January Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock [NF] I first learned about the life and work of seventeenth-century writer and philosopher Margaret Cavendish in Regan Penaluna's stellar study of women thinkers, and I've been dying to read a biography of Cavendish ever since. And I'm in luck (all of us are) thanks to biographer Peacock. A proto-feminist, science-fiction pioneer, and divisive public figure, Cavendish is endlessly fascinating, and Peacock's debut gives her the rigorous, in-depth treatment that she deserves. —Sophia M. Stewart Nonfiction by Julie Myerson [F] A blurb from Rachel Cusk is just about all it takes to get me excited about a book, so when I saw that Cusk called Myerson's latest novel "glitteringly painful," "steady and clear," and "the book [Myerson] was intended to write," I was sold. A tale of art, addiction, and the ties that bind mothers and daughters, Nonfiction promises to devastate. —SMS Immediacy by Anna Kornbluh [NF] Did the pandemic kill postmodernism? And what comes after the end of history? University of Illinois–Chicago professor Kornbluh dubs our contemporary style “immediacy,” characterized by same-day delivery, bingeable multimedia, and real-time news updates that spin the economic flywheel ever faster. Kornbluh names this state of emergence and emergency, and suggests potential off-ramps in the direction of calm reflection, measured art-making, and, just maybe, collective wisdom. —Nathalie op de Beeck Slow Down by Kōhei Saitō, tr. Brian Bergstrom [NF] In this internationally-bestselling treatise, Japanese philosopher Saitō argues against "sustainable growth" in favor of degrowth—the slowing of economic activity—which he sees at the only way to address the twinned crises of inequality and climate change. Saitō's proposal is simple, salient, and adapts Marx for the modern day. —SMS Relic by Ed Simon [NF] From Millions alum Simon comes a slim study of the objects we imbue with religious (or quasi-religious) meaning, from the bone of a Catholic martyr to Jimi Hendrix's guitar pick. Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series never misses, and Relic is one of the series' most unconventional—and compelling—entries yet. —SMS Filterworld by Kyle Chayka [NF] The outline of reality has become increasingly blurry as the real world melds with the digital one, becoming what Chayka, staff writer at the New Yorker, calls “Filterworld,” a society built on a foundation of ever-evolving algorithms. In his book of the same name, Chayka calls out the all-powerful algorithm, which he argues is the driving force behind current and accelerating trends in art, consumption, and ethics. —Daniella Fishman Portrait of a Body by Julie Delporte, tr. Helge Dascher and Karen Houle [NF] A gripping narrative of coming to terms with her queer identity, Canadian cartoonist Delporte's latest graphic memoir—praised by Eileen Myles and Fariha Róisín—sees Delporte learning to embrace herself in both physical and metaphysical ways. Dreamy colored pencil illustrations and gently flowing storytelling capture the beauty, trauma, and ultimate tranquility that comes with learning to exist on your own terms. —DF Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino [F] In Bertino’s latest novel, following 2020's Parakeet, the launch of Voyager 1 into space coincides with the birth of Adina Giorno, who, much like the solitary satellite, is in search of something she can't yet see. As a child, she senses that she is not of this world and struggles to make a life for herself amid the drudgery of human existence. Playing on Adina's alienness as both a metaphor and a reality, Bertino asks, “Are we really alone?” —DF The Last Fire Season by Manjula Martin [NF] Martin returns ablaze in her latest memoir, pitched as "H Is for Hawk meets Joan Didion in the Pyrocene." Following an anguishing chronic pain diagnosis, Martin attempts to reconnect with her beloved Northern California wilderness in order to escape not only her deteriorating health but a deteriorating world, which has ignited around her in the worst fire season California has ever seen. Devastating and ambivalent, The Last Fire Season tries to sift through the ashes of climate change. —DF The Furies by Elizabeth Flock [NF] Violence by women—its role, its potential righteousness—is the focus of Flock's latest. Following the real-life cases of a young rape survivor in Alabama, a predator-punishing gang leader in India, and an anti-ISIS militia fighter in Syria, Flock considers how women have used lethal force as a means to power, safety, and freedom amid misogynistic threats and oppression. Is violence ever the answer? Flock looks to three parallel lives for guidance. —SMS Imagining the Method by Justin Owen Rawlins [NF] University of Tulsa professor Rawlins demystifies that most celebrated (and controversial) acting school, challenging our contemporary conceptions of screen performance. I was sold the moment I saw Rawlins received the ultimate stamp of approval from Isaac Butler, author of the definitive account of method acting: "If you care about the evolution of twentieth-century screen performance, you should read this book." —SMS We Are Free to Change the World by Lyndsey Stonebridge [NF] Famed twentieth-century philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote passionately about power, freedom, and inequality against the backdrop of fascism—a project as relevant today as it ever was. Stonebridge, a professor of humanities and human rights, revisits the lessons of Arendt's writings and applies them to the twenty-first century, creating a dialogue between past, present, and future. —DF Walter Benjamin Stares at the Sea by C.D. Rose [F] In these 19 short stories, Rose meditates on philosophy, photography, and literature. Blending erudition and entertainment, Rose's fables follow writers, teachers, and artists through various situations—and in a standout story, imagines how St. Augustine would fare on Twitter. —DF Black Women Taught Us by Jenn M. Jackson [NF] Jackson's debut book foregrounds the work of Black feminist writers and leaders—from Ida B. Wells and Harriet Jacobs to Shirley Chisholm and bell hooks—throughout American history, revealing the centuries-long role that Black women have played in imagining and fighting for a more just society. Imani Perry calls Jackson "a beautiful writer and excellent scholar." —SMS The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James [F] Pitched as Cormac McCarthy meets Gabriel García Márquez (yeesh!), The Bullet Swallower is the second novel (after Mona at Sea) from Elizabeth Gonzalez James, who also wrote the weird and wonderful essay/play Five Conversations About Peter Sellers. Infusing the spaghetti western with magical realism, the novel follows a Mexican bandito on a cosmic journey generations in the making. —SMS Last Acts by Alexander Sammartino [F] In Sammartino's debut novel, the owner of a gun store hatches a plan to resurrect his struggling business following his son's near-death experience. George Saunders, Mary Karr, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah have all heaped on praise, and Jenny Offill finds it "hard to believe Last Acts is a first novel." —SMS I Sing to Use the Waiting by Zachary Pace [NF] Pace fuses memoir and criticism (my favorite combination) to explore the emotional and cultural impacts of women singers across time, from Cat Power and Rihanna to Kim Gordon and Whitney Houston. A queer coming-of-age story that centers the power of music and the legacies of women artists. —SMS Dead in Long Beach, California by Venita Blackburn [F] Blackburn, the author of the stellar story collections Black Jesus and Other Superheroes and How to Wrestle a Girl, delivers a debut novel about storytelling and unreality, centering on a successful novelist who gets hold of her dead brother's phone—and starts answering texts as him. Kristen Arnett calls this one "a bonafide knockout" that "rewired my brain." —SMS Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here by Jonathan Blitzer [N] New Yorker staff writer Blitzer traces the harrowing history of the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, foregrounding the stories of Central American migrants whose lives have been threatened and upended by political tumult. A nuanced, layered, and rigorously reported portrait that Patrick Radden Keefe hails as "extraordinary." —SMS The Survivors of the Clotilda by Hannah Durkin [NF] Durkin, a British historian, explores the lives of 103 Africans who were kidnapped and transported on the last slave ship to dock in the U.S., shortly before the Civil War began in 1861. Many of these captives were children, and thus lived their lives against a dramatic backdrop, from the Civil War all the way up to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. What these people experienced and how they prevailed should intrigue anybody interested in learning more about our nation’s darkest chapter. —Claire Kirch Your Utopia by Bora Chung, tr. Anton Hur [F] Following her acclaimed sophomore novel The Cursed Bunny, Chung returns with more tales from the realm of the uncanny. Covering everything from unruly AI to the quest for immortality to the environmental destruction caused by capitalism, Chung’s story collection promises more of the mystifying, horror-filled goodness that has become her calling card. —DF The Rebel's Clinic by Adam Shatz [NF] Frantz Fanon—political philosopher, psychiatrist, and author of the trailblazing Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth—is one of the most important writers and thinkers of the postcolonial era, and his work continues to inform contemporary thinking on race, capitalism, and power. In this sprawling biography, Shatz affirms Fanon's place as a towering intellect and groundbreaking activist. —SMS You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue, tr. Natasha Wimmer [F] Enrigue's latest novel, following Sudden Death, reimagines the fateful 1519 invasion of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. With exuberant style, and in a lively translation by Wimmer, Enrigue brings the Aztec capital and the emperor Moctezuma to vibrant life—and rewrites their destinies. —SMS February Love Novel by Ivana Sajko, tr. by Mima Simić [F] Croatian literature may lag behind its Russian, Hungarian, Polish, and Ukrainian counterparts—roughly in that order—as far as stateside recognition goes, but we all make mistakes. Just like couples do in love and under capitalism. “A war between kitchen and bedroom,” as the liner notes read, would have been enough to sell me, but that war’s combatants, “an unemployed Dante scholar” and “a passable actress,” really sealed the deal. —John H. Maher The Unforgivable by Cristina Campo, tr. Alex Andriesse [NF] This new NYRB edition, introduced by Kathryn Davis, brings together all of the essays Campo published in her lifetime, plus a selection of additional essays and autofiction. The result is a robust introduction to a stylish—but largely forgotten—Italian writer whose "creativity was a vocation in the truest sense," per Jhumpa Lahiri. —SMS Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti [NF] Last year, I was enraptured by Heti's limited-run New York Times newsletter in which she alphabetized sentences from 10 years' worth of her diary entries—and this year, we can finally enjoy the sublime results of that experiment in book form. This is my favorite work of Heti's, full stop. —SMS Dinner on Monster Island by Tania De Rozario [NF] Blending film criticism, social commentary, and personal narrative, De Rozario (most recently the author of the Lambda Literary Award–nominated And the Walls Came Crumbling Down) explores her experience growing up queer, brown, and fat in Singapore, from suffering through a "gay-exorcism" to finding solace in horror films like Carrie. —SMS Wrong Norma by Anne Carson [NF] Everyone shut up—Anne Carson is speaking! This glistening new collection of drawings and musings from Carson is her first original work since the 2016 poetry collection Float. In Carson's own words, the collection touches on such disparate topics (she stresses they are "not linked") as Joseph Conrad, Roget's Thesaurus, snow, Guantánamo, and "my Dad." —DF Self-Portraits: Stories by Osamu Dazai, tr. Ralph McCarthy [F] Japanese writer Dazai had quite the moment in 2023, and that moment looks likely to continue into the new year. Self-Portraits is a collection of short autofiction in the signature melancholic cadence which so many Anglophone readers have come to love. Meditating on themes of hypocrisy, irony, nihilism—all with a touch of self-deprecating humor—Dazai’s work will either pull you out of a deep depression or crack your rose-colored glasses; there is no in-between. —DF Imagination by Ruha Benjamin [NF] Visionary imagination is essential for justice and a sustainable future, argues Benjamin, a Princeton professor of African American studies and founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. In her treatise, she reminds readers of the human capacity for creativity, and she believes failures of imagination that lead to inequity can be remedied. In place of quasi-utopian gambles that widen wealth gaps and prop up the surveillance state, Benjamin recommends dreaming collective and anti-racist social arrangements into being—a message to galvanize readers of adrienne marie brown and Alexis Pauline Gumbs. —SMS Literary Theory for Robots by Dennis Yi Tenen [NF] Artificial intelligence and machine-generated writing are nothing new, and perhaps nothing to fear, argues Tenen, a Columbia English professor and former software engineer. Traveling through time and across the world, Tenen reveals the labor and collaboration behind AI, complicating the knee-jerk (and, frankly, well-founded!) reactions many of us have to programs like ChatGPT. —SMS A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh [F] Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone, but what he considered his life's work was the education of deaf children—specifically, the harmful practice of oralism, or the suppression of sign language. Marsh's wonderful debut novel unearths this little-known history and follows a deaf pupil of Bell's as she questions his teachings and reclaims her voice. —SMS Get the Picture by Bianca Bosker [NF] Journalist Bosker, who took readers behind the scenes with oenophiles in her 2017 Cork Dork, turns to avid artists, collectors, and curators for this sensory deep dive. Bosker relies on experiential reporting, and her quest to understand the human passion for visual art finds her apprenticing with creators, schmoozing with galleristas, and minding canonical pieces as a museum guard. —NodB Columbo by Amelie Hastie [NF] Columbo experienced something of a renaissance during the pandemic, with a new generation falling for the rugged, irresistible charms of Peter Falk. Hastie revisits the series, a staple of 70s-era TV, with refreshing rigor and appreciation, tackling questions of stardom, authorship, and the role of television in the process. —SMS Acts of Forgiveness by Maura Cheeks [F] Cheeks's debut novel sounds amazing and so au courant. A woman is elected U.S. president and promises Black Americans that they will receive reparations if they can prove they are descended from slaves. You’d think people would jump on achieving some social justice in the form of cold cash, right? Not Willie Revel’s family, who’d rather she not delve into the family history. This promises to be a provocative read on how the past really isn’t past, no matter how much you run from it. —CK The Sentence by Matthew Baker [F] I minored in Spanish linguistics in college and, as a result, came to love that most useless and rewarding of syntactic exercises, diagramming sentences. So I'm very excited to read Baker's The Sentence, a graphic novel set in an alternate America and comprising single, 6,732-word sentence, diagrammed in full. Syntax wonks, assemble! —SMS Neighbors by Diane Oliver [F] Before her untimely death in 1966 at the age of 22, Oliver wrote stories of race and racism in Jim Crow America characterized by what Dawnie Walton calls "audacity, wit, and wisdom beyond her years." Only four of the 14 stories in Neighbors were published in Oliver's lifetime, and Jamel Brinkley calls the publication of her posthumous debut collection "an important event in African American and American letters." —SMS The Weird Sister Collection by Marisa Crawford [NF] Essayist, poet, and All Our Pretty Songs podcaster Crawford founded the Weird Sister blog in 2014, covering books and pop culture from contemporary young feminists’ and queer perspectives. The now-defunct blog offered literary reviews, Q&As with indie authors, and think pieces on film and music. For this collection, whose foreword comes from Michelle Tea, Crawford gathers favorite pieces from contributors, plus original work with a Weird Sister edge. —NodB Smoke and Ashes by Amitav Ghosh [NF] As research for his Ibis trilogy, Ghosh mapped the opium trade around the world and across centuries. This global and personal history revisits the British Empire’s dependence on Indian opium as a trade good, and how the cultivation of and profits from opium shaped today’s global economy. In his nonfiction The Great Derangement, Ghosh employs personal anecdotes to make sense of larger-scale developments, and Smoke and Ashes promises to connect his own family and identity to today’s corporate, institutional, and environmental realities. —NodB Private Equity by Carrie Sun [NF] In her debut memoir, Sun recounts her time on Wall Street, where she worked as an assistant to a billionaire hedge-fund founder and was forced to rethink everything she thought she knew about work, money, sacrifice, and living a meaningful life. This one sounds like a great read for fans of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley (e.g. me). —SMS I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both by Mariah Stovall [F] When Khaki Oliver receives a letter from her estranged former best friend, she isn’t ready for the onslaught of memories that soon cause her to unravel. A Black Bildungsroman about friendship, fandom, and sanity, I Love You So Much It's Killing Us Both is an unflinching look at "what it means to be young in a hard, and nonetheless beautiful, world," per Vauhini Vara. —Liv Albright Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit by Aisha Sabatini Sloan [NF] I know from personal experience that anything published by Graywolf Press is going to open my eyes and make me look at the world in a completely different way, so I have high expectations for Sloan’s essays. In this clever collection, a Black creative reflects upon race, art, and pedagogy, and how they relate to one’s life in this crazy country of ours during the time period between the 2016 election and the onset of the pandemic. —CK Language City by Ross Perlin [NF] Perlin travels throughout the most linguistically diverse city on the planet—New York—to chronicle the sounds and speakers of six endangered languages before they die out. A linguist and co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, Perlin argues for the importance of little-known languages and celebrates the panoply of languages that exists in New York City. —SMS Monkey Grip by Helen Garner [F] A tale as old as time and/or patriarchal sociocultural constructs: a debut novel by a woman is published and the critics don't appreciate it—until later, at least. This proto-autofictional 1977 novel is now considered a classic of Australian "grunge lit," but at the time, it divided critics, probably because it had depictions of drug addiction and sex in it. But Lauren Groff liked it enough to write a foreword, so perhaps the second time really is the charm. —JHM Ours by Phillip B. Williams [F] A conjuror wreaks magical havoc across plantations in antebellum Arkansas and sets up a Brigadoon for the enslaved people she frees before finding that even a mystic haven isn't truly safe from the horrors of the world. What a concept! And a flexible one to boot: if this isn't adapted as a TV series, it would work just as well as an RPG. —JHM Violent Faculties by Charlotte Elsby [F] A philosophy professor influenced by the Marquis de Sade designs a series of experiments to prove its relevance as a discipline, specifically with regard to life and death, a.k.a. Philip Zimbardo (Chopped and Screwed Remix): The Novel. If you ever trusted a philosophy professor with your inner self before—and you probably shouldn't have?—you probably won't after reading this. —JHM American Abductions by Mauro Javier Cárdenas [F] Plagued by data harvesting, constant surveillance, mass deportation, and incarceration, the society at the heart of Cárdenas's new novel is less speculative dystopia than realist reflection. Channeling Philp K. Dick and Samuel Delaney, Cárdenas imagines a society where Latin Americans are systematically expunged. Following the lives of two Columbian-American sisters, one who was deported and one who stayed in the U.S., American Abduction tells a new kind of immigrant story, suffused with mysticism and philosophical rigor. —DF Closures: Heterosexuality and the American Sitcom by Grace Lavery [NF] I took Lavery's class on heterosexuality and sitcoms as an undergrad, and I'm thrilled to see the course's teachings collected in book form. Lavery argues that since its inception the sitcom has depicted heterosexuality as constantly on the verge of collapse, only to be reconstituted at the end of each half-hour episode. A fascinating argument about the cultural project of straightness. —SMS Whiskey Tender by Deborah Taffa [NF] Almost a decade in the making, this memoir from Taffa details generations of Southwest Native history and the legacies of assimilationist efforts. Taffa—a citizen of the Quechan Nation and Laguna Pueblo tribe, and director of the MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts—was born on the California Yuma reservation and grew up in Navajo territory in New Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. She reflects on tribal identity and attitudes toward off-reservation education she learned from her parents’ and grandparents’ fraught formative experiences. —NodB Normal Women by Philippa Gregory [NF] This is exciting news for Anglophiles and history nerds like me: Philippa Gregory is moving from historical fiction (my guilty pleasure) about royal women and aristocrats in medieval and early modern England to focus on the lives of common women during that same time period, as gleaned from the scraps of information on them she has unearthed in various archives. I love history “from the bottom up” that puts women at the center, and Gregory is a compelling storyteller, so my expectations are high. —CK Blue Lard by Vladimir Sorokin, tr. Max Lawton [F] Upon its publication in 1999, Sorokin's sci-fi satire Blue Lard sparked protests across Russia. One aspect of it particularly rankled: the torrid, sexual affair it depicts between Stalin and Khruschev. All to say, the novel is bizarre, biting, and utterly irreverent. Translated into English for the first time by Lawton, Sorokin's masterwork is a must-read for anyone with an iconoclastic streak. —SMS Piglet by Lottie Hazell [F] Hazell's debut novel follows the eponymous Piglet, a successful cookbook editor identified only by her unfortunate childhood nickname, as she rethinks questions of ambition and appetite following her fiancé's betrayal. Per Marlowe Granados, Hazell writes the kind of "prose Nora Ephron would be proud of." —SMS Grief is for People by Sloane Crosley [NF] Crosley enlivens the grief memoir genre with the signature sense of humor that helped put her on the literary map. In Grief Is for People, she eulogizes the quirks and complexities of her friendship with Russell Perreault, former publicity director at Vintage Books, who died by suicide in 2019. Dani Shapiro hails Crosley’s memoir—her first full-length book of nonfiction—as “both a provocation and a balm to the soul.” —LA The Freaks Came Out to Write by Tricia Romano [NF] The freaks came out to write, and you better believe the freaks will come out in droves to read! In this history of the legendary alt-weekly the Village Voice, Romano (a former writer for the Voice) interviews some 200 members the paper’s most esteemed staff and subjects. A sweeping chronicle of the most exciting era in New York City journalism promises to galvanize burgeoning writers in the deflating age of digital media. —DF Burn Book by Kara Swisher [NF] Swisher has been reporting on the tech industry for 30 years, tracing its explosive growth from the dawn of the internet to the advent of AI. She's interviewed every tech titan alive and has chronicled their foibles and failures in excruciating detail. Her new book combines memoir and reportage to tell a comprehensive history of a troubled industry and its shortsighted leaders. —SMS Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange [F] Orange returns with a poignant multi-generational tale that follows the Bear Shield-Red Feather family as they struggle to combat racist violence. Picking up where Orange's hit debut novel, There There, left off, Wandering Stars explores memory, inheritance, and identity through the lens of Native American life and history. Per Louise Erdrich, “No one knows how to express tenderness and yearning like Tommy Orange." —LA March The Hearing Test by Eliza Barry Callahan [F] Callahan's debut novel follows a young artist as she faces sudden hearing loss, forcing to reevaluate her orientation to her senses, her art, and the world around her. Amina Cain, Moyra Davey, and Kate Zambreno are all fans (also a dream blunt rotation), with the latter recommending this one be "read alongside the novels of W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk, and Maria Gainza." —SMS The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft [F] When a group of translators arrive at the home of renowned novelist Irena Rey, they expect to get to work translating her latest book—instead, they get caught up in an all-consuming mystery. Irena vanishes shortly after the translators arrive, and as they search for clues to the author's disappearance, the group is swept up by isolation-fueled psychosis and obsession. A “mischievous and intellectually provocative” debut novel, per Megha Majumdar. —LA Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk, tr. Heather Cleary [F] This isn’t your typical meet-cute. When two women—one grieving, the other a vampire, both of them alienated and yearning for more—cross paths in a Buenos Aires cemetery, romance blooms. Channelling Carmen Maria Machado and Anne Rice, Yuszczuk reimagines the vampire novel, with a distinctly Latin American feminist Gothic twist. —LA The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez [F] I'm a sucker for meticulously researched and well-written historical fiction, and this one—a sweeping story about the interconnected lives of the unsung people who lived and labored at the site of the Panama Canal—fits the bill. I heard Henríquez speak about this novel and her writing processes at a booksellers conference, and, like the 300 booksellers present, was impressed by her presentation and fascinated at the idea of such a sweeping tale set against a backdrop so larger-than-life and dramatic as the construction of the Panama Canal. —CK Bite Your Friends by Fernanda Eberstadt [NF] Melding memoir and history, Eberstadt's Bite Your Friends looks at the lives of saints, philosophers, and artists—including the author and her mother—whose abberant bodies became sites of subversion and rebellion. From Diogenes to Pussy Riot, Eberstadt asks what it means to put our bodies on the line, and how our bodies can liberate us. —SMS Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez [F] When Raquel Toro, an art history student, stumbles on the story of Anita de Monte, a once prominent artist from the '80s whose mysterious death cut short her meteoric rise, her world is turned upside down. Gonzalez's sophomore novel (after her hit debut Olga Dies Dreaming) toggles between the perspectives of Raquel and Anita (who is based on the late Ana Mendieta) to explore questions of power, justice, race, beauty, and art. Robert Jones, Jr. calls this one "rollicking, melodic, tender, and true—and oh so very wise." —LA My Heavenly Favorite by Lucas Rijneveld, tr. Michele Hutchison [F] Rijneveld, author of the International Booker Prize-winning novel The Discomfort of Evening, returns with a new take on the Lolita story, transpiring between a veterinarian and a farmer's daughter on the verge of adolescence. "This book unsettled me even as it made me laugh and gasp," gushes Brandon Taylor. "I'm in awe." Radiant by Brad Gooch [NF] Lauded biographer Gooch propels us through Keith Haring’s early days as an anonymous sidewalk chalk artist to his ascent as a vigilante muralist, pop-art savant, AIDS activist, and pop-culture icon. Fans of Haring's will not want to miss this definitive account of the artist's life, which Pulitzer-winner biographer Stacy Schiff calls "a keen-eyed, beautifully written biography, atmospheric, exuberant, and as radiant as they come." —DF The Riddles of the Sphinx by Anna Shechtman [NF] Sometimes you encounter a book that seems to have been written specifically for you; this was the feeling I had when I first saw the deal announcement for Shechtman's debut book back in January 2022. A feminist history of the crossword puzzle? Are you kidding me? I'm as passionate a cruciverbalist as I am a feminist, so you can imagine how ravenously I read this book. The Riddles of the Sphinx is one of the best books of 2024, hands down, and I can't wait for everyone else—puzzlers and laymen alike—to fall in love with it too. —SMS The Silver Bone by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Boris Drayluk [F] Kurkov is one of Ukraine's most celebrated novelists, and his latest book is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of WWI-era Kyiv. I'll admit what particularly excites me about The Silver Bone, though, is that it is translated by Dralyuk, who's one of the best literary translators working today (not to mention a superb writer, editor, and poet). In Drayluk's hands, Kurkov's signature humor and sparkling style come alive. —SMS Feeding Ghosts by Tessa Hulls [NF] This multigenerational graphic memoir follows Hull, alongside her mother and grandmother, both of whom hail from China, across time and space as the delicate line between nature and nurture is strained by the forces of trauma, duty, and mental illness. Manjula Martin calls Feeding Ghosts “one of the best stories I’ve read about the tension between family, history, and self.” —DF It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over by Anne de Marcken [F] Haunting prose and a pithy crow guide readers through Marcken's novel of life after death. In a realm between reality and eternity, the undead traverse westward through their end-of-life highlight reel, dissecting memories, feelings, and devotions while slowly coming to terms with what it means to have lived once all that remains is love. Alexandra Kleeman admits that she "was absolute putty in this book's hands." —DF Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi [F] When I visited Prague, a year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech capital struck me as a magical place, where anything is possible, and Oyeyemi captures the essence of Prague in Parasol Against the Axe, the story of a woman who attends her estranged friend's bachelorette weekend in the city. A tale in which reality constantly shifts for the characters and there is a thin line between the factual and the imagined in their relationships, this is definitely my kind of a read. —CK Say Hello to My Little Friend by Jennine Capó Crucet [F] Crucet's latest novel centers on a failed Pitbull impersonator who embarks on a quest to turn himself into a modern-day Tony Montana—a quest that leads him to cross paths with Lolita, a captive orca at the Miami Seaquariam. Winking at both Scarface and Moby-Dick, Say Hello to My Little Friend is "a masterclass in pace and precision," per Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. —SMS But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu [F] Girl, a Malaysian-Australian who leaves home for the U.K. to study Sylvia Plath and write a postcolonial novel, finds herself unable to shake home—or to figure out what a "postcolonial novel" even is. Blurbs are untrustworthy, but anything blurbed by Brandon Taylor is almost certainly worth checking out. —JHM Wrong Is Not My Name by Erica N. Cardwell [NF] Cardwell blends memoir, criticism, and theory to place her own Künstlerroman in conversation with the work of Black visual artists like Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O'Grady, and Kara Walker. In interconnected essays, Cardwell celebrates the brilliant Black women who use art and storytelling to claim their place in the world. —SMS Great Expectations by Vinson Cunningham [F] A theater critic at the New Yorker, Cunningham is one of my favorite writers working today, so I was thrilled to learn of his debut novel, which cheekily steals its title from the Dickens classic. Following a young Black man as he works on a historic presidential campaign, Great Expectations tackles questions of politics, race, religion, and family with Cunningham's characteristic poise and insight. —SMS The Future of Songwriting by Kristin Hersh [NF] In this slim volume, Throwing Muses frontwoman and singer-songwriter Hersh considers the future of her craft. Talking to friends and colleagues, visiting museums and acupuncturists, Hersh threads together eclectic perspectives on how songs get made and how the music industry can (and should) change. —SMS You Get What You Pay For by Morgan Parker [NF] Parker, a brilliant poet and author of the stellar There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce, debuts as an essayist with this candid, keen-eyed collection about life as a Black woman in America. Casting her gaze both inward and onto popular culture, Parker sees everything and holds back nothing. —SMS Mother Doll by Katya Apekina [F] Following up her debut novel, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish, Apekina's Mother Doll follows Zhenia, an expectant mother adrift in Los Angeles whose world is rocked by a strange call from a psychic medium with a message from Zhenia's Russian Revolutionary great-grandmother. Elif Batuman calls this one "a rare achivement." —SMS Solidarity by Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix [NF] What does "solidarity" mean in a stratified society and fractured world? Organizers and activists Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor look at the history of the concept—from its origins in Ancient Rome to its invocation during the Black Live Matter movement—to envision a future in which calls for solidarity can produce tangible political change. —SMS The Manicurist's Daughter by Susan Lieu [NF] After her mother, a refugee of the Vietnam war and the owner of two nail salons, dies from a botched cosmetic surgery, Lieu goes looking for answers about her mother's mysterious life and untimely death. Springing from her hit one-woman show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, Lieu's debut memoir explores immigration, beauty, and the American Dream. —SMS Through the Night Like a Snake ed. Sarah Coolidge [F] There's no horror quite like Latin American horror, as any revering reader of Cristina Rivera Garza—is there any other kind?—could tell you. Two Lines Press consistently puts out some of the best literature in translation that one can come by in the U.S., and this story collection looks like another banger. —JHM Headshot by Rita Bullwinkel [F] Bullwinkel's debut collection, Belly Up, was a canful of the uncanny. Her debut novel, on the other hand, sounds gritty and grounded, following the stories of eight teenage girls boxing in a tournament in Reno. Boxing stories often manage to punch above their weight (sorry) in pretty much any medium, even if you're not versed enough in the sport to know how hackneyed and clichéd that previous clause's idiomatic usage was. —JHM Choose This Now by Nicole Haroutunian [F] Haroutunian's novel-in-stories, part of Noemi Press's Prose Series, follows a pair of inseparable friends over the years as they embark on careers, make art, fall in and out of love, and become mothers. Lydia Kiesling calls this one "a sparkling, intimate look at women's lives" that makes "for a lovely reading experience." —SMS Death by Laughter by Maggie Hennefeld [NF] Hennefeld's scholarly study explores the forgotten history and politics of women's "hysterical laughter," drawing on silent films, affect theory, feminist film theory, and more. Hennefeld, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature, offers a unique take on women's pleasure and repression—and how the advent of cinema allowed women to laugh as never before. —SMS James by Percival Everett [F] In James, the once-secondary character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn narrates his version of life on the Mississippi. Jim, who escapes enslavement only to end up in adventures with white runaway Huck, gives his account of well-known events from Mark Twain’s 1880s novel (and departs from the record to say what happened next). Everett makes readers hyperaware of code-switching—his 2001 novel Erasure was about a Black novelist whose career skyrockets when he doubles down on cynical stereotypes of Blackness—and Jim, in James, will have readers talking about written vernacular, self-awareness, and autonomy. —NodB A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohen [NF] Chronicling 36 fateful encounters among 30 writers and artists—from Henry James to Gertrude Stein, Mark Twain to Zora Neal Hurston—Cohen paints a vast and sparkling portrait of a century's worth of American culture. First published in 2004, and reissued by NYRB, A Chance Meeting captures the spark of artistic serendipity, and the revived edition features a new afterword by the author. —SMS Who's Afraid of Gender? by Judith Butler [NF] Butler has had an outsized impact on how we think and talk about gender and sexuality ever since the 1990 publication of Gender Trouble, which theorized the way gender is performed and constructed. Butler's latest is a polemic that takes on the advent of "anti-gender ideology movements," arguing that "gender" has become a bogeyman for authoritarian regimes. —SMS Green Frog by Gina Chung [F] Chung, author of the acclaimed debut novel Sea Change, returns with a story collection about daughters and ghosts, divorcees and demons, praying mantises and the titular verdant amphibians. Morgan Talty calls these 15 stories "remarkable." —SMS No Judgment by Lauren Oyler [NF] Oyler is one of our sharpest and most fearless cultural critics, and No Judgement is her first essay collection, following up her debut novel Fake Accounts. Opining on gossip and anxiety, autofiction and vulnerability, and much, much more, Oyler's caustic wit and penetrating voice shine through every essay. —SMS Memory Piece by Lisa Ko [F] Following up her National Book Award–nominated debut novel The Leavers, Ko's latest follows three lifelong friends from the 1990s to the 2040s. A meditation on the meaning of a "meaningful life" and how to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable world, Memory Piece has earned praise from Jacqueline Woodson and C Pam Zhang, who calls the novel "bright with defiance, intelligence, and stubborn love." —SMS On Giving Up by Adam Phillips [NF] Psychoanalyst Phillips—whose previous subjects include getting better, wanting to change, and missing out—takes a swing at what feels like a particularly timely impulse: giving up. Questioning our notions of sacrifice and agency, Phillips asks when giving up might be beneficial to us, and which parts of our lives might actually be worth giving up. —SMS There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib [NF] Abdurraqib returns (how lucky are we!) with a reflection on his lifelong love of basketball and how it's shaped him. While reconsidering his childhood, his relationship with his father, and the meaning of "making it," Abdurraqib delivers what Shea Serrano calls "the sharpest, most insightful, most poignant writing of his career." —SMS The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones [F] The final installment of Jones's trilogy picks up four years after Don't Fear the Reaper. Jade Daniels is back from prison, and upon her release, she encounters serial killer-worshipping cults, the devastating effects of gentrification, and—worst of all—the curse of the Lake Witch. Horror maestro Brian Keene calls Jones's grand finale "an easy contender for Best of the Year." —LA Worry by Alexandra Tanner [F] This deadpan debut novel from Tanner follows two sisters on the cusp of adulthood as they struggle to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. Heads butt, tempers flare, and existential dread creeps in as their paths diverge amid the backdrop of Brooklyn in 2019. Limning the absurdity of our internet-addled, dread-filled moment, Tanner establishes herself as a formidable novelist, with Kiley Reid calling Worry "the best thing I've read in a very long time." —DF [millions_email]
1. Unlike most people, with or without children of their own, I had not come to Margaret Wise Brown by the popular-to-the-point-of ubiquitous Goodnight Moon. Even if I had never read Goodnight Moon (but hasn’t everyone read Goodnight Moon?), it was impossible not to encounter it in every children’s bookstore and airport across the land where it not only existed in its original form but in endless imitation from Goodnight _____ (fill in the blank of the city or state to Good Night Farm, Zoo, North Pole, Ocean, World, Galaxy, and Baby Jesus, to say nothing of parodic spin-offs like Goodnight Goon, Goodnight iPad, and Goodnight Husband, Goodnight Wife. But Goodnight Moon wouldn’t prove to be the mood lure that would have me wanting to enter more deeply into the worlds created by Margaret Wise Brown. I found Brown lurking with a start in the pages of a 900–page book on noise by cultural historian Hillel Schwartz. I had invited the scholar and translator to the campus where I teach to discuss his book in a class in “literary acoustics” --a course in which we sought to transform words on pages and so much of what we took about our lives to be self-evident by turning our attention to sound, voice, noise, and silence. Schwartz introduced the students and me to one book in a series of books devoted to listening by Brown, the paradoxically titled The Quiet Noisy Book. It was interesting at the outset to think about the vast mood influence the magic of one of Brown’s books had cast into the nighttime wells of millions of children over a period of several decades and still to this day. Then, to pause to consider how little any reader, be they parent or child, knew about the particular geometry of her life, to say nothing of the scores of books she wrote that haven’t yet enjoyed the same ascendency as Goodnight Moon including her Noisy Book series, or those she wrote under a handful of pseudonyms. Could it matter to our experience of the book to know that Brown didn’t live to see Goodnight Moon thrive, that she died young, at 42 in 1952, exiting life with the kind of boisterous exuberance she was known for: cause of death was a cancan-type kick of her leg into the air following a minor surgery. She died instantly of an embolism. In an equally strange twist of fate, in her will, Brown had named the child of a friend the right to all monies earned by her books should he survive her, but the boy, who never completed high school and who gained a reputation for destroying public property and beating people up, grew up to squander the millions. At the center of the famous tale was a bunny, and Brown had grown up with bunnies and other animals. As an adult, she once took a bunny on a train with her en route to a date; but, could a reader imagine it? -- as a child, she had also skinned a bunny. The houses she lived in were like hutches -- in the middle of Manhattan, a cottage that she called Cobble Court; on a ruggedly beautiful island in Maine named Vinalhaven, a former quarryman’s house she dubbed “The Only House.” Brown’s biographer, Leonard Marcus, describes the house as an uncomfortable extravagance: it wasn’t wired for telephone service or electricity and lacked indoor plumbing, but Brown made sure the larder was stocked with “champagne, fresh cream, imported cheeses and other such necessities.” A well served as a fridge, as did the cool, running waters of a nearby brook, from which she might surprise a visitor with a bottle of wine. Rainwater was collected for bathing, and three outhouses were positioned “for the sake of the view”: “a mirror had been nailed to one of the apple trees in the yard, and a pitcher and basin were left out on a battered Victorian washstand. First-time visitors would be surprised on opening the drawers to find the freshly laid supply of scented soaps and toiletries of Margaret’s ‘Boudoir.’” One part of the house brought the outside in through a collection of small mirrors, “each differently framed and made flush with its neighbors.” The mirrors were hung across from a door that opened onto a “sheer fifty foot drop,” and positioned in such a way each to reflect a “different image of the sea” in succession. People finding themselves in the mirrors, would glimpse themselves as “plural.” I don’t recall which detail from Hillel Schwartz’s work on Brown and noise made me ask him about her romantic life. I only remember a feeling of a life lived differently and athwart, and a desire to draw closer to her, whatever the answer might be. I wasn’t looking to find myself in her, but learning that she’d spent most of her life in a relationship with a woman poet who called herself Michael Strange and who had been the ex-wife of John Barrymore filled me with a perverse delight. Picture this: when Michael was in the mood, she called Margaret “Bun;” when Margaret was in the mood, she called Michael “Rabbit” (those really were their pet names for one another). I loved how the idea of a “childless” lesbian having devised one of the most classic books for children gave the lie to maternity as the only or most natural route to knowing how to be with children. I wondered if hospitals that sent copies of the book home with newborns would discontinue the practice if they knew the book’s author had been queer. Would all those folks who lulled their children to sleep with Goodnight Moon rest easy if they knew the little prayer was birthed by a lesbian consciousness? Might they worry that Goodnight Moon could unconsciously shape a mood realm deep inside the child that might make him grow up gay? Come to think of it, all of the mood-room makers to have drawn my interest are by coincidence queer insofar as all three -- Florence Thomas, Thomas Hubbard, Margaret Wise Brown -- lived out of tune with the hum of a neatly domesticating hetero norm. Florence Thomas, I recently learned, and as I’d imagined, enjoyed her days in retirement alone with her cat, her garden, and a basement studio where she carved abstract art out of wood. “‘I’m a cat person,’ Florence Thomas told a local reporter in 1971, ‘So I am really fondest of ‘Puss and Boots.’” “You have to know how to be a scavenger,” she said, referring to the suite of materials used in her scenes. “It’s much easier now since we have plastic flowers and leaves. I used to bring live things from the garden.” Though retirement would give her time “to renew old friendships” -- she was planning a major trip to Australia and New Zealand with one friend -- she explained she wanted to work on her garden first. This wasn’t a garden-variety garden providing flowers for the table or tomatoes for a stew. Spanning one half-acre, it was a form of applied dedication by a specialist-eccentric: Thomas had cultivated one hundred varieties of rhododendrons. She continued to make 3-D constructions, but now by way of what was known as the Personal View-Master camera: a device that people could use to make View-Master reels with images they themselves took, based, that is to say, on their own lives. Hubbard wasn’t exactly a solitary soul, but he lived at an apparent distance from his wife, who has been described as emotionally unwell, devoting himself to his students, his art, and his summer travel in turn. Brown had experienced attachments to other women and a near marriage to a man before she met Michael Strange. Unfortunately, her relationship with Strange wasn’t, in the long term, a happy one. Strange comes off as abusive in the end, with Brown the ever-pining and unfulfilled lover. One of numerous painfully poignant junctures in Leonard Marcus’s account of their relationship has Brown hiring a lobsterman to build a special house just for Michael Strange near to Brown’s “Only House” on Vinalhaven. Since Strange rarely joined her there, perhaps Brown thought designing a “Picture Window” using an ornate picture frame she’d found in a Rockland antique shop trained on a spruce forest would do the trick. But she was wrong. Nevertheless, an unconventionally attuned Brown was involved in experiments in living and in writing all her short life -- having been the literal voice to prompt Gertrude Stein to compose a children’s book, with the result being Stein’s 1939 The World is Round illustrated by the same artist who pictured Goodnight Moon, Clement Hurd. Brown’s Noisy Book series, which came into print around the same time, grew directly out of her work with Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the Bank Street School whose experiments in early childhood education in the early 20th century included encouraging children to be noisy rather than disciplining them into silence. Many of Brown’s books in progress were tried out, so to speak, on children at the school. The Noisy books, Brown explained, “‘came right from the children themselves -- from listening to them, watching them, and letting them into the story when they are much too young to sit without a word for the length of time it takes to read a full-length story to them. I mean three- and two-year olds.” At the center of the series is a little black dog named Muffin who stands in place of a child -- one imagines the child-reader identifying with him -- but who, on account of his being a dog, has a keener sense of hearing than a child. Or does he? The books are meant to meet children in that time before they’ve come to use language fully to mediate desire and their world, that period when looking hasn’t yet replaced listening as the form of reading, where letters aren’t yet yoked to sounds but float, one form among others on a page splashed with Leonard Weisgard’s bright colors and Brown’s colocation not just of words bound to meanings but of phonemes’ clattering in imitation of sound. If Gertrude Stein famously discovered the difference between sentences and paragraphs by listening to the rhythm with which her dog lapped the water in his bowl, Margaret Wise Brown understood the equation in reverse when she included dogs among her listener-readers. A dog can train a writer to make prose; and, a writer can write a book that a dog can understand. “Dogs,” Brown wrote, “will also be interested in ‘the Noisy Books’ the first time they hear them read with any convincing suddenness and variety of whistles, squeaks, hisses, thuds, and sudden silences following an unexpected BANG.” Here I am, a dogless adult, tethered to and transfixed by Brown’s protagonist dog. The play-space she creates for him and invites us to enter in her books isn’t exactly a-brim with frolic and jaunt, a run in the park, a pat or a pant, the tossing of a ball before being tucked in with a biscuit and warm milk for the night. These aren’t easy or straightforwardly narrated books. They are tantalizingly difficult; most have the riddle of sound at their center; all are marked by absence, for isn’t it the nature of sound to emanate from the object world but remain detached from it; to seem to reside within an object but not be traceable to it; to exist as a solid experience of sense but to remain ungraspable, sometimes unlocatable, at heart, ephemeral? Meaningful and meaningless sounds were the bases of our moods -- possibly the earliest molds for the form a mood could take -- and sound is mood’s analog. In The Quiet Noisy Book, Muffin is awakened by a “very quiet noise.” “What could it be?” the narrator asks, then provides a set of answers in the form of questions whose examples are beyond audition, or imaginary: “Was it butter melting?” “Was it an elephant tip-toeing down a stairs?” “Was it a skyscraper scraping the sky?” Teasing the limit of our senses to meet the reach of our imagination, gathering into a book-as-net all that coexists simultaneously with us and beyond us, offering a promise of presence -- the blank filled in -- if only we could be willing to listen hard enough, the book answers each possibility with the word “no,” without at the same time canceling its belief in the possibility that what Muffin could be hearing was “a fish breathing,” say. What do we wake to? What is the sound that’s waking Muffin up? It’s something very quiet, but there. It’s “quiet as a chair. Quiet as air.” It’s something Muffin knows, but do you know what it is, dear reader? By now you could be terrified or mesmerized or both, when, splash, it is the sun coming up. The sound of the sun coming up is accompanied by conventional harbingers of joy -- roosters crowing and such -- but Brown also leaves the child -- and the adult reader -- with puffs of cloud heavy with mystery, my favorites being, it was the sound “of a balloon about to pop,” and “it was a man about to think.” Here Brown had gifted me the finest definition of a mood, and one defying explanation. Mood: it was the sound of a person about to think. What qualities inhere in the sound of a person about to think? Does thought really admit of pause? What form of silence have we here, for doesn’t the “about to,” though yoked to sound, imply an absence of sound? A soundless sound? Philosophers of silence spoke of silence as its own active presence, not merely a negation of sound. Of brusque or smooth silences, of silences yoked to utterance, and requisite to language’s meaningmaking capacity, and silence as its own live phenomenon, with its own temporality, independent of sound. Of silence as predictive of the type of utterance to follow, of rhythmic silence, silence as the place of anticipatory alertness, and silence that serves as an end point or terminus, a concluding silence. Silence that casts a spell, and silence that lifts a spell. Certainly, there is no such thing as silence pure and simple, and if any of us were asked to generate types of silence, we could come up with enough examples in an instant to fill a page -- just now, radio silence; the silence enjoyed between intimates; awkward silence; and how about the silence that pervades the experience of reading? Does that bear any resemblance to the sound of a person about to think? Margaret Wise Brown is the person whose picture books ask these questions, not I, and when she translates the “new day” in The Quiet Noisy Book into the dawn of life’s unanswerables, she opens her reader to possibilities of heaviness or light, of greeting the unknown with a mood of curiosity or hiding under the covers depressed by the prospect of pondering. If we equate the sound of a person about to think with a form of soundlessness, that’s only because, as adult readers, we think of thought as word-bound, a kind of talking to oneself, and sound, therefore, as one sign in a system of language, like the space between words, say. But what if the sound of a person about to think were a tone or air, a vibration or an atmosphere that thought depended on, no matter the form thought took; what if it was understood to be a presence rather than an absence, albeit one we might not be able to translate into words? What I notice about the books in Margaret Wise Brown’s Noisy series is how, in each of them, she confides in absence, allows for it, enfolds a reader in it even: she makes absent presences a field of play. For, whether it is The Indoor Noisy Book, The Noisy Book, The Winter Noisy Book, The Seashore Noisy Book, The Summer Noisy Book, or The Country Noisy Book, to name a few, there is always something menacing, askew, uncanny, inexplicable, in excess, or ghosted to contend with or consort with. It’s that same quality that provides a mood for or to childhood but that is forgotten or covered over in adulthood, in which case, adult moods are a form of the comforting blanket that one had lain beneath when such stories had been read to one; they are the cover for a more mystifying cloudscape forgotten but ever-hovering. There is a kind of ultimate silence, of course, that, if we try to “think” it, fills the mind with existential dread -- the blotting of consciousness, the death-in-store that would jettison us into, well, I can’t think of a better figure for it than “outer space.” Celestial music or the music of the spheres must just be something humans have devised to console themselves with when confronted with the inconceivable absoluteness of the silence that is death. Mood is that silence momentarily animated. 2. In several of the Noisy books, Muffin’s eyesight or some other aspect of his sensorium is compromised so that he has to rely more fully on his capacity to listen. In The Noisy Book, he’s gotten a cinder in his eye and is required to wear a blindfold. In The Indoor Noisy Book, he has caught a cold and is forced to stay inside making him more acutely aware of the noises in the house. In The Seashore Noisy Book, he is disoriented by the fact of his hearing, for the first time, the sounds of the ocean. As the book nears its end, he hears a splashing sound, and, as always, we are invited along with Muffin to try to attach the sound to its source: “Was it the sun falling out of the sky?” “Was it a sea horse galloping?” Earlier, we’re asked to listen for the light of moon and stars on water. The “answer” to the splashing is that Muffin has fallen out of the boat and it is his own flailing that he’s caught in the sound of. He began by falling into a mood -- the mood of the sea -- and ends by being rescued from his nearly drowning there. This particular meta-ending is just one instance of the mystery of sound -- and by affiliation, mood -- being answered by a scenario of oddly proportioned dimensions in which nothing is resolved but where we are asked in effect to squeeze the large round ball attached to a scary clown’s nose. The end of The Noisy Book might be the most delightfully perverse in this respect. Here, blindfolded Muffin hears a squeaking whose source he can’t identify. Neither a garbage can nor the house nor a mouse nor a policeman, the answer is “a baby doll / And they gave the baby doll to Muffin for his very own.” The problem, or pleasure, for a reader, though, is that the anthropomorphizing has Muffin playing with a facsimile of a human rather than with a doll in the form of a diminutive dog -- a puppy doll, and that the illustration shows the doll to be nearly twice Muffin’s size. He can barely hold the doll, but he’s propped himself, sans blindfold now, as if posing for a snapshot. Muffin and the reader in their collaborative investigations of sound and mood seem to have won the booby prize. The Winter Noisy Book might broach the most uncanny territory of all once we realize it’s Brown’s version of Muffin Had Two Daddies. Winter has come; night is cold, and still, beyond the windows; stark, black branches rattle against the windowpane. Muffin hears a thud thud thud scrunch scrunch scrunch -- what was that? Rather than provide her usual series of playful speculations, Brown works together with her illustrator -- this time an abstract painter other than Weisgard, Charles G. Shaw -- to produce a frighteningly stark page. The illustration shows an empty dog collar and leash, and a shade drawn against the darkness in a furniture-less room. One sentence is spelled across the white floor of the room. As answer to the question of the scrunching, it could describe the entry of a sci-fi menace: “The fathers were coming home.” Does the empty collar mean the dog has fled or that the dog has died? More benignly, could it mean the fathers are the ones who will take Muffin out for a walk? The ominous mood is dispelled -- the blank of the page filled in -- by the introduction of a perfectly normal-seeming domestic scene comprising two men. They produce sounds that Muffin listens to, like laughter and the dropping of a nickel, the turning on of a light, and the b-r-r-r-r of a shiver before they stretch their legs in front of the roaring fireplace where they sip cocktails and crunch on celery. Muffin is merrily spread on the rug before his bachelor fathers -- one clad in neatly striped pants, the other, solid blue. Leonard Weisgard, who had been a dancer and a Macy’s window display designer before he turned to children’s book illustration, mastered the magic of minimalism in the Noisy books. The palette is simple, relying sometimes on no more than four colors in the course of a book, including the noncolors, black and white, especially in combination with primaries. A page could turn entirely yellow, daylight reduced to a trapezoid of blue against red. He arrives at images -- the shape of icicles, for example -- by subtracting rather than filling in, or by cutting out and pasting in. If I find myself wanting to roam around inside an illustration, is that the same as reading? The endpapers of The Indoor Noisy Book hold my attention the way the interior of a doll’s house once had. For a two-page spread, he’s cut one side of the walls out of Muffin’s four-story house so we can climb the small ladder in the basement through a hatch to arrive in the dining room whose table sits below a Victorian tub in the bathroom on the floor above it, which sits beneath the most interesting room of all: the attic. There’s a bed frame and an equally empty, though ornate, picture frame. There’s a dress frame with exaggerated curves. A bandbox and a dome-lidded trunk. A taxidermied moose head. There’s a piano. Is the power of the drawing -- see how it draws me even now, drawing my adult eye, compelling me to redraw it by way of words -- fueled by nothing more than reminiscence -- just one more instance of a version of 3-D paper cutout houses enjoyed in childhood? When a mood space is activated by a work like this, we are put in contact with something ever present but impalpable. It’s never so simple a thing as a reminder of or a return to something from our past; it’s more a how than a what. There was a sentence like a conundrum that appeared in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s work on mood that I also wished to understand and most definitely felt I was experiencing. Describing what happens when literature creates a mood, Gumbrecht made a distinction thus: “For what affects us in the act of reading involves the present of the past in substance -- not the sign of the past or its representation.” I’m not compelled by Weisgard’s illustrations because they bring my past back to me by pointing to it in replica but because something has been made possible in the readerly transaction of color, line, and consciousness that puts me literally in contact with a piece of a reconstituted atmosphere as if to say I once was in that dream but forgot I’d never left its precincts. Now I not only recognize its outline but also feel what it is to be buoyed inside its envelope. It’s not a forgotten place but a place where I always am -- part of my mood repertoire -- but which I fail to see. While Weisgard’s elaborated interior might seem like just one more iteration of a repetition of examples -- enter a return to an already-scripted View-Master -- there were other aspects of his illustrations for Brown’s books that turned a key to unlock a mood and that were much less legible. They were not at all “representational.” These were absorptive planes (pure blots of color, where the feeling of the paper as recipient of a hue was as important as the fact of color itself), and stencils. Numerous of the images in The Indoor Noisy Book are finely dotted or shaded as though they were applied through screens or with sponges onto the white page below rather than fully filled in, and bunches of tiny flecks of color mist around their edges like the scatter left by a spray-painted stencil. Maybe a child is meant to read such touches as a sign of its maker having fun: “These pictures are ones you too could make,” the speckled fringes say, “some afternoon of arts and crafts.” For this adult reader, it matters that I touch the page when turning it, and when I do, I’m suffused with a smell of sour milk and hay. White-colored goo had been applied to a piece of bright red particleboard, four by four inches square. Had we been given sprayers or had the adults sprayed our hands? You pressed into the board, painted the white goo on, and what remained as an absence but also as an imprint was your child hand. Overly warm milk in a small waxen carton probably was meted out to us after nap time in kindergarten like dribbles of white into the mouths of mewing kittens. But the “stuff” we used to “make our hands” that day was milky, too, and sour smelling. The hand left on a block of red detached from a body was meant as a gift to our mothers, but it wasn’t something I wanted to give to mine. The hand lay in a drawer as a shadow self. It was the hand from a body that could only be described as “bleating.” If this wasn’t the stuff of an originary mood, I don’t know what else could be. And it was immanent in the quiet noisy books of Margaret Wise Brown. Stencils could be a form for mood itself: there was always something missing from them; a stencil was a means, and its end. Would the stenciling in The Indoor Noisy Book create a mood no matter the particular reader’s relationship to stencils, then? Or in order for it to do its work, need it be tied to a remembrance of stencils past? To me, it seemed struck from the same granules as a mood that I harbored, one part quavering voice, one part shadow. 3. Stencils can be found in caves dating to 10,000 B.C. And guess what they depict? Hands. Entire walls with nothing but hands like paw prints as records of human yearning. Early man, delighted with a technique of missing and finding himself at the same time. Hands as outlines feeling for something in the rock. Not pushing it upward like Sisyphus but transmitting or receiving warmth from it. Then there were those uses of hands that magically—with no more than a set of stick legs here, a wattle there—transformed the outline of palm and fingers on a page into a turkey. I wonder if we effected such magical transformations in the same week that we spray-painted our hands or in the week following. No doubt we were also instructed to give our turkey-hands to our mothers. In even earlier childhood, when naming is the game but not yet reading, you might be placed before the sort of “puzzle” made of wooden figures that you are meant to fit into shapes cut out for them. The shapes -- either abstract or figural -- have knobs attached to them that make them seem like lids or doors. No doubt the point of such puzzles is to aid a child in the development of hand-eye coordination while at the same time teaching her words. Assuming that is a skill I’ve mastered, what kind of pleasure could such a puzzle hold out for me now? I bought one such puzzle at a flea market because I had a hunch it belonged with the View-Masters and picture books in a cupboard marked “the mystery of mood.” I also found it aesthetically pleasing: in its world, a duck could reside in the same row as a clock, a house was the size of a crow, and a cat that of a sailboat. Each thing was unstuck from any context and returned to its thingness: one purely red chair; a single boot without the need for a foot or mate. I felt it had something to teach me, but I also quite simply enjoyed it: placing the wooden tree snug in the slot suited only for it and it alone, doing the same with the dog, the hen, and the jug must work to quell the chaos in any adult life. The principle behind the puzzle was as riddled with absent presences as any book by Margaret Wise Brown and just as rife with a mood of earliest reading. Fitting each figure into its slot, you earn the prize of getting something right, case closed. But you also cover something over; each time you remove a form, something is revealed: hiding inside each home for a form is its word. It’s easy to get the words wrong -- one reason no doubt that the manufacturer called the puzzle Simplex, brother of complex: instead of “boat,” the slot yields “yacht.” Where I recognize a creamer, it tells me it’s a “jug.” Instead of a crow, it offers the word “bird.” An obvious Christmas tree is simply a tree. The figure meant for a slot whose inner wall reads “teddy” is missing from this puzzle. I think if I saw it, I’d call it a bear. Learning to call things by their right names; imagining words as entities, or answers, that hide inside things; trading in the feel, and the shape, of the thing for its word so that you can eventually advance from puzzles to reading: our moods lurk in the interstices, for our mood is the story no one asked us to devise when presented with the shape of the thing. It’s the missing link between the word and the thing, and it’s also the cloak that shrouds the word in mystery. It’s the shape left inside the toy box cut off from the hand that held it. It was the sound of a balloon about to pop. Reprinted with permission from Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2016 Mary Cappello. All rights reserved.