Mayer’s high-wire debut exposes the weirdness of everyday life. In the title story, a young man about to follow his brother into the navy constructs a computer-generated simulacrum of his neighborhood. Animals are featured in several stories: in ‘The Evasive Magnolio,’ the caretaker for a town’s dying mascot, a former circus elephant, has to plan its funeral; in ‘The Wilderness Act,’ a middle-aged outdoors advocate, unfamiliar with the online dating scene, begins to date a woman who hopes to see a mountain lion. Other stories feature children, including ‘Strongman,’ in which a child of divorce falls under the influence of his mother’s friend, a female bodybuilder, and ‘The April Thief,’ in which a boy is asked to care for a disease-ridden dog until his estranged mother returns home. And then there are stories with idiosyncratic characters: Uncle Bart is a Marxist who lives in the basement and cares for his orphaned nephew along with his cancer-survivor wife in ‘Solidarity Forever.’ A divorced real estate agent has the inner life of a killer clown in ‘The Clown.’ And in ‘The Ringmaster,’ an electrical engineer has a difficult time giving away his extensive model railroad. Mayer wittily subverts reader expectations with stories told in a realistic manner about characters or situations that all share a slightly surreal bent, resulting in a clever collection.”
The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Study of Animal Languages: “Stern’s latest (after Luz and Town of Shadows) is a taut, brainy tale that tracks the breakdown of an academic couple’s marriage while dissecting differences between language and communication, knowledge and truth, madness and inspiration. Forty-six-year-old philosophy professor Ivan Link drives his wife Prue’s father, Frank, from Vermont to the Rhode Island college where Ivan and Prue teach to attend Prue’s public lecture on birdsong. Bi-polar Frank is not taking his medication, but it is Prue who unsettles her audience by accusing animal language researchers of anthropocentrism, going so far as to call herself prison warden for the birds in her experiments. At the after-lecture party, Frank tries to force guests to admit animals have feelings by threatening to stab Ivan’s cockatiel with a fountain pen. The next day, at the aquarium, believing he understands what sharks are communicating, Frank destroys the shark tank. Frank is hospitalized; Ivan and Prue quarrel. Epistemologist Ivan mistakenly assumes Prue is having an affair with a visiting novelist; biolinguist Prue, meanwhile, cannot articulate the depth of her discontent. Stern’s intellectually teeming prose makes for a thought-provoking novel, though its more successful asking questions such as, ‘Can voles experience heartbreak?’ than depicting people breaking each other’s hearts.”
Trump Sky Alpha by Mark Doten
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Trump Sky Alpha: “A blistering and heartbreaking satire in which president Trump brings about a nuclear apocalypse, Doten’s second novel (after The Infernal) is by turns a dystopian nightmare, a cyber thriller, a spot-on treatise on memes, and a tragic tale of love and loss. After the president, aboard his ‘ultraluxury zeppelin’ named Trump Sky Alpha, executes a nuclear strike that kills a majority of the world’s population, Rachel, a tech journalist, receives an assignment for the reformation of the New York Times Magazine on ‘internet humor at the end of the world.’ Though she finds the idea of the piece irrelevant, Rachel accepts with the condition that she be able to travel to the field where the bodies of her wife and daughter were taken. She’s led to ‘the room with what was left of the internet’ to investigate the jokes, memes, and witticisms that were shared and posted as the global catastrophe took place, but she uncovers, instead, a possible explanation as to who was behind the cyber attacks that precipitated what becomes known as ‘1/28’— i.e., the day of the mass destruction. A group known as the Aviary, who were inspired by a 2015 novel called The Subversive, took credit for the four-day shutdown of the internet, and Rachel seems to have stumbled on some clues about their identities. Featuring a disturbing not-so-distant future, Doten’s novel is haunting, incisive, and surprisingly touching.”
Also on shelves: The White Book by Han Kang.
When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”
Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.
Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.
Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.”
That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.”
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.
Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s.
The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.
This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.