Well, I must start and finish this essay while my mother watches my youngest child, my third, but who’s counting? (Dear God, I am!) With writing and motherhood, one is always aware of how little time there is. Writing takes time, and babies don’t give you any of it: particularly breastfed ones; they are like tiny bombs that go off approximately every two hours.
So here we go.
This third child, his name is Mickey Ocean Brown, was born in August. Before and after that I was reading voraciously. I swore off social media for all of 2019, which didn’t so much reveal endless vistas of time and encourage profound thinking, but, rather, showed me that I’m a compulsive reader: I’ve got to be reading something, anything, at all times. I’m like a slobbery Golden Retriever at its dog bowl. More, more, more! At least this year I devoured less Facebook and more, you know, real books.
And I read so many great books!
My fatigue of postapocalyptic novels ended with Severance by Ling Ma. Let me tell you, once you write a novel about the end of the world, you’re asked to blurb many others and also be on every apocalypse-related panel known to humankind. “Enough already!” I felt like shouting, around 2015. But here I am, in 2019, recommending this one. I read Ling Ma’s debut of my own volition (I admit the millennial pink cover drew me in…) and was immediately enthralled by its post-epidemic landscape: an emptied-out New York City, the desolate roads beyond, a repurposed shopping mall. I loved heroine Candace Chen’s pre-apocalypse job as production editor of bibles; I will read the prequel, Ling! I felt Candace’s longing for her mother and boyfriend as if her mournfulness were my own. I loved it.
This year I discovered two writers who have been around for some time, one so long that she is now dead. That’s Anita Brookner, whom novelist Rumaan Alam recommended in this appreciation. Brookner passed in 2016 but she thankfully left us many novels, which is astonishing when you consider that she didn’t publish her first until she was over 50. I read three Brookners this year, and my favorite was A Closed Eye. Because describing plots is boring, I’ll say that all her work seems to be about a hemmed-in life and a chance for freedom and pleasure that is always, ultimately, denied. Brookner conveys character consciousness with such clarity and depth; she reminds me a bit of Henry James in this regard. However, because her sentences are not nearly as labor-intensive, she can be read poolside and near rambunctious children without a snag.
The other writer I discovered this year is Cathleen Schine. I read They May Not Mean To, But They Do and her newest, The Grammarians. Oh what a delight it is to read Cathleen Schine! Both of these novels are about families and the pain and love and miscommunications and in-jokes and required delusions found therein. Her work is breezy without being stupid, and wise while also being very funny. I keep worrying about the matriarch of They May Not Mean To, But They Do as if she is a real person. What a feat!
I read a lot of wonderful, thought-provoking nonfiction for my podcast, Mom Rage, including On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. I didn’t realize one could tackle the subject of vaccinations from so many vantage points; it makes sense that Biss’s father is a doctor and her mother a poet, for this book’s mix of science and poetry, of the known and ineffable, is a marvel.
On Immunity is kindred spirits with another book I read for the podcast: Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life by Darcey Steinke, which also looks at a single subject through many lenses. I recommend everyone read Flash Count Diary, whether you menstruate(d) or not, because there isn’t enough knowledge about (or even acknowledgment of) this big life experience that happens to so many human beings. Steinke’s book is a tapestry of history, science, poetry, scholarly work, and firsthand account. It’s beautiful and raw and brilliant. She writes:
Becoming animal. This does not mean I go feral or become base. It is not complicated. If you pay attention, you can feel animal many times a day: when you fuck, shit, breastfeed your baby, run, swim, eat, or have a hot flash. But I find it hard to sit in the void with my animal self. I want to check my phone every few minutes, to make sure I have enough soy milk for my morning coffee, to see how many people liked the picture I posted on Facebook of my cat.
This spoke to me, in 2019, as I tried not to look at
my phone—and often failed. As I pushed a baby through and out of my body and fed
him from that same body. As I sat in the void, sometimes with great discomfort.
And now I’ve got to run upstairs and feed my child. As I do so, I’ll read The Handyman by Carolyn See. Or I’ll close it to look at Mickey. More than books this year, I have read my new child. I have memorized those big blue eyes of his, his funny nostrils, that roll of fat at the back of his neck, his tiny flat thumbnails. Leaving the internet, and having another baby, and reading so much, has made me feel more private and more vulnerable. I feel softer. I feel irrelevant. I feel mysterious. I feel grateful.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Catherine Chung, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Helon Habila, Darcy Steinke, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Tenth Muse: “Chung’s impressive, poignant second novel (after Forgotten Country) explores the intersections of intellectual and familial legacies. Nearing the end of her life but still on the verge of solving the elusive Riemann hypothesis, Katherine is a noted mathematician who did her graduate work in the mid-20th century, at a time when women scholars were still a rarity. As Katherine recounts the highs and lows of her academic and romantic pursuits, she reflects on the various discoveries she’s pursued—both in her field of study and into her family history—inquiries that became inextricable while Katherine was pursuing her doctorate at MIT and learning revelations about her parentage following her father’s heart attack. Having grown up believing herself the daughter of a white father and a Chinese mother, Katherine is stunned to learn the truth of her family history. The stories of betrayal and sacrifice also end up informing her professional work in surprising ways through a storyline involving stolen math proofs. Chung persuasively interweaves myths and legends with the real-world stories of lesser-known women mathematicians and of WWII on both the European and Asian fronts. The legacy that Katherine inherits may defy the kinds of elegant proofs to which mathematicians aspire, but Chung’s novel boldly illustrates that truth and beauty can reside even amid the messiest solutions.”
The Travelers by Regina Porter
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Travelers: “At the emotional heart of Porter’s expansive and ambitious debut lies a particularly dark incident. A young black couple, Agnes Miller and Claude Johnson, are stopped by a pair of white police officers on a road in rural Georgia. It’s 1966, and the tragic events that ensue continue to haunt Agnes more than four decades later. Agnes is just one of more than half a dozen major characters whose often overlapping stories populate Porter’s novel, which freely ranges back and forth through the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Agnes’s husband, Eddie, develops a fascination with the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which he has a copy of while serving in Vietnam, and their daughter, Claudia, grows up to become a Shakespeare scholar. She marries a white Joyce scholar, Rufus, whose philandering father reveals the existence of a secret half-brother late in life. Eloise, Agnes’s foster sister (and eventual lover) from her teenage years is inspired by aviator Bessie Coleman to live a bold and fearless life. These individual stories, among many others, are memorable, but the novel’s sprawling structure and abundance of narrative perspectives engender an emotional distance from all but the most stirring scenes, not to mention a lack of unifying theme or narrative arc for readers to latch onto. Virtually any of the novel’s beautifully written chapters could excel as a short story; collectively, they fall short of a fully realized novel.”
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fleishman Is In Trouble: “Brodesser-Akner’s sharp and tender-hearted debut centers on hapless 41-year-old New York hepatologist Toby Fleishman, recently separated from his driven wife, Rachel, and alternately surprised and semidisgusted to find his dating apps ‘crawling with women who wanted him,’ who prove it by sending him all manner of lewd pictures. After an increasingly rocky 14-year marriage, Toby has asked Rachel, who owns a talent agency and makes a lot more money than he does, for a divorce, because she is always angry and pays little attention to their two preteen kids. But then, as Toby is juggling new girlfriends, dying patients, and unhappy children, Rachel disappears, leaving Toby to cope with logistics more complicated than he anticipated. The novel is narrated by Toby’s old college friend Libby (a device that’s occasionally awkward), a former magazine journalist now bored with life as a housewife in New Jersey. Though both she and the novel are largely entrenched on Toby’s side, Libby does eventually provide a welcome glimpse into Rachel’s point of view. While novels about Manhattan marriages and divorces are hardly a scarce commodity, the characters in this one are complex and well-drawn, and the author’s incisive sense of humor and keen observations of Upper West Side life sustain the momentum. This is a sardonically cheerful novel that readers will adore.”
Travelers by Helon Habila
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Travelers: “The plight of contemporary African refugees is the dramatic core of this moving tale. The nameless narrator of the book’s opening (the novel is divided into six sections with different characters, but the narrator connects all of them) is a native Nigerian finishing work on his dissertation, who accompanies his American wife on her art fellowship to Berlin. While she paints, he falls in with a community of students who hail from Malawi, Senegal, and other African nations. Through the characters’ friendships and associations, Habila (The Chibok Girls) relates the stories of a number of asylum seekers who fled wretched circumstances and now face uncertain prospects (among them a former doctor working in Berlin as a nightclub bouncer and a man who escaped with his family from an armed Somalian rebel who was determined to marry the man’s 10-year-old daughter). The narrator comes to know the depths of their desperation himself when, returning from Switzerland, he loses his papers and is deported to a refugee camp in Italy. ‘Where am I? Who am I? How did I get here?’ cries one refugee, summing up the sense of dislocation and loss of identity they all feel, yet Habila never presents them as objects of pity, but rather as exemplars of human resilience. Readers will find this novel a potent tale for these times.”
Roughhouse Friday by Jaed Coffin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Roughhouse Friday: “Coffin’s lyrical account of his eventful initiation into the world of amateur boxing takes readers to southeast Alaska. Unsettled after college, Coffin (A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants) sets out westward from Maine, finally landing in Sitka after a thousand-mile solo sea kayak trip. He tutors at-risk students and, feeling isolated, takes up boxing at the local gym, eventually signing up for a Roughhouse Friday, an event in which anyone can fight for three one-minute rounds. As Coffin measures himself against a motley assortment of local fighters—including a 57-year-old ivory carver and the ‘Hoonah Hooligan,’ a high school legend from a Tlingit village—he confronts his own emotional displacement caused by the childhood divorce of his Thai mother and tough Vietnam vet father, who imparted ideals of manhood through ‘his versions of Arthurian legends.’ In measured, lucid prose, Coffin writes of fight night scenes (‘The fight ring stood in the middle of the barroom, over the dance floor, glowing beneath neon tubes of light’) and of the insecurity of angry young men. He finds that he is losing faith in his father’s heroic myths even as he struggles to embody them; nevertheless, it’s his father to whom he continually turns for answers up until the end. This is a powerful, wonderfully written exploration of one’s sense of manhood.”
Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Flash Count Diary: “Simultaneously contemplative and messily visceral, this extraordinary fugue on menopause, a book ‘situated at the crossroads between the metaphysical and the biological,’ centers on the experience of the aging woman. Finding a kinship with killer whales, the only other species that experiences menopause and lives long past the reproductive years, novelist Steinke (Sister Golden Hair) begins with Lolita, the female whale who has been kept in a tiny pool at the Miami Seaquarium since the 1970s, and ends with a trip to Seattle to see Granny, a 104-year-old pod matriarch. In between, Steinke describes the discomfort, panic and isolation that can be caused by hot flashes, sleeplessness, and emotional and cognitive shifts; explores both the frustration and appeal of the cultural invisibility of older women; and considers what it means to develop a sexuality that does not focus on intercourse. She affirms menopause as part of what it means to be female and human, in contrast to the medical view of menopause as a pathology to be treated with hormone replacements and vaginal rejuvenation. Her ability to translate physical and emotional experiences into words will make menopausal readers feel profoundly seen and move others.”
A Sand Book by Ariana Reines
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Sand Book: “The fourth book from Reines (Mercury) is ambitious in its scope and artistic vision, offering a postmodern take on the epic poem. Like some of the major long-form poets who have preceded her, among them H.D., Lorine Niedecker, and Adrienne Rich, Reines inhabits and renegotiates the space of the long poem. This sprawling book in 12 parts considers Hurricane Sandy, the mountains of Haiti, and Twitter, offering conceptually interesting passages and a wholly original response. Despite these strengths, the poems in this volume occasionally traffic in abstraction, failing to ground vague concepts in sensory detail: ‘Many of us had succumbed to quivering/ Idiocy while others drew vitality from careers.’ Throughout the book, Reines’s enjambments heighten the sense of irony that characterizes her approach to the feminist epic. She writes, for example: ‘Nothing she meant to make a big/ Deal of, only some tiny budging/ Of memory.’ The poems operate primarily on the level of ideas, rather than through lyrical language, though the speaker’s deadpan tone does not always succeed in creating the sense of momentum needed to propel the reader through this textual landscape.”
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month—for more June titles, check out our First-Half Preview. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments!
Want to know about the books you might have missed? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: Poet Ocean Vuong, winner of the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, returns with his highly anticipated debut novel. When Little Dog writes a letter to his illiterate mother, he reveals the family’s past as well as parts of his life he had hidden from his mother. With his tender, graceful style, Vuong’s family portrait explores race, class, trauma, and survival. (Carolyn)
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Winslow’s debut novel takes place in a small town in North Carolina from the 1940s to the 1980s. Through the story of Azalea “Knot” Centre, a fiercely independent woman, and Otis Lee, a helpful neighbor and longtime fixer, the narrative explores community and love with compassion and a singular voice. Rebecca Makkai describes Winslow’s voice as “one that’s not only pitch-perfect but also arresting and important and new.” (Zoë)
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett: In her Twitter bio, Arnett, known for her award-winning fiction and essays, describes herself thusly: “writer, librarian, lesbian willie nelson. 7-eleven scholar ™.” I assume you are already sold, but just in case: This debut novel starts when Jessa walks into the family taxidermy shop to find her father dead. Though grieving, she steps up to manage the business while her family unravels around her. Besides dead things, Jami Attenberg points out this novel includes all the best things, “messed-up families, scandalous love affairs, art, life, death and the great state of Florida.” (Claire)
The Travelers by Regina Porter: A debut novel-in-stories with a large cast of characters from two American families, one white, one black, flung across the world—in America, France, Vietnam, and Germany—from points in time ranging from 1950 to the early 2000s. Garth Greenwell calls this “an innovative and deeply moving debut.” (Lydia)
Oval by Elvia Wilk: In Elvia Wilk’s debut novel, weird things have been happening in Berlin: strange weather, artists hired as corporate consultants. Young couple Anja and Louis move into an “eco-friendly” community on an artificial mountain, The Berg, where they live rent-free in exchange for their silence on the house’s structural problems. When Louis invents a pill called Oval that has the power to temporarily rewire a user’s brain to become more generous, Anja is horrified—but Louis thinks it could solve Berlin’s income disparity. Described as speculative fiction, but also sort of just what life is like now, Oval depicts life in the Anthropocene, but a little worse. For fans of Gary Shteyngart and Nell Zink. (Jacqueline)
The Sun on My Head by Geovani Martins (translated by Julia Sanches): A literary sensation in Brazil, Martins’ debut short story collection finally comes to the United States. Steeped in violence, poverty, and drugs, the stories reveal the complexities and inner lives of those growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Publishers Weekly called the collection “tantalizing” and “a promising work from an intriguing new voice.” (Carolyn)
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung: Chung, who received an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction for her novel Forgotten Country, returns with her second novel. Katherine, an aging mathematician, recounts her life: her journey of becoming a scholar in the mid-20th century; her intellectual discoveries and failures; her romantic pursuits; her womanhood; and her parentage. Starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly call the novel “powerful and virtuosically researched” and “impressive, poignant,” respectively. (Carolyn)
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: New York Times Magazine staff writer Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel follows Toby Fleishman, a middle-aged hepatologist, whose recent separation from his career-driven wife, Rachel, resulted in her dropping their kids off with Toby and disappears. Publishers Weekly called the debut “sharp and tender-hearted,” and a “sardonically cheerful novel that readers will adore.”(Carolyn)
The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff: Sixteen-year-old Conrad returns to school to discover Sammy, his chemistry teacher and secret lover, is dead—and he’s left Conrad journals full of research and the recipe for the so-called Elixir of Life. Full of grief, Conrad sets out to solve the scientific puzzle to save the people he loves. Publishers Weekly says, “the search for an eternal life potion weaves through raw emotion, scientific curiosity, and heartbreak in Wolff’s intoxicating debut.” (Carolyn)
Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin: A coming-of-age story about half-sisters—Lark and Robin—who forge an unbreakable bond. From childhood to adulthood, the novel follows the sisters as they deal with personal failings, a falling out and, ultimately, coming back together. Kirkus called Ohlin’s latest a “lovely, deeply moving work.” (Carolyn)
My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon: MacArthur and Guggenheim recipient Hemon returns with a two-volume memoir set back-to-back. My Parents tells the story of his Ukrainian father and Bosnian mother as they flee their home in war-torn Yugoslavia for Canada. This Does Not Belong to You is a collection of memories, observations, and fragments from childhood. A dual meditation on memory, literature, and family. (Carolyn)
Travelers by Helon Habila: The unnamed Nigerian narrator of Habila’s newest novel is living in Berlin with his American life when he meets a group of African immigrants and refugees who change his worldview forever. Publishers Weekly writes that the “plight of contemporary African refugees is the dramatic core of this moving tale.” (Carolyn)
Mamaskatch by Darrel J. McLeod: Told in fragmented vignettes, McLeod’s coming-of-age memoir explores his Cree family’s history; his relationship with his mother; abuse; sexual identity; and personal and generational trauma. About the memoir, Terese Marie Mailhot says, “the hard and brilliant life breathing on the pages brought me to tears, to joy, and to grace.” (Carolyn)
Flash Count Diary Life by Darcey Steinke: The personal meets the political meets the biological in Steinke’s genre-bending book about menopause. Jenny Offill calls the book “part memoir, part manifesto, part natural history, this book is a profound white-knuckle ride through unnamed territories.” (Carolyn)