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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Serpell, Englander, Lalami, Leithauser, Hempel, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Namwali Serpell, Nathan Englander, Laila Lalami, Brad Leithauser, Amy Hempel and more—that are publishing this week.

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The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Old Drift: “Serpell’s debut is a rich, complex saga of three intertwined families over the course of more than a century. The epic stretches out from a single violent encounter: in the early 20th century, a British colonialist adopts North-Western Rhodesia (now Zambia) as his home, settling in the Old Drift, a settlement near Victoria Falls, where the colonist gets into a fateful skirmish with a local hotelier. After this, readers first meet Sibilla, the hotelier’s granddaughter, a woman born with hair covering her body, who runs away to Africa with a man who frequents the wealthy Italian estate at which her mother is a servant; then, in England, there’s Agnes, the colonialist’s granddaughter, a rich white girl and talented tennis player who goes blind and falls in love with a student who, unbeknownst to her, is black; and Matha, the servant’s granddaughter, a spirited prodigy who joins a local radical’s avant-garde activism. In part two, Agnes’s son, Lionel, has an affair with Matha’s daughter, which leads to a confrontation that also involves Naila, Sibilla’s granddaughter. Serpell expertly weaves in a preponderance of themes, issues, and history, including Zambia’s independence, the AIDS epidemic, white supremacy, patriarchy, familial legacy, and the infinite variations of lust and love. Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel.”

Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Kaddish.com: “In Englander’s excellent comic dissection of Jewish-American life (following Dinner at the Center of the Earth), Larry is a secular Jew living in a goyish neighborhood in Brooklyn. When his father dies, Larry flies to Memphis to sit shivah with his Orthodox sister, Dina. She resents the fact that he doesn’t plan to spend the next year saying Kaddish—the Jewish prayer for the dead—every day to ease their father’s way into heaven. Instead, Larry goes to kaddish.com and hires someone who will do the job for him: Chemi, a religious student. But then, inspired by Chemi’s example, Larry undergoes a transformation. Changing his name to Shuli, he moves back to the Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up and becomes a teacher of Hebrew studies. Twenty years pass. Shuli feels guilty about his previous deception and decides to track down Chemi. With the help of Gavriel, a 12-year-old computer whiz, Shuli locates Chemi in Jerusalem and, after saying goodbye to his wife and children, flies to Israel to confront the stand-in of two decades past. This novel reads like Chaim Potok filtered through the sensibility of Mel Brooks. Englander writes cogently about Jewish-American assimilation, and, in his practiced hands, he makes Shuli’s journey, both outer and inner, a simultaneously humorous and deeply moving one.”

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sing to It: “Short story virtuoso Hempel’s first collection since 2006 consists of 15 characteristically bold, disconcerting, knockout stories. The title story, which fits on a single page, offers no plot, names, dates, or setting—just snippets of dialogue, a proverb, and a gesture to capture a moment of personal connection. ‘The Quiet Car,’ in two pages, shows a moment of disconnection signaling the end of a relationship. A volunteer who relates better to dogs than people narrates ‘A Full-Service Animal Shelter,’ an 11-page rant/lament about working with dogs on the ‘euth’ list. In ‘Chicane,’ a woman longs for closure when she meets the French actor who once seduced her suicidal aunt. In ‘Greed,’ a woman seeks payback as she tracks the older woman with whom her husband is having an affair. The volume ends with the remarkable 62-page ‘Cloudland,’ a visually rich, heart-wrenching portrait of a Florida caregiver haunted by thoughts of the baby girl she gave up for adoption at a Maine maternity home years ago. In stories that can be funny, brutal, poetic, blunt, elusive, or all of the above, this accomplished collection highlights Hempel’s signature style with its condensed prose, quirky narrators, and touching, disturbing, transcendent moments.”

The Promise of Elsewhere by Brad Leithauser

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Promise of Elsewhere: “In this charming and moving ramble of a novel from Leithauser (The Art Student’s War), 43-year-old bipolar Louie Hake is going through a rough patch. Teaching architectural history at a college in the academic backwaters of Michigan, his second wife, Florence, has just left him for another man, and he has been diagnosed with a degenerative macular disorder. The latter propels him to leave his job and embark on a tour of the world’s great architectural sights before he can no longer see them. His first stop is Rome, where he meets Louie Koepplinger, a widowed dentist from Philadelphia who has philosophically adjusted to the indignities of old age. From there, Louie Hake moves on to London, where he is approached by another American, Sophie Pfister, who has been jilted by her husband-to-be and decided to enjoy their honeymoon itinerary on her own. Louie’s final destination is Greenland, where he makes the acquaintance of an argumentative Dane named Bendiks Overgaard and follows him to his home in the remote village of Qaqqatnakkarsimasut, there to be dazzled by nature’s architecture in the form of calving glaciers. Leithauser’s novel offers civilized comforts of beguiling characters, witty dialogue, and trenchant observations about modern life that enshrines the visceral pleasures of armchair travel.”

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Other Americans: “Lalami’s powerful third novel, after 2014’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Moor’s Account, uses nine narrators to probe the schisms of American community. When Driss Guerraoui is killed in a hit-and-run, his single daughter Nora—a struggling composer who survives by substitute teaching—leaves Oakland for her parents’ home in Yucca Valley. There she navigates her strained relationships with her mother Maryam, who hopes she will abandon music for a law degree, and sister Salma, who unlike Nora chose a conventional path of marriage, children, and a lucrative career. As Nora grapples with grief for her supportive father and pushes the police to find the driver who killed him, her encounters with Jeremy Gorecki, a former elementary school classmate, lead to intimacy she isn’t sure she wants. Nora, whose parents emigrated from Morocco in 1981, initially worries that Jeremy, a veteran traumatized by his time in Iraq, represents an American aggression that she fears, even as their relationship deepens. The novel depicts characters who are individually treated differently because of his or her race, religion, or immigration histories, but its focus is the sense of alienation all of them share. In a narrative that succeeds as mystery and love story, family and character study, Lalami captures the complex ways humans can be strangers not just outside their “tribes” but within them, as well as to themselves.”

Good Talk by Mira Jacob

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Good Talk: “Snippets of dialogue between Jacob (The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing) and her family and friends form the basis of this breezy but poignant graphic memoir that takes on racism, love, and the election of President Trump. The bisexual daughter of Indian immigrants, Jacob effectively conveys how the 2016 election impacted LGBTQ folks and people of color in ways that were searing, personal, and often misunderstood (such as that awkward moment when the older gentlemen at her mother-in-law’s dog’s ‘bark mitzvah’ think she’s the help). As her Trump-supporting Jewish in-laws insist they still love her, her six-year-old son wants to know not only if he can turn white like Michael Jackson (and ‘Did he lose his other glove?’), but how to tell which white people are afraid of brown people. Jacob pastes simple character drawings, cut like paper dolls staring directly at the reader, over grainy photos of New York City, her childhood home in New Mexico, and other locales, emphasizing the contingency of identity. The collage effect creates an odd, immediate intimacy. She employs pages of narrative prose sparingly but hauntingly, as when she learns that a haughty, wealthy woman once lost a child: ‘in that place where you thought you would find a certain kind of woman…is someone you cannot begin to imagine.’ The ‘talks’ Jacob relates are painful, often hilarious, and sometimes absurd, but her memoir makes a fierce case for continuing to have them.”

So Much Longing in So Little Space by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about So Much Longing in So Little Space: “Norwegian modernist painter Edvard Munch, whose masterpiece The Scream is one of art’s best-known depictions of an unhinged psychological freak-out, is a prosaic yet mysterious figure in this knotty aesthetic-biographical study. Norwegian novelist Knausgaard (My Struggle) ponders many Munch paintings (he includes reproductions), delves into his lonely life—the deaths of family members in early life left him gun-shy about relationships and perpetually alienated, Knausgaard writes—and conducts lengthy interviews with artists about Munch’s influence and legacy. The results are uneven, by turns illuminating and obscure. Knausgaard’s analysis of The Scream shows how it evokes a world subsumed in a crazy, distorted perspective without any sane vantage point to shelter viewers, an example of Munch’s ability to visually capture emotions. Often, though, Knausgaard lapses into murky art-crit pensées, as in his assessment of The Sick Child as ‘a picture which at one and the same time comes into being and is destroyed.’ Knausgaard inserts his own droll, hang-dog psychic travails—asked to curate a Munch exhibition, he feels like a failure for showcasing subpar paintings—as a much-needed relief from high-falutin’ theory. Unfortunately, his sometimes turgid and baffling passages on the art exemplify how difficult it is to convey in words the visceral impact of images.”

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: “These darkly hilarious and forthcoming essays from Young, cofounder of social commentary blog Very Smart Brothas, center around the ‘perpetual surreality’ of the African-American experience. For example, he writes with honesty and humor about his youthful worry that, if no white person called him the N word, his authenticity as a black man was in question. One of the funniest essays contains excerpts of his college-era poetry, often plagiarized from rap lyrics. In another, he recalls sneakily renting pornography as a teenager, feeling he was being watched by ‘my recently deceased aunt Toni, the first Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Maya Angelou, and the ghost of that guy Morgan Freeman played in Glory.’ He critiques toxic masculinity and admits to a major error in judgment: writing a ‘triflin’-ass’ piece dismissing a rape victim’s critique of rape culture. He wants, he realized, not to be just a ‘decent’ man, but a man ‘worthy’ of friendship with the women in his life. Young uses pop culture references and personal stories to look at a life molded by structural racism, the joy of having a family that holds together in a crisis, and the thrill of succeeding against difficult odds. Young’s charm and wit make these essays a pleasure to read; his candid approach makes them memorable.”

Also on shelves: The Cook by Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor).

Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles

In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.

A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.

This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.

Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?

John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.

RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.

JS: Just about, yeah.

RB: Is that fun?

JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.

RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?

JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.

RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?

JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.

RB: You haven’t published a book since Los Gusanos [1991].

JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.

RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.

JS: We like driving across the country.

RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?

JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.

RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.

JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.

RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?

JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.

RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is

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