We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
The Memory Police
The Topeka School
The New Me
The Nickel Boys
The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
This month Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which appeared on our list amidst a dark horse run toward the Man Booker Prize, is replaced on our list by Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, which will doubtless make some prize runs of its own. As Hannah Gersen noted in her capsule for our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, “The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as ‘a powerful allegory of our troubled present.'” Clearly, many Millions readers are tantalized.
Elsewhere on our list, titles jockeyed for slight changes in position. Margaret Atwood’s Booker-winning novel The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, slid to 10th. September’s eighth book moved to ninth. The third swapped places with the fourth. You get the picture. Next month, three slots will open as three books are bound for our Hall of Fame. Any guesses on what will fill their places? Keep in mind: Year in Reading is around the corner. Start budgeting now.
This morning’s Nobel Prize in Literature announcement marked a first in the award’s 118-year history: two awards will be bestowed—one for 2018 and one for 2019.
Shortly after Kazuo Ishiguro won the prize in 2017, the Academy was rocked by a multi-faceted scandal: Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of Katarina Frostenson, an academy member, was accused (and later convicted) of sexual abuse, exploitation, and rape, The husband and wife are also accused of misusing academy funding. In the wake of those crises and multiple resignations, the 2018 prize and ceremony were cancelled.
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 prize for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Tokarczuk is no stranger to awards. For her novel Flights, she won the 2008 Nike Award—Poland’s most prestigious literary prize—and the English translation by Jennifer Croft would go on to win the 2019 Man Booker International award. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s second novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature.
She also recently cracked into The Millions Top Ten as well—which may be the most exciting feat of all (depending on who you’re asking, I guess). To learn more about Tokarczuk, The Millions has a fantastic review of her novel Flights, as well as an astute profile of the author by Gabe Habash.
Austrian author Peter Handke won the 2019 prize for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” The Millions predicted Handke’s chances to win in 2009. Handke is a controversial figure that even called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished in 2014 in an Austrian newspaper.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
The Memory Police
The New Me
The Nickel Boys
The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale
Meteoric rises for J. Robert Lennon and Yoko Ogawa propelled Pieces for the Left Hand and The Memory Police into the upper-half of this month’s Top Ten. In two months’ time, the books rose three and six rungs on the list, respectively. Still their ascent may not be over: Ogawa’s novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature this week.
Of course, fast risers unsettle past mainstays. This month, Normal People, The New Me, and The Nickel Boys dropped several slots; two titles dropped out and were replaced by newcomers. While we root for Sally Rooney, Halle Butler, and Colson Whitehead to stay on our list, we also recognize that change is our Top Ten’s one constant. Welcome, welcome, then to Margaret Atwood and Lucy Ellmann, whose novels The Testaments and Ducks, Newburyport check in at ninth and tenth on this month’s list. Both were shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize, as we noted last month.
In her write-up of The Testaments for our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, our own Claire Cameron noted that this long-awaited follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale was influenced by two things: “First, all the questions [Atwood’s] been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, ‘the world we’ve been living in.'”
Tune in next month for another installment of As the Top Ten Turns.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.
The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
The New Me
The Nickel Boys
The Golden State
The Memory Police
Major shakeups this month with fully half of the Top Ten being populated by newcomers. Led by Olga Tokarczuk, whose novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead has skyrocketed up to second position on our list, the pack also includes J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, Téa Obreht’s Inland, Helen Phillips’s The Need, and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Welcome, all. For the record, four of these five were listed in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview.
Tokarczuk’s ascent up our list makes sense, as “mystical detective novel[s]” are usually sure to excite, but as Gabe Habash explained in his review for our site:
… with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
Meanwhile, something interesting is happening with Pieces for the Left Hand and The Need: the author of the latter reviewed the former’s work for our site last month. In her piece, Helen Phillips dubbed J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand “the best book you’ve never read,” but obviously that statement’s not so true anymore. The strength of that review shot both works into this month’s Top Ten.
Two of this month’s new titles filled spaces vacated by The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms and Educated, both of which graduated to our Hall of Fame. The other three newcomers replaced Slave Old Man, Becoming, and Conversations with Friends, each of which dropped out of the running.
In 2007, Olga Tokarczuk had just published her novel Flights in Poland, where it would go on to be a bestseller and win the 2008 Nike Award, the country’s most prestigious literary prize; a decade later, it would win the Man Booker International Prize in an English translation by Jennifer Croft. But after she finished writing Flights, Tokarczuk was uncomfortable. She had developed a fear of flying—the novel features restless narratives that wander across multiple countries—and started longing to stay in one place. But that wasn’t the only problem.
“I really had started to run out of money to live on,” Tokarczuk tells me from her home in Poland. “When we talk about books, we rarely talk about the economic side of writing, especially of writing literary works, and that, at base, it’s a pretty costly enterprise.”
At the time, Tokarczuk was already several years into what would become The Books of Jacob, a 900-page polyphonic novel about controversial 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank (which would net Tokarczuk her second Nike in 2015; it will be published in English in 2020, translated by Croft). It was her most ambitious book to date and she needed money to continue researching, so she came up with a logical solution, for a writer: Write another book.
“I decided to write a crime novel,” she says. “That genre was at the height of its popularity in Poland, so I thought it might earn me a bit of cash to go on with my work on The Books of Jacob. I shut myself away for a few months and devoted myself entirely to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I was slightly concerned that breaking the continuity of one book in favor of another might not be a good idea, but it worked.”
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, will be published in the U.S. this month, 10 years after its original Polish publication. It’s a mystical detective novel—the title comes from a William Blake line—that follows Janina Duszejko, a woman in her 60s who lives alone in hamlet tucked in the wilderness of Poland’s Kłodzko Valley, in the southwest region of Lower Silesia, near the Czech border. From the story’s opening, the reader senses the genre conventions: Janina is woken up in the night by the knocks of her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who reports that their neighbor Big Foot (another of Janina’s names) is dead in his house. Not long after, the body of the local police commandant turns up in the snow. Janina notices a smattering of animal prints around the commandant’s body, leading her to posit to the local authorities—all men—that the animals are taking revenge on people because of the area’s barely-enforced hunting rules. Soon, another body is found. And then another.
But with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
“I’ve never been a great fan of crime fiction,” Tokarczuk says. “I read Agatha Christie in my youth, but that’s all. I’ve often felt that in the process of pursuing the perpetrator of a crime and trying to arrange the facts into a logical sequence, the complex, less obvious psychological motives get lost, the social context doesn’t get described in an incisive way, and no atmosphere is created.”
Both as a reader and writer, Tokarczuk brings a set of lofty expectations to a novel, which she regards as the highest literary form. “I expect novels, including crime fiction, to be multifaceted and to work on many planes,” she says. “A novel should tell a story, be a pleasure to read, and at the same time it should be thought-provoking, even a bit instructive. I still believe in the social function of literature, that literature can change things, it can have an influence on reality, or even generate it. I fully realized that many years ago, the first time a publisher sent me a sales report, and I read with pride and disbelief that tens of thousands of people had bought one of my books. It made me aware that what I say matters.”
Tokarczuk expects a novel “to force an intellectual and mental confrontation. That means sometimes it has to hurt, sometimes it has to be rough and uncomfortable.” She adds, “I like black humor, too.”
Tokarczuk’s three previous works translated into English—House of Day, House of Night (2003), Primeval and Other Times(2010), and Flights (2018)—employ a “constellation” style: they’re structured in far-ranging fragments that hopscotch between different times, places, and perspectives. House of Day and Primeval are mosaics of small Polish communities composed of clusters of stories about their residents; Flights nimbly searches out and plucks stories from all over the map, including that of Flemish anatomist Philip Verheyen’s discovery of the Achilles tendon in the 17th century—from dissecting his own leg.
“The novel allows us to step outside the boundaries of our own self, and to spend time in someone else’s skin—and then we find that the world isn’t black and white after all,” Tokarczuk says. “Literature broadens our awareness, and in a way it’s the guarantor of a healthy psyche.”
Throughout her novels, she demonstrates a command of switching focus from the granular and the individual to the cosmic and the momentous. One astounding passage that represents her style, concerns, and skill is the fragment about Peter Dieter from House of Day, House of Night.
The seven-page fragment is about a German man who travels to Lower Silesia, the region of Poland that Tokarczuk’s work consistently explores and where she now lives, to revisit the place where he grew up. Peter was one of the hundreds of thousands of Germans who lived in the region but were evacuated after World War II, when it became part of Poland. At that point, Polish citizens were given the property of the evacuated Germans. The unsettled Peter hopes that seeing where he came from will bring clarity to his life. Yet when he gets there, he can’t even recognize his own village, which has shrunk and drastically changed in appearance. He walks on alone to a mountain panorama, and feels a moment of peace looking at the view “that he had carried inside him all this time.” But as he climbs on, still higher, he finds himself completely out of breath. He wonders what it would be like to die in this moment (“For some reason this idea seemed funny”), starts to eat a piece of chocolate, and dies. His body ends up lying with one foot in the Czech Republic and one foot in Poland. The Czech border guards find Peter first, horrified at the chocolate stream dribbling out of his mouth. One begins to use his radio to report the body, but it’s dusk and they want to go home and eat dinner, so they pull him onto the Polish side of the border, then leave. Half an hour later, the Polish border guards find Peter. They drag him onto the Czech side and leave. And as Peter’s soul departs forever, the last image he sees is of a wooden nativity scene from his youth: among the wooden cows and wooden dogs, “two pairs of little wooden soldiers carry Peter Dieter’s wooden body from one side to the other for all eternity.”
The fragment contains some of Tokarczuk’s broader throughlines—near-mythic inevitability, borders, responsibility, the churn of history—but it does so through the detailed, precise view of a single life. The resulting effect of this dizzying shuttling between a super low-to-the-ground view and a wider one is that it feels like the perspective of a Tokarczuk novel, limited as all are and in spite of the impossibility of the task, is nonetheless trying to gather everything, to account for as much as it can. Her books never lose sight of the individual within the whole, and the reader is always aware of the swirl of factors—geographic, biological, spiritual, historical—that have added up to bring her characters their fates.
For Tokarczuk’s American readers, Drive Your Plow takes a new—and possibly more accessible—narrative route: it does away with the constellation style. Janina’s limited, first-person perspective squeezes maximum tension out of its murder mystery; readers know only what the idiosyncratic Janina chooses to tell us (and that’s often trying to decipher her abstruse astrological calculations). But Drive Your Plow, like Tokarczuk’s other books, features wide-lens observations. Janina shares her views on, among many others, local flora (flowers in a garden “are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym”), the body (that “our cerebellum has not been correctly connected to our brain,” meaning we lack full knowledge of our own anatomy and what’s troubling it, rendering the body “a troublesome piece of luggage”), the apoptosis of the world (“Reality has grown old and gone senile”), and the stars (“Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world”). The wrinkle of getting these observations through Janina’s eyes is a large part of what makes Drive Your Plow so compelling.
Tokarczuk says that the right voice for the story is always the most important thing for her when constructing a book. “From the start I knew the story had to be told in the first person, and I spent a long time trying to piece together various features of the narrator,” she says. “She needed to be an elderly woman, she had to be eccentric, both irritating and sympathetic at once. A little bit freaky. The whole thing turns on the reader identifying with her and liking her in spite of initial resistance.”
In discussing the origin of Janina’s voice, Tokarczuk says, “I was once at a party where I saw a woman from the flower-child generation, who was dressed quite oddly and who kept asking everyone about their birthday and their ascendant, and then coming up with her astrological conclusions. I could see that people found it irritating, and they were trying to avoid her company, or to ignore her. There was something touching yet at the same time annoying about her. It occurred to me that nobody wants to listen to old women, and that with age women become invisible, which has its good as well as its bad sides. So in the book I decided to tell my story in the voice of one of these women—well-educated, slightly weird, sensitive, and single.”
Lloyd-Jones says that in translating Drive Your Plow, Janina’s voice was key for her, as well. “The reader has to stick with her for 250 pages, in a sense becoming complicit with her,” Lloyd-Jones says. “I worked with an audiobook as well as a printed copy to help me to listen to Duszejko’s strange way of using language. When I’d finished, I went back over the entire translation, fine-tuning and in fact reining her in a bit, making sure the balance between irritating and likeable was still there, but in a form that worked in English.”
Tokarczuk says that she wrote Drive Your Plow in a fugue state, in part because she knew exactly where the story would go. It wasn’t difficult to write, at least compared to a book like Flights, which she didn’t fully know the direction of at the outset (she adds that writing the screenplay for Drive Your Plow, which was adapted into a film in 2017, was much more difficult). “I find writing in the first person to be the easiest literary form. Beginners or inexperienced writers often use this form because they can’t yet handle a more demanding third-person narrative, which requires much greater control over the world you’re describing. A first-person narrative requires you to identify with the narrator for a certain time and to a certain degree, and then it just takes off on its own.” She continues: “I wrote this book without effort, pretty much chronologically. Duszejko’s story carried me along, and more or less wrote itself. While I was writing the last few chapters I did some crying—I don’t know whether it was the tension I’d had to keep up for several months, or sadness over my heroine’s fate.”
As an internationally renowned writer, Tokarczuk isn’t afraid to be outspoken about the situation in her country, using her visibility to bring attention to difficult, urgent issues. She’s challenged both Poland’s own historical narrative of itself as an “open, tolerant country” (which she received death threats for, even needing bodyguards for a time) and its tense current political environment, with the ruling conservative, nationalist Law and Justice party promoting racist and homophobic views, such as when the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński spoke about Muslim refugees carrying “parasites and protozoa.” Party officials have recently pushed to declare entire provinces “LGBT-ideology free”; a Law and Justice campaign ad depicted an umbrella with the party logo blocking a family from rainbow-colored rain.
In January, Tokarczuk wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, who was stabbed to death on stage during a live broadcast of a charity event that millions of viewers were watching, stating that the violence was a clear consequence of the rampant hate speech that has proliferated throughout the country. Tokarczuk says, “In today’s Poland it’s impossible for a writer to just write quietly in isolation from what’s going on around them, and as a result, willingly or not, literature is becoming more and more committed.”
What’s happening in Poland is inextricably tied to the Tokarczuk’s wide-lens narrative scopes. “In extreme shorthand, in modern times our world has come apart, and we’ve started seeing everything separately: the body, the soul, nature, science, people, and animals,” she says. “This has allowed us to make lots of discoveries, and in many cases it has brought about an improvement in people’s lives. But now this fragmentary, smashed-up world is starting to be a threat to itself. I wonder if we can make it whole again, and how that could be done. I think understanding the wholeness of the world as a system of communicating vessels, or a network, will give us an entirely new kind of responsibility. Literature, philosophy, and art are sure to play a major part in that.”
Tokarczuk, who has stated that her “romantic notion of helping people” led her to studying psychology at the University of Warsaw over 30 years ago, continues, and will continue, to look outward. She says that novels “exercise and develop our empathy,” and that she’s continually fascinated by literature’s ability to make the local become global. “When we read superbly written books by Annie Proulx or Richard Flanagan we’re able to transfer ourselves to Canada or Tasmania. If I have managed to cause Janina Duszejko, living somewhere in Central Europe, in Lower Silesia, in a tiny village, to occupy someone’s thoughts far away, I think I’ve achieved my literary aim. In a future book I’m going to go back to that idea.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Téa Obreht, Olga Tokarczuk, Patrice Nganang, Kimberly King Parsons (whom we interviewed recently), Ibram X. Kendi, and more—that are publishing this week.
Inland by Téa Obreht
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inland: “The unrelenting harshness of existence in the unsettled American West sharply focuses what Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife) refers to as ‘the uncertain and frightening textures of the world’ in this mesmerizing historical novel spun from two primary narrative threads. In one, homesteader Nora Lark waits with her son and niece for the return of her newspaperman husband with a supply of badly needed water for their house in Amargo, in the Arizona Territory in 1893. In the other, outlaw Lurie Mattie flees a warrant for murder by taking refuge in the Camel Corps, an all-but-forgotten experiment in history to import camels as beasts of burden in the 19th-century American Southwest. As Nora’s and Lurie’s paths gradually converge, Obreht paints a colorful portrait of the Western landscape, populated by a rogue’s gallery of memorable characters and saturated with spirits of the countless dead who attain a tangible presence, if only through the conversations they conduct in the minds of the characters whom they haunt. The novel’s unforgettable finale, evocative and grimly symbolic, crystallizes its underlying themes of how inconsolable grief and unforgivable betrayal shape the circumstances that bind its characters to their fates. Obreht knocks it out of the park in her second novel.”
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead: “Tokarczuk follows her Man Booker International winner Flights with an astounding mystical detective novel. Narrator Janina Duszejko, an English teacher and winter caretaker for a few summer houses in an isolated Polish hamlet near the Czech border, is awakened one night by her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, who informs her that their neighbor, nicknamed Big Foot, is dead in his house. Before the police arrive, Janina and Oddball find a deer bone in Big Foot’s mouth. Soon another body turns up, and Janina, an avid creator of horoscopes and, more generally, prone to theorizing and ascribing incidents to larger systems, develops a theory that animals are killing the locals. As the body count rises, readers are treated to Janina’s beliefs (‘Finally, transformed into tiny quivering photons, each of our deeds will set off into Outer Space, where the planets will keep watching it like a film until the end of the world’), descriptions (a body is ‘a troublesome piece of luggage’), and observations (flowers in a garden ‘are neat and tidy, standing straight and slender, as if they’d been to the gym’). Tokarczuk’s novel succeeds as both a suspenseful murder mystery and a powerful and profound meditation on human existence and how a life fits into the world around it. Novels this thrilling don’t come along very often.”
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Yellow House: “Broom presents a great, multigenerational family story in her debut memoir. At its center is Broom’s dilapidated childhood home—a source of both division and unity in the family. Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought the house, located in New Orleans East, in 1961; the budding area then succumbed to poverty and crime in the late 1980s. Broom connects the house’s physical decline to the death in 1980 of her father, Simon, who left many unfinished repair projects. The house had a precarious staircase, electrical problems, and holes that attracted rodents and cockroaches. Broom recalls living in an increasingly unwelcoming environment: ‘When would the rats come out from underneath the sink?’ she wonders. Broom eventually left New Orleans—she attended college in Texas and got a job in New York—but returned after Hurricane Katrina. Through interviews with her brother, Carl, she vividly relays Katrina’s impact on families. Broom is an engaging guide; she has some of David Simon’s effortless reporting style, and her meditations on eroding places recall Jeannette Walls. The house didn’t survive Katrina, but its destruction strengthened Broom’s appreciation of home. Broom’s memoir serves as a touching tribute to family and a unique exploration of the American experience.”
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Memory Police: “Ogawa (Revenge) returns with a dark and ambitious novel exploring memory and power—both individual and institutional—through a dystopian tale about state surveillance. The unnamed female narrator is an orphaned novelist living on an unnamed island that is in the process of disappearing, item by item. The disappearances, of objects such as ribbons, perfume, birds, and calendars, are manifested in a physical purge of the object as well as a psychological absence in the island’s residents’ memories. The mysterious and brutal Memory Police are in charge of enforcing these disappearances, randomly searching homes and arresting anyone with the ability to retain memory of the disappeared, including the narrator’s mother. When the narrator discovers her editor, R, is someone who does not have the ability to forget, she builds a secret room in her house to hide him, with the help of her former nurse’s husband, an old man who once lived on the ferry, which has also disappeared. Though R may not leave the room for fear of discovery, he, the narrator, and the old man are able to create a sense of home and family. However, the disappearances and the Memory Police both grow more aggressive, with more crucial things disappearing at a faster rate, and it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them—their family unit, and the island as a whole—to continue. The classic Ogawa hallmarks are here, a dark eroticism and idiosyncratic characters, but it’s also clear she’s expanded her range into something even deeper. This is a searing, vividly imagined novel by a wildly talented writer.”
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about When the Plums Are Ripe: “Nganang continues his rich, complex saga of WWII-era Cameroon with this second volume in a trilogy, after Mount Pleasant. Pouka the poet has returned to his village of Édéa after being educated by the French in the capital city of Yaounde. Fancying himself a man of letters, he starts a poetry group in the local bar. However, upon the fall of France to the Nazis, the poets are quickly thrown into the fighting that has spread throughout North Africa. Readers move from Pouka’s story to that of the poets under the questionable and racist leadership of French general Leclerc. Through the bloody battles of Kufra and Murzur in Libya, Nganang confronts the horrible history of French colonialism: the French’s use of ‘black soldiers for cannon fodder’ in fighting the Axis powers; villagers armed with nothing but machetes, killed by the thousands. With a narrative structure reminiscent of African oral traditions, an unknown narrator heralds these men for their deeds and weeps for the sons and daughters of Cameroon: the young men who shed their blood for a Western country and the young women left behind, whose bodies were exploited and raped. With lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang sings their song, challenging the Euro-written history of colonialism and replacing it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.”
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Black Light: “Parsons’s debut crackles with the frenetic energy of the women who stalk its pages. In opening story ‘Guts,’ Sheila has just started dating ‘almost-doctor’ Tim, whose particular brand of condescending masculine practicality destabilizes her already-erratic lifestyle. In ‘Foxes,’ a recently divorced mother recounts her courtship and marriage to her ex-husband, whom she calls ‘the fool,’ as she listens to her young daughter spin a story featuring knights and inky enemies, and the two stories begin to intertwine and mimic the cadences of each other. ‘Foxes’ kicks off a dazzling run of stories, including ‘The Soft No,’ in which a pair of siblings must navigate neighborhood politics as well as their unpredictable mother, to ‘We Don’t Come Natural to It,’ in which two women’s pursuit of beauty becomes a vortex of self-inflicted violence, control, and mistrust. In the title story, a young woman watches as her former lover evolves into someone she realizes she never knew, while she must navigate the breakup in a way that doesn’t out her sexuality. Parsons’s characters are sharp and uncannily observed, bound up in elastic and electrifying prose. This is a first-rate debut.”
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Be an Antiracist: “Kendi follows his National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning with a boldly articulated, historically informed explanation of what exactly racist ideas and thinking are, and what their antiracist antithesis looks like both systemically and at the level of individual action. He weaves together cultural criticism, theory (starting each chapter with epigraph-like definitions of terms), stories from his own life and philosophical development (he describes his younger self as a ‘racist, sexist homophobe’), and episodes from history (including the 17th-century European debate about ‘polygenesis,’ the idea that different races of people were actually separate species with distinct origins). He delves into typical racist ideas (e.g. that biology and behavior differ between racial groups) and problems (such as colorism), as well as the intersections between race and gender, race and class, and race and sexuality. Kendi puts forth some distinctive arguments: he posits that ‘internalized racism is the true Black-on-Black crime,’ critiquing powerful black people who disparage other black people and racializing behaviors they disapprove of, and argues that black people can be racist in their views of white people (when they make negative generalizations about white people as a group, thereby espousing the racist idea that ethnicity determines behavior). His prose is thoughtful, sincere, and polished. This powerful book will spark many conversations.”
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hard Mouth: “Goldblatt’s propulsive and beguiling debut tracks the story of a young woman searching for escape. Twenty-something Denny, short for Denise, has watched her father suffer on and off from cancer for 10 years and moves through her days in a fog of half-hope and half-grief, ‘working on the idea of being alive.’ She works a quiet job in a genetics lab and spends most nights alone in her studio apartment in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, socializing only with her high school best friend Ken and her imaginary friend, Gene, an amalgam of classic movie–character clichés. But when her father’s cancer returns, and Denny learns he won’t be seeking treatment, Denny decides to take time off and rent a cabin deep in the woods, leaving no word with the people she leaves behind. Cut off from civilization, the unexpected becomes the everyday, and Denny’s inner turmoil is matched by the brutality she must endure to survive, particularly after a storm downs a tree that tears open the roof and exposes her to the elements—and even more so when she discovers that she might not be alone out there. Denny’s story gains momentum early on, though the secondary characters too often come across as one-note, muddled shapes in the background. Still, this debut is a striking psychological portrait of despair.”
Also on shelves: I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton.
We seem to say this every six months or so, but what a year for books. The second half of 2019 brings new novels from Colson Whitehead, Ben Lerner, Jacqueline Woodson, and Margaret Atwood. It brings hotly anticipated first novels by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wayne Koestenbaum. It brings Zadie Smith’s very first short story collection. Riveting memoirs. Coming-of-age stories. With more than 100 titles, you’re going to have your hands full this fall. As always, please let us know what we missed in the comments, and look for additional titles in our monthly previews.
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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Fresh off a Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to the subject of America’s racist history with this tale of a college-bound black man who runs afoul of the law in Jim Crow Florida and ends up in the hellish Nickel Academy, where boys are beaten and sexually abused by the staff. In an early review, Publishers Weekly calls The Nickel Boys “a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” (Michael)
The Need by Helen Phillips: This book had me at “existential thriller about motherhood” but when I found out that the mother in the book is also a paleobotanist, I pre-ordered, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History staring at plant fossils. In case you need more convincing, it has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is on multiple summer reading lists, and is from the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Some Possible Solutions. Also, the cover is gorgeous. (Hannah)
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar: In this modern-day Western, Tomar tells the story of a young woman’s search for her missing friend in the harsh desert landscape along the California-Nevada border. A gritty portrait of small-town life and the violence that plagues it, the novel formally experiments with time and narration. Publishers Weekly praises Tomar for “employing authorial sleight-of-hand…intentionally scrambl[ing] the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives.” (Matt)
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon: Buckhanon’s latest novel, her fourth, takes the reader on a quest to find out why a woman in Harlem disappeared after walking to the roof of her brownstone one day. The missing woman’s sister, Autumn, sets out to solve the case, after learning the police aren’t likely to provide her with answers. Autumn’s life unravels as her grief becomes overwhelming, and she grows steadily more fixated on the plight of missing women. (Thom)
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks: In what Kirkus describes as “finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration,” Horrocks tells the story of Erik Satie and his siblings, Conrad and Louise. Set in La Belle Époque Paris, The Vexations is a finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art. (Adam P.)
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter: Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, is a “natural extension” of her wild and raucous collection of stories, Tongue Party, which Deb Olin Unferth selected as winner of (the now defunct) Caketrain’s chapbook competition. Told in fragments, The Book of X alternates between the story of the alienated and disfigured Cassie, born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, and her fantasies of an alternate life for herself. Scott McClanahan calls The Book of X “our new Revelation,” while Blake Butler compares Etter’s voice to Angela Carter’s, declaring, “there’s a new boss in the Meat Quarry.” (Anne)
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky: Emma Straub says Dermanky’s fourth novel is, “her best yet.” If you’ve read Bad Marie and The Red Car, you know the bar is high and that no writer balances on the sharp edge between comedy and tragedy quite like Dermansky. Very Nice weaves several stories together, a wealthy divorcée in Connecticut, her college-age daughter, a famous American novelist, and a poodle, to ask a timely question—how much bad behavior from a bad man can we take? Maria Semple says it best, “so sexy and reads so smooth.” (Claire)
Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by Wayne Koestenbaum
Poet, literary critic, and all-around cultural polymath Koestenbaum returns with this post-modern, Nabokovian take on creativity, sexuality, classical music, and the circus in his first novel. Drawing on his interests in camp, Queer theory, and the symphony hall, which he’s explored in critical works like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum gives us the evocatively named Theo Mangrove, a polyamorous pianist who fantasizes that the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei will accompany him on his comeback concert in a medieval, walled French city. Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like “After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;” an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (Ed)
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez: Fulbright scholar Jimenez returns to her native New York in her first novel They Could Have Called Her Anything. A subway ride from Queens to the Upper East Side will see you take the F train while switching to the 6 or the Q, for an investment of about 45 minutes, but the actual distance between Maria Anis Rosario and her privileged friend Rocky’s life couldn’t be further apart. Jimenez’ debut explores the unexpected friendship between these girls at the elite private school both attend, a world where even though “certain girls at Bell Seminary were intimidated” by Maria, a connection would be made between her and Rocky across the chasms of race and class which define the city. (Ed)
Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch: The first novel from ffitch, the author of the 2014 short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and a longtime environmental activist living in Appalachia, Stay and Fight is both a social protest novel and the moving story of an unusual family. When Lily and Karen’s son is born, they know they’ll have to leave the women-only land trust where they’ve been living. Helen, who homesteads on 20 acres nearby, invites them to join her, and they settle into a new kind of domestic routine. But over the years the outside world edges nearer, threatening both the family and the Appalachian land that supports them. (Kaulie)
Costalegre by Courtney Maum: Maum’s third novel, her follow-up to I Am Having So Much Here Without You and Touch, is a pivot to historical fiction. Set in 1937, Costalegre is about heiress and art collector Leonora Calaway (modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), who bankrolls a group of Surrealist artists to flee Europe for Mexico. The book, narrated by Leonara’s 15-year-old daughter, has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; the latter of which called it “a fascinating, lively, and exquisitely crafted novel.” Samantha Hunt says that Maum’s latest is “as heady, delirious and heartbreaking as a young girl just beginning to fall in love with our world.” (Edan)
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: Most people probably know Lippman as a bestselling crime novelist, but I was recently introduced to her through Longreads, in her delightfully frank essay “Game of Crones” about being an old mother and staying true to her ambition to write a novel every year. Her latest novel is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows a housewife, Maddy Schwartz, who reinvents herself as a reporter after helping to solve a murder. Maddy becomes involved in another murder case when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of city park lake. (Hannah)
Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández: This debut memoir of a young girl’s journey from Guatemala to L.A. weaves together personal essay and bilingual poetry. Described by publisher Feminist Press as “harrowing, candid, complex,” and by Bridgett M. Davis as bringing us “the immigrant experience in a refreshingly new light,” this one promises to be both timely and aesthetically exciting in its hybridity. (Sonya)
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon): With a cast of characters large enough to populate a mid-size village, Ulitksaya delivers an epic, Tolstoyan Russian novel that may just win her some Anglophone fans but surely will impress no one in the Kremlin. For those ready to invest the time (560 pages), her look at the clash of free will and determinism provides a solid enough critique of the tragic, untidy histories of Russia and Ukraine over the last half of the 20th century in a lithe translation by Polly Gannon. (Il’ja)
Turbulence by David Szalay: In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s latest book, 12 people take 12 flights around the world, touching each other’s lives in profound and unpredictable ways. Labeled as a novel but structured as a series of linked stories, Turbulence explores the interconnected nature of human relationships today. In Alex Preston’s review for The Guardian, he describes Szalay as an author “whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele: A worthy addition to the realm of speculative fiction, this debut novel “imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.” More than just standard techno-challenged-humanity-rendered-atavistic fare, this is a love story. More accurately, the quest for love and its potential in a world demanding to be rebuilt. (Il’ja)
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage: Set in 1978 war-torn Beirut, this tragicomic novel follows Pavlov, the son of a recently deceased local undertaker, as he joins the Hellfire Society – a secret group his late father was a member of. Throughout the novel, Hage, the second Canadian to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, asks what it means to live through war, and what can be preserved in the face of imminent death. In Canada, Beirut Hellfire Society was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. (Jacqueline)
Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Ella, an artistic grad school dropout turned caretaker, is hired to care for Jill, a woman who’s been left a shell of her old self after a traumatic brain injury leaves her largely nonverbal. But as she watches the dynamic between Jill and her loving husband, Bryn, Ella starts to question her own relationships—and get drawn further into the couple’s. Savage’s debut novel, informed by her own time working as a caretaker, gently digs at the roots of what keeps people together in the face of suffering and loss. (Kaulie)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: This anthology of essays by Native writers takes the formal art of basket weaving as an organizing theme, so that the authors, who include Deborah A. Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Kim TallBear, come together to produce something akin to a well-woven basket. Malea Powell writes that the book “offers us nonfiction that reflects, interrogates, critiques, imagines, prays, screams, and complicates simplistic notions about Native peoples and Native lives.” (Jacqueline)
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: This highly anticipated debut is not about sex but rather about “the heat and sting of female want,” according to author Lisa Taddeo, who spent years criss-crossing the country and conducting thousands of hours of interviews with women about the sources and consequences of their desires. The result is a triptych: a North Dakota woman who is labeled “a freaky slut” for reporting an affair with her high school English teacher; an unfulfilled Indiana wife and mother who reconnects with a high school crush and winds up “a tangle of need and anxiety”; and a Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband picks her partners, then watches them have sex. The book has already been dubbed “an instant feminist classic.” (Bill)
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger: Ambition, competition, and the fear of behind left out threaten to rip apart the bond between four families who are offered an unexpected chance at getting their kids into an elite school. The Paris Review notes that this satirical takedown of the concept of meritocracy in contemporary America serves as a timely expose of “the hypocrisy of white liberalism” that drives the pursuit of prestige. Caution: sense of humor required. (Il’ja)
The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: In just two years, Jasmine Guillory has become a New York Times bestselling author and major force (the author of the first romance novel selected for Reese Witherspoon’s coveted book club, for one). Following The Wedding Date and The Proposal, The Wedding Party is one of two novels Guillory has coming out this year—look for Royal Holiday in the fall. (Lydia)
Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno: Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is just as ineluctable as the series of short, silent, black-and-white film portraits by Andy Warhol that they’re named after. This too gives a good sense of the book’s structure: a series of short glimpses that look deeply, and often contain autobiographical components or disquisitions. The effect, says Kirkus, is to “spin around like floating objects on an Alexander Calder mobile precariously tied together with ideas and images. Or rather, take Amber Sparks’ assessment: “If Thomas Bernhard’s and Fleur Jaeggy’s work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby—with Diane Arbus as a nanny— it would be Screen Tests.” (Anne)
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell: Pursell is the founder of the national reading series Why There are Words, as well as the WTAW press, which puts out excellent books each year. Now she publishes a collection of eerie, short (sometimes very short) stories, many of them focusing on themes of mothers and daughters, with themes from folklore and fairytale. Publishers Weekly called the collection “haunting,” “potent,” and “sharp but disturbing.” (Lydia)
What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll: This is a work of memoir by a woman who was raped by Donald Trump, who is the current President of the United States. A haunting excerpt from the book, with an account of the rape, was published here in The Cut. (Lydia)
Coventry by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s Outline trilogy—or as I think of it, The Cuskiad—is a masterpiece of modern literature, a formally adventurous exercise in narrative erasure that explores marriage, divorce, family, art, and representation. In her forthcoming essay collection Coventry, Cusk groups these thematic concerns into three sections, broadly: memoir, art, and criticism—although as Publishers Weekly says, the enterprise is bound by “the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives… something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.” (Adam P.)
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott: If Scott’s talent didn’t catch your attention with Insurrections, his award-winning debut, he’ll draw even more readers with this second book. Cross River, Maryland, the fictional town of his first book, returns in this new story collection. Scott can shift between irreverent and complex in a single story—a single sentence—as in “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”: “David didn’t believe what his older brother preached and wondered if Delante, who now called himself Jesus Jesuson (everyone, though, referred to him as Jeez), really believed, but he didn’t ask.” Also: all praise to story collections like this one that end with an anchoring novella! (Nick R.)
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino’s essay collection is rangy and deft—nothing is treated superficially here. “I wrote this book because I am always confused,” she says in the introduction, but what follows are ardent and skilled attempts to make sense of the world. She tackles our digital lives (“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”), athleisure and women’s bodies (“These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image”), her evangelical childhood and departure from belief (“Christianity formed my deepest instincts: it gave me a leftist worldview, an obsession with everyday morality, an understanding of having been born in a compromised situation, and a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”). Also: contemporary scams, her stint on reality TV, and the panoply of nuptials she attends: “My boyfriend maintains a running Google spreadsheet to keep track of the weddings we’ve been invited to together.” (Nick R.)
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price: The second novel by Adam O’Fallon Price, a staff writer at The Millions, is the rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale of the Sikorsky family, who transform an abandoned mansion into the titular jewel of the Borscht Belt. Inspired by Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel, Price uses a revolving cast of narrators to tell a story that is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dark secret lurking at its core. The novel asks a chilling question about the children who disappear from the towns and woods around the Hotel Neversink: Are they victims of coincidence, or part of a calculated plot to destroy the Sikorskys? (Bill)
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: A collection of eight vigorous, compelling stories provides a storyteller’s insight to how migration to and from the Caribbean affected people’s lives, personalities, and relationships. Lovers, deeply wounded by the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, strive to reunite; an undocumented construction worker pictures his lover and adopted son in the last minute of his life; the christening of a baby reveals the chasm between the three generation of a family. “No one is immune from pain,” as Kirkus Review puts it, “but Danticat asks her readers to witness the integrity of her subjects as they excavate beauty and hope from uncertainty and loss.” (Jianan Qian)
Doxology by Nell Zink: New York City in the ’90s was not quite the hyper-sanitized playground for the super-rich which parts of it feel like today, with Nell Zink giving us a gritty account of the “worst punk band on the Lower East Side” right at the turn of the millennium. As the halcyon days of the 20th-century’s last decade end, grunge seemingly eclipsed with the falling of the twin towers, Doxology uses the personal and musical travails of bandmates Pam, Daniel, and Joe to investigate our current political and environmental moment. True to the Latin meaning of her title, Zink’s Doxology provides a means of praising God in a world where we’re so often faced with the finality of silence. Doxology, rather, provides the cacophony of punk. (Ed)
Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones): The 2018 International Man Booker prize has done it again, this time with a noir murder mystery that is less whodunnit than it is existential inquiry, namely: what are we here for? The protagonist—Janina Duszejko—is a brilliantly rendered Polish Miss Marple, (sort of) who Tokarczuk has asking the hard questions with art that is subtle and penetrating. And, as it turns out, getting her into a lot of trouble at home, with a hard-right leaning Polish press labeling the book “anti-Christian” and the work of “a traitor.” The film adaptation (Spoor) a couple of years back just about shut the country down. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation from Polish sparkles. (Il’ja)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: In 2015, Broom published an essay in The New Yorker about her family’s house in New Orleans that has sat with me since I read it. The piece starts with questions: “In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all. Why is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house? We call it Grandmother’s even though she died ten years ago. Her house, the only one remaining in our family, is a squat three-bedroom in a subdivision just off the River Road, which snakes seventy miles along the Mississippi, where plantation houses sit alongside grain mills and petrochemical refineries.” The next year, she was a Whiting Fellow, and this year, readers can get their hands on the book, a gorgeous work of memoir and reporting about place and family that feels like the apotheosis of a form. (Lydia)
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Apollo wanders through a museum, trying to make sense of war and his own history. A chess-playing automaton falls in love. Dead girls tell the story of a catastrophe and its aftermath. Bucak’s debut story collection is a surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn. The result: “narratively precise” stories that “are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms,” writes The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Kaulie)
Inland by Téa Obreht: In 2011, at age 26, Obreht burst onto the literary scene with her first novel The Tiger’s Wife, an inventive, fable-like retelling of the wars that ravaged her native Serbia in the 1990s. Eight years later, Obreht returns with – wait for it – a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1893. No, we didn’t see that coming, either. Early reviews are rapturous, including one from Booklist that called it “a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.” Yes, tornadic. (Michael)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder): Critically acclaimed Japanese writer Ogawa’s new novel takes place in a society where objects disappear and where the terrifying Memory Police pursue citizens who recall the disappeared objects. The protagonist is a young novelist who discovers her editor is in danger and decides to hide him beneath her floorboards. The Memory Police explores trauma, loss, memory, and surveillance, and will astound readers. Chicago Tribune calls it “a masterful work of speculative fiction” and Esquire writes, “Ogawa’s taut novel of surveillance makes for timely, provocative reading.” (Zoë)
The Overthrow by Caleb Crain: A new novel from the author of Necessary Errors, The Overthrow is a romance and a story of relationships set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, exploring, power, idealism, technology, and the way we forge connections in the dystopian world we’ve created. Keith Gessen calls it “a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book…part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities.” Sign me up. (Lydia)
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda: As we read daily of the horrors of detainment camps at the border, poet Brandon Shimoda directs our attention back to a not dissimilar blight in Grave on the Wall. It’s an elegy for Shimoda’s dead grandfather, Midori, who after Pearl Harbor was incarcerated in internment camps despite having lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Don Mee Choi calls Grave on the Wall “a remarkable exploration of how citizenship is forged by the brutal US imperial forces—through slave labor, forced detention, indiscriminate bombing, historical amnesia and wall.” Shimoda’s remembrance is also for the living, says Karen Tei Yamashita: “we who survive on the margins of graveyards and rituals of our own making.” (Anne)
When I was White by Sarah Valentine: A memoir from the author, translator, and scholar about being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a white person, only to learn at age 27 that her father was a black man. The memoir explores the painful process of uncovering the past, interrogating the decisions her family made, and reconceiving her own identity. Publishers Weekly calls it “a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.” (Lydia)
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers: Powers’s debut novel is the story of the big lie behind the Soviet space program: They can send manned flights up, they just can’t seem to get them back down. And so they are using twins – one who will touch the face of God and the other who will stay behind on terra firm to make sure there’s an acceptable, Kremlin-approved PR tour afterward if things go badly up in space. Which they inevitably do. Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies. (Il’ja)
White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination by Jess Row: “White flight” typically refers to the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, but in this work of criticism, Row extends the term to literature. Combining memoir as well as literary, filmic, and musical analysis, Row argues for an understanding of writing as reparative, and fiction as a space in which writers might “approach each other again.” Kirkus calls it “wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned.” (Jacqueline)
The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown: The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement. Brown, a disability rights advocate and creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign, explores aspects of pop culture, music, family, self acceptance, and love in her essays, all the while challenging society’s assumptions of what it means to be black and disabled. (Kate Gavino)
I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton: Few critics quit understand the implications of our cultural divisions in the warm autumn of the Anthropocene more than University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton. Exploring themes that he’s written about in collections ranging from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Scranton’s second novel returns us to a badly fractured America. A writer named Suzie travels a broken, pre-apocalyptic America that looks very much like our own nation, a place so “highly refined and audacious and dense that nobody care whether it’s bullshit or not.”
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang: The second in Nganang’s trilogy on Cameroon before and during WWII, When the Plums Are Ripe tells the story of the country’s growing involvement in the conflict as the colonized fight to free their colonizer from Axis control. But the book is as much poetry as history, with a structure calling on oral traditions and a poet-narrator who mourns the wounds of war. Publishers Weekly writes that “with lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang… challeng[es] the Euro-written history of colonialism and replac[es] it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.” (Kaulie)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons: A story collection rooted in the vastness and contradictions of Texas and composed by an author who refuses to shy away from the strange, ugly, and interesting, Black Light has been described as “Friday Night Lights meets Ottessa Moshfegh.” What more could a reader want, really? (Kaulie)
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: With racial invective spewed from the Twitterer-in-Chief on down, many white Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their prejudices. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi returns to a subject which he illuminated so well in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,, asking how we avoid both fatalism and despair in imagining what a future, antiracist version of the United States might look like. Kendi’s answers are neither to embrace the myopic obstinacy of “color blindness,” nor the feel-good platitudes of “wokeness,” but rather to acknowledge that the individual responsibility of being antiracist is “an everyday process.” (Ed)
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz: Lenz—a journalist whose profiles and personal essays are absolute must reads—brings a book that combines memoir and journalism. After the 2016 election, Lenz leaves her Trump-supporting husband and her church—and begins to travel to churches across the Midwest to understand the incomprehensible: faith in today’s America. Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book a “slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America.” (Carolyn)
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin: This debut novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola’s Nigerian family as they struggle to assimilate in the impossibly foreign world of Utah. As Tunde’s father chases his version of the American Dream and his mother sinks into schizophrenia, Tunde will be forced to spend his childhood and young adulthood seeking elusive connections—through his stepmother and stepbrothers, through evangelical religion, through the black students at his middle school and the fraternity brothers at his historically black college. This is a novel that will force readers to rethink notions of family, belonging, memory, and the act of storytelling. (Bill)
Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen): Set in the near future, this novel, which Kirkus describes as a “thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor,” tells the story of Britta and Babak, who run an agency that provides suicide bombing candidates to activists/terrorists. In this post-Angela Merkel Germany, their agency provides a needed antidote to both the conservative government takeover and liberals’ passive acceptance of the new order. When two unknown suicide bombers show up in an airport, things get complicated. (Jacqueline)
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt: NEA Fellow Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel is as bold and unflinching as its title suggests. The book follows suburban Maryland-born and raised Denny as she literally runs away from her grief and inability to confront mortality, that has come in the form of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. As she flings herself into the wilderness, Denny is wildly unprepared and accompanied only by her imagination (& her imaginary friend, Gene) in what appears like a slow form of suicide. Goldblatt nails suburban MD ennui, outdoor unpreparedness, gritty sex scenes, and a refutation of sentimentality in what R.O. Kwon calls a “blazing feat of a book.” (Anne)
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: At 56, Jacqueline Woodson is moving and shaking in both YA and adult literature realms. Her new adult novel brings together a clash of social classes via an unexpected pregnancy. Another slim, compressed volume à la Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone moves “forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length.” Two words: can’t wait. (Sonya)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Akin by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue is one of our most versatile writers. She does many things well, including historical fiction, middle grade series, and scripts for screen and stage. Akin, like her international bestseller Room, is positioned as contemporary fiction. It’s about a retired professor who plans to travel to Nice, France to discover more about his mother’s wartime past. Two days before the trip, circumstances mean he must take charge of his potty-mouthed pre-teen nephew. As the pair travel together, they uncover secrets about their family and discover a bond and, as the publisher’s blurb says, “they are more akin than they knew.” (Claire)
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke: The universe will soon award us with a new Attica Locke novel! Heaven, My Home is the follow-up to Locke’s Edgar Award-winning thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, and it once again centers on black Texas Ranger Daren Matthews. This time, he’s pulled into the case of a missing nine-year-old boy—and the boy’s white supremacist family. The jacket copy declares: “Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.” Attica Locke is one of the best writers working today, and I cannot wait to read this. (Edan)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois: A terrible snowstorm can derail a well-planned life, and two feet of snow in one day was “the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe.” Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is “flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.” Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read. (Nick R)
The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye: Goncourt and Femina Prix-winning, French-born and Berlin-based Ndiaye brings us another woman-centered novel, this time about a GFC— Great Female Chef. The story is told from the perspective of a male sous-chef (and unrequited lover), from a perspective years onward. Ndiaye’s work is often described as “hypnotic,” so perhaps add this one to your summer-escape TBR list. (Sonya)
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker: Award-winning poet Morgan Parker offers a new coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist that just can’t seem to figure it out. From spending her summer crying in bed to being teased about not being “really black” by her mostly white classmates, 17-year-old Morgan can see clearly why she’s in therapy. Parker’s account of teenage anxiety and depression will speak to readers of all ages, and the prose’s mix of heartbreak and hilarity makes it a prime candidate for film adaptation. Are you paying attention, Netflix? (Kate Gavino)
The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball: In what Publishers Weekly called an “atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing tale of haves and have-nots,” Ball (Census) returns with a novel about a society that has rejected equality and embraced brutality. Through vignettes, the novel reveals how the world descended into madness. A dystopian tale imbued with empathy, philosophical musings, and questions about compassion, generational trauma, and humanity. (Carolyn)
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Patti Smith started writing this book on the Lunar New Year’s Day in 2016; she carried the project “in cafes, trains and strange motels by the sea, with no particular design, until page by page it became a book,” as she announced in her Instagram. This memoir evolves around the transformations both in her life and the American political landscape. Intriguing, disturbing yet humorous, with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction blurred, Smith’s work is unlikely to disappoint. (Jianan Qian)
Fly Already by Etgar Keret: Keret’s new short story collection offers all the virtues readers have come to expect from the oft-New Yorker-published Keret: intelligence, compassion, frustration with the limits of human communication, and a playfulness that stays on the right side of whimsy. Whether it’s a father’s helpless desire to protect his son, a boy failing to obtain weed to impress a girl, or two people sharing a smoke on the beach, Keret’s deep interest in human connection feels important in our fractured times. As George Saunders says, “I am very happy that Etgar and his work are in the world, making things better.” (Adam P.)
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah: A novel of the group of people who carried David Livingstone’s body (along with his papers and effects) 1500 miles so that he could returned to England, narrated by Halima, the expedition’s cook, and a formerly enslaved man named Jacob. Jesmyn Ward writes, “A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” (Lydia)
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside): No contemporary French writer has interceded into the current Anglophone imagination quite as completely as Michel Houellebecq. From novels like The Elementary Particles to Submission, the cynical Houellebecq has explored everything from existentialism to sex tourism, through a voice that is simultaneously traditionalist and nihilistic, and critics and readers have argued how seriously we’re to take the reprehensible—racist, mysoginist, Islamophobic, colonialist—positions of the writer or his characters. Serotonin follows Florent-Claude Labrouste, a depressed libertine and former agricultural engineer who eventually rejects psychotropic medication in favor of a sojourn to the cheese-country of Normandy racked by globalization, where he becomes involved in an insurrection which looks very much like the gilets jaunes movement. Even while Houellebecq’s politics can be reprehensible, ranging from embrace of Brexit to denunciations of #MeToo, Serotonin’s observation of a contemporary capitalism where “people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed” is instrumental in understanding not just France or Europe, but the world. (Ed)
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin: In her debut memoir, Austin, a single black woman, writes about her journey to adopt a black boy out of foster care. In a recent interview, Austin said, “Ultimately, I wrote Motherhood So White out of necessity. I wanted black mothers who come after me to have multiple perspectives on motherhood, not just the mainstream definition of who gets to be a mom in America. I want white mothers to see black mothers on the page and know that we are all allies in the quest for raising compassionate children.” (Edan)
Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkseworth): World Literature Today calls this set of linked stories a “haunting requiem for the soul’s death in the wake of postmodernity.” Translation: Drndic’s trademark absurdist humor and image rich style assure that this slim collection will get the synapses firing. (Il’ja)
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: In 2016, Amitav Ghosh published The Great Derangement, which argues that contemporary literary fiction, among other art forms, seems unable to directly confront the scale and impact of climate change. In an article for The Guardian, Ghosh writes, of the extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” Now, the author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy has written a novel that seeks to make a change in that tradition. Gun Island tells the story of rare books-dealer Deen Datta as he travels from India to Los Angeles to Venice, encountering people who will upend his understanding of himself, the world, and the Bengali legends of his childhood. (Jacqueline)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong: Three women from disparate backgrounds—Ireland, Cincinnati, and Japan—tell the story of one man: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek author known for his books about Japanese legends and cultures. In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like her first novel, The Book of Salt, The Sweetest Fruits leads readers on a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling. (Kate Gavino)
Chimerica by Anita Felicelli: A fantastic, fantastical book built around the country of “Chimerica,” wherein a Tamil American trial lawyer is hard at work on a case…which happens to be a defense of a talking lemur come to life. Set in locations ranging from Oakland to Madagascar, Jonathan Lethem calls Chimerica “remarkable…a coolly surrealist legal thriller—in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive—that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own.” (Read Felicelli’s conversation with Huda al-Marashi at The Millions here.) (Lydia)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: The protagonist of Levy’s newest would do well to avoid Abbey Road, where he is hit by a car twice, once in 1998, right before a trip to East Germany to bury his father’s ashes, and once again in 2016. From these two brushes with death, Levy spins one of her typically entrancing narratives, one that, like Hot Milk, explores cross-cultural encounters and the strange, intense, and occasionally monstrous nature of familial ties. (Matt)
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: The fourth book from Australia’s Tumarkin, whose previous works have been shortlisted for several major literary prizes Down Under, Axiomaticsharply examines how we think about the force of the past on the present in a blend of storytelling, criticism, and meditation. The book spirals out from five axioms—think “Time Heals All Wounds,” “History Repeats Itself,” and “You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice”—to consider stories of struggle, trauma, and the strength of human relationships, creating a new and powerful nonfiction form along the way. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer: I hadn’t thought it possible to write beautifully about chemotherapeutic drugs until I read the excerpt from poet Anne Boyer’s The Undying that was published in The New Yorker. Witness: “Adriamycin, is named for the Adriatic Sea, near where it was discovered. I like to think of this poison as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would like to go, but it is also called ‘the red devil,’ and sometimes it is called “‘the red death.’” Boyer’s memoir covers developing breast cancer at 41, her treatment, and her double mastectomy, as well as scrutiny of a capitalist driven medical industry. Boyer’s memoir is a “haunting testimony about death that is filled with life,” according to Kirkus. (Anne)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: Fans of the great Irish writer Kevin Barry have reason to rejoice. The prize-winning author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island and Beatlebone is out with a scalding little hotwire of a novel called Night Boat to Tangier. The setup would’ve delighted Beckett. On October 23, 2018, two aged-out Irish drug-runners, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmon, are sitting in the waiting room of the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. What are they waiting for? Maurice’s estranged daughter. As they wait, the men spin a reverie of past betrayals, violence and romance, with asides on drink, masturbation and the imminence of death. As always with Barry, the writing is slippery, slangy and sinewy, and a pure delight. (Bill)
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware: How long does it take to investigate, narrate, and illustrate an entire consciousness during one half of a typical day? In Chris Ware’s case, almost two decades. Across 350+ pages, Ware’s graphic novel unfolds like a Joycean spin on Grouse County, Iowa, depicting the melancholic, yearning thoughts of Midwestern characters moving through realities shared and cloistered. Doing that at all—let alone in 18 years—is superhuman. (Nick M.)
Find Me by André Aciman: In a most-anticipated list, Aciman’s Find Me may be the most anticipated of all. Set decades after Oliver and Elio first meet in Call Me by Your Name, this novel follows Elio’s father Samuel, who while traveling to Rome to visit his son meets a young woman who changes his life; Elio, a classical pianist who moves to Paris; and Oliver, a New England college professor and family man who yearns to return to Italy. I’m aching to read this and I know I’ll be aching while reading it too. (Carolyn)
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as “a powerful allegory of our troubled present.” Set in late 1990s Kansas, it centers on a lefty family in a red state. The mother is a famous feminist author; the father, a psychiatrist who specializes in “lost boys.” Their son, Adam Gordon, is a debate champion who unwittingly brings one of his father’s troubled patients into his friend group, to disastrous effect. (Hannah)
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Grand Union is the first short story collection of Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, among others. Ten unpublished new stories will be put alongside with ten of her much-applauded pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Everything, however familiar or small it may seem in daily life, glows in Smith’s brilliant observation. Grand Union is a wonderful meditation on time and place, past and future, identity and the possibility of rebirth. (Jianan Qian)
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones: A 2014 NBCC finalist for his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, How We Fight for Our Lives tells Jones’ coming-of-age as a black gay boy and man in the South via prose-poetry vignettes. From the publisher: “Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze.” (Sonya)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay is a propulsive and well-plotted novel set in Los Angeles where crime and tension are at an all-time high. In Cha’s narrative that explores race, class, and community in Los Angeles, her characters must confront their histories and truth. Catherine Chung describes Your House Will Pay as “a devastating exploration of grief, shame, and deeply buried truths.” (Zoë)
Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz: In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome. (Nick M.)
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Hiroshima-based fiction writer Hiroko Oyamada has been called one of the most “powerfully strange” new voices to emerge from Japan of late. No surprise then that she cites Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as influences. This fall New Directions is publishing The Factory, Oyamada’s first novel to be translated into English, and that was inspired by her experience working as a temp for an auto worker’s subsidiary. The Factory follows three seemingly unrelated characters intently focused on their jobs—studying moss, shredding paper, proofreading documents—though trajectories come together as their margins of reality, and the boundaries between life within and beyond the factory dissolve. (Anne)
Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, but concealed in those conservative, anonymized figures is the mind-bending enormity of 33,000,000 individual women and their stories. In her latest memoir, Jeannie Vanasco shares hers. Remarkably, Vanasco interviews the former friend who raped her 15 years ago, interweaving their discussions with conversations involving her close friends and peers to produce an investigation of trauma, its effects, and the ways they affect us all. “Courageous” is an inadequate word to describe this project, let alone Vanasco herself. (Nick M.)
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré: le Carré is set to offer his 25th novel since debuting with Call for the Dead back in 1961. And though the territory is familiar—London, a played out spy, a web of political intrigue—there is nothing tired in the author’s indictment of modern life: we are fickle, selfish, dogmatic, narrow minded and too often cruel bastards. The whole lot of us. My advice: if you have been stuck on thought that Le Carré is writing “spy novels” and you don’t like “spy novels”, you need to rethink. There is perhaps no more thrilling chronicler of the human condition working today. His stories are about people with secrets. You know, us. (Il’ja)
False Bingo by Jac Jemc: The unsettling horror that made Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It such an unnerving read has mutated into an uneasiness that infiltrates the everyday lives depicted in False Bingo, Jemc’s second book of short stories. Jemc’s characters are misfits and dislocated, and their encounters often cross the line where fear becomes reality. There’s a father with dementia who develops an online shopping addiction and an outcast mulling over regret as he taxidermies animals. In essence False Bingo is a “collection of realist fables exploring how conflicting moralities can coexist: the good, the bad, the indecipherable.” (Anne)
Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber: Haber, who has been called “one of the most influential yet low-key of tastemakers in the book world,” is about to raise it to up level with the debut of his novel, Reinhardt’s Garden. This absurdist satire follows Jacov Reinhardt and scribe as they travel across continents in search of a legendary philosopher who has “retired” to the jungles of South America. It’s “an enterprise that makes Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo … come off as a levelheaded pragmatist,” says Hernán Díaz. While Rodrigo Fresán calls it “one of those perfect books” on the level of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. (Anne)
Older Brother by Mahir Guven (translated by Tina Kover): Awarded the Prix Goncourt for debut novel in 2017, Older Brother takes on the Uberization of labor alongside a look at immigration, civil war, and terrorism through the story of two brothers from a French-Syrian family, and their father, a taxi driver whose way of life is utterly at odds with those of his sons. (Lydia)
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok: In Last of Her Name, the new collection from Chinese author Mimi Lok, the stories’ settings cover a little bit of everything—British suburbia, war-time Hong Kong, modern California—and the diasporic women at the heart of each piece are just as eclectic. The effect is a kaleidoscope of female desire, family, and resilience. “I can’t think of a collection that better speaks to this moment of global movement and collective rupture from homes and history, and the struggle to find meaning despite it all,” writes Dave Eggers. (Kaulie)
The Girl At the Door by Veronica Raimo: Let’s say you fall in love while on vacation. The guy, a professor, seems great. You leave your country and move in with him. You get pregnant. You’re happy. Then: A girl shows up at the door. She’s your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a former student, with details about a violent, drawn-out affair. What now? That’s the premise of this novel, one that dissects sexual harassment and assault from the point of view of both the professor and his girlfriend. Raimo has published two novels in Italy; this is her English-language debut. (Hannah)
Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: This debut novel set in the mountains and hollows of Eastern Tennessee will charm you with its warmth and love for its characters, a cast that includes a dog named Crystal Gale. (Which has to be one of the best pet names in fiction.) The novel centers on Lucy Kilgore, a young woman who was planning to leave small town Tennessee but instead ends up getting shotgun-married to Jeptha Taylor, a bluegrass musician with a drinking problem. With too little money and too much alcohol in their lives, their little family is doomed from the start, but Lucy can’t help trying to hold everyone together. (Hannah)
A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso: A collection of stories about told from the perspective of a Mexican-American man born to poor parents and making his way through the elite institutions of America. Luis Alberto Urrea calls the book “a world-class collection.” (Lydia)
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm-owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly-deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Would you be the nanny to your ex-best-friend’s stepchildren? Yes, really? Okay. What if they were twins? Still with me? What if they exhibited strange behaviors? Still on board? What if they spontaneously caught fire when agitated? Yes? Then you must be the kind of character that only Kevin Wilson can pull off, in this, his third novel that marries the fantastic with the domestic. (Hannah)
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin American writers and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears by Johannes Anyuru (translated by Saskia Vogel): Anyuru, a Swedish-Ugandan author, took home the Swedish-language August Prize for Fiction for this tale of authoritarianism and hate in modern Europe. After terrorists bomb a bookstore for hosting a provocative cartoonist, one of the terrorists has a vision of the future she may have brought about. Years later, a psychiatrist goes to visit her in the clinic where she’s been institutionalized, and she informs him she’s a traveler from an awful, dystopian future. As she describes a world in which “anti-Swedish” citizens are forced into a ghetto called The Rabbit’s Yard, the psychiatrist grows convinced that her sci-fi predictions are the truth.
What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books – novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels – and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)
The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)
Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)
Honoring the best translated fiction from around the world, the prize awards £50,000 to be split evenly between authors and translators. Like the longlist, the shortlist is dominated by women and independent publishers. Five of the six nominees are women including Olga Tokarczuck, who won the 2018 prize, and her translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. The list also includes novels in five different languages: Arabic, French, German, Polish, and Spanish.
Here’s the 2019 Man Booker International shortlist with bonus links where applicable:
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth
The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison Strayer (Subject of this essay by Arthur Willemse)
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Tokarczuk won last year’s prize for Flights)
The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean (Featured in our September Preview)
The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran, translated by Sophie Hughes
The Man Booker International winner will be announced on May 21.
The prize honors the best translated fiction from around the world and splits the £50,00 prize evenly between authors and translators. This year, the longlist features authors from 12 countries and books translated from nine languages; it is dominated by women and independent publishers.
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth
At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Jokes For The Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf, translated by Jonathan Wright
Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated Sam Taylor
The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, translated by Jen Calleja
The Faculty Of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran, translated by Sophie Hughes
The Man Booker shortlist will be announced on April 9, and the winner will be named on May 21.