Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Edwidge Danticat, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, Jane Smiley, Caleb Crain, and Rainbow Rowell—that are publishing this week.
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Everything Inside: “Families fracture and reform in Danticat’s outstanding and deeply memorable story collection. Set among the Haitian ‘dyaspora’ including Miami, New York, and Haiti itself, the tales describe the complicated lives of people who live in one place but are drawn elsewhere. The American children of immigrants discover that their lives have been shaped by their parents’ Haitian pasts, as in the touching, funny ‘In the Old Days,’ when a New York high school teacher learns that her absent father, who divorced her mother and returned to Haiti, is dying, and rushes to meet him. In the book’s standout story, ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’ a woman with dementia struggles to impart the lessons of motherhood to her own daughter: ‘You are always saying hello to them while preparing them to say goodbye to you.’ And the charming ‘Hot Air Balloons’ follows two college freshmen—Neah, the child of academics, and Lucy, the daughter of migrant farm workers—as each comes to her own understanding of Haiti, a place of ‘idyllic beaches’ and ‘dewy mountaintops,’ as well as corruption and poverty, where girls are ‘recruited for orgies with international aid workers.’ In plain, propulsive prose, and with great compassion, Danticat writes both of her characters’ losses and of their determination to continue: ‘There are loves that outlive lovers.'”
March Sisters by Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about March Sisters: “In this thoughtful essay collection, four contemporary authors explore their relationships to the title characters of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Each focuses on the sister who holds particular significance for them, considering how their attitude toward the character has changed as they’ve grown from ‘little women’ themselves into adults. Bolick (Spinster) recalls initially finding Meg March ‘yawningly familiar, the quintessential good girl of morality tales’ until she found herself, like Meg, feeling utterly out of her element at a party. Similarly, Zhang (Sour Hearts) felt irritated by Jo March’s ‘boyishness’ and ‘impetuousness,’ but then, as she matured, unearthed deeper layers in the character. Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) finds common ground with the doomed Beth March through her own history of childhood illness, while Smiley (Golden Age) stirringly defends the oft-maligned Amy as the epitome of a ‘modern woman’ and ‘thoughtful feminist.’ In addition to sharing literary insights and personal histories, the authors also discuss the extent to which the Marches resembled and diverged from their real-life models: Alcott’s own sisters. Any readers who have ever compared themselves to Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy—or to all four—will enjoy seeing Alcott’s much-loved classic through these alternate perspectives.”
Bottle Grove by Daniel Handler
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bottle Grove: “Handler’s latest novel for adults (following All the Dirty Parts) is a hilarious tale about unlikely couples set during the San Francisco dot-com explosion. Martin is a 30-year-old co-owner of Bottle Grove bar when he meets Padgett, a woman with a trust fund, sharp wit, and a drinking problem, while they’re both working a wedding for Rachel and Ben, and soon become a couple. The wedding ends with a bang when the significant other of Reynard, who is pretending to be a vicar, confronts Reynard about his infidelity and Reynard crashes his car trying to escape her. After the wedding, Martin and his business partner need cash to keep their bar open, and Martin hatches a plan that involves Padgett meeting tech tycoon Vic and enchanting him to get money out of him. Padgett, not in on the scheme, realizes what Martin’s doing after becoming involved with Vic, a complicated and famous man with plenty of secrets. Meanwhile, Rachel and Ben are still married, but she’s feeling restless and unsettled while Reynard lurks around her, biding his time to seduce her. Handler cleverly exposes the sinister sides of his protagonists as they clamor for what they think they deserve. Readers expecting Handler’s trademark humor and bite won’t be disappointed.”
What Red Was by Rosie Price
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Red Was: “Two young adult friends uneasily navigate the aftermath of sexual assault in Price’s searing debut. Kate Quaile meets Max Rippon during their first year of university in Gloucestershire, and the two bond over a shared love of film and quiet nights in. Kate’s upbringing in council housing with her divorced mother, Alison, a recovering alcoholic, clashes with the wealth of Max’s family, especially the old money of his grandmother’s lavish country estate. Despite differences, Kate is welcomed by his family, including his mother, Zara, an acclaimed feminist film director, even if they do not fully understand Kate and Max’s platonic friendship. During a summer party at the Rippons’ London home, Max’s churlish cousin Lewis rapes Kate. She hesitantly discloses her assault, first to Zara and then to Max, without naming her attacker. Zara insists on paying for therapy and providing her with contacts in the film industry for work while Max provides emotional support. As Kate begins her lurching recovery, Max deals with his grandmother’s death and the family complications fed by their strong repression of uncomfortable emotions. Price has a sure hand in her depiction of the disruption that the trauma causes to Kate’s life. This powerful novel handles its explosive plot with an admirable delicacy and offers an emotional portrait of friendship.”
Overthrow by Caleb Crain
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Overthrow: “Crain’s ambitious if flawed novel (after Necessary Errors) portrays young utopians caught on the wrong side of a government security project. Amid the idealism and hubbub of New York City during the Occupy movement, Matthew, a lonely graduate student in his early 30s, meets the younger, beautiful Leif, a skater and poet who might just be telepathic. As Matthew and Leif’s relationship blossoms into romance, Matthew falls in with Leif’s group of friends and Occupy protesters: Elspeth, a fact-checker with her own empathic streak; Raleigh, a self-centered computer whiz; and Julia, a rich young woman delighted by the excitement of their movement. The group’s murky aims involve using their empathic and telepathic gifts to restructure society by trusting in feelings. As the group begins to realize what they want, they hack into a government contractor’s files and are arrested which tests the strength of their loyalties to one another. Crain crafts elegant, effortless sentences, but the shifting perspectives and alliances of the novel feel less compelling than Matthew’s initial, skeptical point of view. Just as these characters’ optimism cannot be sustained amid the realities of capitalism and control, neither can the novel’s momentum be sustained after their arrests, culminating in a legal battle. This novel’s promising premise is ultimately overshadowed by its shortcomings.”
Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pumpkin Heads: “For the last several years, high schoolers Deja and Josiah (Josie) have been best friends during autumn, working together at the Pumpkin Patch’s Succotash Hut. On Halloween, the last day of their final year working at the Patch, outgoing Deja, a plus-size black girl who has dated many of the Patch’s staffers—girls and boys alike—intends to make sure that responsible, quiet Josie, who is white, finally talks to his long-standing crush, a young woman who works at the Fudge Shoppe. A packed night at the Patch leads to the duo pursuing ‘Fudge Girl’ through the grounds, reliving memories, averting catastrophes, eating all their favorite snacks, and savoring one last autumnal night together. Art by Hicks (Comics Will Break Your Heart) turns the sweetly witty dialogue by Rowell (Carry On) into a miniature autumn universe; precise, affectionate details (signage, costumes, endpaper maps) will coax readers to revel in the cozy atmosphere. The pacing is assured, driving along in short bursts that leave room for key scenes to stretch, but it’s the primary characters’ authentic friendship—built over several seasons working alongside one another—and the variously inclusive cast that really bring this funny last-day story home.”
The last couple of months or so, I’ve taken a break from the Internet—or as much as I’m able to. Writing this piece feels a bit like yelling to you from across an enormous canyon filled with photos of latte art and babies and feminist slogans etched across coffee mugs in millennial pink. There is despair, too, and hourly screeds. There is so much suffering. Every day there is another story about a powerful man “asking” for a massage, or for a date, or if he can masturbate in front of you. There are Twitter rants that might lead to nuclear war. There are also, probably, puns about Charles Manson’s death. Are there? I don’t know because I haven’t checked. It feels good not to know.
2017 is the year I decided that the human brain can’t thrive if all it does is absorb a never-ending stream of information. It’s also the year I began to occasionally wake before dawn so that I could sit in silence with a book and read. It was a gift I gave myself. It has saved me in an era that seems intent on doing the very opposite.
I loved Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy, which starts in 1920 and ends in 2020 and concerns a farming family in Denby, Iowa. I realize this description put you to sleep it sounds so boring, but trust me, you will be stunned by how skillfully Smiley compresses a year per chapter, and slips from character to character, finding the epic in the intimate. In her hands, newborn babies and a war sniper turned spy and an elderly woman on her deathbed all enjoy particular, vivid ways of seeing the world. In his appreciation for her novels, Rumaan Alam wrote, “I like to imagine that Jane Smiley has reached her don’t give a fuck phase.” I think Rumaan is onto something; this is an audacious trilogy.
Because the last book, Golden Age, ends three years from now, in an imagined America, Smiley’s trilogy is also a sneaky work of speculative fiction. So too is Golden Days by Carolyn See, about a twice-divorced mother in her late 30s renting a house in Topanga for herself and her two daughters. It’s the 1980s, and the writing is wry and sharp, and you can feel the despair trying to nudge into every paragraph. Much of the novel is about our heroine’s renewal: a self-help convention, reuniting with an old best friend, her daughters’ absurd, moneyed private school. But when a nuclear event occurs in some far-off country (the details are fuzzy), the book shifts into the post-apocalyptic and we are taken from swanky westside interiors to a small group of survivors, their skin charred, then healing and itching, as they crawl toward the ocean. This is a bonkers, life-affirming book about the end of the world.
I plan to read all of See’s books. So far, I’ve also read her novel Rhine Maidens, about mother-daughter dysfunction with a delicious mean streak that hides, and then emphasizes, its characters’ fragility and pain. (It also partially takes place in cow-shit-smelling Coalinga, Calif., and does so with such wicked derision.) Carolyn See died last year, but she’s left us with a powerful oeuvre of fiction and nonfiction about life in Southern California. It’s strange, and exhilarating, to discover her influence on my own work.
Dark times call for dark books, which is why I’ve continued to be drawn to noir crime fiction. I continued last year’s study of Ross MacDonald with The Galton Case, an impeccable example of the genre, and the best of his novels, plot-wise, that I’ve encountered so far. After reading Megan Abbott’s essay about In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes, I sought out the new edition published by the New York Review Books. Told from the perspective of a serial killer in 1940s Los Angeles and dripping with paranoia, In a Lonely Place reads like a Patricia Highsmith novel set in the Spanish bungalow apartments between Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. It’s also a chilling display of how, as Abbott puts it, “trauma connects to gender and a dangerously beset masculinity—and how it can explode into sexual violence.” An appropriate tale for our times.
My favorite novel published this year was Danzy Senna’s New People, about a young, biracial couple, Maria and Khalil, in 1990s Brooklyn (“Their skin is the same shade of beige,” Senna writes). It’s really about Maria’s unraveling, and it tackles big topics like race and identity with a comic sensibility that discomfits and complicates. It’s also funny. (Here’s a good line: “But she didn’t really feel it was rape. It was more like inserting a tampon.”) Reading it was a balm after one too many afternoons reading progressives on Twitter (my tribe!) swap sanctimonious judgments. There’s a suspenseful, breath-holding scene of Maria pretending to be the nanny for a woman, and baby, she’s never met. There’s a cringe-inducing flashback to a prank-turned-accidental-hate-crime. As with life, there is hilarity. There is also pain. The two often overlap.
Hey you! Can you hear me across the canyon? These are all terrific books! Drop your cell phone in the closest dumpster and read them!
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