In her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, New York Times Magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner has done something astounding. The astounding thing isn’t that she’s written a book that’s garnered praise in both commercial and literary circles. Although yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a true commercial success, a witty New York Times bestseller that’s going to become a limited series on FX. And yes, it’s a literary-world darling, too, making the longlist for the 2019 National Book Award.
The remarkable thing Brodesser-Akner has done is to write a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man.
That man is Toby Fleishman, a 40-something liver doctor going through a divorce from Rachel. Rachel, we learn, is a status-obsessed social climber. Rachel is also the couple’s primary breadwinner (in this echelon of wealth, a medical salary is chump change compared to Rachel’s earnings running a talent agency), and Rachel is the spouse who, at the onset of the novel, drops their two kids off with Toby in the middle of the night before completely disappearing.
So, we follow Toby as he tries to find Rachel and process the end of his marriage and handle his kids and earn a promotion. Then there’s the apps. Newly single Toby has discovered the world of dating apps, a world that is, in the book as in real life, as exciting as it is draining as it is confidence-boosting as it is hilarious as it is deeply depressing.
Brodesser-Akner is equally entertaining and insightful as she judgmentally walks us through Manhattan’s world of the incredibly rich, its uber-alpha, finance-bro husbands and stay-at-home mothers with an endless supply of nannies, yoga pants, and tanks proclaiming “Lipstick & Lunges” and “Nevertheless, She Perspired.” From inside Toby’s mind and world, Brodesser-Akner makes some shrewd, impactful, incredibly funny, and incredibly correct points about class and friendship and marriage and divorce and aging and parenting and love. And there’s a version of this book that could have carried on that way to the end. Fortunately, Brodesser-Akner has written something better.
Which brings me to Libby. Did I mention that Toby’s story—in fact, the whole book—is narrated by Libby, a friend of Toby’s from his college years and a former magazine writer turned Jersey housewife? Libby is easy to overlook for the book’s first half, portrayed mostly as Toby’s omnipresent narrator, rather than an actual character with her own story to tell.
But as the book goes on, Libby becomes a person with her own story—and that story is about a world that stops seeing women as people as they become brides and wives and mothers and, ultimately, personality-less containers we can fill with the familiar, simplified stereotypes we hold about those roles.
Of course, Brodesser-Akner is not the first to tackle how age makes women’s wants and needs and general personhood disappear from the public’s collective mind. Still, there’s something new here. This book is not about women fighting those stereotypes, let alone overcoming them, as such examinations usually become; no one is finding herself here. Instead, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a long-overdue look at women who are disappearing in real time. Women who didn’t realize this would happen to them, too.
Which is to say, from Libby’s story emerges Rachel’s story—which is, of course, more complex and painful than Toby’s version of her story—from which emerges all the stories of the women who once seemed like one-dimensional side characters in a man’s story.
The more the women come into focus, the more compelling the book becomes, to no surprise to anyone who has read Brodesser-Akner’s magazine work. At a time when lots of smart ladies are writing lots of smart things about being a woman, Brodesser-Akner has established herself with a singular ability to write about her gender. A recounting of Rachel’s traumatic delivery of her first child is one of the book’s most haunting and stand-out moments. The fact that afterward Rachel feels most understood by the women she meets in a rape survivor’s group is a damning, but not inaccurate, assessment of all the different ways women’s bodies are violated.
Once the women’s lives are fully realized, readers are left with Rachel, a woman who has thrown her life into her job and winds up unhappy; Libby, who quit her job to become a full-time mother in the suburbs and winds up unhappy; Nahid, a woman Toby meets on a dating app who had no kids and never worked and offered her rich husband lots of sex and winds up unhappy; and Karen Cooper, a hospital patient in a coma because no one was able to diagnose her with a disease that could have been very easy to diagnose by looking her in the eye. And on the list goes until you have to ask: What, exactly, was the path these women were supposed to take to make things turn out differently? How does one escape the pitfalls of being a woman?
And yes, the problem with women is men. Because if you follow any female character’s problems back far enough, you’ll eventually hit a man—a cheating spouse, a sexist boss, etc. But the men are not the enemy. Not exactly. Because the book’s women, on the whole, are just as flawed as the men, and Toby, our leading guy, is never really treated as a villain.
The problem is the lie the women have been fed: that sexism is over and the world is fair and that if a woman plays her cards right, she can avoid disappearing. As narrator Libby explains it, “When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something special about us that we could achieve anything.”
From there comes an absolute evisceration of The Future Is Female t-shirts and other such mantras and commodities that modern feminism feeds us. Really, the whole book is worth reading for this passage alone.
And the problem is the Modern Feminist WomanTM Fleishman’s female characters thought they could become. They thought they could live in a world without the barriers that held back the women who came before them. They thought they had choices and that they could be mothers and workers and do yoga or just wear yoga pants without doing yoga, and they thought that they could Have. It. All. while simultaneously laughing at the idea of having it all. And the women thought this because this was the image of modern feminism they had been sold from their childhood years of Take Your Daughter to Work Day to today’s endless supply of cheap girl-power slogans or even, dare I say it, pussy hats. But for Libby and Rachel, this is part of modern feminism’s big lie. All of it tokens women mistakenly accept in exchange for experiencing the same sorts of barriers that have always held women back. (Of course, if you don’t take the tokens, you’ll hit the barriers anyway.)
At this point, it seems worth stating that Brodesser-Akner has not written an angry book. She has, in fact, written a very funny book, and a compassionate and heartbreaking one, too. Equally apparent, Brodesser-Akner has written a very tired book, which is probably the perfect emotion for any book tackling issues of gender in Trump’s America. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a book that is desperately searching for solutions to the despair of gender disparity that it knows it won’t find —and yet, Brodesser-Akner and her characters helplessly and relentlessly and incredibly charmingly search for them anyway.
This year, through no initiative or orchestration of my own, I read in twos. I realize this only now, picking out from a hasty reading ledger those books I liked or kept thinking about, and it’s not like I read the twos consecutively, more that little symmetries keep making themselves known as I look back, titles pairing off into smaller dialogues, gonzo breakout sessions with improvised themes. I didn’t read more this year but I read longer, with a better attention span, this being the first year in almost 10 that I read more to read than to keep up with publishing, so maybe this is always happening and I just started noticing. I also have a brain that’s unrepentantly hungry for patterns, so who knows.
But for instance: the bookends of my reading year were The Tradition by Jericho Brown and The Shore by Chris Nealon. The latter is a book of likably freewheeling, breezily erudite “poem-essays,” which is a fair if dampening description; the former is a book of fucking poems, orderly and solemn and very robustly beautiful without any undue ornateness. Brown is formally exacting, yet the depth of feeling in his poems is breathtaking, at times literally; they’re at once messy, wounded and lusty and scared and prideful, and sublimely still, composed. Nealon is an anarchic writer-thinker flirting with the politics of anarchism, but I find a fully formed existential moment in his “tepid intellectual watchfulness,” as he puts it, a visceral anxiety no less visceral for the fact that his only move is to articulate it, piecemeal. Both feel something’s not right in the present, know some things have been profoundly wrong for a long time, and though they sense this at different distances from their lives and bodies they inhabit it equally fully, make it equally person-sized and real. Also The Tradition debuts a fixed form Brown calls the duplex, and it is perfect.
The Organs of Sense is the first novel and second dazzling book by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, a teutonically involuted, toweringly philosophical novel that is by some weird alchemy more fun for being teutonically involuted and toweringly philosophical. It pulls you painstakingly along into a telescoping nest of relations of conversations of recollections of revelations of remarkable psychological extravagance, and all the while the story—Leibniz goes in 1666 to visit an eyeless astronomer, is the elevator pitch—is so engaging and fanciful and sweet, and Sachs’s comic timing so dead-on, that all you see is the timeless folly of people being people. It’s like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in that respect, except where that novel burrows deep into a single instant this one expands outward into the cosmos, or a seventeenth-century conception of it. I found The Organs of Sense paired well with Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published in 2017, another engrossingly human tableau bound in a vaguely forbidding formal armature. (Oh! Telescoping. Just got that. You win again, Sachs.) The armature in this case is a staccato accumulation of run-on monologues that dilate breathlessly on the smallest sensory minutiae; the book’s magic is that this makes it thrillingly lifelike, thrillingly like life uninterrupted, somehow like swimming in a bloodstream. My grandmother, who as a rule brooks no experimentalist literary impulse, told me weeks after reading it that she was still thinking about the one passage that’s like ten pages of disquisition about pouring concrete.
Nina Leger’s Mise en pieces is a patient, thoughtful novel about a woman named Jeanne who keeps a memory palace of strangers’ dicks. The title (cleverly translated by Laura Francis as The Collection) means to cut into pieces but also to install in rooms, as art in a museum, and Leger writes with a kind of curatorial dispassion—but what she puts on display is the received logic of The Novel, structurally and sexually, dissecting and redistributing it into bigger or smaller boxes, objectifying it in the very way we were expecting it to objectify Jeanne. It’s brilliantly subversive but always more curious than militant. I also read a lot of Valérie Mréjen this year, in unwitting anticipation of her English debut, Black Forest in Katie Shireen Assef’s translation. The first thing I sat down with was Liste rose, a series of personal ads assembled from names cut out of a phone book, which turned out to be a good model for the way she works: even in more direct forms of storytelling—about a non-start romance, for instance, or about parents and children—her method is decoupage, fragmentation, intimate and clinical in alternating measure. Black Forest drifts intuitively from memory to fantasy to supposition, sifting through the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances and people in anecdotes and people on Six Feet Under in a way that’s at once cold and sparkling with life. I’m not calling it a memory palace of deaths, but I’m not not.
I reread Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station early this year—still find it extraordinary, still not wild about how much Adam Gordon reminds me of me—and inhaled a friend’s galley of The Topeka School over a summer weekend. It excites me to watch Lerner at work, processing the present at a rhythm that feels authentically like thought, and even as he widens his scope to include more zeitgeist, more history, more dimensions in his characters and their relationships, I’m spellbound by his knack for the fundamentally introspective work of airing their reasonings and neuroses and inner negotiations, which seem rational and sympathetic until you realize—eventually for me, I assume very quickly for lots of people—that maybe their shit’s been part of the problem all along. I would have called Lerner unmatched in his ability to pull this off compassionately before I read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (also over a weekend, also a friend’s advance copy): a plottier, smaller-scoped novel that nonetheless ends up being an even-handed, piercingly wise referendum on love and marriage and sex and gender. Both books experiment gently with shifting perspective, Topeka deliberately and Fleishman more sinuously, and both feel like classically ambitious attempts to get at the crux of a knotty modern predicament, in this case the meaning and function of masculinity. I’ll be revisiting both, slower, down the line.
After not reading it for several years mostly because I thought the title was boring, I read Marie Chaix’s 1974 memoir-novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance, then promptly reread it in Harry Mathews’s translation, The Laurels of Lake Constance, just to keep the spell going. Chaix makes Lerner’s and Brodesser-Akner’s perspective jumps look elementary, darting between voices and tenses sometimes from one sentence to the next, not out of formal showiness but to grapple with the multitouch impact of World War 2, and her father’s collaborationist career, on her family. (She herself was born in 1942, and comes into the story as a narrator maybe a third of the way in.) I no longer remember which prepared me for which—as I said, it’s a hasty ledger—but I recognized the same sly chameleonic interiority in Morgan Parker’s second poetry collection, Magical Negro, which tracks a sleepless mind’s path through a world of “Dylann Roof, Burger King, Urban Outfitters.” Parker’s is the cooler, nimbler voice—she sows devastating punchlines like landmines throughout her poems, while Chaix’s prose holds you pitilessly in the moment—but both model, unflinchingly, what it’s like to experience history as a simultaneously abstract and personal affliction. Parker: “And nothing rises up. And horror is a verb.”
I love environmental disaster movies and have an above-average tolerance for immersive theatre experiences, so reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth in Paris during a record heatwave—“so intense that a weather map of France looks like a screaming heat skull of death,” according to a Business Insider headline—a headline!—felt about right. His work in synthesizing a massive body of scientific research is admirable; his willingness to lean into its monumentally terrifying conclusions, to use fear and alarm in a way scientists can’t or won’t, is crucial. Some time around then I also read Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’s Rap on Trial, which expands on the excellent work the authors have been doing separately for over a decade cataloguing and decrying the harrowing trend of rap lyrics being admitted as evidence in U.S. criminal cases. May both books shake something loose, though I realize our failing to address the first issue will eventually render the second moot.
Everything about Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, a diaphanous little volume whose content is most expediently described as “silkworm giving a TED talk,” is strange and lapidary, right down to the obscurely troubling six-word description of how it was initially created: “written nanoscale on clear silk film.” There’s precedent for this kind of exploit—see for instance Christian Bök’s xenotext experiment, which encodes a short poem “into the genome of an unkillable bacterium”—but Bervin, whose previous works include erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Nets) and a sumptuous facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s envelope drafts (The Gorgeous Nothings), is concerned more with materiality than with spectacle. As the difference in titular textures suggests, Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book is mostly what Silk Poems is not: gritty, folksy, squalid and chatty, sexy and gross, aimed with care and craftsmanship at something earthlier and more astral at once. I came away from both feeling better in tune with the intangible, by way of the utterly tactile.
What else? I was grateful for Damon Young’s essay collection What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk, both supremely lucid, good-natured but unsparing inquiries into how race, which is to say racism, gets inside your head to make you question how successfully, how convincingly, you’re inhabiting a pigeonhole you didn’t opt into in the first place. I was enchanted by Max Porter’s Lanny and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, both of which wrap inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss. I took a difficult journey with Jeannie Vanasco as she navigates the deceptively prosaic semantic aftermath of sexual assault in Things We Didn’t Talk about When I Was a Girl, and another one with Irma Pelatan, in L’Odeur de chlore, as she maps her body cathexis against a childhood spent swimming in a municipal pool designed according to Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale. Janelle Shane’s futuristic op-ed about feral scooters is hands down the 1300-word sci-fi novel of the year, and—since I’m not about to abandon the pairs conceit this close to the end—the last great thing I read as of this writing was Émilie Faure’s interview, in the biennial high-art review Mémoire Universelle, with world jigsaw-puzzle champion Sophie de Goncourt. She’s a magistrate by day who can put together a 500-piece puzzle in 40 minutes, a pastime which requires, she says with an irresistible lack of guile, “neither agility nor precision. A piece fits, or it doesn’t.”
This year, I had the jarring experience of reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble after Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I do not recommend this pairing, nor would I have chosen it for myself, except that Fleishman was on hold at the library with a 400-person waitlist, and if I didn’t read it right away, it would be another four-month wait, and it wasn’t a book I wanted to buy, mainly because it’s on the long side and would be cumbersome to carry around in hardcover.
The Overstory, on the other hand, was an even longer book that I did buy in hardcover a few months after it was first published, in the spring of 2018. I started reading it shortly after I bought it, and was immediately impressed by the narrative variety of the first 200-some pages, which contain a series of discrete short stories about people and their relationship to trees. Although the stories are from the point of view of humans, the lives of trees quietly steal the narrative.
As an example: The first story in the book seems to be about an immigrant couple moving to the Midwest at the turn-of-the-century but is actually about the chestnut seedling that the husband carries in his pocket and plants on his farm. As the tree slowly grows and reaches maturity, three generations of human life unfold nearby, lives full of drama that could be the subject of multiple novels, but instead are quickly summarized. The real miracle, Powers tells us, is the survival of this particular tree, which evaded the blight that killed four billion American Chestnut trees in the first half the twentieth century.
The Overstory is full of miraculous stories about trees, and it changed the way I see the green giants in my neighborhood. Now I notice their behaviors: In the small park near my apartment, I’ve observed that a number of the trees nurse shoots at the base of their trunks, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this reproductive strategy—does the parent tree think it’s going to die soon and is hedging its bets? (Then, when the Parks Department prunes the saplings, I wonder how the trees feel about that.) In another part of the park, two trees of different species lean toward each other, their leaves intermingling to form a picturesque canopy. There doesn’t seems to be any reason for them to grow so closely and I wonder if they’re friends, or if there is some other benefit from this growth pattern.
The most beautiful trees on our block are the gingkos that tower alongside the Catholic church. In the fall, their fan-shaped leaves turn golden and drift into the backyard our family shares with our upstairs neighbor. One afternoon, when I was sitting outside reading The Overstory, I noticed that a gingko seedling had grown up in the crack between two patio stones. I was struck by its fragility as well as its strength: here was a tiny thing that could potentially grow into something taller than my apartment building, taller even than the church. It could outlive me and my children—depending, of course, on its ability to adapt to the saltwater flooding that will become a regular occurrence in my neighborhood in the coming decades.
I decided to save the seedling, and transplanted it into a small pot. Then I went on vacation. I took The Overstory with me, but I also brought along my seven-month-old baby. I thought for sure I’d read during her naptimes, but instead I dozed off. When I finally got back to The Overstory, a few weeks later, I found I couldn’t remember several of the characters. It felt daunting to start over. So I put it aside—for a year! Meanwhile, my ginkgo seedling grew ten inches and sprouted three leaves.
I returned to The Overstory during another summer vacation, this time with older children and the determination to set aside reading time. I got the book out immediately after the kids went to sleep, and read for two-hour stretches for five nights in a row. To read every night for two hours is generally wonderful, but when I finished The Overstory, I felt a kind of awe. I think it’s the best book to read on the climate crisis, and I say this as someone who read several books on the subject over this past year, including The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, Falter, and The Myth of Human Supremacy. I got a lot of useful information from these books, and they definitely stoked my anger, but I didn’t stop, midway through any of them, to plant a gingko seedling—though I did engage in panicked online real estate searches for inexpensive property in elevated regions.
Which brings me to Fleishman Is in Trouble, the novel I read immediately after The Overstory. This was a book that everyone seemed to be talking about, and I was very eager to read it. It’s set in contemporary Manhattan, and follows a newly divorced single dad as he navigates online dating apps and feels aggrieved about the poor treatment he’s getting from his ex-wife. Later, we hear the wife’s side of the story. Like everything Brodesser-Akner writes, it is ridiculously entertaining and smart, but when I was about halfway through, it occurred to me that I had just read 200 pages without a single reference to plants or animals. Eventually, the divorced dad gets a dog, somebody looks up at the stars, and I think the dad notices a tree. But that’s it. After the rich tapestry of The Overstory, it struck me as a flat, desolate world of buildings and cell phones. I felt sorry for the characters not because their marriage had ended, or because their children were unhappy, but because they were blind to other living things. I thought: no wonder they’re so lonely.
To be fair to Brodesser-Akner, any number of contemporary novels would have struck me as overly focused on human concerns after The Overstory. Most fiction is filled with human characters who don’t give much thought to non-human species. While writing this essay, I came across this passage in Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This quotation is from a filmmaker named Sergei Gurin, who documented the evacuation of the contaminated zone. After showing one his films to a group of schoolchildren, he is startled by a boy who asks why the animals weren’t also evacuated:
I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not of everything living: animals, plants, that other world. . . I want to make a film called “Hostages,” about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed.
I think this “strange thing” is what must happen to all of us if we wish to address the environmental crisis. We need to get closer to plants and animals, to remember that we are all living on this planet together. If you read the climate action platforms of the leading presidential candidates, you’ll see a lot about creating jobs, saving the economy, and averting catastrophe, but nothing about the beauty and value of plants, animals, insects, fungi, and clean air and water; nothing about our shared love of particular landscapes and bodies of water. That seems strange to me, even disturbing. It also seems like poor rhetorical strategy. Our affinity for other living things is our spiritual inheritance. We need a global leap of imagination to reclaim it. A book like The Overstory is one that starts to get us there.
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.
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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!
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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)